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

Friday, May 25, 2018

Underrated '98 - 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.

I was carless in college in 1998, an unenviable position for a voracious young movie addict to find himself in. Other than the occasional preview screenings on campus, there was no access to a movie theater that didn't involve careful preparation and multiple bus transfers (I remember one such frustrating, ill-fated mission to see THE REPLACEMENT KILLERS). As such, I was forced to rely on home video to make sure I didn't miss out on such recent releases as Andy Sidaris's epic swan song L.E.T.H.A.L. LADIES: RETURN TO SAVAGE BEACH.

The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit (1998; Stuart Gordon)
Stuart Gordon first directed Ray Bradbury's fantastical tale of five down-on-their-luck Angelenos who scrape together enough money to buy one magnificent, ice cream white suit and take turns wearing it for the Chicago theater in the early 70's. He returned to adapt the story for the screen 25 years later, with Bradbury himself providing the screenplay, only to have Disney unceremoniously bury the film in the DTV market. You're lucky to find someone who's even heard of it, let alone fallen under its spell and made sure everyone they know has done the same, in the 20 years since.

But just as the suit works its magic on the wonderstruck characters who find their best qualities enhanced by slipping on the shining jacket and pants one propitious night in Boyle Heights, the viewer will find him or herself helpless to resist the pure charm of Bradbury's dialogue, Gordon's smart and uncynical approach, and the uniformly enchanting performances by a great cast including Edward James Olmos and Clifton Collins, Jr.

I've often wondered whether it would be best if this great film remained obscure. It's not the kind of movie that belongs in the recycled Great Pantheon of Cinematic Masterpieces: it's a modest, intimate work that - like the suit itself - should be passed from one person to the next. If you should luck upon the out-of-print DVD, don't just let it sit on the shelf: enjoy it and lend it to a friend; allow its communal intoxication to move from one body to another.
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The General (1998; John Boorman)
If you set POINT BLANK next to DELIVERANCE, and asked any given film fan to complete the trilogy of "great John Boorman movies," chances are you'd get a variety of answers. Some advocate the allegedly underrated EXORCIST II. Others prefer the goofy excesses of ZARDOZ or EXCALIBUR. I've heard arguments for HOPE AND GLORY, THE EMERALD FOREST, THE TAILOR OF PANAMA...or maybe WHERE THE HEART IS is your jam? There may not be a right answer. But for me, the best film he's made since 1972 is THE GENERAL: not a remake of the Buster Keaton classic, but rather a sketch of obstinate blue collar criminal Martin Cahill with a precocious talent for mischief who terrorized Dublin throughout the 80's and first half of the 90's.

The impressive trick the movie pulls is making you root for a remorseless career criminal who plants car bombs and kidnaps entire families. Besides bolstering Cahill's underdog/family man likability, writer-producer-director Boorman emphasizes the cavalier modus operandi and cheeky resourcefulness that win over even the victims of his crime spree (Boorman himself was burglarized by Cahill in real life, an event depicted in the film). It makes for a surprisingly perfect double feature with POINT BLANK, in which Boorman also gets the audience to side with a violent thief by crafting the narrative around his unconventional methods, sheer dedication to his lawless profession and irrepessible drive (note how the two anti-heroes are active throughout even though both films open with their "death").

But such unlikely empathy wouldn't have been possible without the career-best performance given by Brendan Gleeson, who manages to play up his puppy-dog charisma without losing the character's edge. It's a rare treat to see him move away from his career as a reliable character actor in big studio releases and carry a movie, like he does here and in his work with the McDonagh brothers. Still waiting on a blu-ray for this; in the meantime, avoid the "desaturated color" version of the film on the DVD, apparently included to accommodate people who can't appreciate Boorman's beautiful use of black & white.
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Dirty Work (1998; Bob Saget) & Dead Man on Campus (1998; Alan Cohn)
Some day I plan to sit down and determine whether the 80's or 90's was a worse decade for studios providing feature-length theatrical launches to subpar TV comedians. At first glance it would seem to be the 90's: you may personally love any given SNL alum whose career transitioned to film, but have to concede that 1) none of them were Eddie Murphy and 2) for every TOMMY BOY there were five MASTER OF DISGUISE's. As the decade went on we witnessed the decline of Bill Murray and the rise of Jim Carrey. We got a Carrot Top movie and a full slate of Pauly Shore. THE PALLBEARER was something that happened.

