Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '98 - Everett Jones ""

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Underrated '98 - Everett Jones

Everett is an avid movie watcher and user of Letterboxd like myself - follow him there: - I've gotten many good film recs this way. Everett is also a longtime contributor at RPS!

To be honest, if this Joe Dante film is actually underrated any more, until very recently I was among those underrating it. On my first viewing, on VHS and close to the original release, the conspicuously GREMLINS-like premise caused me to write it off as a mere ripoff, or retread. In particular, the presence of Dick Miller, in a role similar to GREMLINS's Mr. Futterman, suggested Dante lazily reprising past glories. To be fair, to myself, I was just a kid, and didn't know that Miller appeared in practically every other Dante cast, as well, or about his status as a legendary character actor since Roger Corman's early films. Now, the film seems less like a retread of GREMLINS, than a canny variation on its premise that doubles as an inadvertent but extremely apt, kid-friendly companion to Paul Verhoeven's subversively militaristic STARSHIP TROOPERS, with Dante getting in some wicked jabs at the marketing of violence, weaponry, and militarism to children--"Don't call it violence. It's action. Kids love action"--even in the midst of, yes, a big-budget extravaganza designed to sell violent, militaristic toys to children. And if I (understandably) didn't quite see it this way at the time, I had plenty of company among film critics and reviewers, who joined me in underrating what sadly proved to be close to Dante's last big-budget hurrah. The major complaint then was a dark and mean-spirited tone, yet now the major stumbling block seems a reluctance to fully embrace the anarchic mayhem that just a decade before had made GREMLINS a blockbuster. It would be all too clear--even if Dante hadn't publicly said so himself--that he was operating under studio constraints, after the undiluted lunacy and invention of INNERSPACE, THE BURBS, and especially GREMLINS II, but SMALL SOLDIERS is still at heart a Joe Dante, with all the wit, imagination, and love of movies that implies, and in the men-in-tights dictatorship that is cinema in 2018, that's no small thing.
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This well-reviewed drama could still stand to be seen by many more people, at least based on reactions to March's rather devastating career-retrospective GQ profile of star Brendan Fraser. Maybe it's snobbery, but this is what I think of first when I see his name, not THE MUMMY and THE MUMMY RETURNS (to be sure, the next thing I think of is GEORGE OF THE JUNGLE.) A pre-superstardom Ian McKellen, and a then-career-ascendant Fraser play, respectively, retired real-life filmmaker James Whale and a fictional young gardener who becomes the May to the aging director's December. McKellen, of course, is one of those unimpeachable, British, all-caps ACTORS whom America will always find a place for in its heart, but it's Fraser who's the surprise here, proving that he was a lot more than the genial hunk that Hollywood invariably required him to be. Best of all, though, is Lynn Redgrave, as Whale's acerbic German housekeeper, easily stealing the picture away from both leading men. I'm not too interested in director/co-writer Bill Condon's recent jobs shepherding Disney intellectual properties, but I've always liked him as a fellow and particularly devoted movie fan, ever since reading an interview on his early B-movie career in Maitland McDonagh's great book FILMMAKING BEYOND THE FRINGE (in which he says he tries to watch two movies a day.) Recreating past eras in Hollywood history (both of Whale's retirement in the '50s, and his high point making Universal horror movies in the '30s), and in sexual mores and taboos, he's refreshingly willing to treat viewers as mature enough to imagine their way back into an earlier time, and to understand how it was different from our own. Most importantly, to me, this film ignited a lasting interest in the work of the real Whale, and also in that of George Cukor (THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, MY FAIR LADY), briefly but hilariously shown here as Whale's social bete noire.
