Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '98 - Travis Woods ""

Friday, April 27, 2018

Underrated '98 - Travis Woods

Travis Woods is a freelance writer whose bylines have included The L.A. Times, Paste Magazine, ScreenCrave, and others. He spends way too much time thinking about movies. You can yell at him on Twitter: @WebInFront_

Working as a video store clerk in the late ‘90s allowed me to witness a strange phenomenon: The Forgotten Movie. Whether they fell through the fault line that separated the switch from VHS to DVD, or were simply part of the cresting wave of indie home releases, so many titles from that era seem to have just, well, disappeared. No blu-ray releases, no critical reevaluations, just—poof.

So many of those endless rows of brightly colored VHS boxes on the NEW RELEASES wall that seemed iconic at the time have so faded from collective memory as to become blank little rectangular tombstones in a movie cemetery that stretches out into infinity. Thankfully, Rupert Pupkin Speaks is going on a crazed Tuco-run through that box-art graveyard looking for gold, and invited me to reminisce about a few of my underrated faves.

And if a statistically-improbable amount of those graves feature the young, airbrushed faces of Vince Vaughn or Gwyneth Paltrow, a Polygram Entertainment logo, or Jerry Springer/ Carrot Top vanity films, we’ve definitely wandered into the 1998 section.

BUFFALO ’66 (1998; Vincent Gallo)
Writer/ director / actor Vincent Gallo’s occasional nemesis, Roger Ebert, had this to say of BUFFALO ’66 in his 1998 review: “[it] plays like a collision between a lot of half-baked visual ideas and a deep and urgent need,” and, following a bowling alley sequence in which a character suddenly breaks into a spotlit tap dancing routine, asked, “What's this scene doing in BUFFALO ‘66? Maybe Gallo didn't have any other movie he could put it in.”

“Maybe Gallo didn't have any other movie he could put it in” feels like the common denominator for every scene in the film—it’s a film both intimate and sprawling, featuring Gallo’s Billy Brown wandering through a bizarre universe of Mickey Rourke monologues, Ben Gazzara lip-synching, haunting motels, bad strip clubs, and a 10-minute opening sequence in which Billy desperately hunts for a place to pee.

Along the way he gets paroled from jail, kidnaps Christina Ricci to act as his wife in a desperate bid to convince his parents his jail term was a CIA mission, has an epic series of frames at Jan-Michael Vincent’s bowling alley, and may or may not be planning a murder-suicide involving a Buffalo Bills kicker and a Super Bowl bet gone bad.

It’s a bizarrely hypnotic junk-drawer of a movie, held together by the strength of Gallo and Ricci’s performances, endless narrative left turns, and the surprisingly warm heart beating in the film’s center. Gallo may not have had any other film to put these ideas into (the less said about his follow-up, THE BROWN BUNNY, the better), but we’re lucky he stashed them all into this one.
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CLAY PIGEONS (1998; David Dobkin)
Easily dismissed at the time as part of the post-Tarantino glut of crime indies that flooded the back end of the 1990s, CLAY PIGEONS has far less to do PULP FICTION than it does with pure pulp. Indeed, the film plays like a deeply Gen-X’d spin on a universe in which Jim Thompson is God and his THE KILLER INSIDE ME is the Bible… and instead of Job you get Joaquin Phoenix as an unassuming hick wrongfully accused of multiple murders.

Vince Vaughn (who also co-starred with Phoenix in the similarly forgotten/ underrated ’98 film RETURN TO PARADISE) portrays the real culprit, pseudo-cowboy/ serial killer Lester Long, in a gleefully giggly performance far more interesting than his turn in 98’s not underrated PSYCHO remake. The film then follows Phoenix, Vaughn, and Janeane Garofalo’s acerbic FBI agent through a wild series of small-town twists, turns, and double-crosses amidst an ever-growing pile of bodies and late ‘90s alt-pop songs (Sister Hazel! The Verve Pipe! Tonic!).
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HE GOT GAME (1998; Spike Lee)
OK, so it’s not as perfect as DO THE RIGHT THING, as haunting as 25TH HOUR, or as slick as INSIDE MAN, but Spike Lee’s HE GOT GAME deserves far better than its reputation as a sub-par Joint, as this is as weird, wild, and empathetic as a Lee gets. Bursting in all directions with ideas (and, yes, one or two too many subplots), GAME is a sports movie that doubles as an intense father-son drama, a novelistic narrative that looks like it was filtered through a Wong Kar-Wai fever-dream, and a dalliance in magical realism improbably soundtracked by Aaron Copeland and Public fucking Enemy.

