Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '98 - John Arminio ""

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Underrated '98 - John Arminio

John Arminio is a lifelong Nerd and lover of film, comics, art, books, and all manner of storytelling. He is on a never-ending quest to discover new stories and to tell them to others. You can find him working at Comix Connection in Central Pennsylvania or simply follow him on Twitter @QuasarSniffer. He will podcast with you about movies and comics or write you long-winded letters by hand and mail them to you. With actual stamps and everything! He is madness. You can also follow the happenings of Comix Connection on Facebook or visit their webpage at http://comixconnection.tumblr.com/

The Faculty
The Faculty feels like an example of when filmmakers (in this case, Robert Rodriguez) on assignment get bored and reach for something unexpected. While the movie might have been a creation of market research focus groups intent on cashing in on the teen horror craze going on in the late 1990s, the result is a bizarre and, in hindsight, fascinating collision of influences ranging from The Thing, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, toRoger Corman horror. Plus, you get to watch Elijah Wood, Clea Duvall, Usher, Josh Hartnett, and Jon Stewart share a scene with a CGI space larva. It's weird. The Faculty is built on setting up and subverting stereotypes in admittedly obvious ways, but in a film market that celebrated I Know What You Did Last Summer, these subversions are a breathe of fresh air. The talent of the character actor-ridden supporting cast should not be discounted, as the preternaturally intimidating Robert Patrick meets all our expectations for Scary Authority Figure, thereby setting the viewer up to take the proceeding teen hormone-fueled thrills at face value. This is contrasted with Salma Hayek and Famke Janssen both cast decidedly against type, and absurdly so, manifesting in a meta-narrative almost as apparent as that of Wes Craven's Scream, only a lot more fun and with less self-satisfied winking. Sure, it doesn't approach the brilliance of the commentary on horror fiction seen in a movie like John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness, nor is it a brave assault on horror tropes (and the representation/exploitation of women and young people in the genre) seen in films like 2000's Ginger Snaps or 1999's Audition, but does manage to be a hell of a lot of fun. It does make the mistake of directly stealing scenes from far superior horror films like The Shining and the previously mentioned The Thing, but it is at its best when it exploits the very real adolescent fears if isolation, loneliness, and being scrutinized by one's peers. What could be more terrifying for a teenager than realizing that all of the adolescent paranoia he or she is experiencing is actually justified? It doesn't matter if it's aliens or teenagers since, after all, both are equally capable of evil. Also, The Faculty has the band Creed's cover of Alice Cooper's "Eighteen" on the soundtrack, which might be the worst attempt to appeal to the teen market via song I've ever heard. It's awful in the most hilarious way, which somehow makes the film more enjoyable.
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Star Trek Insurrection
Perhaps I am stretch the definition of underrated here, but being the Big Time Star Trek Nerd that I am, I often encounter the opinion, even among Star Trek fans, that Star Trek First Contact is the only good Star Trek: The Next Generation movie.

This is a nonsense opinion.

True, Star Trek First Contact is a top-notch sci-fi actioner, and perhaps the most fun of the Star Trek films (it has Captain Picard wielding a Tommy gun while wearing a white dinner jacket, after all), but it is Star Trek Insurrection that manages to be the most Star Trek of the Next Generation films, and one of the most philosophically consistent science fiction films released in my lifetime. It is here the Enterprise crew is everything we want them to be, heroic not only in the face of Space Dictators with Ugly Faces (played with delicious wickedness by F. Murray Abraham) but also in the face of their own bureaucracy, giving self-serving a short-sighted orders. They stand up for the true values of the Federation, and we see the cast giving performances as if they believe it themselves. They embody the future we wish for, the people we truly want to be, as they fight for the weak under cruel bombardment from the strong. The direction is clear, the plot is straightforward, and the photography captures not only the science fiction elements beautifully, but it renders the pastoral planet-side locations with genuine, gorgeous affection. It's a Star Trek film that makes me want to Live Long and Prosper.
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Apt Pupil
Apt Pupil is the other 1998 movie in which Ian McKellen plays and old weirdo paired with a much younger, handsome protegee. In Gods and Monsters, thought, he's playing genius film director James Whale, the victim of discrimination and oppression, instead of the murderous Nazi creep of Apt Pupil. While Apt Pupil is a film that definitely has its flaws (its third act begins with a montage in which the young protagonist overcomes the struggle of studying REALLY HARD for a high school test), it is a film that has, in a way, become more relevant in the twenty years since its release. Brad Renfro plays an alienated teenage boy who becomes obsessed with Nazis and the Holocaust who then, through happenstance, comes across Ian Mckellen's Kurt Dussander, a Nazi war criminal hiding out in anonymity in suburban America. The current political and social climate of 2018; the resurgence of Nazism, the mainstreaming of white supremacist ideology, and the continued mass killings visited upon American schools and public places by disturbed young people; makes Apt Pupil a positively chilling viewing experience. Knowing the true back story of Renfro's own tragic death makes his performance, as the disturbed Todd Bowden, more believable and affecting.

