Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '88 - Jon Abrams ""

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Underrated '88 - Jon Abrams

Jon Abrams is the New York-based writer, cartoonist, and committed cinemaniac who currently runs Daily Grindhouse. A list of his complete work and credits can be found at his site, Demon’s Resume, if you’re interested in that kind of thing. You can contact him directly and relatively promptly on Twitter as @JonZilla__.

1988 was a big year for me, in terms of movies. Almost every year of my life has been, of course, but 1988 is the first one where I really have very clear memories of getting the chance to hit up the theaters on a real regular basis, seeing everything I could, from BIG to BEETLEJUICE. I would have been eleven then, and just beginning to go movie crazy. There’s something special about that time of life for a cinemaniac like me, and I imagine you can relate. A few of my favorite films of all time came out that year, although I have to admit I didn’t necessarily see them on their first theatrical run. I was still relying on VHS and HBO and Up All Night if I wanted to see any of the movies I supposedly shouldn’t have been seeing at that age. I’ll mention some of those here, though I’ll try my best to spare you my thoughts about widely-acknowledged genre classics like THEY LIVE or DIE HARD, because you can read about movies like those anyplace they run words about movies. Hopefully I can highlight a few that don’t get quite as much attention.

Thirteen years after playing a heavy in FRIDAY FOSTER, Carl Weathers took his turn as the hero in the title. What would happen if Pam Grier’s AIP Films got a steroid injection from Silver Pictures? This. This is what would happen. ACTION JACKSON is certainly less progressive a film than I’d like it to be, but it gets one major thing right in the fact that it offers a lead performance from Carl Weathers. In my opinion there’s no way to look at PREDATOR or the ROCKY films and then fail to come away with the opinion that this guy deserved to be a much bigger star. He’s a treasure. (And still is!) I also wish Vanity could have had a much different career, but life is full of disappointments. Back at the positive, ACTION JACKSON is the feature debut of director Craig R. Baxley, who is a name that really should be better known, if only as a stunt coordinator and second-unit director on some of the finest action films and TV series ever (i.e. THE WARRIORS, PREDATOR). Right after ACTION JACKSON he made DARK ANGEL (aka I COME IN PEACE) and STONE COLD, which are not films taken seriously by more serious critics, but which are sterling examples of how to capably direct excellent stuntwork. It’s an art that is almost entirely under-discussed. (Check out the book Stuntwomen by Mollie Gregory!)
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Somebody had the idea to cast Kris Kristofferson and Susan Tyrrell as a married couple who run a circus sideshow. Is there a Pulitzer Prize for casting decisions? No offense to Pee-Wee, this movie is fine (though not at the god-level of PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE), but I want to see the spinoff movie where Kris Kristofferson and Susan Tyrrell travel the country with a bunch of weirdos. Maybe it’s playing in a far happier, entirely flawless alternate universe.
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Have to admit I didn’t foresee a time where I’d have to become a Clint Eastwood apologist. He was undervalued by the critical establishment at the start of his directing career (before my time), and then he became an American icon, as much for his work behind the camera as in front of it (that’s about when I came in). Nowadays I rarely notice anyone discussing any Eastwood films other than maybe UNFORGIVEN, but that isn’t his only masterwork. I understand that he alienated many younger people by backing the wrong horse in 2012, but I really do feel like with Clint, sometimes the values of his art appear to diverge from his stated politics. In 1988 there weren’t many big-name American filmmakers making movies with primarily black casts, but there Clint was. He didn’t have to make this movie. He could have made a DIRTY HARRY sequel. (Well, technically he did make a DIRTY HARRY sequel that year, but this is the 1988 Clint film he directed himself.) People can be complicated. BIRD is an abundance of riches, spotlighting as it does a brilliant cast of black actors including Forest Whitaker, Keith David, Bill Cobbs, Tony Todd, Samuel Wright, John Witherspoon, and Tony Cox (apropos of nothing except maybe the breadth of their talents, the latter two constitute about a third of the cast of FRIDAY). Famously a fan of jazz, Clint made BIRD as a passion project, not out of any evident box-office concerns. We don’t get too many overtly personal statements from this particular filmmaker, who’s kind of a shorthand symbol for playing it close to the vest, but you can usually tell that a movie means something special to Clint when it’s to do with music. If I can’t say anything else to get you to give this movie another look, it’s gorgeously photographed by hall-of-fame cinematographer Jack Green (UNFORGIVEN).
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In 1987, John Fasano -- the writer -- brought you ZOMBIE NIGHTMARE . In 1987, John Fasano -- the director --brought you ROCK ‘N’ ROLL NIGHTMARE, and there’s was really no other way for John Fasano to follow up that double bill in 1988 than with BLACK ROSES, which is definitely a movie where a heavy-metal band turns into monsters and performs heavy metal as monsters. It’s everything we were warned about in 1988. There are also demonic puppets and an early performance by a promising ingénue named Vincent Pastore, who later came to fame as “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero on The Sopranos.
