Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '99 - Craig J. Clark ""

Friday, July 19, 2019

Underrated '99 - Craig J. Clark

Craig watches a lot of movies and has the Letterboxd profile to prove it. He’s also a regular contributor to Crooked Marquee, writes the monthly Full Moon Features column for Werewolf News, and tweets at @Hooded_Werewolf.

Cookie’s Fortune (Robert Altman, director)
Over the course of his five-decade career, Robert Altman created such a large body of work that it’s not surprising that some of his films get less attention than others. Coming between the high-profile The Player and Short Cuts at the start of the decade and Gosford Park at the start of the next, Cookie’s Fortune was practically designed to slip between the cracks. A decidedly laid-back depiction of small-town life and how a thing like a suspected murder doesn't change the tempo much in a place like Holly Springs, Mississippi, it stars Glenn Close and Julianne Moore as mismatched sisters Camille and Cora – Camille is the control freak and Cora the scatterbrain – whose attempt to cover up the suicide of their aunt (Patricia Neal, as the “Cookie” of the title) winds up implicating her long-time caretaker (Charles S. Dutton).

The action takes place over Easter weekend, starting on Good Friday and culminating with a performance of Oscar Wilde’s Salome – orchestrated by Camille, who has to have her hand in just about everything – on Easter Monday. In between, the police do their investigating, Camille does her meddling (Cora, whose intelligence is frequently called into question, is mostly a bystander) and life goes on like normal for most everyone else. Only in the home stretch, when some surprising revelations come to light, do things fall into place and people have to rethink everything they thought they knew. In a way, this kind of film is perfect for Altman’s meandering style, picking up pieces of plot along the way, but never making a big deal about them (even in the scene where Camille literally gets caught with her hand in the cookie jar).
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8 ½ Women (Peter Greenaway, director)
Peter Greenaway’s tenure as an art house darling was on the wane by the time he wrote and directed 8 ½ Women, his riff of Fellini’s 8 ½, which his two protagonists go see in a theater and rudely talk all the way through before deciding to turn their Geneva mansion into a private brothel staffed with kept women that they rescue from crippling debts and other inconveniences. As is typical of Greenway, this isn’t a purely sexual or even financial arrangement since the owners – wealthy banker Philip and his son Storey (John Standing and Matthew Delamere) – are using it to work through their grief over the loss of Philip’s wife and Storey’s mother, whose death causes Philip to fall into a suicidal despair that Storey can only do so much to distract him from. This, of course, is where the women come in, but the ability to pay for and get what you want doesn’t ensure you’ll be able to keep it. “My fantasy has no God in it, just naked nuns,” Philip says when one of them (played with chilly reserve by Toni Collette) starts taking her role too seriously.

Ever the restless experimenter, Greenaway scaled back some of the stylistic quirks that had rendered some of his recent work borderline impenetrable. Save for the opening credits, which are accompanied by inserts of the eight pachinko parlors Philip’s film acquired in the opening scene, gone are the Paintbox effects that littered 1992’s Prospero’s Books and 1996’s The Pillow Book. He does divide the film up into five parts, though, and includes an onscreen description at the head of each one that looks like a reproduction of the screenplay. And the in-your-face nudity and sexuality is an in-your-face as ever, which may have turned off as many potential viewers as it theoretically turned on. That’s a pity, because ultimately 8 ½ Women celebrates female empowerment and the ability of women to choose their own destinies.
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Felicia’s Journey (Atom Egoyan, director)
If I wanted to, I could fill up this entire list with films made in our unassuming neighbor to the north, but I’ve chosen to limit myself to three. I’ve also decided not to write about David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, although I wouldn’t blame anyone for considering it underrated since it did some out in the shadow of The Matrix, a much showier take on virtual reality. After Cronenberg, the most visible Canadian filmmaker in the ’90s was likely Atom Egoyan, whose personal brand of family psychodramas told in non-chronological fashion reached in apex with 1997’s Russell Banks adaptation The Sweet Hereafter. For his follow-up, he tackled Felicia’s Journey (based on the novel by William Trevor), which took him far out of his comfort zone as it’s set (and was shot) entirely in Great Britain and Ireland. In terms of its overarching themes and the obsessive nature of its central character, though, it was right in his wheelhouse.

