Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '97 - John Cribbs ""

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Underrated '97 - John Cribbs

John Cribbs is the co-founder and head writer of The Pink Smoke (, where for the last 10 years he's offered a spirited defense of Robert Altman's QUINTET, passionately extolled what he feels to be the most underrated killer rat movie and delved into the seedy underworld of movie novelizations. Feel free to hit him up on Twitter at @thepinksmoke or @thelastmachine and hey, if you feel like watching SNEAKERS he's always up for it.
1997 was the year I graduated high school, and my teen film enthusiasm had reached a fever pitch. I was coming home each day with a stack of videos and making regular treks to far-away theaters to see new titles with limited runs. Things like friends, dating and college prep took a backseat to my voracious consumption of all things cinema. I even worked at a video store (though sadly not the cool one), mainly to make sure I had first dibs on the latest releases. So it's significant to point out that I didn't see a single one of the movies on this list in 1997. They somehow slipped between the cracks of my well-honed movie radar, and when I finally caught up with them in later years I couldn't believe I'd missed them.

The Second Civil War (Joe Dante)
At first glance, this movie (which premiered on HBO and played theatrically overseas) seems like a departure for Joe Dante. In place of werewolves, mogwais and Klopeks, we've got a couple of pigheaded politicians locked in a stalemate over the admission of Pakistani refugees into Idaho. Hardly the stuff of B-movie revelry we're used to from the director of INNERSPACE, but considering the two Dante movies it falls between, MATINEE (set in Key West during the Cuban Missle Crisis) and SMALL SOLDIERS (about a toy company that militarizes action figures), the director's political interests were simpatico with that of Canadian screenwriter and satirist Martyn Burke. Together they create a multi-character storyline that cuts back and forth between four places - the White House, the Idaho State Capitol, the front lines and a bustling TV newsroom - in which stubbornness, miscommunication and irrationality cause a manageable yet volatile situation to rapidly escalate.

This is a very funny movie with lots of great performances, particularly Beau Bridges and Phil Hartman as the feuding public figures and Elizabeth Pena as a reporter who deeply regrets getting involved with Bridges. But it's also eerily prescient to our current political climate: not only does the film anticipate a terrorist attack on New York 4 years before 9/11, it brilliantly deconstructs how sensitive topics such as immigration and hypernationalism are aggravated by politicians for their own personal gain and the media's culpability in fanning the ensuing flames, a full 2 decades prior to the administration of Trump (who Dante previously sent up with the "Daniel Clamp" character in GREMLINS 2). That alone would be reason enough for the film's rediscovery, although really it's the magical touch of Dante, at once subtle and extravagant, that makes this as important as any of his big screen output from the 90's.

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The Night Flier (Mark Pavia)
With the success of the new version of IT (Chapter One) came a king's ransom of internet lists ranking the best and worst adaptations of Stephen King books and stories. THE NIGHT FLIER never came anywhere near anyone's Top 10, even though it absolutely belongs there. Which is not to suggest it's as surefire a crowdpleaser as the venerated adaptations by De Palma, Cronenberg and Kubrick - it's the kind of movie whose effect can only wither under a glut of over-praise. Rather, director Mark Pavia delivers a tight, nuanced bit of nastiness about a tabloid reporter on the trail of an elusive, peripatetic serial killer who flies from one place to another on a private black jet leaving a string of bloody corpses behind. Also, he's an ancient vampire!

Like many, it took me a while to get around to this marvelous little horror movie, adapted from one of King's lesser-known stories and released with a VHS cover that looked as cheap and generic as any CHILDREN OF THE CORN or SOMETIMES THEY COME BACK sequel. NIGHT FLIER is miles above the typical King cash-ins churned out at the time, exceeding thanks to its effective weirdness, quiet suspense and an excellent lead performance from the great Miguel Ferrer, so good he actually makes you care about his unscrupulous muckraker. Sadly the movie so underperformed that it apparently sidetracked Pavia's career for almost 20 years; he only recently returned to directing with 2016's FENDER BENDER.

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The Wings of the Dove (Iain Softley)
Loath as I am to recommend any Miramax movies these days, this is one of those prestigious, Oscar-courting period pieces the company was famous for producing in the 90's that actually deserves to be revisited, yet is often overshadowed by the PULP FICTIONs and the SHAKESPEARE IN LOVEs. It also got somewhat lost in the myriad of Henry James adaptations popping up around that time, but resists the stiff approach of Jane Campion's THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY and Agnieszka Holland's WASHINGTON SQUARE by infusing the material (which James himself once called "ugly and vulgar") with the same dark sensuality later found in Miramax's more popular late-90's love triangle thriller THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY.

Helena Bodham Carter gives the performance of her career as Kate Croy, a vivacious young woman living in 1910 London who plots with her penniless lover to manipulate a terminally-ill American heiress into falling in love with him, so that he can inherit her money and marry Kate. Needless to say, things don't go quite according to plan. Some might be surprised that the director of HACKERS could tackle Henry James, but what Softley and screenwriter Hossein Amini do is springboard off the very unadaptable source novel to discover more about Croy as she gets caught in her own psychological spider web. You'll never find a sex scene that's as intensely erotic as it is achingly sad than the one at the end of this film.

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The Eel (Shohei Imamura)
Can a movie truly be underrated if it won the Palme d'or? Well for one thing, EEL technically shared the award with Kiarostami's TASTE OF CHERRY, a film that's since been crowned a modern classic. EEL has had a comparatively less ardent afterlife, in keeping with the muted reputation of the great Shohei Imamura, too often overshadowed by the towering figures of Japanese film (Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Oshima).

At the end of his six-decade career, Imamura delivered three outstanding features of which THE EEL is arguably the most accessible. It tells the story of a convicted wife murderer who gathers up his pet eel (the only one he can really talk to) and tries to start his life over as a barber in a town out in the country. Although he prefers the company of the eel, he reluctantly becomes involved with an array of oddball characters including a suicidal woman impregnated by a white collar crook. Leads Koji Yakusho and Misa Shimizu (who'd reunite for the director's final film, WARM WATER UNDER A RED BRIDGE) have such irresistible chemistry you almost forget they're playing a violent killer and an emotionally shattered woman. Such is the greatness of Imamura that redemption comes in ways unexpected and joyous.

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Cure (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
Another Koji Yakusho film; this time, he's a detective investigating a series of murders in which the letter 'X' has been carved into the neck of every body. The complication: it's a different killer in every case, someone close to the victim who readily surrenders to the police but can't say why they did it. Yakusho ultimately connects it all to a single transient who's found to have had interactions with each murderer just before they turn violent.

Kurosawa is interested in the effects of human connection, how one person can change the trajectory of another's entire life. The theme comes up in different forms in many of his films - PULSE, BRIGHT FUTURE, PENANCE, all underrated in that they aren't often brought up in conversations about the very best films made in the last 20 years. CURE is the horror version of that scenario: the idea that there could exist an individual whose brief encounter with a stranger compels them to do something horrible. Even worse, that all he had to do was reach in and draw the very worst from the depths of that person's soul, that everyone has a capacity for violence which needs only be triggered. Too often pigeonholed in the J-horror subcategory, Kurosawa's work deserves the consideration of serious high art.

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See the Sea (Francois Ozon)
I've never recommended SEE THE SEA to anyone. If you've seen it, you understand why. Like CURE, it involves a malevolent drifter, in this case a morose Marina de Van, and her incursion into the lives of a young mother and her baby at their tranquil seaside residence. This wouldn't be the last of Ozon's picturesque beach settings, but it's by far the darkest: the mother refuses to heed the clear warning signs emitting from de Van (also the film's uncredited co-writer), such is her need for human contact and urge to recapture her days of spiritual and sexual independence. Ozon lets the strong aura of foreboding tighten like a noose while she remains willfully ignorant, leaving the audience with nary a nail left to bite. The movie clocks in at a lean 52 minutes, and by the time you start to get really worried about what's happening it's too late.

Again, I'll emphasize that if you submit yourself to this expertly crafted but deeply disturbing short film don't blame me afterwards. It leaves such a bad taste in your mouth you'll want to brush your teeth after watching it...except you won't be able to brush your teeth after watching it.

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The Butcher Boy (Neil Jordan)
Cheating on this one a little bit: it was technically released in the U.S. in 1998 (I remember how seeing it immediately after the Emmerich-Devlin GODZILLA washed that atrocity out of my eyes). I'm still including it, because before I realized the discrepancy I checked out its Wikipedia page and read this bit of damning trivia: "The reception of the film has been generally good."

"Generally good"? I'm shocked to learn it isn't widely considered brilliant. Neil Jordan produced his greatest cinematic work in the first 10 years of his career. Since then it's been a mixed bag, but this is the one post-prestige film that stands firmly with ANGEL, COMPANY OF WOLVES, MONA LISA and THE MIRACLE. A coming-of-age film like no other, it follows 12-year-old Francie Brady and his turbulent experiences in early 60's Ireland that cause him to cling desperately to his childhood innocence at the expense of his own sanity. Adolescent angst, confusion and disillusionment have never been better explored than through this surreal carnival of suicide, alcoholism, sexual abuse, the threat of imminent nuclear war and murder. (Did I mention it's also very funny? And that Jordan cast Sinead O'Connor to play the Virgin Mary?)

Too often we're offered overly nostaglic, sentimentalized portraits of childhood - it's rare to have a film like BUTCHER BOY that can present all the horribleness with honesty and a great amount of sympathy.
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