Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '88 - James David Patrick ""

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Underrated '88 - James David Patrick

James David Patrick is a writer with a lifelong moviewatching habit. His current projects include #Bond_age_, the James Bond Social Media Project (thejamesbondsocialemediaproject.com) and Cinema Shame (cinemashame.wordpress.com). Follow him on Twitter at @007hertzrumble.We all approach this hobby from one main avenue. We're all staring out into the same Gothamesque cityscape of cinema history. Sometimes we stick to the primary arteries and sometimes we venture down a seedy back alley in search of something shocking or radical. We can't all go down these back alleys or they'd get too crowded, so when we find something unique, it's our duty - via this community fostered by Rupert Pupkin Speaks - to share these alleys with the world.

I've recommended a handful of films from 1988 on past Underrated lists so I'll refrain from writing them up again. Must. Plug. More. Movies. I'd be remiss, however, if I didn't at least mention (again) that you really really really do need to watch Clean & Sober and Things Change - two films anchored by beautiful performances from Michael Keaton and Don Ameche, respectively. I'm going to run out of opportunities to mention these movies soon so do me a favor and watch them now.

I came of proper double-digit moviewatching age in the late 1980's. These are the years that stir the fondest memories of dragging my parents to video stores and movies they didn't want to see. I guarantee they didn't want to see Young Einstein, but god bless 'em they took me - though they refused a second viewing. Even great parents have their limits. The couldn't escape Yahoo Serious, however; I just went ahead and bought the VHS from Columbia House with my lawn mowing money. Then they regretted paying me a reasonable wage for mowing the lawn.

To this day I continue to indiscriminately watch movies from the late 1980's. It's not just nostalgia. Far from it. There's something about the carefree style of filmmaking (and delusional prowess) exhibited during this time period that makes even the most inept movies watchable, sometimes even more entertaining as a result of that ineptness? One such film appears here. There will be no confusion about which one.

Before whittling this list down, I had a list of 10 perfect picks. Some became more perfect or seemed more underrated than others and ultimately made the final cut. Some I assumed would be tackled by others in this Rupert Pupkin space. I'll cheat and list them all anyway. Just in case.

Without a Clue (Thom Eberhardt, 1988)
Sherlock Holmes has been translated to film in so many different and compelling iterations. None of them, however, are quite as entertaining as this comedic masterpiece directed by Thom Eberhardt, whose credits include Night of the Comet, Captain Ron and Gross Anatomy.

Without a Clue plays the Sherlock Holmes legend for giggles, making Dr. John Watson the author of the Holmes tales for The Strand Magazine, using the public Holmes persona to solve crimes without fanfare. When demand for a public appearance of Sherlock reaches a furor, he hires unemployed thespian Reginald Kincaid (Michael Caine) to play the fictional detective.

The perfect rapport between Kingsley's curmudgeonly Watson and Caine's daft and pompous Holmes makes for an unconventional action/comedy duo. Though Without a Clue hits many of the expected beats for a Sherlock Holmes comedy, it also overcomes the limitations of mere spoofery and wanders off into some inspired vignettes. If there were any justice in this world, we'd have a dozen Holmes movies starring Caine and Kingsley instead of a single $8million box office flop. It's still one of my all-time favorite Caine performances.
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The Night Before (Thom Eberhardt, 1988)
And speaking of Thom Eberhardt... here's a deeper deep cut from the director's filmography. Winston Connelly (Keanu Reeves), super nerd and astronomy club vice-president, wakes up in a seedy Los Angeles alley without knowing how he arrived in such a predicament. As he replays a series of flashbacks, he has to figure out what happened to his wallet, his car, and his prom date Tara (Lori Laughlin). Also a pimp named Tito has arranged a sunrise meeting and apparently wants him dead.

