Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '99 - James David Patrick ""

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Underrated '99 - 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 ( and Cinema Shame ( Follow him on Twitter at @007hertzrumble.

1999 pushed the boundaries of mainstream cinema... only to have it collapse upon itself within a few short years. Just compare the bold assortment movies that reached multiplexes in 1999 to what we're witnessing in 2019. Fight Club, The Matrix, Eyes Wide Shut, Being John Malkovich, The Insider, Three Kings, Ravenous. Even the supposedly dumb genre movies had a brain. Galaxy Quest, Sleepy Hollow, Notting Hill, 10 Things I Hate About You, Mystery Men, Go. Plus 20 other movies I didn't name. (Lists are fun, but get to the point, maybe?)

Go ahead and just pull up that list of 1999's most-watched movies on Letterboxd and weep for our current state of cinema.

As a result of 1999's immaculate success I found myself hard pressed to draw a line in the sand between the underseen and the underappreciated. For this list, I erred on the side of the latter with a touch for the former. I could have made a list twice as long, but I only had time to revisit a handful of entries on my initial list. You're welcome' or I'm sorry. You decide.

For Love of the Game (Sam Raimi, 1999)
So the off-the-field melodrama might miss the mark a little bit, but no movie about baseball has dealt with the mental side of baseball quite like Sam Raimi's For Love of the Game. Raimi uses innovative camera sets to foreground perspective where another director might have defaulted to a conventional style befitting the TV matinee material.

It's also hard not to equate Costner's Billy Chapel, an aging pitcher nearing the end of his career, with Costner himself. This would surely be the final movie in which 44-year-old Costner took the field. Obviously Bull Durham and Field of Dreams remain superior movies, but For Love of the Game does so much right that I refuse to demonize it as a lesser offering. It's a bittersweet sendoff for Billy Chapel/Kevin Costner, but it works because Raimi makes the viewer want so badly to experience Chapel's success.

People detest this movie largely because they can't believe a champion of guerrilla moviemaking like Sam Raimi would make something as Hallmark-y as this. Send me all your hate mail, but this feels more like a Sam Raimi movie than any of his Spiderman films (none of which I personally find all that interesting).
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Jesus' Son (Alison Maclean, 1999)
Billy Crudup gives the performance of his career has 'Fuckhead,' a drug addict who errs on the side of optimism despite being a perpetual disaster. Naysayers deride the uneven tone. Is it a comedy' A melodrama Who cares' Alison Maclean's film offers a singular vision, a disjointed jumble of emotions, isolation, and infectious (but bleak) humor.

The screenwriters (including the late novelist Denis Johnson, adapting his own work) turned what many perceived as unfilmable into a faithful adaptation and a perfectly cinematic experience. Scattered and jumbled, like the mind of the drug addict, Jesus' Son meanders through memory and tragedy, jumping from one bizarre encounter to the next. Credit to Maclean for embracing the material and to the actors (Crudup, Samantha Morton, Jack Black, Denis Leary, Dennis Hopper, Holly Hunter, Michael Shannon!) for committing to what must have been a leap of faith. In a year filled with great films, this remains in my Top 10 of 1999.

If you watch only one movie from this list, make it Jesus' Son.
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Mumford (Lawrence Kasdan, 1999)
Warm without being overly saccharine, Lawrence Kasdan writes and directs small town folksiness lacking in patronization. A psychiatrist named Dr. Mumford (Loren Dean), a relative newbie in the Oregon town of Mumford (they share the name, that probably figures into the plot!), gives wacko advice to his patients and starts winning away patients from rival therapists David Paymer and Jane Adams. He falls in love with the chronic-fatigued (and all around perfect) Hope Davis, and his rivals, along with the help of an attorney played by Martin Short, conspire to destroy his reputation.

Mumford won't deliver thrills, sexy twists or Drama. Kasdan merely gifts us a thoughtful portrait of a town filled with (mostly) good-hearted eccentrics. If it's about anything in particular, it's a plea to take a closer look at the people around you and appreciate them for what they are, rather than what they aren't. In some ways Kasdan seems at times to be channeling Harvey (1950), if you need help tuning in to the proper bandwidth.

After revisiting Mumford, my takeaway was that the world needs more Hope Davis.
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Liberty Heights (Barry Levinson, 1999)
A surprisingly complex meditation on integration, the loss of Jewish traditions, anti-Semitism, interracial dating, inter-economic mingling, and a Jewish boy dressing as Hitler for Halloween. Like much of Levinson's best work, the film might have easily traded on 1950's nostalgia but instead dives into character and setting and relationships in a way that feels natural and timeless.

