Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '87 - Sean Whiteman ""

Monday, May 15, 2017

Underrated '87 - Sean Whiteman

Sean Whiteman is a writer/filmmaker living in Portland, Oregon. He has worked for the Alamo Drafthouse and the Northwest Film Center. He just finished his new script (a paranormal police horror) called: BLUE LIVES SPLATTER.

Sean's "Underrated '86" picks:
Sean's "Film Discoveries of 2016":

Letterboxd and Twitter: @seanwhiteman
instagram: @bombnumber20

In looking at the titles that made my list (and thinking of the Robocops, Dolls and Predators I didn’t include), it’s starting to feel like 1987 is one of my very favorite cinematic years. Here are a few of the less-talked about reasons why...

StageFright: Aquarius (Directed by Michele Soavi)
Out of all the titles on my list, the first time I saw this one felt the most like unearthing treasure (a rare, mercurial element, scavenged from the cinematic soil). Most of the ones I included had grown on me, sometimes over many years, but this one sparkled like a gem at first light.

You can read more about my immediate infatuation here, but I’ll gladly double-down on the praise. To me, it’s the complete package. It hits almost every box on the ambiguous internal checklist that determines which horror films gain immediate access to the forever-chamber of my heart. Imaginative scripting and bloodletting mixed with performances full of enough buoyant life (and death) keep the pace on point.

I love the claustrophobic setting, I loved how the characters were established organically and the way the killer was worked into the play the main characters were rehearsing (the first kill of the night causes the participants of a musical to re-think the show in order to properly exploit the inevitable press that will follow).

The film starts out strong, nurtures its creative spark throughout, and hurls its momentum into an extended finish that left me feeling fat with thrills and laughs. By the very-very end we have been poked and prodded into a state dizzying lunacy and then hurled over the edge by one final cherry-on-top moment of cathartic comic relief that I’ll remember forever (I refer to the scene as “Willie’s moment”).
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Waiting for the Moon (Directed by Jill Godmilow)
Despite her Oscar-winning role playing against gender in THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY my only frame of reference for Linda Hunt until recently was her awesome henchman turn as Ilsa Grunt in IF LOOKS COULD KILL. She was fantastic as a whip-cracking thug in that one but it was delightful to get to see her display a more nuanced range in this. The film is a sleepy, elliptical, slice of slow-trickle literary ambiance.

Hunt plays Alice B. Toklas opposite Linda Bassett’s Gertrude Stein and she is a tightly-bound force of focused subtlety -- wanting to be both confrontational and supportive with her partner/collaborator. Jacque Boudet’s fireside monologue about eating maybe-poisonous mushrooms with Jean Cocteau (and waiting through the night to see if they’d survive) was the toasty-warm highlight.

The ambiance is so gentle I put this one on the night of Trump’s election, in an effort to try and chill the fuck out (it didn’t work, of course, but I can’t imagine any movie that would have).
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The Man Who Planted Trees (Directed by Frédéric Back)
George Lucas directed a making-of documentary for Francis Ford Coppola’s RAIN PEOPLE. In it, Coppola remarked, “There's more nourishment from a good film than in a box of Wheaties.” I enjoy that line and have found it to be true in my own personal experience (especially back in high school when movie-hopping for 3-4 movies at a time without packing anything more than a box of Jujubes to sustain me for the duration).

That sentiment rings clear when thinking about this thirty minute short from thirty years back. It was introduced to me by a housemate who has backgrounded it hundreds of times and, having seen it four or five times myself now, I can completely understand his fervent affection. It’s cinematic superfood -- an animated swirl of colored-pencil-style cross-dissolves that leaves your brain a grateful slush of hopeful sentiment.

