Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Film Discoveries of 2018 - Mike Drew Flynn ""

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Film Discoveries of 2018 - Mike Drew Flynn

Mike Drew Flynn busted out of New Jersey for Los Angeles, where the passion for film is commonplace rather than a gift. That’s a good thing. He currently writes for Andersonvision and Cult Spark, and for him, that’s just getting started with his life in town.

A preface: 2018 was a year that I discovered a lot of classic films that, in my opinion, warrant no words. Here is that list, before the good parts:

In a Lonely Place (1950, dir. Nicholas Ray) 
Sweet Smell of Success (1957, dir. Alexander Mackendrick) 
All That Jazz (1979, dir. Bob Fosse) 
The In-Laws (1979, dir. Arthur Hiller) 
Wings of Desire (1988, dir. Wim Wenders) 
Dave (1993, dir. Ivan Reitman) 

The Night Stalker (1972, dir. John Llewellyn Moxey)
I’ve talked on this site before about the concept of “slasher noir,” where the vantage point is switched to that of the investigator. I’d argue that this—the famous introduction to Darren McGavin’s crusty but tenacious Carl Kolchak—is the trendsetter of that movement. How this got by on regular television in 1972, I have no idea. Usually, the phrase “TV movie” indicates a joke of sorts, cheap melodrama to appease viewers two or three nights a week. As a horror film, The Night Stalker is masterfully lurid and disturbing, but it’s the focus on Kolchak and the cops he drives up a wall in finding the truth that best informs its power. Even the concept of vampirism has a sobering glimmer of reality to it where a killer like this could exist. That I didn’t catch on to this one sooner is a shame.
Amazon Button (via

Night of the Juggler (1980, dir. Robert Butler)
Nostalgia for 1970’s New York is a confusing phenomenon. For one, why would you long for the days where Times Square’s population was 60 percent muggers? Even today’s Times Square, years removed from 9/11 and Giuliani, is a nightmare with its penthouse chain restaurants and bootleg superheroes, but at least James Brolin’s daughter doesn’t get kidnapped. As such, the father of Thanos bulldozes his way through slums, subways, porn theaters, and a young Dan Hedaya to get his kid to safety. Much like similar action films of the era, it’s so sleazy that you need to shower and brush your teeth afterward. It’s conventional in plot, but it’s effectively what would now be a Liam Neeson vehicle set in the New York of Abel Ferrara films. Wait till you see the Freebie and the Bean-level car chase.

One of the joys of living in Los Angeles is that Iive less than 10 minutes from Eddie Brandt’s Saturday Matinee in North Hollywood, where tape rentals still rule supreme. This had to be the best one that has no disc release.
Amazon Button (via

2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984, dir. Peter Hyams)
Catching the Christopher Nolan-supervised 70mm print of 2001: A Space Odyssey last year inspired me to finally clear through Peter Hyams’ completely different but more accessible sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s space opera. Hyams, one of the great workmen of cinema, trades Kubrick’s surreal ambiguity for a conventional potboiler that grounds the events of 2001 in the Reagan leg of the Cold War. The result is as inspiring as before, with Roy Scheider, John Lithgow, Helen Mirren, and Bob Balaban perfectly cast. Further, I was surprised by how Hyams avoids conflict between the Americans and Russians, which benefits the investigative nature of the mission. It’s hard to call 2010 a better film due the difference in execution, but it’s certainly a more likely bet to revisit.
Amazon Button (via

True Stories (1986, dir. David Byrne)
Talking Heads is one of my favorite bands, so the fact that it took me over 15 years since I became a fan of them to see David Byrne’s sole directorial effort is a shock. Byrne’s ethereal portrait of Virgil, Texas, the epitome of Middle America, magnetizes from the moment the aggressive “Love for Sale” kicks in. There’s an argument to be made that True Stories falls squarely into the Tarantino theory of “hangout movies.” The A-story of John Goodman’s romance with agoraphobic Swoosie Kurtz certainly has weight, but Byrne’s main question to the viewer is to sit back, relax, and enjoy the characters. As for the presence of Talking Heads, the optimistic energy of their songs forms a perfect synergy with Barbara Ling’s production design and Ed Lachman’s cinematography. They give you the impression that, in spite of the fact that Virgil does not exist, this kind of timeless American town absolutely exists.