Ben (Ben Foster) likes Sylvia (Rebekah Johnson), a black girl who arrives at the school on the back of Brown vs. the Board of Education. He tells his mother (Bebe Neuwirth) he fancies her and his mother screams 'Just kill me now!' They listen to Redd Foxx records and sneak off to see a James Brown concert. Meanwhile Ben's older brother (Adrien Brody) is in love with a gentile and that too causes a familial discord.

Levinson addresses a complex moment in time with enough finesse and sincerity that even when Liberty Heights stumbles in the final act, it's earned enough of your good graces to forgive the plot-heavy twists.
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The Big Kahuna (John Swanbeck, 1999)
I feel like we're not supposed to talk about Kevin Spacey, but I can't scrub away the excellent work he's done up until this point in his career. And I can't wash away the surprise I felt when I journeyed to a theater to see The Big Kahuna thinking I was getting a business-oriented light comedy and wound up in a theatrical meditation about religion and modern human connectivity. The Big Kahuna happened.

Larry and Phil attend a trade convention in Wichita as representatives for an industrial lubricant company. Bob, a young man from the research department, joins them in the hotel's hospitality suite. Larry explains that they're passing time while they wait for the convention to end so that they can arrange a meeting with Dick Fuller, CEO, aka 'The Big Kahuna.' Much deep conversation ensues.

Through the cinema of 1999, we'd started to take stock of how modernity had created distrust and distance between otherwise proximate humans. American Beauty had likewise hammered home this notion of isolation. Spacey won his Oscar for Sam Mendes' film, but The Big Kahuna represents the superior performance. Based on the play Hospitality Suite by Roger Rueff, Spacey, DeVito and Peter Facinelli make their three-way conversation a dynamic dialogue about industrial lubricants, friendship, and religion. For those that don't mind their drama intimate and stage-bound.
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Happy, Texas (Mark Illsley, 1999)
The beauty of these Underrated lists is that it gives cause to revisit long forgotten movies. As I sifted through 1999, I came across this vaguely familiar poster. I checked out the description, and a theatrical trip to see Happy, Texas came flooding back. I queued it up on Amazon and re-engaged with a movie I found positively charming in 1999.

Two prisoners (Jeremy Northan and Steve Zahn) escape from a chain gang and wind up in Happy, Texas where they pose as homosexual beauty pageant organizers and bide their time until they can rob the local bank and escape into the wilds. Complications ensue when the gay town sheriff (William H. Macy) falls for Northam, Northam pines for a bank teller (Ally Walker), and Zahn can't resist the pageant coordinator (Illeana Douglas). Zahn sidesteps the problem of his supposed sexuality by claiming 'That whole gay thing is just like a hobby.'

Surprisingly lacking in cringe-y stereotypes, Happy, Texas (mostly) manages to sidestep the pratfalls associated with a 20-year-old comedy about homosexuality due to the value of the performances. Zahn gets the laughs. Northam plays it straight. William H. Macy grounds the movie by playing his sheriff with the perfect amount of tender honesty. It's hard to understand why director Mark Illsley only made two movies in his career when this, his debut, proved to be such a nimble mixture of humor and pathos.
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Inferno (John G. Avildsen, 1999)
As a late 90's straight-to-video Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle, certain truths must be expected and understood in order to enjoy Inferno (aka Desert Heat). Many expenses were spared and no decent copies of this movie exist on home video. You'll just have to trust me that a movie featuring Pat Morita and Bill Erwin as JCVD sidekicks should be viewed.

Eddie Lomax (JCVD) drives out into the desert on his motorcycle with the intention of getting stone drunk and committing suicide. Some local goons steal his motorcycle, shoot him, and leave him for dead. He survives by speaking to the spirit of Danny Trejo and finds a new purpose in life - revenge for stealing his beloved bike. It's John Wick, substitute Danny Trejo (playing a Native American?) for Bridget Moynahan and a bike for the beagle. There's more gunplay than big kicks - take that for what you will and nobody seems to be taking this enterprise at all seriously. For starters, Vincent Schiavelli plays an Indian (subcontinent not native) and Pat Morita plays a kind of wannabe Englishman. It's like they hired the cast and pulled roles out of a hat.

As the last feature made by Rocky/Karate Kid director John G. Avildsen, it's worth exploring as a capper on the director's 28-year career. When Van Damme rolls up sporting a cowboy hat and an unshaven face you'll want to laugh, but you'll also demand the subsequent ass-kickings because those guys that shot him and stole his motorcycle needed their comeuppance.
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