It’s the story of one man who turns his personal loss toward a different kind of re-birth -- a more external one. He is a shepherd who single-handedly devotes himself to reforesting a desolate valley. We touch base with him over the years through a visiting principal character’s check-ins. The lead, and narrator (Christopher Plummer’s voice in the English version), finds his progress and work ethic inspirational and his descriptions make my heart swell and my cheeks wet.
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A Return to Salem’s Lot (Directed by Larry Cohen)
To me, the union of Larry Cohen and Samuel Fuller seemed pre-destined for success -- as if it were stamped and approved in advance from the no-nonsense high-council. Both are sensational filmmakers drawn to material scandalous enough to outrage the squares (and both enjoy delivering Trojan Horse societal critiques along the way). To see them cut loose and take aim at the vampire myth was inspired (even through the clunk).

“I’m not a Nazi Hunter, I’m a Nazi killer.” Van Meer (Samuel Fuller)

I would usually take this space to praise Cohen’s rough-and-tumble aesthetic (since he was in the director’s chair), but the real star of the production was Samuel Fuller. Fuller as a featured actor was the reason I’d always wanted to sit down for and his screen presence was exactly what I hoped it would be. He played his nazi/vampire killer as an extension of his own bombastic cigar-chomping real-life persona.

This might’ve been grounds for criticism if Fuller’s real-life persona weren’t big enough to warrant the screen time. I’ve read Fuller’s autobiography and knowing the complex gamut of life experiences he encountered (as a reporter/novelist/filmmaker/soldier) makes his unflappability in the face of vampires seem well earned. He’s also full of tricks and the jokester-spirit he instills into the movie is a marvelous counterbalance to Michael Moriarty’s beautiful, amoral, strangeness/indifference.

At one point a young boy asks, “Who’ll believe vampires?” Fuller’s character’s proclamation of “In five-hundred years, who’ll believe there were Nazi’s?” bristles with the aching knowledge of having been witness to some of the darker facets of life. He’s quick to believe in true evil and isn’t afraid to face it head on -- be it a nazi or a vamp.
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The Hidden (Directed by Jack Sholder)
The sequences daisy-chain off of one another with the clarity of a script that is confident in its beats. Action blends with horror and humor is peppered throughout organically. The filmmakers had a full understanding of the potential in the body-hopping premise -- the energetic vigor comes across in opening credits and doesn’t stop until the closing ones.

Sholder does the conceit justice with his command of the production and each actor who got a chance to take a turn portraying the parasitic villain’s host-body seems up to the task of having some murderous fun (each host-body immediately wants loud music and fast cars when inhabited). The rest of the performances veer between humor and drama with the finesse you’d expect from the likes of actors like Kyle MacLachlan, Richard Brooks and Clu Gulager.

I didn’t realize this spawned a sequel until I found the VHS at a variety shop. The follow-up is a good example of a director not understanding the potential of a premise (I also didn’t realize how attached I was to the first installment until the sequel started crapping all over its mythology and I started getting soccer-mom offended).
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Blind (Directed by Frederick Wiseman)
I didn’t know anything about this legendary filmmaker until my partner helped bring him to Portland for a Q&A following a screening of TITICUT FOLLIES presented by (5th Avenue Cinema in conjunction with the Northwest Film Center). That movie was a jaw-drop of immersive visual documentation. I don’t think I truly understood what the fly-on-the-wall aesthetic was capable of until I saw his work.
With his work he removes the talking heads we are normally conditioned to sit through in order to give subjective context to what we are seeing. With Wiseman, we see extended sequences of life in the various institutions he chooses as subject matter. What we take away from each scene (and film) is up to us.

In BLIND, we are thrust into the daily life at the Alabama School For the Blind. One shot follows a little boy as he begins in one classroom and takes a note to a teacher on a different floor. He says he can do it himself and the camera silently follows him as he makes the entire multi-floor trek by himself. Wiseman has the diligence to let an experience like this last long enough to help position the viewer in a place to most adequately understand the subject’s perspective. Step by step.