A side note: I still need to grab the Criterion disc for this, but I’m slightly disappointed that the film versions of the songs aren’t included. The version of “Wild Wild Life” here pops more due to the way Byrne’s vocals blend with the other singers.
Amazon Button (via

Wise Guys (1986, dir. Brian De Palma)
I went through a lot of De Palma movies in 2018, not only classics and discoveries but reappraisals. This maligned, hired-gun mob comedy was the real discovery. Maybe my weakness comes from being from New Jersey, but the film is a telling understanding of my home state’s deep flaws. Danny DeVito and Joe Piscopo have impenetrable chemistry as two urban losers that can’t rise to the occasion of the made men controlling New York’s outskirts. They’re emblematic of the state’s stereotype—too much honesty, not enough humility. Ergo, they screw up a gambling errand, max out mob boss Harvey Keitel’s credit card in Atlantic City, and get ordered to kill each other. The comedy occasionally goes too far out of orbit, and if De Palma’s name wasn’t there, you could spin the wheel and name any comedy journeyman of the era as director. However, it’s too heartwarming and fun to dismiss and never sets out as a game-changer, which is exactly why it succeeds. It even feels influential in that last year’s Ant-Man and the Wasp pairs a superhero IP with this kind of conceit, the sort of movie HBO would have played daily for two years.

If this is not Tony Soprano’s favorite movie, I am not convinced of this world.
Amazon Button (via

Fatal Beauty (1987, dir. Tom Holland)
For about a year, Hollywood tried to make Whoopi Goldberg an action star. While I have yet to see Burglar, Jumpin’ Jack Flash started the trend as a conventional comedy with predictably amped-up chaos via producer Joel Silver. However, it’s the final part of this trilogy that really blew me away. Originally written for Cher, horror stalwart Tom Holland took his sole trip outside the genre with this potboiler about L.A. cop Rita Rizzoli (Goldberg) tracking a tainted shipment of cocaine. It’s also a movie from 1987 where a black woman is the heroine. Whoopi is tremendous, throwing out amazing one-liners like “People like you are why abortion is legal!” The film works almost entirely on her persistent gusto and the surprisingly bleak backstory to her character that rivals Martin Riggs’ suicidal tendencies. She’s further surrounded by an enviable supporting cast—Sam Elliott, John P. Ryan, Ruben Blades, Cheech Marin, and the perfect mastermind-henchman combo of Harris Yulin and Brad Dourif.

Clearly, there’s an expectation that this is just a gender-flipped Beverly Hills Cop (right down to the Harold Faltermeyer score), but it’s proof that the right talent can raise the value of anything.
Amazon Button (via

The Decline of Western Civilization II: The Metal Years (1988, dir. Penelope Spheeris)
The first film is a raw, pulsating glimpse into a bygone Los Angeles where hardcore punk dominated the underground. Penelope Spheeris’ second, slicker, chapter is just as potent in showing the city’s past, but takes a more interpretive direction in capturing the big-hair heavy metal scene on the Sunset Strip. It’s easy to see why Spheeris won the job of directing Wayne’s World: while she has great passion for the movement, she is just as in tune with the lunkheaded side of things. Lemmy thought she humiliated him by throwing him into the Hills in a Canadian tuxedo with a Pepsi can, but it doesn’t hurt him… nor does she damage Ozzy Osbourne by staging the preparation of his slapdash hangover breakfast.

