Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '88 - John Cribbs ""

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Underrated '88 - John Cribbs

John Cribbs is the co-founder and head writer of The Pink Smoke (, where for the last 10 years he's offered a spirited defense of Robert Altman's QUINTET, passionately extolled what he feels to be the most underrated killer rat movie and delved into the seedy underworld of movie novelizations. Feel free to hit him up on Twitter at @thepinksmoke or @thelastmachine and hey, if you feel like watching SNEAKERS he's always up for it.

Check out his Underrated '98 list here:

1988 was a big movie year for me. I requested permission of my parents, being a proudly independent 9-year-old, to see my first solo movie in the theater: a film of my choice called BEETLEJUICE (my younger siblings joined my folks at the re-release of THE FOX AND THE HOUND). Even at the time I appreciated what a giant step up this viewing was from sitting through POLICE ACADEMY 5: ASSIGNMENT: MIAMI BEACH (a sequel so huge its title needed TWO colons) only a couple weeks earlier. I had entered a new age of maturity, one where the relationship between myself and the film playing on the screen had become something more intimate, what I took from the movie something more sacred. Of course I immediately abused said independence a month later by getting in trouble at school for bragging to classmates that I saw boobs in 18 AGAIN!, proving that responsible film appreciation doesn't happen overnight.

TIME OF THE GYPSIES (dir. Emir Kusturica)
The late Jim Ridley once brilliantly observed, "Emir Kusturica's UNDERGROUND is, among other things, the first movie about the collapse of the former Yugoslavia that you could recommend wholeheartedly to a Three Stooges fan." That's an accurate description, and by the same token the director's earlier masterpiece TIME OF THE GYPSIES is the most joyous coming-of-age romantic comedy ever made about surviving the world's overbearing cruelty and misery. Kusturica translates the downtrodden existence of a young Romani man forced into a life of crime through the temperment of a silent comedy - one character even does a Charlie Chaplin impression - while sprinkling such mystical elements as telekinesis and floating bodies into the mix. While it's one of the best examples of magical realism on film (an ideal double-feature pairing would be Vittorio De Sica's MIRACLE IN MILAN), GYPSIES never gets lost in revelry or loses sight of the social and political barriers that frustrate its characters: a house suspended in midair as if by magic means homelessness for the family inside. Although Kusturica won Best Director at Cannes, this film has yet to see a North American release on disc.
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PAPERHOUSE (dir. Bernard Rose)
'88 was a good year for child protagonists in mature, atmospheric horror movies. While Lukas Haas had to deal with cryptic ghosts in LADY IN WHITE and Joey Lawrence battled electricity in PULSE, Charlotte Burke dove into a series of fever dreams to save a sick boy living inside her drawings in PAPERHOUSE. Which is not really a horror movie, but an intensely sinister phantasmagoria loosely based on Catherine Storr's exceptional novel Marianne Dreams and brought to screen by the vastly underrated Bernard Rose. It may even turn some viewers off that the danger in PAPERHOUSE is vague and hallucinatory, but that's part of what makes it amazing: the menace grips the entire movie in its fist, so that you recognize the dread - child abuse, abandonment, sickness, death - even when they're only alluded to by the abstract visuals. It's immensely satisfying also to see the anxieties of childhood treated with such empathy and candor, given that the decade was filled with condescending, whimsical "kid adventure" films. It's not easy to capture the chimerical worldview of a child on film (Neil Jordan's THE BUTCHER BOY is another successful example), but Rose delivers a dark fantasy about how a young girl interprets the world around her and ultimately takes control of it.
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FRANTIC (dir. Roman Polanski)
A suitcase mix-up. A missing woman. A phone number on a matchbox. A Maguffin. A dead body in the second act. A beautiful woman who's trouble. Cops who do little more than get in the way. Every plot element screams Hitchcock, but Polanski subverts them all in his willingness to spend the first 40 minutes of the movie on mundane struggles with various bureaucracies. So instead of experiencing nail-biting tension over what might be happening to Harrison Ford's kidnapped wife, we watch as Ford borrows a phone book and flips through the yellow pages to find the number of a gym where a guy who might have seen his wife leave their hotel is said to be working out. And it's enthralling! Just as some of the greatest jokes ever told are anti-jokes, FRANTIC is a phenomenal that also has lots of really great jokes! (Mostly visual gags conceived by Polanski and his writing partner, the great Gérard Brach.)