Which is all to the point that the Norm MacDonald vehicle DIRTY WORK was something of a miracle. A practically plotless series of sketches, one-liners and cameos, it proves that comedy can rely on timing and delivery and still be funny without frantic histrionics or goofy accents - even Chris Farley seems somewhat nuanced in this film. It came and went in the theater; when I finally caught up with it on video, I was convinced it was a new classic, but the indifferent public reaction and dismal box office returns (it made less than AIR BUD: GOLDEN RECEIVER) seemed to suggest I was very much in the minority. Not sure if the movie's had a true second life: even the stars continue to dismiss it (maybe Traylor Howard likes the movie, somebody should reach out and ask her), but it deserves serious reappraisal.
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DEAD MAN ON CAMPUS certainly has not had any kind of second life, which is a shame - there's so much to learn from the plight of college slackers Josh Miller and Cooper Frederickson and their quest to recruit a suicidal third roommate who'll save their scholastic careers by offing himself (they discover a provision in the school charter that a suicide will result in passing grades for anyone living with the dead student). Released the same year as the similarly-plotted but much less funny DEAD MAN'S CURVE (DMOC's best jokes almost certainly came from co-writer Mike White), this was MTV Films's all-important live action follow-up to JOE'S APARTMENT. Although it didn't do well, it's the best film the studio ever financed* (and yes, I know they made ELECTION). Amongst the treasures found within: a goth band performing a bleak song called "Sperm," Alyson Hannigan getting her hair set on fire, Nick Andopolis and Lindsay Weir hooking up (a full year before Freaks and Geeks!) and frat monster Cliff O'Malley, brought to life by Lochlyn Munro, who deserves to be considered an iconic movie character. And above all, the irresitible chemistry between its two 3-named stars, Tom Everett Scott and Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Generation X's Tracy and Hepburn. In a perfect world, this would have been the first of a series of ROAD TO-style adventures for these actors. The world is not perfect, but DEAD MAN ON CAMPUS might be.

* I'll split the difference and say it's part of a killer MTV Films trilogy which includes JACKASS NUMBER TWO and THE FOOT FIST WAY.
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The Book of Life (1998; Hal Hartley) & The Entire History of the Louisiana Purchase (1998; Joshua Oppenheimer, w/ Christine Cynn)
At just over an hour, even die hard Hartley fans undervalue this little digital gem that popped up between the director's critical darling HENRY FOOL and his first (and to date, last) studio-financed project NO SUCH THING. Running just over an hour, it stars Martin Donovan as Jesus, the legendary P.J. Harvey in her only acting role as Mary Magdalene and HENRY FOOL's Thomas Jay Ryan as a philosophical prankster Satan. Hartley's first journey into serious fantasy, which for better or worse he'd spend the next several movies delving into more deeply, it's easy to admire the ambition even while appreciating the minimal production. The digital photography moves between jarring and innovative, but is ultimately one of several risks Hartley takes that pays off in the end. Definitely better than THE BOOK OF ELI, THE BOOK OF HENRY or BOOK OF SHADOWS: BLAIR WITCH 2.

At 48 minutes, Joshua Oppenheimer's student film from his Harvard days is definitely worth a look for fans of his magnum opus THE ACT OF KILLING, one of the best films of this decade. All the ingredients are there: by staging a documentary about a woman who claims to have immaculately conceived the anti-Christ and ends up putting the baby in a microwave, Oppenheimer ends up with an impressive effort that evokes Todd Haynes's POISON, the work of Bruce Conner and Errol Morris and the experiment narratives of Dusan Makavejev (who, besides influencing the film, personally endorsed it). A circus docudrama of the Western United States, it includes self-proclaimed fanatics who accuse the Beatles of being the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,

