Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '88 - Everett Jones ""

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Underrated '88 - 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!

Alan Rudolph's film about Lost Generation-era Paris is probably one of the best yet made on the subject, despite not even being filmed there, let alone having the lush production values of something like MIDNIGHT IN PARIS. As a rule, movies about real-life authors, artists, and other people famous for something they can't easily be shown doing onscreen have a significant hurdle to clear, but Rudolph's typically sly, half- puckishly joking, half-romantically sincere sensibility sidesteps the problem of inauthenticity by making that sense of artificiality , of calling one actor "Ernest Hemingway" and another "Gertrude Stein", into a major theme of his movie. Filming in period but not necessarily Parisian-looking sections of Montreal, using B&W newsreel street footage in place of costly crowd scenes, and overlaying everything with Mark Isham's jazzy but not '20s-jazzy score, Rudolph doesn't ask us to take his fictional tale as a literal take on a long-ago time.
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I'm not much of an Oliver Stone fan, even though--questionable historiography and political associations aside--he's in many ways a model for what big-budget Hollywood directors should be, combining engagement with real-world events and themes, surefire crowdpleasing instincts, and huge amounts of technical prowess. It's just that, unlike with his onetime teacher, Scorsese, I've never sensed much control over all that technique. The exception is this comparative chamber piece, in which the setting is so confined--a Dallas radio station--and storyline so compressed, that Stone's usual flashiness can't help but be more purposeful, focused, and, well, directed than usual. He's helped by one of the best lead performances in any of his movies, Eric Bogosian's as a "shock jock" . The script (originating in Bogosian's stage play) is hardly a one-man show--his costars include Alec Baldwin, John Pankow (of both MONKEY SHINES and TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A.), and the underused Ellen Greene--but it almost plays like one in the memory, with its portrait of an antihero who grows increasingly alienated from both his listeners and himself over the course of the story.
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When Don Coscarelli's memoir, TRUE INDIE, comes out this October from St. Martin's Books, his many fans are going to be reminded anew of the sheer joy in filmmaking exhibited by this veteran genre director, a rare director whose enthusiasm never seems to have dimmed. I was a little surprised to read, in skimming through this movie's Letterboxd page, that many people seem to consider it a misstep, an overly slick Universal-produced retread with none of the independent, 1979 original's scrappy charm. But to me, what's striking about PHANTASM II is less its big-studio origins than its status as, reportedly, Universal's last production for under $5 million. In other words, it's still pretty scrappy, and retains a certain B-movie quality, even as Coscarelli opts for more straight-ahead, action-movie-type plotting in place of the first film's meandering and dreamlike plotting. But it takes the same pleasure in transforming the un-Hollywoodish characters' everyday lives into the stuff of big-screen adventure; only here, instead of a sensitive small-town drama about two brothers' relationship turning into the stuff of campfire horror stories and trippy sci-fi paperbacks, Coscarelli has his everyman protagonists--sensitive young Mike and prematurely balding ice cream man/aspiring songwriter Reggie--into the stars of their very own late '80s action movie, complete with oversized guns and spectacular fireballs.
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At one point during one of last year's most acclaimed movies, the B&W dream sequence in the undeniably beautiful and meticulously crafted THE SHAPE OF WATER, I found myself wishing, sacrilegiously, that I could be watching instead the B&W dream sequence in this earlier, very different take on the Beauty and the Beast story. Sex Pistols documentarian Julien Temple's box-office bomb still seems to be largely regarded as a campy '80s oddity, something best suited to providing clips for VH1 "I Love the '80s"-type deals. But I've always found this odd, silly little movie delightful, and even a bit smarter than it's typically given credit for. The absurd storyline, which reunites THE FLY costars and real-life couple Geena Davis and Jeff Goldblum as, respectively, a lovelorn Los Angeles beautician and a blue, furry, off-course extraterrestrial, really serves just as a pretext for the British director's amused takedown of Southern California lifestyle fads and American pop culture in general. And this is delivered as a full-blown musical comedy, with a score from Chic's Nile Rodgers, and an eye-poppingly colorful widescreen palette reminiscent, for me at least, of director Frank Tashlin's 1950s CinemaScope classics. Temple rarely if ever had the chance to work on such a big scale again, but there's a sense of unfettered visual invention in both this and his previous ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS that makes me regret we aren't still getting big releases from him every year.
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The poster art's lurid image of a straight razor-wielding, decidedly ill-tempered-looking toy monkey seemed ubiquitous on videostore shelves back in the VHS era, so it was surprising to discover this George Romero effort wasn't a hit at the time. But it was also a surprise, and a more pleasant one, to discover how well it balances the expected murderous primate action with well-observed moments of character-based drama. The late horror legend styles the screenplay, co-written with Michael Stewart, as a variation on the hoary HANDS OF ORLAC scenario. Here, instead of the maimed protagonist being outfitted with a murderously disobedient new hand, he's an athlete rendered quadriplegic in a training accident, and then gifted with a hyper-loyal, but murderously jealous, monkey assistant. Romero acts as though we don't know this is a horror movie--as though we haven't seen that terrifying poster--treating the first half of the film in a manner more akin to a TV movie-of-the-week about the struggles of an athlete. Unlike in the other entries into the late '80s fleeting apesploitation wave, LINK and SHAKMA, we have to wait until near the end to get any of the hominid mayhem we signed up for. It seemed an odd and even inexplicable choice to me initially, but on more reflection, a rewarding one. Romero was unusual among horror specialists for his seeming investment in his characters, no matter how broadly drawn, as real people, and his patient approach here results in a movie just as involving with a straight razor-wielding monkey offscreen as on.
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