This is easily Harrison Ford's most underrated movie (it's typically referred to as that *other* movie where he plays a surgeon who loses his wife) and might be his best non-franchise performance. His frustration is palpable as he staggers trying to solve his wife's disappearance, fighting jet lag, running into language barriers, getting second hand information that was probably bullshit in the first place - during his investigation, he accidentally makes a drug deal in a bathroom! Equally captivating is Emmanuelle Seigner as a streetwise smuggler who just wants to collect her money. Polanski has never made a bad movie with Seigner, and while FRANTIC isn't as great as BITTER MOON or THE NINTH GATE, it's a thrilling return to form following his embarrassing studio foray PIRATES. It's a light movie with a fun, jazzy Ennio Morricone score that still manages to hit some dark and downbeat notes, a balance that would have been impossible for anyone but Polanski to pull off.
FRANTIC did get name-dropped in Ottessa Moshfegh's new book; hopefully, this will lead to a universal reappraisal.Amazon Button (via

AMSTERDAMNED (dir. Dick Maas)
"AMSTERDAMNED, the new Dutch thriller, is pretty much the movie equivalent of lint," wrote Washington Post staff writer Hal Hinson when the film was released in America. Like lint, the movie has gotten lost between the couch cushions of cinematic history, though the VHS with the film's brilliant title emblazoned on its cover adorned many a video store back in the day. It deserves to be rediscovered, because come on - how many movies can you think of where cops are in pursuit of an underwater serial killer? Using the famed canals of the Dutch capital, this scuba psycho drags unsuspecting citizens into the murky water and leaves their corpses dangling from the bridges for tourist boats to discover. It's going to take a hardened cop to bring this aquamaniac to justice, or get turned into fish food in the process. Come for the boat chase (a thrilling homage/attempt to one-up the classic boat chase from the 1971 Dutch film PUPPET ON A CHAIN), but stay for the eponymous theme song in the closing credits by pop duo Loïs Lane.
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PATTY HEARST (dir. Paul Schrader) and PATTI ROCKS (dir. David Burton Morris)
Schrader hit one out of the park this year with FIRST REFORMED, hopefully earning himself a career reassessment from audiences who may have given up on him years ago. And while his telling of the kidnapping and reinvention of heiress Patricia Hearst into a counter-culture terrorist is definitely second-tier below classics like BLUE COLLAR or MISHIMA, it's a very solid effort and more an interesting curio than a bland biopic. Part of an unofficial mid-80's "caged women" trilogy about females breaking free of their oppressors that includes CAT PEOPLE and LIGHT OF DAY (Joan Jett's character in that film was even named Patti), this film finds the king of weaponized male existentialism in unfamiliar territory. Schrader clearly has trouble figuring out Patty Hearst - he's said he even considered switching the point-of-view of the film to that of Donald DeFreeze, Heart's kidnapper - and his frustration turns the film into a unique experiment. The first third of the movie feels like an experimental film, keeping the kidnapped Patty in darkness in a closet and behind a blindfold while her faceless captors come and go. It's fascinating watching Schrader try to understand this woman.

People often credit a certain kind of American independent film - sparse, profane, angsty, dialogue-driven psychological explorations of human connection and the white male ego - as starting with Soderbergh's SEX LIES & VIDEOTAPE in 1989. I'd argue that it actually started a year before with PATTI ROCKS (well technically, it started with John Cassavetes, but it *evolved* into this). Due to its relative obscurity, it's hard to even really place this film within the indie movement, but its origin is an undistributed film called LOOSE ENDS that Morris had directed 13 years earlier. John Jenkins and the great Chris Mulkey revive their characters from the 1975 film, two down-on-their-luck blue collar schmoes who set off on an overnight road trip through freezing Wisconsin to convince Mulkey's pregnant mistress, played by Karen Landry, not to have the baby. The all-too-familiar male prattling and playful chauvinism of the first half hits a wall when they arrive at their destination and find themselves outmatched by Landry's battle-hardened durability. Mulkey and Landry are both great, if I have one complaint, it's that John Jenkins is only ok as Eddie (I would have loved to see someone like David Strathairn in this role) but all three are credited for writing the screenplay with Morris, so obviously everyone contributed to creating this unjustly neglected little film.

By the way: my use of the term "blue collar" was arbitrary, that wasn't me trying to force a comparison between PATTI ROCKS and the very different work of Paul Schrader. Schrader's movie is about him trying to understand a woman; Morris's film is about men who think they understand women only to find out they don't know shit.
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THINGS CHANGE (dir. David Mamet)
Coming off his very Mametian directorial debut HOUSE OF GAMES, David Mamet enlisted the help of Shel Silverstein(!) to write this not-very Mametian story of quiet cobbler Don Ameche being whisked away by low-level hood Joe Mantegna to a glamorous weekend in Lake Tahoe before he takes a dive for a mafia chieftain. Mistaken for a big shot gangster, Ameche is treated like royalty by the resort staff and given free rein to live it up for once in his life. I would challenge anyone not to be charmed by this sleeper that feels like a refreshing take on Golden Age Hollywood comedy - its funniest moments evoke the "king for a day" hijinks of EASY LIVING and CHRISTMAS IN JULY and the mistaken identity angle channels HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO. And like those classics, THINGS CHANGE finds its humor in how much of the organized world is a delicate facade that can be easily spun into chaos by innocent misunderstandings, and how even the most mild-mannered of men can positively effect those around him. While it lacks the verbal dexterity that flowed effortlessly from the pen of Preston Sturges, the movie is bolstered by the chemistry between its two leads, Mantegna providing his disgraced wiseguy (being slowly crushed by the world) an unruffled confidence while Ameche (resigned to his place in the world) portrays weariness and wisdom in his quiet facial expressions.
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STORY OF WOMEN (dir. Claude Chabrol)
This movie is so great, it's actually difficult to compare it to other films (particularly Mike Leigh's merely excellent, similarly-plotted VERA DRAKE). It's not often that a filmmaker and an actor perfectly communicate everything they want to say in a movie without any of it seeming forced or overworked, but that's what Chabrol and Huppert achieve with STORY OF WOMEN, which makes it genuinely hard to accept regular, perfectly-fine, run-of-the-mill movies when this one exists! Huppet plays a French housewife and mother who survives the Occupation by performing illegal back alley abortions. She's so successful in her endeavor that she begins to embrace her new criminal life, and her downfall becomes an achingly sad representation of the evils of collaboration and moral decay that corrupted France during the war. But moreso it really is a story of what it's like to be a woman who fights for her own territory in a senseless world only to be punished for her determination and self-reliance. Huppert is phenomenal of course, perfectly balancing the character's strength and ambiguity. That STORY OF WOMEN is one of the best films to be found in Chabrol's 60+ film catalog is indisputable; that it isn't constantly brought up in discussions of best films ever is outrageous.
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THE WRONG GUYS (dir. Danny Bilson)
Here's the pitch: four stand-up comedians are paired with the cast of ZONE TROOPERS and sent into the wilderness for some camping tomfoolery. Not sold? I don't blame you. Of this list, this is the only movie I actually saw in 1988 and I confess my fondness is largely based on nostalgia. But dammit, I loved it then and I love it now. I can honestly say you will never see a better movie with Louie Anderson, Richard Lewis, Richard Belzer, Tim Thomerson and Franklyn Ajaye as grown former cub scouts who reunite to conquer the mountain that humiliated them as kids. As a bonus we've got underrated character actor Biff Manard paired up with the legendary Brion James, both of whom shine during an epic battle with a sadistic squirrel. And why not add John Goodman at his most psychotic, playing an escaped criminal hiding out on the mountain who goes gunning for our hapless campers? Mad shenanigans ensue as ZONE TROOPERS team Bilson & De Meo, who would go on to develop the Flash TV show and write the screenplay for THE ROCKETEER, prove to be the Lennon & McCartney of cub scout reunion comedies. Completely ignored upon release (it was certainly more deserving of a bizarre, dismissive Allan Sherman-parodying Roger Ebert review than WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER), I've lived long enough to see this film become the target of various "movie goof" type podcasts, where a group of dudes yuck it up and laugh about how bad it is. It makes me sad - it's a really fun movie.

Its only flaw is that it's not TAPEHEADS.
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SteveQ said...

I loved Patti Rocks and have never been able to find the earlier film Loose Ends. I just discovered that the director's from St. Paul and also did the cheap horror film "The Meateater," which I've reviewed, making him the third St. Paul director of schlock after Ted Mikels and Andy Milligan.

Robert M. Lindsey said...

Things Change is a wonderful movie. I'm glad to see listed.