Oh yeah, one more thing: the film features the single best performance of Denzel Washington’s career (don’t @ me) as Jake Shuttlesworth, a born-again convict given a secret week-long release from prison in order to convince his son, Jesus (NBA pro Ray Allen), to play ball for the governor’s alma mater. The premise may be ridiculous, but Washington’s performance is a ferocious, heartbreaking portrait of a father desperate for God’s forgiveness and his son’s love.Amazon Button (via

FUCKING AMAL (1998; Lukas Moodysson)
As sweet and empathetic a portrait of love as you’ll find in any film from 1998, Sweden’s FUCKING AMAL (U.S. title: SHOW ME LOVE) is a coming-of-age tale concerning two high school girls discovering and (eventually) embracing their sexuality amidst the clueless family members, bratty friends, and dead-end titular town that holds them captive. The story is simple, the characterizations complex, and the journey is as rewarding as anything on this list, featuring as it does one cinema’s Great First Kisses (set to Foreigner’s “I Want To Know What Love Is,” no less), chocolate milk as a metaphor love and life, and the declarative capper: “Hi, this is my new girlfriend, Agnes. We're gonna go fuck."
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KNOCK OFF (1998; Tsui Hark)
KNOCK OFF is Jean Claude Van Damme’s STATION TO STATION LP: like David Bowie during the recording of that record, JCVD’s synapses were so coke-fused that, like most of civilization, he has no memory of the film. Which is sadly ironic, given that it’s the Brussels Muscles’ most memorable movie.

Imagine: a martial arts film directed by Hong Kong legend Tsui Hark with an action-satirizing script by DIE HARD scribe Steven E. de Souza. A plot that concerns off-brand jeans loaded with explosive microbombs. Sprinkle on some terrorism, the Russian mafia, double crosses, rickshaw footchases in which eels are used as whips, a CIA agent played by Rob Schneider, and a denim bootlegger played by Jean Claude Van Damme while locked in a cokesweat fugue. The result is one of the most visually inventive films of the 1990s (seriously!) stretched like tight bluejeans across the shapely ass of a smirking, manic martial arts crime film with a penchant for doing the splits.
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A PERFECT MURDER (1998; Andrew Davis)
Full disclosure: This is certainly the weakest film on my list, and I can’t imagine it’s anyone’s favorite movie from 1998. But! It is an unfairly forgotten film—a slick, pure popcorn thriller that builds a glossy ‘90s erotic thriller maze out of spare parts from Hitchcock’s DIAL M FOR MURDER for its cast to get lost within. And what a cast: Michael Douglas does what he does best, playing a slick-coiffed reptilian millionaire who’s faced with losing it all, a pre-LORD OF THE RINGS Viggo Mortensen grifts and slithers his way onscreen like a reincarnation of his character from THE INDIAN RUNNER, and 1998 Forgotten Movie All-Star Gwyneth Paltrow (GREAT EXPECTATIONS, HUSH, SLIDING DOORS) holds court in the Kim Novak/ Grace Kelly role of the Hitchcock blonde in trouble.

It’s a deeply shallow film, and all the better for it—the film is an excuse for the stars (and their audience) to slum it in a Big Dumb Fun sub-Hitch sexy thriller in which $100 million dollars is being chased amidst the sleek high-rises, limos, and hedge fund offices of Wall Street. Sometimes you want a filet mignon, sometimes you want a bag of Doritos. A PERFECT MURDER is a cinematic bag of Doritos.
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WILD THINGS (1998; John McNaughton)
Speaking of trash—while the stars of A PERFECT MURDER might have had a dalliance with it, the cast of WILD THINGS downright wallows in it. Mud-wrestles in it. Catfights in it. Gator-fights in it. Guidance counselor three-ways in it. WILD THINGS is pure late-90s, smirking b-movie Skinemax trash, a lurid Florida neo-noir with such an ever-mounting series of double-, triple-, and quadruple-crosses that multiple post-credits sequences are dedicated to explaining what the hell we just watched.

But the whys and wherefores are hardly the point. You watch a film like WILD THINGS to see the scantily-clad cast (Matt Dillon, Kevin Bacon, Neve Campbell, Denise Richards, Theresa Russell, and a neck-braced, ambulance-chasing Bill Murray) sweat and swear and screw their way through the pastel haze of a deliriously libidinous fuck-noir that plays like an update of BODY HEAT for the Barenaked Ladies generation.Amazon Button (via

HONORARY MENTIONS (a.k.a.: other people beat me to ‘em): PALMETTO, RONIN, ZERO EFFECT.

1 comment:

Eddie Trojan said...

As a former Mom and Pop video store employee, 1998 being a prime year amongst those glorious times, (with the exception of Fucking Amal) I recall all of the above films being not only rated, but well rented to boot.