The real comedy is in the cult-like fans of the genre’s wild side and the deluded aspirations of its less talented rockers. What The Metal Years lacks in the grit of the original is made up for in the larger-than-life transition of the decade in rock, and for that, it’s the better film.
Amazon Button (via

Joe Versus the Volcano (1990, dir. John Patrick Shanley)
This is a longer one because my god, did this one hit home. It was likely a blessing that I waited until 30 to watch this existential romantic comedy/fantasy, which Groundhog Day and anything done by Charlie Kaufman or Spike Jonze would not exist without. I'd make the bold statement that this is the performance of Tom Hanks' career. Much was the case with Jim Carrey in The Truman Show or Bill Murray in (choose one of the following: Groundhog Day, Rushmore, Lost in Translation), this was the moment where Hanks proved farther potential than his run of comedies in the 80's. Big got him an Oscar nomination, but that one doesn't pull the heavy philosophical lifting that this does. How do you react to news of your impending death? How much of that bucket list do you truly want to clear up?

Warner Bros. marketed this as a light comedy, as you would with Steven Spielberg as executive producer and the Oscar-winning writer of Moonstruck making his directorial debut. However, its bizarre depiction of 9-to-5 life, the glamor of New York and Los Angeles, and the escapism of Hawaii plays like an optimist's Terry Gilliam without diluting the expressionist eye. Much credit goes to Bo Welch, who taps into a similar production aesthetic as he did with Beetlejuice two years prior.

I'd even argue Meg Ryan has never been better. She could have taken any rom-com after When Harry Met Sally... I'm glad she chose one that ingeniously demands multiple roles in ways I was never told.

There's an old-school wonder that separates it from the drier, darker films it (possibly) spearheaded. Not for that reason does it deserve more love. It's a great movie that will soothe your soul, and for me, the escapism that Hanks embarks on resonated with me deeper than ever as I planned to head for L.A.
Amazon Button (via

Dollman (1991, dir. Albert Pyun)
If Corman is the Thomas Edison of B-movies, then Charles Band is absolutely Donald Trump: gaudy, quantity over quality, and propelled by a glass-house mentality of success. Sure, he produced some great 80’s horror films… until the days of Full Moon. To this day, the studio still functions, but they’re most famous for homicidal puppets and their endearing but narcissistic “VideoZone” documentaries after the movie. The Marvel offices were never daily brainstorms where Stan Lee and Jack Kirby threw words together for the hell of it. Band’s ideology is like that. It’s all about the title and the concept. Like Dick Jones said of ED-209, who cares if it worked or not?

That Albert Pyun managed to make a movie about a foot-tall intergalactic cop that uses a gun the way Michael Jordan slam-dunks a basketball this entertaining astounds me. Dollman is the rare fleshed-out, compelling high concept that delivers. It’s easy to forget that Tim Thomerson, a stalwart of the Full Moon empire (heh), started out as a comedian. For god’s sake, the star of Trancers is friends with the likes of David Letterman and Richard Lewis. Brick Bardo is perhaps the one serious (if you can consider Full Moon “serious”) role he’s had in a movie like this that knows his roots. He’s sly, charming, and yes, dangerous. The plot is basically the same gang-from-hell trope that stuff like Death Wish 3 did (a pre-comeback Jackie Earle Haley is game as the villain), but this is a shining diamond in the rough.
Amazon Button (via

Steel and Lace (1991, dir. Ernest D. Farino)
If there’s an outright DISCOVERY I made in 2018, it’s this aggressively trashy, how-is-this-possible opus of cyborg tech, vengeance, and copious gore. It’s such trash that it should be a garbage fire, but what a beauty it is! Pianist Gaily Morton (Clare Wren) is raped and murdered by a group of men that are probably Donald Trump Jr.’s golfing buddies. Her brother, Albert (Bruce Davison), reprograms her corpse for revenge! I Spit on Your Grave, Frankenstein (or would this be Bride of Frankenstein?), RoboCop, The Terminator, Deadly Friend—this movie is so clearly a cash-in that you can smell it. But something about it surprised me. See, there’s a single-digit body count. A lot like, say, RoboCop, it’s the elaborate nature and absurdity of said kills that make the film. I hesitate to say what, exactly, happens, but it reminded me of Darkman and concepts that were rejected as too graphic for a Sega Genesis game in Japan.

