Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '87 - Everett Jones ""

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Underrated '87 - Everett Jones

Everett is longtime an avid movie watcher and user of Letterboxd like myself - follow him there: http://letterboxd.com/everettjones/ - I've gotten many good film recs this way. On Twitter as @EverttWJones.

Housekeeping (1987; Bill Forsyth)
I suppose the Scottish director Bill Forsyth couldn’t really bring the same sense of humor that made his native-shot films, Local Hero and Gregory’s Girl, classics to his short-lived American career--understated whimsy didn’t have much of a home in Reagan-era Hollywood comedy. His American debut an adaptation of Marilynne Robinson’s first novel, is similarly subtle and melancholy--which didn’t bode well for his chances of helming the next big Eddie Murray or Michael J. Fox vehicle--but without the Ealing Studios-like humor. It feels more like Days of Heaven, not in the photography, which is as unadorned as in Forsyth’s Scottish films, but in the tone it creates of early 20th century Americana (another unsuccessfully transplanted director, Aussie Gillian Anderson, does similar if less successful work in the equally obscure Mrs. Soffel.) If I didn’t know Housekeeping to be an adaptation of Marilynne Robinson’s first novel, I could almost think the whole film was inspired by Days’ last scene, of the two girls walking into the woods beside the railroad tracks. It’s a haunting film that definitely feels like it was made in the wrong decade.
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Dead of Winter (1987; Arthur Penn)
This late effort from Arthur Penn got some pushback for not being as socially conscious--for just being a genre flick--as his earlier run of auteur films, from about 1958 to 1975. Which is true enough, but now that moderately-budgeted, movie-star-starring, big studio thrillers are only slightly less rare than studio-backed auteur films, it should be easier to appreciate what an fine piece of work this is. It should certainly be easier, now that we have TCM and home video for studio catalog deep cuts, to appreciate Penn’s film as a remake of noir director Joseph H. Lewis’s 1945 My Name is Julia Ross. Penn expands Lewis’s tightly concentrated little gem of a B-picture, of just 65 minutes, to an undeniably hefty 100 (though he has nothing to be ashamed of next to Gore Verbinski.) But the ‘87 version’s embellishment to a basically simple thriller setup--a woman is lured to an isolated mansion to work as a secretary and finds herself a pawn in a plot to steal an heiress’s fortune--work better than usual, particularly an arguably unnecessary but dripping-with-atmosphere prologue. It’s a pleasure to see Mary Steenburgen in the kind of lead role she didn’t get often enough (playing Doc Brown’s love interest in Back to the Future III doesn’t count), as it is to see Roddy McDowall in a good, post-Planet of the Apes, probably his best alongside Fright Night (take a look at his IMDB filmography and I think you’ll agree.)
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The Bedroom Window (1987; Curtis Hanson)
As a teenager whose favorite movie was L.A. Confidential, I’m not sure I appreciated just how far back the late Curtis Hanson’s career went before that Oscar-nominated triumph. That is, nearly three decades, the antithesis of the era’s indie wunderkinds. His winding path included writing AIP H.P. Lovecraft adaptations, a Canadian Elliot Gould vehicle, a censored Sam Fuller masterpiece, even Tom Cruise’s second starring role, but the period that led to his breakthrough was kicked off by this 1987 release. He spent it making sort of trashy, sort of upscale potboilers like the hit The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, but this is the one that best fulfills, for me, the Hitchcockian aspirations he always seemed to have. It has a premise you can easily imagine Hitch choosing unencumbered by the Production Code: the female, married half of an adulterous couple witnessing an attempted rape from the titular window, forcing her unmarried co-adulterer to pass himself off as the witness and ID the attacker to the police. After her Oscar nomination for Elle, people should be especially interested that Isabelle Huppert plays the two-timing wife--talk about typecasting for a French actress--though she really doesn’t get enough to do. The casting of Steve Guttenberg as the lead, and Isabelle Huppert’s partner of choice, has gotten some criticism over the years, but personally, I associate him less with Police Academythan The Boys from Brazil--so he doesn’t bother me. The real acting MVPs here are Elizabeth McGovern, as the villain’s would-be victim, who ends up being the story’s real protagonist, and Wallace Shawn as a defense attorney, in the kind of brief, scene-stealing cameo that good actors always slay in.
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Retribution (1987; Guy Magar)
The late ‘80s seem like a pretty dire time for horror movies, down to the film stock being used at the time--many films from the start of the decade may have been no better in script or execution, but they had a dark, grainy look more conducive to mood. A good exception to late Reagan-era blandness is this little Canadian production, an odd mixture of goofy comedy, ultraviolence, and Argento-on-a-budget candy-colored lighting schemes. Character actor Dennis Lipscomb makes for an unlikely but appealing hero, who survives a suicide attempt only to find himself possessed by the ghost of a vengeful gangster. Another point of interest is Alan Howarth--familiar to genre movie fans for his soundtrack collaborations with John Carpenter, he does solo work on the synth-driven soundtrack.
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Dark Age (1987; Arch Nicholson)
Mark Hartley’s highly entertaining Ozploitation documentary Not Quite Hollywood was the spur for my seeking out this monster movie, one of the most obscure titles showcased alongside a few heavy hitters like Mad Max. I was interested to see Wolf Lake’s villain John Jarratt in his younger incarnation as a leading man, particularly of the safari-suited, Indiana Jones-like variety promised by the poster. Also, killer croc movies aren’t exactly thick on the ground, despite sounding like a pretty good idea, other than, inexplicably, in 2008 with Rogue and Primeval. Dark Age begins on just the right note, with a RKO studio logo evoking a certain other famous monster movie, and goes on to evoke another one, stealing thoroughly and quite sensibly from the Jaws playbook (municipal administrators never respond well to oversized man-eaters). Unfortunately, it also evokes Jaws in the monster itself being one of the weakest aspects of it--the animatronic specimen here is especially unlifelike--but compensates in being far better made than I’d have expected from that winningly cheesy poster. The script is surprisingly serious about integrating Aboriginal beliefs into the story, not in the usual boilerplate “housing development build over Indian cemetery” kind of way. Along with the superb Next of Kin, where Jarratt gets a supporting role, this is a neat little Australian genre movie undeserving of its near-complete unavailability.
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2 comments:

beamish13 said...

Housekeeping is a miracle of a film. One of the most beautiful movies I've ever seen, and a flawless adaptation of one of the greatest American novels ever written. Unfortunately, it was horribly marketed by Columbia, and remains underseen. Interestingly, it was supposed to be produced by Cannon and star Diane Keaton, but when Keaton dropped out it went to Columbia, where David Putnam (now Lord Puttnam), who had championed Forsyth's Local Hero, put it into production.

David Lawrence said...

Good list, as ever. For anyone interested, DARK AGE is available on a decent and inexpensive Australian DVD from Umbrella Entertainment.