Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '97 - James David Patrick ""

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Underrated '97 - James David Patrick

James David Patrick is a writer with a lifelong moviewatching habit. His current projects include #Bond_age_, the James Bond Social Media Project (thejamesbondsocialemediaproject.com) and Cinema Shame (cinemashame.wordpress.com). Follow him on Twitter at@007hertzrumble.

In 1997, I graduated high school and shipped off to college. The movies of that year hold a special place in my heart, rooted so heavily in the nostalgia of that "last hurrah" summer. Memories of when and where I first saw the films of 1997 remain fixed and in perfect focus. Many of these served to re-orient my perspective on cinema. I'm thinking specifically about Perfect Blue, Boogie Nights, Cube, Princess Mononoke. A strong contingent remains in my regular rotation of regularly-viewed favorites (Jackie Brown, Grosse Pointe Blank, L.A. Confidential, Austin Powers) and many others reminded me of the perils of sequel expectation (Batman & Robin, The Lost World, Alien Resurrection). Sandwiched in between, however, is a robust collection of forgotten and undervalued gems. I could have detailed dozens of films from 1997 I consider underrated, but you probably have better things to do with your day than read about why Eddie Murphy's Metro represents 1990's action cinema nihilism. So here's six picks, plus three bonus picks - for a total of nine - none of which feature Eddie Murphy.


Office Killer (Cindy Sherman, 1997)
We've all at some point of another wished for the unholy combination of Office Space, Psycho, and Weekend at Bernie's. Admit it. You have. It turns out that this movie exists in the form of Cindy Sherman's Office Killer and it stars Carol Kane as the put upon office clerk that's had it up to here with your bullshit. It's billed as a comedy, but the laughs are super uncomfortable and of the "should-we-be-laughing-at-this" variety. It's occasionally wicked gross and always pitch-black in its approach to humor. Sherman's biggest hurdle was giving the audience reason to sympathize with Kane's character - and by film's end, you honestly can't totally blame her for murdering all those terrible people.
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Gridlock'd (Vondie Curtis Hall, 1997)
Grim material with the spirit of a screwball comedy. After Thandie Newton overdoses on her first go, heroine addicts Spoon (Tupac Shakur) and Stretch (Tim Roth) pledge to quit cold turkey and enroll in a substance abuse program... if they can just figure out how to get admitted... and avoid being killed by drug dealers. Gridlock'd offers bleak humor about the impossibility of getting treatment in a government system designed to keep them out.

The clerical humor works because of the mismatched chemistry between Shakur and Roth. In the film's most memorable scene Spoon persuades Stretch to stab him in order to get admitted to a drug treatment program. First, however, they have to figure out how to avoid the liver. Pitch perfect delivery and a terrific script from writer/director Vondie Curtis Hall, a filmmaker most remembered for the notorious Mariah Carey vehicle Glitter. Don't hold that against him.
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Drive (Steve Wang, 1997)
Absurdly fun low-budget actioner starring Dwayne Wayne and The Chairman of Iron Chef America with a side of Brittany Murphy on a sugar high. That Hawaiian-born kung fu champion Mark Dacascos became a TV cooking show host instead of a proper B-grade martial arts movie star bewilders me. Drive has something to do with humans enhanced by a biorhythmic prototype gadget attached to their heart. Practically, this just means that the Macguffin is inside Toby Wong (Dacascos). The mismatched buddy scenario with Dacascos and Kadeem Hardison doesn't always seem natural, but they're both charismatic enough on their own to make up for the awkward 90's cheese sprinkled throughout. Director Steve Wang manages a number of thrilling set pieces despite a miniscule budget - and inspires echoes in the action films of the immediate future: Rush Hour, The Transporter and The Matrix.
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Bandits (Katja von Garnier, 1997)
An imperfect and fascinating rough gem of a movie musical about a female prison rock band that escapes and, while on the run, embarks upon a recording career. The Commitments via Thelma and Louise in German. It's comedy, tragedy, and overzealous music video homage. It's also a feminist manifesto and a love letter to riot girls. The original music holds up. Bad music in a film like this could derail it before the end of the first reel. One could criticize Bandits for the ease with which our anti-heroes repeatedly escape the clutches of Johnny Law; however, I urge you to view the film under its appropriate context. Director Katja von Garnier has created a 100-minute music video where, within the intermittent music sequences, short-format storytelling stands in for regular movie logic. This results in a cathartic brand of moviemaking where anything can happen... as long as it's set to music.
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I Went Down (Paddy Breathnach, 1997)
By this point, Brendan Gleeson had been a stateside supporting player in films like Braveheart and Michael Collins. Gleeson's first leading role came in this offbeat Irish caper comedy that would plant the seeds for In Bruges eleven years later. Gleeson and Peter McDonald play two ineffective criminals (Bunny and Git) who run afoul of a mob boss and get sent to Cork to find another bumbling lowlife named Frank. Frank doesn't want to be found. Git's a moron. Bunny's hyperbolic. The mob boss probably wants to murder Frank, and this causes Git to rethink his lot in life.