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Since Michael Bay's proposed THE BIRDS never happened, this Gus Van Sant oddity probably stands safe in its status as the most reviled Hitchcock remake (earlier redos of the Master's British-period classics, namely THE LADY VANISHES and THE 39 STEPS, don't seem to have attracted nearly as much condemnation.) Van Sant himself can't have helped when he suggested in some interviews that part of the project's rationale was to save younger audiences from having to endure B&W. The final product certainly doesn't function as any kind of replacement for Hitchcock's masterpiece, but then I suspect it was never intended to be, regardless of what Van Sant said. Though the TV spot, a single shot of the sillhouette of Mrs. Bates sitting placidly in her rocking chaior, was itself very effective, the actual movie was oddly lacking in suspense, or even the pretense we should be experiencing suspense. But then I don't see Van Sant's work as a serious attempt at a thriller, but instead as an art project writ large, perversely made on a big studio's dime and drawing on its director's bankability after the mainstream hit of GOOD WILL HUNTING. Instead of trying to seamlessly update a period-specific success to a later and different time--as Hitch did pretty seamlessly with his very '50s self-remake of his own 1935 THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH--all of Van Sant's choices draw attention to and enhance the oddity of undertaking such an enterprise in the first place. It could be a companion piece to the Cindy Sherman self-portraits which place her in various generic sitatuations from old movies--here, Van Sant takes a more or less random assortment of current actors and places them in familiar images from perhaps Hitchcock's most familiar movie. The miscasting of the cold Anne Heche and brash Vince Vaughan, in place of the original's ideally cast Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins, only strengthens this impression. The more closely the shots of his ostensibly "shot-for-shot" remake mimic the real PSYCHO, the odder it all seems--as in the head-on, through-the-windshield shots of people driving, copied from the rear-projection shots that were an expected part of mid-century filmmaking. I still don't know why Van Sant took this bizarre project on, but I enjoyed it on what very well may be its own terms, as a unique stunt and joke at the expense of remakes.
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While likely nobody's favorite underrated effort from Brian De Palma--and all of the director's fans have their own--this still stands as one of the last instances of (nearly) undiluted De Palma on a big budget. De Palma and frequent writing partner David Koepp didn't manage, unfortunately, to wring a particularly compelling storyline out of the promising idea of combining RASHOMON with the assassination paranoia of the director's own earlier BLOW-OUT and the enclosed boxing-ring setting of Robert Wise's classic noir THE SET-UP. Unlike the wild but somehow believably messy and out-of-control conspiracy of BLOW-OUT, the plotting here is strictly Hollywood, and Nicholas Cage's corrupt cop-protagonist refuses to come to life, yet alone seem in need of redemption, thanks to an especially OTT performance. But the precision of De Palma's direction and his taste for audacious setpieces still make for a movie I enjoy revisiting every few years. In the most memorable scene, he uses cutaway sets to explore a whole floor of Atlantic City hotel suites, the kind of stylized effect it's hard to imagine being used by many directors, except semi-ironically by Wes Anderson.
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One of Todd Haynes’s most uneven but also most enjoyable movies. Like his later hall-of-mirrors Dylan biopic I’M NOT THERE, it bypasses the sometimes tired-seeming rhythms and contours of conventional music biopics for a fantasy around the persona and myth of the performer in question, in this case David Bowie, with Iggy Pop in a supporting role. One difference between this and the later, ecstatically reviewed and all-star-cast Dylan film didn’t receive the help, but indeed the opposition, of his subject, who refused any access to his back catalogue. Another is that Haynes opted for some semblance of a conventional narrative, and even an attempt at dramatic interest. This is supplied by the 1980s-set framing device of a journalist, played by Christian Bale, investigating a vanished rocker from the ‘70s, and his own adolescent fascination with him. As a way of structuring the story, it’s all very CITIZEN KANE-like, but Haynes can’t resist introducing another level of allusions and setting the “present-day” story in a very Orwellian 1984. It’s all a bit too much, and speaks to a tension I often find in Haynes’s work: between sheer, native talent as a filmmaker and an attachment to intellectual ideas that don’t necessarily play onscreen. But there’s also lots of wonderful filmmaking and music here: the opening scene of Oscar Wilde arriving on earth via UFO; the “Ballad of Maxwell Demon” music video; the orchestral scoring by Carter Burwell and songs by Shudder to Think, Pulp, and The Venus in Furs, among others.
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