Despite the conventional 1980's teen premise (cheerleader loses a bet and has to take unwitting nerd to the prom), Eberhardt's script is in no hurry to take this movie anywhere especially conventional. Through these flashbacks Winston traces his evening back to a dive-y dance club where George Clinton entertains the crowd and bartender Tiny Lister slips him something in his drink. A large portion of the film takes place inside this establishment as trippin' Keanu offers us a preview of Ted
Theodore Logan one year before the actor starred in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure.

The movie takes a welcome turn for the weird when Winston discovers that he inadvertently sold Tara into prostitution and has to become one with the L.A. underworld in order to track her down. Though The Night Before contains so many familiar genre conventions, the flashback narrative device and the darker comedic tone make it memorable even as the genre declined on the back half of the decade. Young Keanu remains the attraction here - though I've got to admit my huge crush on 1988's Lori Laughlin doesn't hamper this film's lasting appeal.
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The Moderns (Alan Rudolph, 1988)
In many of Alan Rudolph's films, it's not the film's narrative that draws you in, but the texture - the languid, velvety and referential style, the performances, the subtext. It's everything that you want out of Cinema. His best films, Choose Me or Trouble in Mind for example, recall a specific time and a specific place, but they also supersede specificity. He makes the viewer feel present and included, part of the cinema as dream landscape. There's a sense that he's always on the verge of breaching the fourth wall by pulling you directly into the artifice of time, place and dialogue.

On this occasion, The Moderns grants access to 1926 Paris and the expatriates of the Lost Generation. Rudolph regular Keith Carradine plays Nick Hart, an exiled painter torn between his estranged wife Rachel (the always mesmerizing Linda Fiorentino) and his patroness of the arts, Nathalie de Ville (Geraldine Chaplin). Rachel has gone and re-married low-level heavy Bertram (a terrific John Lone), and Bertram's one of the violent, jealous types who doesn't like arbitraries ogling his girl. Suffice to say it becomes complicated since Bertram married someone else's girl. Oops.

Rudolph's film studies the tapestry that inspired Hemingway's A Moveable Feast. The creative decision to craft Kevin J. O'Connor as an angry and spiteful caricature of Hemingway shepherds the film in a particular tonal direction - even as Keith Carradine's Nick pushes back against the tide. Carradine's an anchor, as always, but the supporting cast, also featuring Wallace Shawn and Genevieve Bujold, provide a richness of character that fills in the gaps in narrative. Stopping short of making this a true document to the Lost Generation, Rudolph seems content to allow his characters to wander in and out of scenes, occasionally stumbling upon something resonant. It's not top-tier Rudolph, but it's interesting and organic in places where Woody Allen's similarly styled Midnight in Paris felt glossy and convenient.
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Hot to Trot (Michael Dinner, 1988)
No part of this movie makes sense. That brand of assertion gets tossed around rather cavalierly, but let's actually talk about the logic (or lack thereof) displayed in Hot to Trot. Idiot son Fred (Bobcat Goldthwait) inherits half a brokerage and a talking horse. Much to the dismay of heinous stepfather (a buck-toothed Dabney Coleman). Talking horse (voiced by John Candy) gives idiot son stock tips and as a result idiot son gets filthy rich, moves into a luxury condo, puts his hair in a ponytail and turns into Little Richard on the piano. Horse tells idiot son to buy stock in oat company. (An oat company!?) Oats turn out to be contaminated, company goes bankrupt. Idiot son abandons brokerage, decides to race his talking horse in order to get back in the red. WHAT DOES HORSE RACING HAVE TO DO WITH THIS? Idiot son bets horse against Dabney Coleman's horse and all his other horses. So. If he wins the race, he doesn't get rich or successful - he gets more horses. WHAT? Oh and Virginia Madsen is Bobcat's love interest, which makes as much sense as anything else.

