Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '98 - Stephanie Crawford ""

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Underrated '98 - Stephanie Crawford

Stephanie is a Co-host on Screamcast, minion at Splathouse, and writes and does podcasts for places like F This Movie
She's also guested on several episodes of Just The Discs - listen to them here:

1998 was an incredibly strong year for blockbusters, muscular, intelligent action/thriller films and boundary-pushing dramatic comedies, but it was a bit scattershot when it came to the smaller pictures. The Miramax machine seemed to send a lot of studios scrambling to make too-clever-for-anyone's-good crime movies, and there was a lot of staleness. Still, some gems stood out against a year stuffed full of critical darlings.

The Hairy Bird/All I Wanna Do/Strike!
As a former Kirsten Dunst fansite creator, I hope you'll let me indulge me a bit: The late 1990s and early aughts were heady times for the young Kirsten Dunst, and this oft-named-but-little-seen period teen drama-comedy landed right at the beginning of a huge wave that would bring The Virgin Suicides, Dick, Drop Dead Gorgeous, Bring It On and Sam Raimi's Spider-Man in the coming few years.

This is a fun little picture about a girl's boarding school in the early 60's. A group of friends (which includes Gaby Hoffman, Heather Matarazzo, Monica Keena and Rachel Leigh Cook) exercise mild feminist hijinks against headmistress Lynn Redgrave to keep the school from going co-ed. Everything comes to a head at a dance that's supposed to unite the girl's school with the boy's, and everyone learns that everyone is just a human being at the end. What really sells this movie is its concentration of extreme charm, and the young cast is fantastic--including Vincent Kartheiser back in his Tiger Beat days. It's too bad it was saddled with a merry-go-round of constantly changing terrible titles and barely any kind of release at all, as it easily holds its own with the other teen comedies the cast starred in at the time.
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If I have a chance to put a movie from my favorite living filmmaker on a list, I'll take it every time. While John Waters filmed love letters to his hometown of Baltimore on a constant basis, something about Pecker made it feel especially adoring towards Charm City. Eddie Furlong is the gorgeously named Pecker, a jovial young man thrilled to find the hidden beauty in the strange, perverse and warm corners of Baltimore. When the New York City art world takes notice of his photographs, however, we're treated to a twisted version of the trope "Is home truly where the heart is?" While Waters' has claimed that the film isn't autobiographical, it's easy to see the parallels when both Pecker and John make niche art in a derided town that later gets discovered and lauded by the fancy art folk.

Furlong can appear checked out in many of his films, but as Pecker, he's effortlessly sweet and captivating in his interest in his photographic subjects. Add in a grumpy Christina Ricci, a talking Virgin Mary figure, full frontal nudity and a cast that manages to be as strong as it is unsuspected, and you have a film that I wish more devotees of John Waters would bother to revisit. Martha Plimpton as Pecker's older sister may provide my favorite performance of 1998, and that's worth the price of admission alone.

"Divine Trash," a wonderful documentary about John Waters, was also released this year, and you better believe that I think that's essential.
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Last Night
Not only do I love films that David Cronenberg directed, but I also have a strong affinity for films he acts in. "Last Night" is no exception, and if it's not the most gentle and empathetic apocalyptic movie about human beings, then it's definitely in the running.

There's no ticking clock or explanation of why the world is about to end: it just is, and that inevitability colors every interaction. "Last Night" is a quiet film that makes a big impact. Instead of looting, terror and races against time, the characters in this film are seeking their last orgasms, kisses, conversations and connections. While there are scenes with gunshots heard in the background of some scenes and we're given hints at the chaos, it's never at the forefront. For anyone more interested in character-fueled stories than plot, this is absolutely worth the time. It's a film of moments with an eye to the upcoming end of the millennium, and it could not be more 1998 if it tried.
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Small Soldiers
Is Joe Dante too much of a people pleaser? While he's unquestionably loved and respected by movie lovers, his output was much more appreciated in the 80s, where imaginative, big-concept films were plentiful. As the 90s went on, though, Generation X started replacing the Baby Boomers as the major movie-going public, and nostalgic trips and flights of fancy were replaced by more cynical fare that was more interested in inner lives than outsize adventures.

"Small Soldiers" contains some biting commentary on marketing, manipulation and commerce, but it also contains plenty of cute, goofy scenes that appeal to children. Sometimes the animated talking toys are adorable, and sometimes they're downright disturbing. I love this contrast as I think adulthood is a constant war between maintaining a childlike hope and wonder while dealing with being fully cognizant of how terrible the world is. This makes for a wonderful film to revisit and look at through the lens of time, but it has to be a bitch to market.

Another great Kirsten Dunst vehicle (she listens to Rush in this, so take that as you will), we also get the late, great Phil Hartman's last feature film role. "Small Soldiers" is fun with a bite, and I'm comfortable putting it on the thematic shelf next to "Gremlins 2."
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Meeting People Is Easy
Britpop was booming in 1998 in the United States, and Radiohead stood apart as being the most successful in the US (along with Oasis) but not being pop exactly, but they were catchy enough to be played on alternative radio and fill stadiums. Still, they seemed above it all and mildly miserable about all the attention, which only added to their mystique. They were cerebral enough to attract posturing college students and talented enough to catch the interest of vast swathes of the population.

"Meeting People Is Easy" is interesting to revisit on a couple of different levels. The late-90s aesthetic took me back to the 8th grade immediately, and it's fascinating as a band documentary. Any band. The currency of footage here is based on the surrealism of "regular" people achieving monumental success rather than in the branding of a specific group. Think of those documentaries of The Beatles, except no one can seem to find much joy. Radiohead was at the height of their mainstream fame, and there's nary a party or groupie to be found.

This may all sound a bit miserable to watch, but it's not. It's an interesting look at a very focused time, sound and look, and even with stylish edits and random color saturation, the editing lures the viewer into feeling the strange alienation of endless airports to perform in front of thousands of adoring fans.
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