It’s on Amazon Prime. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll agree that more rapists deserve to be acquainted with full-speed helicopter blades.
Amazon Button (via

Point of No Return (1993, dir. John Badham)
American audiences were captivated by Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita. Studios were captivated by remaking French films for mass consumption. It was inevitable that these would collide. To be controversial, this is better than Nikita. Besson’s film suffers from an uneven structure, the lack of a concrete antagonist, and a trigger-happy male gaze for his wife and star, Anne Parillaud. John Badham saw a pivot into action with Stakeout and followed up with the insufferable Bird on a Wire and the underrated The Hard Way. He takes the general beats and arc of Nikita (now Nina, played to the hilt by Bridget Fonda) and fills in the blanks. With recontextualization, this Americanization feels more inspired by Hong Kong than France. The drama and stakes are stronger. The action sequences are trying to emulate John Woo, but they feel more intense. Even the romantic subplot has more gravitas, likely due to the affable nature of Fonda and Dermot Mulroney.

I might stand alone on this one, but why not?
Amazon Button (via

No Contest (1995, dir. Paul Lynch)
No Contest is Die Hard at a beauty pageant. I’d been dying to see it for years and I’m pleased to report that it is possibly more absurd than what I expected. It’s unremarkable in terms of script and direction, with most of the heat coming from who is in it. Shannon Tweed stars in a role that Cynthia Rothrock likely declined, that of an action star hosting a beauty pageant in (I think) Atlantic City. Along comes Andrew Dice Clay as the film’s Hans Gruber, a loudmouthed thief posing as a terrorist (sound familiar?) who crashes the pageant to carry out a scheme that involves a senator’s-daughter pageant contestant, hacking, and diamonds. As if the novelty police hasn’t already taken a stranglehold, Roddy Piper plays his main henchman!

The one-two punch of Diceman and Hot Rod is a powerhouse of villainy, especially since The Adventures of Ford Fairlane and They Live have long been worshiped by me. The budget is wasted halfway through on flaming dummies and robot security machine guns, not to mention a host of absurd disguises that the Star is Born actor wears to conspire through his plot. As a bonus, Robert Davi is the cop on the outside looking to piece this all together. I also discovered that there is a sequel where Tweed faces off against Lance Henriksen and Bruce Payne, which I have been woefully unsuccessful in trying to find.
Amazon Button (via

Hollow Point (1996, dir. Sidney J. Furie)
Years ago, a good friend of mine here in L.A. and I met at college in New Jersey. We bonded over a mutual love of action movies, with this one being namedropped by him during a conversation about Ricochet. See, this direct-to-video diamond in the rough was lost in the shuffle of John Lithgow’s extraordinary run of villains in the 90’s. Here, he plays Thomas Livingston, a Trump/Lex Luthor-esque multi-millionaire attempting to bring unity to various crime organizations in Anytown USA (played by Montreal). Meanwhile, wild card FBI agent Thomas Ian Griffith gets in a pissing contest with DEA counterpart Tia Carrere about jurisdiction. Can they work in harmony to stop Livingston? That all hinges on their informant, a dandy bomber played by Donald Sutherland.

I can’t even begin to explain Sutherland’s performance. It’s very similar to his character in Backdraft… if he was doing an impression of Hanna-Barbera stalwart Snagglepuss. He’s aroused by explosions. He gives a monologue to Lithgow about how excited he is about an elaborate bomb that he created. Effectively, he’s the Leo Getz to Griffith and Carrere’s Riggs and Murtaugh and runs off with the movie.