It might not be the wisest career move to champion a legendary stinker like Hot to Trot, but goddammit, I've already celebrated Leonard Part 6 on this blog, so I can't annihilate my critical reputation any further. I enjoy the illogic of making Bobcat a leading man in any movie. I enjoy how little John Candy seems to care about voicing Don the horse. It fits the ambition of the decrepit nag. Burgess Meredith as the voice of Don's dad, plus awkward and not entirely well conceived Rocky references. It's Francis the Taking Mule meets The Secret of My Success meets A Day at the Races. Great pedigree but the polar opposite of hybrid vigor. Hot to Trot clearly has no aspirations other than creating a decadent 80's playspace for Bobcat Goldthwait. Nothing about this film is reasonable or logical. It goes out of its way to show how little it cares about the expectations of humans that have seen a competently constructed movie. I wish there were more movies that cared enough to care as little as Hot to Trot. It's very refreshing in an era of big budget ultra high-gloss tent-pole cinema.
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The Couch Trip (Michael Ritchie, 1988)
Escaped mental patient/adult delinquent John Burns (Aykroyd) poses as psychiatrist Dr. Lawrence Baird (Clennon) on a talk radio show and speaks frankly about sex and mental illness and becomes instant success. Meanwhile, a real mental case, Donald Becker (Matthau), spots the crazy in "Dr. Baird" and threatens to reveal the true identity of the overnight sensation. Lighthearted skewering of the mental health industry shepherded by an A-list 1988 cast of lead and supporting players Aykroyd, Matthau, Grodin, Mary Gross and David Clennon. Not one of Ritchie's toothiest films, but a brisk pace and subversive wit carry this film into the underrated category of 80's comedies - a place where Ritchie has set up permanent residence. Was there a more adept comedic director in the 1970's and 80's than Michael Ritchie?

Walter Matthau, playing an alternate timeline Morris Buttermaker, sucks the jelly out of donuts with a straw then proclaims to the crowd, "These are ready." Also the moment when John Burns calls his psychiatrist a "puffed up smidgen of blowfish shit." The movie just has a way with words. I cannot comprehend how this movie became such a perceived stinker.
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The In Crowd (Mark Rosenthal, 1988)
Joe Pantoliano plays a 1960's TV teen dance party emcee. That should at least pique your interest in this totally obscure gem directed by the screenwriter of The Legend of Billie Jean, Superman IV and Star Trek VI. The film remains, perhaps unjustly, Rosenthal's only directorial credit.

The In Crowd is an earnest and entertaining film about teenage love and optimism at the dawn of the rock and roll era. That it was never released on DVD probably has to do with its soundtrack (or a lawsuit brought against the movie by Philadelphia disc jockey Jerry Blavat that was settled before theatrical release), which features dozens of 1960's chart-toppers that might have caused licensing trouble for home video release.

Promising high schooler Del (Donovan Leitch) dreams of appearing as a dancer on "Perry Parker's Dance Party." Despite being mocked by his friends and stepsister (sexual tension between these two, oy) for even considering such a thing, he sneaks on set and into a show recording. It turns out he can cut a serious rug and slips in as the partner of dream girl Vicky (played by Daisy Runyon, she of the ESP scene in Ghostbusters). The two become romantically entangled while her Fonzie-like former boyfriend and dance partner (Dugan) looms over their courtship.

At a crossroads in the film, Del's friend Popeye clarifies a choice bit of subtext. "Dancing or fighting. What's the difference, right?" This leads us to the scene that best represents the film's tone. The angry Dugan confronts Del in his home. The film had been leading us toward certain fisticuffs, but instead of bloody knuckles the two teenagers engage is a righteous and unexpected living room dance battle. In many ways it's a double slice of nostalgia. Though the film lusts over the rock and roll 60's, it's a fully realized 80's film in terms of form and fun. Some might quibble over the lack of closure, but that would have undermined The In Crowd's message that even if the show ends, the rock and roll goes on.
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Bonus picks and previously plugged on other lists:
Things Change (David Mamet, 1988)

Clean and Sober (Glenn Gordon Caron, 1988)

Vibes (Ken Kwapis, 1988)

Tapeheads (Bill Fishman, 1988)

Remote Control (Jeff Lieberman, 1988)

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