Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '98 - Patrick Bromley ""

Friday, May 4, 2018

Underrated '98 - Patrick Bromley

Patrick Bromley is the Editor-in-Chief of F This Movie! ( and a senior contributor to Daily Dead. He hosts the F This Movie! podcast and is a co-host of the horror-themed podcast Corpse Club.

Of all the “underrated” lists I’ve written for this blog, this ’98 list was the most difficult. I think that’s because history has found the appropriate place for the movies of this year; they’re either well-liked and respected or wound up forgotten for a reason. Still, there are a handful of titles I’d love to help shine a light on, either to bring them more attention or to remind readers that they’re actually pretty good. Here are some of them:

ZERO EFFECT (dir. Jake Kasdan) 
Yes, it’s a movie I suspect is going to show up on quite a few of these “Underrated ‘98” lists, and, yes, it’s pretty hard to call the movie “underrated” now that it has developed a cult following 20 years later. It still deserves a spot, though, because not enough people talk about this movie these days. Where is the sequel? Where is the Blu-ray? Darryl Zero deserves his own franchise. Jake Kasdan’s first film as director remains his best, and this is both the best character and the best performance ever given by one of my Top 5 favorite actors, Bill Pullman. This isn’t just one of the most underrated movies of 1998, but one of the most underrated movies of the 1990s period. It’s also one of my favorites of the whole decade.
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LOVE AND DEATH ON LONG ISLAND (dir. Richard Kwietniowski) 
A delightful comedy drama featuring one of my favorite John Hurt performances as an English writer who falls in love with an American actor (Jason Priestley) after accidentally stumbling across his performance in a movie called Hotpants College II. He decides to track the actor down in New York, eventually befriending him and his girlfriend. This was one of two late-‘90s movies that saw Jason Priestley trying to break out of his 90210 typecasting (the other was Cold Blooded, a favorite of the man behind this very blog), though this one cleverly leans into it and uses his casting to the film’s benefit. John Hurt is so good with a difficult role, and writer/director Kwietniowksi’s screenplay (adapted from the novel by Gilbert Adair) deftly mixes sweetness and pathos with some frank truths about the world. It’s a really special movie.
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SMALL SOLDIERS (dir. Joe Dante) 
I was reluctant to include this movie because it definitely has its fans. A Joe Dante movie will always have fans, because we are a loyal and loving bunch. Even within Dante’s impressive filmography, though, I might make a case that this movie doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Accused of being just a Gremlins redux, swallowed up by the blockbuster summer of 1998, held prisoner by Burger King tie-ins, Small Soldiers has always had an uphill battle to fight. What seems on the surface as an FX-heavy family adventure comedy is actually Dante’s usual brand of wildly subversive satire, taking the piss out of corporate culture, consumerism, and, most pointedly, the military industrial complex. Dante, whose career has a long history of criticizing America’s obsession with war, is even making direct fun of war movies in many of Small Soldiers’ cleverest and most self-reflexive jokes. The voice casting is inspired, the effects hold up, and, Dante being Dante, the movie sides with the monsters and the freaks. No wonder we love it. Let’s lobby for a Blu-ray, please.
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FIRST LOVE, LAST RITES (dir. Jesse Peretz) 
I’ll admit that the first thing that comes to mind when I think of writer/director/former Lemonhead Jesse Peretz’s debut feature is the amazing soundtrack, composed and performed by Shudder to Think with a host of guest stars (including Billy Corgan, Liz Phair, Jon Doe, Jeff Buckley and more). My wife bought the album for me way back when we were just friends in ’98, and it’s a soundtrack I’ve listened to many more times than I have seen the movie. Giovanni Ribisi and Natasha Gregson Wagner star in this romantic drama that is very much of the ‘90s indie scene and makes for an interesting precursor to David Gordon Green’s All the Real Girls. Ribisi is good in an atypically “normal” role, as is Wagner, who still seemed like she was going to be a thing in 1998. This isn’t for all tastes. Dat soundtrack, tho.
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SNAKE EYES (dir. Brian DePalma) 