The end result is 90’s action at its most ludicrous. Unlike your garden variety Schwarzenegger or Stallone vehicle, however, the cast is in on the joke and never bothers laboring for something profound. If they had gotten this into theaters, we’d have a bigger cult following for it.
Amazon Button (via

eXistenZ (1999, David Cronenberg)
This year, I was saddened to learn that The Matrix has aged quite poorly. Sure, there’s some good performances and magnetic action sequences, but the experience is bogged down by the screenplay’s overwrought exposition dumps. Not long after The Matrix, David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ came along. Left for dead theatrically, its cult status is profound but miniscule. Seeing this during Beyondfest’s extensive Cronenberg retrospective was a revelation. Outside of A History of Violence, this is the closest thing Cronenberg has made to a straightforward genre piece and an action-driven spiritual sequel to the anatomical tech-horror of Videodrome (which screened before this did). Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jude Law have playful chemistry as an ambitious gaming designer and her assistant trapped in her own virtual reality creation. Following the mid-90’s boom of cyberspace thrillers, eXistenZ retains all of the director’s unmistakable philosophies on science and psychosexuality while striving for a commercial approach—arguably a glimpse of what his version of Total Recall could have been.

It’s also eerily prophetic regarding the #MeToo movement and exposed toxicity of the gaming industry. Leigh’s Allegra Geller isn’t concerned with being a pioneer. She’s a shrewd professional that could care less what men think of her in an industry where her gender is wildly outnumbered. She drags us on the journey, with Ted Pikul (Law) as the audience surrogate, stupefied by the blurred reality. Tight, unpredictable, and ever visceral, eXistenZ is a fascinating commentary on how misunderstanding escapism is a corruptible mistake.
Amazon Button (via

Live from Baghdad (2002, dir. Mick Jackson)
The Gulf War was the first time in decades that a prolonged military conflict had worried—and then empowered—a nation. It was also the first time war came to cable television, which makes this HBO film’s focus all the more fascinating. Michael Keaton is brilliant as Robert Wiener, the ambitious CNN reporter who successfully convinced the cable news stalwart to cover the American invasion of Iraq on the frontlines. He has an insurmountable amount of character actors alongside him, notably Helena Bonham Carter as his producer and possible love interest. If this had been made down the line as a feature, it might’ve been more smart-assed, if better directed. However, Mick Jackson does an excellent job of framing the disarray of the Middle East. The moment the first bombs hit is terrifying, but worse is the tension of Wiener, a firm believer in a free press, maneuvering his way through Saddam Hussein’s regime for the story.

With Keaton’s resurgence, it’s a shame that HBO hasn’t added this to their streaming platforms for viewing. Place it between The Paper and Spotlight, the film functions as an excellent middle chapter of an unofficial trilogy of Keaton journalism films.
Amazon Button (via

Final Destination 2 (2003, dir. David R. Ellis)
This year, I made the discovery that Final Destination is unmistakably the most consistent horror franchise of the last 20 years. There isn’t a single one of these that is bad or lacks entertainment value. However, none are as gloriously ridiculous as the first sequel. The original has a sense of fear and danger in its portrayal of fate as a slasher villain. Starting with this entry, the focus turns to a sort of roulette with elaborate deathtraps after a group of teens avert a calamitous road accident that would overwhelm Michael Bay. Not to be outdone by its careful shots of driving hazards that could kill one, if not a hundred motorists, director David R. Ellis sets the stage with a highway crash so ludicrous that if the Green Goblin truck from Maximum Overdrive showed up, it would be on brand. There’s even AC/DC during it!

From there, it’s a symphony of comedic setups, punchlines, and Chekov’s-gun payoffs that skew it far away from something remotely scary. The best involves a glass panel that should have been given its own credit in the cast. And it doesn’t matter that we care about the characters, or the return of Ali Larter, who—in line with the film’s self-aware idiocy—goes from mental patient to sporting unworn designer clothes in the span of a scene. All we want are the jokes, and in this case, that’s the reaper’s job.
Amazon Button (via

No comments: