Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '99 - Everett Jones ""

Friday, June 28, 2019

Underrated '99 - 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!

By any rights, a ‘90s movie about virtual reality, the flying-car overpromise of computer-age sci-fi, should seem pretty egregiously dated--as does Kathryn Bigelow--otherwise very good--’95 cyberpunk epic Strange Days. The movies of David Cronenberg, though, have always been too sui generis, too stubbornly and perversely their own beast, to feel too much of their time. That includes the genre movies, like Rabid, Scanners, and this, which would normally be most sensitive to shifts in the cultural weather. When I first saw Existenz, some years after its box-office bust release, and some years after seeing that year’s enduring V-R hit, The Matrix, it seemed not dated but ahead of the game, not in predicting a future in which we’re all plugged into the equivalent of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s holodeck, but in taking on one of the most popular forms of our actual present: the video game. Plenty of filmmakers have made good use of the visual language of comic books, from the Mario Bava of Danger: Diabolik to the George Miller of The Road Warrior, but relatively few, it seems to me, have done to evoke the experience of gaming, even when exploiting the recognition factor of characters like Lara Croft. Without access to a brand-name piece of I.P. or the cutting-edge of L.A. digital effects houses, Cronenberg evokes the eerie stiltedness in the performances he elicits from his cast--Jude Law, two years away from his starmaking turn in A.I., might be particularly ideal in his shiny unreality--and the dialogue in his solo-authored screenplay. For thrills, Cronenberg’s modestly budgeted thriller can’t compete with The Matrix’s shootouts and martial arts--the big action moments, which I remember being mentioned a lot in reviews of the time, are the very Cronenbergian ones where characters transform organic materials into impromptu guns--and wouldn’t be interested in doing so anyway. No doubt that’s why it crashed and burned on the box office in ‘99, and why it might still not have a huge following today, but Cronenberg’s interest in the strangeness of our own reality and in projecting that forward into the future make Existenz that rare beast: a serious science fiction movie.  
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A lot of comedy Westerns have been hits, from Destry Rides Again in the ‘30s to Blazing Saddles in the ‘70s, but horror-comedy-western might be one too genre too many for widespread acceptance. This Donner Party riff was probably always destined to go from flop to cult, without ever hitting success along the way, even without a particularly troubled inception, including a long location shoot (in Slovakia and the Czech Republic), another long wait on the shelf, and multiple director handoffs, ending with the late Antonia Bird, of Priest. Admittedly, the result is unwieldy, slightly but noticeably scarred by post-production editorial tinkering, and given to abrupt swerves in tone, from 19th century American gothic to ‘60s throwback countercultural jokiness, but it also has a sense of the macabre rare in a mid-scale studio programmer of this vintage, with a delicious strain of Sweeney Todd-like black humor but also a genuine sense of evil, in Robert Carlyle’s performance--a standout amidst a generally strong cast, also including the delightful character actor Jeffrey Jones (despite what we know about his private life), a reliably twitchy Jeremy Davies, an appropriately anachronistic David Arquette, and, in the thankless role of the glum, hapless hero, a very game Guy Pearce. The score is also a standout--no one who hears Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman’s hypnotically repetitive, creepy, yet melodic score, largely composed around old tape loops, will ever forget it.
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Cookie’s Fortune:
Like many a classic-era Hollywood director, but like very few modern ones, Robert Altman was so prolific it’s easy to have seen a lot of his movies and still have large gaps in your knowledge of his filmography. My biggest Altman-related blind spot probably consists of his ‘90s output, aside from the two big titles, The Player and Short Cuts, that made his return to regular feature filmmaking possible. Alongside the likes of Ready to Wear, The Gingerbread Man, and Kansas City--few people’s favorites, whatever their individual virtues--it was uneasy to overlook Cookie’s Fortune, until a recommendation from somebody otherwise an Altman neophyte came way. It turned out to be one of his most winning movies, and probably one of his works lowest in that abrasive, acerbic quality that, in good Altmans and bad, is part of their distinctive quality. In taking on veteran script supervisor Anne Rapp’s screenplay about a potential, racially fraught miscarriage of justice in a small Southern town, Altman takes a much warmer, more forgiving tone toward his characters than he would have in his ‘70s heyday, or indeed, than he would likely would have if he was still alive and making movies in late 2010s America. The venality and hypocrisy that was distributed widely among the characters of Nashville, A Wedding, and even Popeye is here mostly concentrated in one character, Glenn Close’s socially and psychologically precarious Southern belle. Rapp uses but goes easy on customary ingredients of Hollywood’s overheated Southern-set melodrama: the long-buried secrets of families living in grand old houses; the long-simmering feuds between major characters, one just recently returned to town (here, Liv Tyler’s, the niece of Close’s character), that provide minor characters with something to gossip about in early scenes; the obscure but deeply rooted ties between whites and African-Americans (here, between title character Cookie (Patricia Neal), the owner of the requisite mansion, and her handyman/best friend (Charles S. Dutton). She and Altman instead take an affectionate, good-humored view of their characters. The standout scene they create here isn’t a dramatic chase or conflagration, like in Arthur Penn’s (amazing) Deep South indictment The Chase, but an ongoing jailhouse Scrabble game. A closely observed but loosely organized ensemble set piece, like many of Altman’s best, it might not have much competition in this regard, but should certainly be far in the running for all-time best movie Scrabble game.
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Man of the Century:
As with many other movies, a Roger Ebert review was responsible for me seeing this one. In fact, his review is the only mention I can recall seeing of Man of the Century before seeking it out. Gibson Frazier and director Adam Abraham’s story, as described in Ebert’s inimitably effortless fashion, was irresistible to a P.G. Wodehouse fan--a man-about-town of the Roaring Twenties transplanted to 1990s NYC. However, Ebert’s review, in its wry amusement at this basic premise, actually undersells the charm of the film as a whole, and suggests it might be a little one-note. If anything, Man of the Century hits almost too many notes, with the first-time filmmaker's sense of wanting to try out and use up as many ideas as possible while he or she still has the chance, including silent movie pastiches, hard-edged gangster characters to contrast with Johnny's innocence, another time-traveling character, impromptu musical numbers, and a What's Up, Doc?-style convergence between all of the cast members. Abraham can cover this all within a reasonable running time probably only because he never bothers to explain or even really even address the premise--it's simply taken as given that Johnnie is a man out of time. While I wouldn't claim classic status for Abraham's extremely charming, but slightly messy, movie, his decision not to belabor the central conceit could contain lessons for any comedy based around an outlandish premise. And because it's from such a different era for filmmaking--the heyday of the indie film scene, one of the things that made 1999 such a special year for movies--it now has its own out-of-time quality.
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