None of this sounds revolutionary, and I’m repeating myself in my praise, but the style feels like it should be the dominant tenant of the documentary genre -- instead we often lose our freedom of thought-choice to the overactive editing and authorial selection of mini-clips. Wiseman is a new personal hero for this single-minded patience.

Big Shots (Directed by Robert Mandel)
It’s a simple “unlikely friends” story about a suburban kid who finds himself grief-cycling to a dangerous corner of Chicago after there’s a death in his family.

There, he befriends Scam (Darius McCrary, showing he had a lot more range than his older brother role of Eddie on FAMILY MATTERS let him fully explore -- I’m sure Jaleel White can understand the feeling). Scam is an 11 year-old, living on his own, who takes-in the main character, Obie (Ricky Busker). Their friendship feels forced at first but, after a few episodic misadventures, I bought-in entirely and it started feeling warm and genuine.

Despite the tagline on the VHS, “They stole a Mercedes with a body in the trunk.” I still didn’t anticipate the two kids would do so much driving (across state lines and stopping for gas, not the typical madcap, couple-block, garbage-can-smashing, juvenile fender-bender). Would make a good light-hearted appetizer to COP CAR as part of a children-behind-the-wheel double feature.
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Summer School (Directed by Carl Reiner)
I think this should be put on a pedestal next to all the other perennial 80’s darlings. People should quote this one line-for-line at 35mm repertory screenings. It should be schmoozing with John Hughes and John Cusack on the Mt. Olympus shelf of high-concept 80’s fun galvanised by nostalgia and legitimate merit.

The cast is full of likeable characters having a good time with one another. It’s the type of movie filled with supporting characters who truly support one another (at script and performative levels). Dean Cameron is the MVP (as he is in nearly every film he appears in) but Mark Harmon, Kirstie Alley, Robin Thomas, Gary Riley, and the amazing Kelly Jo Minter lead the way in a truly top-to-bottom-terrific ensemble. They care about each other and we care about them as a result.

Carl Reiner had a tight handle on the somewhat paint-by-numbers premise and was able to wring something entertaining (and, in my estimation, legit-inspiring) out of what he was given. Reiner’s brief appearance to kickstart the plot is a plumb showcase for his showmanship as an actor.
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World Gone Wild (Directed by Lee H. Katzin)
I had such a stupid little kid grin on my face for most of this. As soon as Bruce Dern appeared on screen until his last frame, I was in a state of bliss, basking in the glow of wise-ass Dern-prime (reminding me a lot of a free-spirit dystopian-doppelganger of his militaristic scene-stealing hardass from THE ‘BURBS). It’s also great to add another Catherine Mary Stewart movie to her 80’s trophy shelf (THE APPLE, THE LAST STARFIGHTER, NIGHT OF THE COMET, and WEEKEND AT BERNIES are all winners in my eyes).

Stewart is the school teacher and her curriculum revolves around the only four books the post-apocalyptic community has left in their school bus turned classroom. There’s a touching scene when a young girl, after seeing her mother’s dead body, solemnly quotes a passage from their book of etiquette concerning proper funeral attire for young girls. It’s a tender and crooked-funny way to show how humanity finds meaning in the culture we consume -- no matter what it ends up being.

It’s an unlikely movie. Courage is found in strange places (alcoholics and cannibals), the stoner might actually have a direct line with a higher power, quiet conversations take place during explosive climaxes, and throughout it all I don’t think the plot ever zigs -- I only remember zags.

I watched roughly thirty movies in the past few months to make sure I had a pretty deep reach into some of the gnarlier filmic crevices 1987 had to offer before compiling this list. This was only one of two from that search that yielded a spot on my final list (A RETURN TO SALEM’S LOT being the other). Despite a certain limpness to the action, the pacing is propulsive and it feels singular and dynamic upon multiple rewatches.

If there’s a 35mm print of this somewhere, I sure would like to see it.
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Prince of Darkness (Directed by John Carpenter)
It feels a little lame to include a John Carpenter movie on a list of underrated movies since he gets a great deal of respect across the cinematic (as well as musical) spectrum but he’s my favorite filmmaker and this title in particular I hold in higher personal esteem than either THE THING or HALLOWEEN so I feel I might as well use this digi-soapbox to preach a bit about the devil (excuse me, JOHN CARPENTER’S THE DEVIL).

I’m particularly enamored with sci-fi horror and, despite the heavy use of religious iconography, this movie is a prime example of how throwing a bone to basic science can lend credibility to some pretty wild spiritual hypotheses.

The main characters are largely composed of research students examining an ancient chamber of devil-goo that has been guarded by a secret order of the church for centuries. These research students and their work yields some of my favorite examples of Carpenter’s ability to entertain with marvelous gross-out special effects while simultaneously striking an ancient, and beautiful, terror-chord within.

There’s not a lot of hysterical screaming and running into dark corners in this one. The people freak out appropriately and then quickly get to work trying to figure out the scientifically-verified anti-god they are tasked with dealing with. They are always studying, examining and extrapolating. As a result, we end up in a delightfully hazy fog of educated mysticism that allows the ultimate climactic action to land heavy and precise.

Carpenter almost always manages to tease us intellectually amidst the gore. He doesn’t allow us to rationalize away the terror with an “oh, but that could ever happen.” Instead, he has the fuck-yeah hubris to say, “yeah but, maaaaaybe it could.”

Donald Pleasence plays a Priest and Victor Wong plays a professor (scripture and scientific method joining forces to fight the technologically-advanced terror-goo) and they both sing Carpenter’s dialogue like perfect little genre choir boys.

“Say goodbye to classical reality because our logic collapses at the sub-atomic level...into ghosts and shadows.” -- Victor Wong. This movie is the best.
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MVPs -- Michael Ironside, Whoopi Goldberg and Christian Bale
Ironside (Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night 2, Extreme Prejudice, Nowhere To Hide)
All three of his ‘87 titles were individual contenders for my list so I decided to consolidate them into a single MVP category. Between the malleable mercenary in EXTREME PREJUDICE, his tragic teacher in HMLPN2 and his reclusive rogue in NOWHERE TO HIDE, he had an incredible year. Thankfully, each role required both good and bad Ironsides of him to shine -- he often ends up resigned to live exclusively in the land of sneering villainy (a waste of a sharpshooting supporting actor with a dynamite range).

Him opposite Amy Madigan’s on-the-run-from-government lead character in Nowhere to Hide was a dream-team pairing of quiet toughness. The production deserves kudos for letting fierce talents like Madigan and Ironside carry roles you might imagine stars like Richard Gere and Kim Basinger being offered the parts for.

Whoopi (Burglar and Fatal Beauty)
I didn’t feast on BURGLAR or FATAL BEAUTY as much as I did Goldberg’s JUMPIN’ JACK FLASH from the year before (read my Underrated ‘86 thoughts here), but I’m quite fond of them both. Burglar has a sweet bumbling performance from Bobcat Goldthwait and a low-key, fun, vibe carried throughout (small roles are filled with people like John Goodman to keep the interest level up).

FATAL BEAUTY lets Whoopi spread her wings a bit more. She was tasked with action, comedy and drama and she proves more-than-game for each. She delivered a tragic personal history monologue with more genuine heartbreaking exasperation than most action movie leads who have been strapped with similarly haunted backstories.

Bale (Empire of the Sun, The Land of Far Away)
Young Bale delivered two significant roles in the year and both did wonders to help empower adolescent viewers. His performances exhibit loyalty and resourcefulness in the face of adversity gnarly enough that even adult-aged Bale would’ve had a hard time with.

He’s convincing in both, operating in very different tonal worlds, and both movies (along with Bale’s turn in NEWSIES and Soderbergh’s KING OF THE HILL) helped raise the ceiling for what I believed adolescent boys were capable of when severed from the family tree and left to fend for themselves.

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