The interplay of homo-eroticism, homophobia, and sadomasochism between the leads and their respective fantasies, reliving Dussander's "glory days" in World War II through the telling of stories, results in stomach-churning anxiety in the viewer. The shared sickness between the elderly Nazi and Todd is disturbing for how they are simultaneously so simpatico with one another, but also full of antipathy and resentment. Their shared experiences is based off of how much they thrill to hate, which is how their particular brand of hate spreads. Sure, these themes and the plot could use some streamlining (David Schwimmer plays a guidance counselor whose sole purpose seems to be to slow down the action and say, "well gee, you seem to be disturbed, young man') and the ending is a rather convenient bow-tie wrap-up for one of the villains, but the film is something worth revisiting as an artifact of when we thought Nazism was dead in America. Apt Pupil was telling us that no, it definitely was not.
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The General
John Boorman is not a subtle filmmaker. From unquestionable classics like Deliverance and Point Blank to mad fantastical vision of a past that never was (Excalibur) or a future that never will be (Zardoz), Boorman's themes of self-destructive masculinity, fate, and the futility of authority pervade his work in obvious and sometimes brilliant ways. Also, there's Exorcist II: The Heretic, a film that remains impossible to explain or justify to this day. Standing in sharp contrast to these is the stark, humorous, and even occasionally warm biopic The General, starring the unequaled Brendan Gleeson. Gleeson's character, the real-life Irish master thief and eccentric crime boss Martin Cahill, is unapologetic in his quest to live an independent life, raising his family (which consists of a polyamorous relationship between himself, his wife, and her sister) his own way, free from the reach of authority. He clearly loves his children, but he is stubborn in his determination to remain a criminal and a thief, even if that means going to jail for years at a time, separating himself from those he loves for years at a time. In a lesser film, Cahill would take the form of a lovable rogue or perhaps even a sort of modern day Robin Hood figure, but The General is too smart for that. Gleeson's Cahill is no stranger to violence and murder to achieve his aims, while also willing to put his family through any privation or mortal danger just to prove a point. His behavior is, at times, infuriating and bizarre, which makes him a fascinating figure to watch, but would clearly have been an aggravating and dangerous man to know. His inevitable journey to self-destruction, photographed in absorbing black and white, is a fascinating story that could only climax at the wrong end of a gun.
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The Bird People in China
Just before he broke big internationally with the masterclass in horrific romantic discomfort that was Audition and the blood-soaked lunacy that was Ichi the Killer, Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike directed The Bird People in China, a much more meditative, human, and positively tender film than the extreme cinema he is more known for, at least in the West. The Bird People in China is a sort of combination road movie, buddy comedy, and fish-out-of-water tale about, on its surface, a salary man from a Japanese corporation and a yakuza fixer going to the same region in China to reconnoiter a potentially lucrative source of jade in the region. It manages to shift widely in tone, from philosophical musings to the translations of ancient texts to a hilariously bizarre image of the yakuza man defecating outside in the rain, asking for an umbrella.

Both protagonists are each from wildly different worlds themselves, but their differences pale in comparison to the divergent experience of the characters they encounter. They must turn to each other to better understand their circumstances, while the characters who cross their path help them better understand themselves. Both the yakuza and the salary man are hell bent on achieving their agenda and meeting their deadlines, while the Chinese villagers are content to learn to fly. It's a conceit that could be maudlin or even paternalistic, but with Miike's expert hand guiding the film, the protagonists and the villagers both are the source of just the right amount of wisdom and sympathy, comedy and light humiliation, that the viewer is left with genuine affection and warmth for all parties concerned. The film is also gorgeously shot, utilizing the rural China locations in all their lush, green glory. So even if The Bird People in China does not have the frenetic pace of some of Miike's later work, it never feels stifled or slow because what is on screen is so beautiful to look at.
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Dark City
Twenty years on, Alex Proyas' Dark City has garnered a definitive cult following and influenced a cadre of filmmakers, yet I still contend it is underrated. It's presence in cinema history will perhaps forever be eclipsed by the films that succeeded it and borrowed some of its key aesthetics (like The Matrix), but Dark City's brilliance is not to be overlooked.

Dark City is a movie that truly feels like a nightmare, and the structure of the city itself, along with the film, is a physical manifestation of endless, agonized somnambulism. John Murdoch (played with brilliant desperation by Rufus Sewell) and his efforts to escape the stone and steel of his city are thwarted not only by the mysterious, black-clad pale beings that seem to lord over the events, but by the buildings and streets themselves, morphing in illogical ways to thwart him. Jennifer Connelly is hypnotic in her performance, a beauty that transcends even this place, and one both the viewer and Murdoch would be willing to brave this nightmare for. With its German expressionism-influenced architecture, untouchable villains that are as much a part of the city as its mortar, and ability to lure the viewer within its borders, Dark City is one of the most successful attempts at merging science fiction and film noir I have ever seen, and perhaps the best neo-noir since Chinatown. That feeling of running in place while being chased by monsters in a dream? That is what Dark City feels like. Watch it.
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