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One of the great horror remakes, not just of the 1980s. Instinctively I’m against remakes – come up with your own damn idea! – but every time I get down on remakes, I think about something like THE BLOB ’88, which feels born of love for THE BLOB ’58, but which also reflects the uniqueness of its own decade: The gore, the ruthlessness, the rope-a-dope fakeout of the lead characters (you think the football player is going to be the star and then nope, it’s the cheerleader and the oddball), the music, the mullets, the overwhelming pink of it all. People rightly talk about THE THING or THE FLY when they mention the great remakes of the 1980s, but to leave out THE BLOB would be a major oversight, and come on, there’s always room for Jell-O. (Forgive me.)
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This is not a good movie – it was not one in 1988, and it’s maybe looking even less like one now – but I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was important. It’s a slasher movie starring Betsy Russell (PRIVATE SCHOOL, AVENGING ANGEL), Lucinda Dickey (BREAKIN’ 2, NINJA III), Lorie Griffin (Pamela from TEEN WOLF), and Rebecca Ferratti (who it turns out is that woman who kisses Martin Short goodbye at the end of THREE AMIGOS!, although I didn’t have IMDb to tell me that back then.) This to me is a line-up like the 1986 Mets, only cuter. Throw in George “Buck” Flower and that’s a lethal dose of lusciousness.
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“Why don’t you have any foreign films on your list?” LADY TERMINATOR is a film from Indonesia which is truly fascinating, because it doesn’t become a ripoff of TERMINATOR until the latter half of the movie. It begins in the distant past, and plays more like a fairy tale than a sci-fi action movie. It’s about a siren who kills unsuspecting victims not with guns, but with her private parts. (This is apparently in line with the mythology of Indonesian culture.) It’s not until long after the she-demon has possessed a modern-day scholar that she accumulates the arsenal you see on the poster and starts shooting at literally everything. I guess you could say that much like the lead character is transformed into a killing machine, so too does the movie itself begin as one thing and then morph into a totally different, arguably less interesting thing. Only I’d argue that there’s absolutely nothing uninteresting about this movie. Check it out if you can find it.
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The sequels are arguably even crazier but the original is pretty wonderful, and look at that cast list: Tom Atkins, Bruce Campbell, Laurene Landon, Richard Roundtree, William Smith, Sheree North, and Robert Z’Dar. I mean, it’s about time we carved some more heads into Mount Rushmore, don’t you think?
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I know up at the top I promised not to talk about any of 1988’s widely-acknowledged genre classics like THEY LIVE or DIE HARD, and I surely think this one qualifies, but I don’t feel like MIDNIGHT RUN gets talked about nearly as much as it should, considering how it’s one of the best things to ever happen in America. All respect to George Gallo for writing the thing. Talk about underrated! Much as I love Martin Brest’s work due to BEVERLY HILLS COP, this is far and away a finer movie, with one of the best ensemble casts ever ensembled (think I meant ‘assembled’). Depending on how you classify THE KING OF COMEDY and his role in BRAZIL, this was Robert De Niro’s most overtly comic role yet at this point in time, and he’s never been better. The beauty of it is that it wouldn’t be so funny if he didn’t play it so believably. Charles Grodin driving him crazy wouldn’t be nearly as fun if you didn’t also buy into all the bits about his ex-wife. That’s how life works – lunacy lives next to loss. And there are some amazing lunatics in this movie. John Ashton as Marvin Dorfler is just one of the most brilliant idiots in movie history (John Ashton is underrated as it gets on this earth), Joe Pantoliano is more here Joe Pantoliano than ever, and as the heavy, we have Dennis Farina -- but don’t get me started on how great he is in this movie and everywhere else or we’ll be here all day. MIDNIGHT RUN is so perfect that it not only inspired an entire subgenre (most recently redone in HOT PURSUIT with Reese Witherspoon as Robert De Niro and Sofía Vergara as Charles Grodin), but also an entire Paul Thomas Anderson film (SYDNEY aka HARD EIGHT plays even better the more familiar you are with Philip Baker Hall’s character here.) Essential, and I don’t care how highly rated it may be, it’s still underrated.
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Finishing out my list without much of a bang, here’s a movie that isn’t particularly great, but it’s an entertaining, moody, horny, schlocky thriller from director Janet Greek, definitely the sort of thing I wasn’t supposed to be watching in the middle of the night in the late 1980s. It’s certainly still worth watching for fans of Tim Daly and/or Kelly Preston, not to mention the countless fans of Rick Rossovich (STREETS OF FIRE, TOP GUN, ROXANNE), who was in literally half the movies of the 1980s and who evidently, like Rumpelstiltskin, entirely ceased to exist the moment 1991 rolled around. Do you count NAVY SEALS (1990) as an ‘eighties movie? When does a decade officially start? Did grunge kill metal? Does metal really turn human beings into monsters? That’s got to be a conversation for another place, another time. I see the Sandman coming with his broom, so I’m splitting. Peace!
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