nosebleed harp/accordion jam sessions attended by chickens, and an interview with John Osepchuk, inventor of microwave oven (even Dr. Miss Velma Jaggers from the undefinable MISS VELMA'S CHRISTMAS IN AMERICA makes an appearance). The ultimate result is the perfect preamble to one of the larger themes Oppenheimer has expressed: "I think we take pleasure in denouncing people. Perhaps because, in feeling entitled to make the denunciation, we reassure ourselves that we are different, we are good."
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Soldier (1998; Paul "Not Yet W.S." Anderson)
SOLDIER is not a great movie. It might not even be a good movie. It's well-intended: somewhere in an early David Webb Peoples draft I'm sure there was a strong underlying theme of the hardship of the soldier reentering society and how violent nature can't just be turned off. What we ended up with was a sort of non-committal Mad Max in which the desperate society of future dwellers advocate peace, until they need the hero to kill everybody for them. In other words, a standard action movie with $60 million worth of special effects. If the film had made even a third of its money back, I might actually hate it.

But I'll tell you what's underrated about the movie: Kurt Russell. He commits 100% to this role, and the audience is well rewarded. Pushing 50 at the time of production, he transforms the movie into a consideration of the older generation of action stars vs. the newer set that was coming into prominence at the turn of the century (represented here by Jason Scott Lee, who didn't really go on to prominence after 1998 but you get the idea). Kurt's discarded killing machine is lost in the wilderness, unsure of his place in the galaxy when his usefulness is at an end - you can see that he really looks at this role through the eyes of an aging movie star and brings an added layer to what could have been a bland robot hero. Fans bring up how little he speaks in the film: while not necessarily novel (Bronson says even less in CHANTO'S LAND), it does give the charmingly chatter-mouthed Russell to really focus on his performance and make it surprisingly soulful - that scene where he's endlessly punching the hanging metal object, his fists bleeding, sweat frozen on his tight face, is as heartbreaking as it is terrifying.
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Claire Dolan (1998; Lodge Kerrigan)
If we're talking underrated, one of the names at the top of any "vastly underrated" list is Katrin Cartlidge. Best known for her collaborations with Mike Leigh and equally mesmerizing work in BEFORE THE RAIN and BREAKING THE WAVES, she gave one of the great underseen performances of the last 20 years as the eponymous Irish immigrant trapped in a life of prostitution in New York in Lodge Kerrigan's sophomore film, which languished for two years after its Cannes debut before finally getting a limited U.S. release.

Keeping things quiet yet unnerving, Kerrigan subverts the typical "woman in trouble" picture by coming at Claire from various angles, presenting her as a victim but still a strong and determined individual who'll eventually find a way to escape from the isolated existence to which she's condemned. Like most of the director's work, there's a detached obliqueness to the film that contributed to lukewarm reviews (J. Hoberman called it "inert," other choice Rotten Tomato adjectives include "gloomy" and "clinically austere," even Kerrigan/DOLAN fan Marcus Pinn referred to it as "icy cold"), although Cartlidge's performance received unanimous praise. But you can't be effected by her and not the movie - she is the movie. It's impossible to exit the film without the feeling of having experienced something beautifully intimate.
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Last Night (1998; Don McKellar)
Not only is Don McKellar's LAST NIGHT the most underrated film of 1998, it may very well be the most underrated film of the entire decade. It's the story of what people do the day the world ends. Some go to work like it's any other day. Others use it as an excuse to go nuts. McKellar focuses on a handful of characters who try to take some kind of control of their predestined fate, whether it's creating a meaningful final moment with someone (even a stranger) or finding a quiet place to meet oblivion solo. The result is a movie that's more about people living than maybe any other movie I've ever seen, a non-specific snapshot of existence at a very specific time (the film is undeniable 90's) made profound by its distinct lack of profundity.

Big-theme, interconnected, multi-character vignette films aren't easy to pull off (although they often win Academy Awards) so it's no minor feat that every second of LAST NIGHT is totally engaging, even when the action of the given scene is intentionally banal; McKellar, both as director and performer, is uniquely adept at finding majesty in the mundane - a piece of music, a container of yogurt - and pulling humor from the film's absurd situations. Made for the same "2000, Seen By..." international film project as BOOK OF LIFE, it's a study of humanity that's equal parts hope and dread, more gratifying with each viewing, somehow personal and universal at the same time.
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