Bob Hoskins stars as Joe, a highly detail-oriented catering manager for a large factory in Birmingham whose soft-spoken manner belies the fact that he’s a deranged serial killer who specializes in troubled young women. That profile definitely fits Irish lass Felicia (Elaine Cassidy), who’s come in search of her boyfriend, who left without giving her his address, which is rather inconvenient considering he left her with something else. Each time Joe runs into her, he’s ever so helpful, going to great lengths to convince her there’s nothing sinister about the way he’s taken an obvious interest in her. Slowly but surely, though, his true nature becomes apparent as the viewer begins to notice the cracks in his facade, many of which stem from his complicated relationship with his deceased mother, a once-famous TV chef, whose show seems to play on an endless loop on Joe’s television (which is set up in the kitchen so he can obsessively recreate her signature dishes). As for Felicia, her story is revealed through more conventional flashbacks, which go a long way toward establishing what she left behind in Ireland and what she hopes to rekindle by reconnecting with her Johnny. Whether Joe will allow her to see either again is another matter.
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The Five Senses (Jeremy Podeswa, director)
Jeremy Podeswa may not be as much of a household name as Cronenberg or Egoyan – unless that household watches shows like Game of Thrones and The Handmaid’s Tale and pays attention to the directing credits. Before turning to television for his bread and butter, Podeswa made a distinct impression on those of us who saw The Five Senses during its art-house run. Delicately weaving together a variety of interconnected stories, the film tackles such weighty issues as love, trust, loss, and loneliness, using the five senses as a hook for each of its major characters. Touch is associated with massage therapist Ruth (Egoyan regular Gabrielle Rose), who has trouble reaching her daughter. Smell goes with bisexual housecleaner Robert (Daniel MacIvor), one of whose clients designs fragrances. Taste applies to baker Rona (Mary-Louise Parker), whose cakes have none. And hearing and sight are both the domain of optometrist Dr. Jacob (Phillipe Volter), who lives in Ruth’s building and is slowly going deaf.

To cope with his impending loss, Dr. Jacob closes his practice so he can spend the little time he has collecting sound memories to carry with him. Meanwhile, Ruth’s rattled when her misfit dropout daughter Rachel (Nadia Litz), who tries to make herself useful by reading to the blind, loses the little girl of a client (played by Molly Parker), who gets one of the film’s most trenchant lines when Ruth tries to comfort her and she asks, “How would you know how I feel?” As for Rona, she’s preoccupied by the arrival of her Italian boyfriend, a relationship complicated by the fact that neither of them speak the other’s language (although they do have food in common since he is an excellent cook). And Robert puts his acute sense of smell to work attempting to determine what love smells like by meeting all of his former lovers to give them a sniff test. The conclusion he reaches is an unconventional one, but that’s par for the course for this offbeat drama.
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My Neighbors the Yamadas (Isao Takahata, director)
Nowhere near as prolific as his Studio Ghibli cofounder Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata was also in the habit of choosing idiosyncratic projects like My Neighbors the Yamadas, an episodic adaptation of the comic strip by Hisaichi Ishii. With its simplified character designs and impressionistic backgrounds (the latter a stylistic choice Takahata would return to with 2013’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya), the film’s minimalist aesthetic can take some getting used to, but it’s the ideal delivery method for its slice-of-life vignettes, some of which last several minutes while others are over in a flash.

The Yamada clan consists of little girl Nonoko (who acts as narrator at the start), her older brother Noboru (who always seems to be having an existential crisis of some kind), their salaryman father and stay-at-home mother (who are frequently at odds), and their grandmother (who often has to play the peacemaker). Each of them gets to be the focus of at least one segment, many of which are punctuated by haiku, but Takahata and Ishii mine the most material out of how their personalities bounce off one another. This is a family that has settled into a routine and occasionally chafes at it. Common themes include weariness, forgetfulness, and resignation, but far from being downbeat, the film is light on its feet and keen to play up the Yamadas’ follies. (This reaches its apex when the father confronts a motorcycle gang making a nuisance of themselves in their neighborhood – an uncharacteristic move that spurs Takahata to employ a more realistic animation style.) By the time the family gathers to sing “Que Sera Sera” for the film’s karaoke finale, it’s clear they’ve taken the song’s message of acceptance (“the key to surviving the worst situation without losing heart or breaking up,” as the parents heard at their wedding) to heart.
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Top of the Food Chain (John Paizs, director)
Bringing up the rear, but only in the sense that his film comes last alphabetically, is Winnipeg auteur John Paizs’s Top of the Food Chain, which was retitled Invasion! when it reached the States. Following 1985’s singularly strange Crime Wave (which itself underwent a name change so as not to be confused with Sam Raimi’s Crimewave, which came out the same year), Paizs did some directing for Canadian television (including episodes of Maniac Mansion and film segments for The Kids in Hall) before embarking on his second feature, a super-quirky story about a super-quirky small Canadian town called Exceptional Vista that has fallen on hard times since the nut factory closed down. The remaining townspeople think they have problems when the local TV broadcasting tower gets knocked out one night, but that’s only because they don’t know about the cadre of slimy, man-eating aliens that has landed in their midst. Good thing for them they’re also being visited by a world-famous atomic scientist Dr. Karel Lamonte (Campbell Scott), who’s working on the secret of cool fusion since the cold variety appears to be out of science’s grasp, as well as some undercover government agents posing as traveling vacuum and banjo salesmen, respectively.

For the most part, the alien invasion plot takes a back seat to Dr. Lamonte’s interactions with the bizarre locals, including an amorous motel owner, her uncomfortably close brother (Tom Everett Scott) and a jealous police officer, who also doubles as the town coroner. Before long, though, he’s rattling off lines like “A genetically engineered band of devil worshiping serial killers... or a Sasquatch type thing? I don’t like the sound of that!” and rallying the troops (such as they are) to repel the ravenous aliens. If you enjoyed Larry Blamire’s The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra but didn’t think it was silly enough, this might be the movie for you. Just don’t expect it to change your life.
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