It feels weird to call big studio movies from some of my favorite directors (Joe Dante, Brian De Palma) “underrated,” but 1998 was a year that both filmmakers released films that aren’t as beloved as most of their filmographies despite being pretty secretly great. Best known for its insanely ambitious “long take” opening shot and a characteristically batty Nicolas Cage performance, Snake Eyes may be lesser De Palma, but even this lesser De Palma is better than most thrillers of its kind. A dazzling technical exercise, Snake Eyes finds the director running wild with style, constructing memorable set piece after memorable set piece. It’s also got a great cast: besides Cage, there’s Gary Sinise, Kevin Dunn, John Heard (RIP), Stan Shaw, Luis Guzman, and Carla Gugino, once again proving my long-standing theory that any more with Carla Gugino is better than that same movie without Carla Gugino. Sure, the movie was too expensive to make (over $70 million) and the original ending (in which the Atlantic City casino where the movie takes place is destroyed by a tidal wave) had to be scrapped, hurting the overall movie in the process. The scale and thematic throughline were better tied into the way the film was supposed to end. Those issues aside, Snake Eyes is a really cool paranoid thriller in which De Palma explores moral decay, varying perspectives and ways of looking at the same story. Nobody does “looking” better than De Palma.
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CLAY PIGEONS (dir. David Dobkin) 
Before he was directing big studio comedies like Wedding Crashers, Fred Claus, and The Change-Up, David Dobkin made this dark comedy thriller starring Joaquin Phoenix as a small town rube, Vince Vaughn as a serial killer, and Janeane Garofalo as the federal agent investigating the murders. Clay Pigeons is the damndest thing, neither straightforward thriller nor particularly funny as a comedy; it’s the kind of movie that was really only possible in the post-Tarantino ‘90s, even if the film owes very little to QT in terms of its form or its content. This was an early example of Vaughn attempting to stretch as an actor after his breakout success in Swingers, and while he’s not entirely successful, it’s interesting to watch him try to find himself during this period, and, in some ways, is the clearest antecedent to his career-best performance in last year’s amazing Brawl in Cell Block 99. Plus, did I mention that Janeane Garofalo plays an FBI agent? There was no limit to my late ‘90s JG crush, and this is one of my favorite of her performances because she’s cast so against type. That’s this movie in a nutshell: it doesn’t all work, but everyone is trying to do something different. It’s the damndest thing.
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MEET JOE BLACK (dir. Martin Brest) 
Yes, somehow this $100 million drama from a major studio is still a movie I’d consider underrated, mostly because I know hardly anyone who likes it and literally no one who likes it as much as me. Most of America only bought tickets to the movie back in ’98 to see a trailer for The Phantom Menace, which means they didn’t stick around to see me alone in a nearly empty theater, openly weeping. I loved it then and I love it now. There isn't a criticism you could level towards Meet Joe Black that I wouldn't agree with. Bloated overlength. Glacial pace. Brad Pitt's wooden, almost alien performance. Artificial sense of weight and importance. Subplots about corporate takeovers. Endless speechifying. On-the-nose musical score (that one I might disagree with). Six different endings. Incorrect assumption on the part of Martin Brest that America was dying for a three-hour remake of Death Takes a Holiday. All of these things may be correct, but damn if I'm not reduced to tears every single time I see it. It's like I'm two people watching Meet Joe Black: the guy who sees all its flaws and knows better, and the guy who just doesn't care because this movie works.
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THE ALARMIST (dir. Evan Dunsky) 
This dark comedy comes from the same school of late-‘90s cinema as Clay Pigeons: it’s a low-budget indie with a great cast and bizarre tonal shifts and probably could only have been made during this window in American cinema. David Arquette plays a young home security salesman apprenticing under the great Stanley Tucci. Eventually there is a murder for which Arquette is blamed (the more I think about it, the more it’s sounding a lot like Clay Pigeons). Tucci is really the show here, but the movie also stars Kate Capshaw, the perpetually-underrated Mary McCormack and Ryan Reynolds in an early film performance. There are a couple of big surprises in the film and some sharp dialogue, maybe because it began its life as a stage play (Life During Wartime by Keith Reddin). Unlike a number of far more high-profile titles on my list, this one seems to have fallen through the cracks.
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As always, thank you to Brian Saur and Rupert Pupkin Speaks for allowing me to participate in these fantastic series of columns, which always leave me with countless lists of new movies to track down and serve as a regular reminder that this blog — and, by extension, Brian himself and his two podcasts (Pure Cinema and Just the Discs, two of my absolute favorite movie podcasts) — is one of the best celebrations of all kinds of movies all year long. He’s the greatest.

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