The movie poster sold I Went Down with the following blurb from Time Out London: "If you can't enjoy this one, you may give up on movies altogether." Why not? Go big or go home. But I've got to tell you - the crowd-pleasing I Went Down earns that blurb. In addition to the rapid-fire humor and relative depth of character, director Paddy Breathnach indulges many beautiful Irish locales. It's a crime against humanity that I Went Down only has a VHS release.
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House of Yes (Mark Waters, 1997)
I can't tell anymore if The House of Yes is overrated or underrated. I remember the indie-hype machine going into overload before its release. I bought in, wholeheartedly and discussed it with all my other movie friends. If you didn't already love Parker Posey you were sending the plucky 90's indie queen letters containing self-addressed stamped envelopes and notes that read: "Marry me?" followed by a checkbox for YES and a checkbox for MAYBE (NO just wasn't an option). We overrated the hell out of it. And then nobody talked about Mark Waters' The House of Yes, like overnight everyone just forgot about it. So now I'm declaring it underrated. I didn't forget about you, The House of Yes, you morbidly weird little incest comedy with a JFK and Jackie Onassis fixation.
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Bonus Picks:
Tomorrow Never Dies (Roger Spottiswoode, 1997)
Since I live in the sphere of James Bond on Twitter, I have a finger on the pulse of 007 popular opinion. Now that Roger Moore has had a sort of renaissance, the lynch mob needed a new Bond actor to target. It seems Pierce Brosnan drew short straw. And while it's true that beyond GoldenEye, Brosnan's Bond entries suffered a decline - they didn't fall off the table quite as rapidly as most everyone remembers.

Brosnan's second Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies deserves a far better reputation. Critics cite the ineffectiveness of Jonathan Pryce's villain, the regurgitated The Spy Who Loved Me finale, and everything about Teri Hatcher. If I concede these points, can we move on to discuss the ways in which Tomorrow Never Dies offers some of the best action set pieces in the entire series? How, despite the platonic relationship between Brosnan's Bond and Michelle Yeoh's Wai Lin, the motorcycle versus helicopter chase injects more eroticism than your average Bond dine and dash. David Arnold's debut Bond score rivals John Barry in his prime. The pure, infectious joy on Bond's face as he backseat pilots a BMW around a parking with his Sony Ericsson gadget phone. Desmond Llewelyn's Q in the wild.

Tomorrow Never Dies' only major flaw is that it isn't GoldenEye. It's about time Bond fans (and general fans of action cinema) got around to respecting what it actually does better than GoldenEye.
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Addicted to Love (Griffin Dunne, 1997)
In a popular genre littered with lazy, regurgitated filmmaking, Addicted to Love stands out as an oddball exception with a darker sense of humor, but nobody noticed because the studio made it walk and talk like a duck. Broderick plays a small town astronomer dumped by an out-of-his-league girlfriend (played by Kelly Preston) in favor of a French chef named Anton (Tcheky Karyo). He refuses her rejection and heads off to New York City to take up residence in the abandoned building across the street and stalk her, but you know, romantic-like. He falls into cahoots with Anton's ex (Meg Ryan, in a nice against-type twist of character) as they plot a path toward getting their respective humans back.

First time director Griffin Dunne injects beautiful little touches, like using telescope lenses to project the image of the apartment across the street onto a screen - creating a parallel between our voyeuristic stalkers and "the gaze" of the theatrical moviegoers. You'll still be able to play Rom-com Bingo with the recurring genre clichÇs and convenient happenstance, but it's a far cry better than its contemporaries. Addicted to Love is a Rom-com for skeptics, a movie that bothered to undermine genre expectation, but it did so at its own expense. Anyone who would have enjoyed a dark-ish comedy where spurned lovers torment the great Tcheky Karyo from afar like two masochistic Cyranos, checked out before even giving it a chance.
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The Peacemaker (Mimi Leder, 1997)
Time for the understatement of the day. The Peacemaker is not very original. It's a derivative thriller with a tendency to embrace groan-worthy clichÇ (the red, digital readout time bomb countdown display as a way to create false suspense!) and silliness (be sure to send the school children out of the building while we diffuse this nuclear bomb because they'll definitely be safe out there!), but the film plays better than its reputation as Dreamworks' massive launch misstep. This is about pretty people (Clooney and Kidman) doing a whole bunch of stressful things to avoid the end of the world. High concept simplicity, but effectively entertaining for as long (or as little) as you care to think about it.
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