Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '89 - Jen Johans ""

Friday, August 30, 2019

Underrated '89 - Jen Johans

An avid film buff as well as a three-time national award-winning writer, the only time that Jen Johans ever got into trouble in school was for talking about movies during quiet time.

Thrilled to discover that being a walking, talking movie encyclopedia only works to your advantage in film school, in the final semester of her self-designed BA degree program, Johans continued to share her love of cinema by launching the first version of her site

12 years and 2,400 reviews later, when she isn't writing about or watching movies, chances are that the screenwriter and critic can be found talking about them on Twitter (@FilmIntuition) where there's no such thing as quiet time.

Long before TITANIC, DEAD CALM showed us why you should never get on a boat with Billy Zane. A chamber drama that plays out at sea, Phillip Noyce's film, based on the titular 1963 novel by Charles Williams, feels like an amped up (and at times admittedly exploitative) '80s response to Roman Polanski's masterful KNIFE ON THE WATER.

Once optioned and developed into an unfinished film by Orson Welles, Noyce's Australian import lets the married couple (played by Nicole Kidman and Sam Neill) work through their unimaginable grief over losing a child as they band together to discover their own will to survive.

Armed with his puppy dog good looks and an unbelievably tragic story, when Zane's brash American arrives at their yacht in crisis, veteran Navy captain Neill is suspicious enough to fact check Zane for himself by locking the sleeping man in a room and boarding his sinking boat.

An inventively shot thriller that finds suspense in the little things, in DEAD CALM, scenes where a dog fetches a tennis ball in the water, an early shot of sleeping pills, and romantic hair washing have an equal and opposite nerve-jangling payoff.

Boasting a few scenes helmed by the film's producer, MAD MAX director George Miller, as one of the decade's most frightening adult thrillers, DEAD CALM puts us right with the three aboard the yacht where there are only so many places to hide and no one for the characters to rely upon but themselves. And while it taught Zane to play the bad boy at sea more often (in dark comedies like HEAD ABOVE WATER and epics like TITANIC, etc.), Noyce's film also put its fearless leads Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman on our radar here in the states.
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Reclusive tailor Monsieur Hire (Michel Blanc) is a peeping Tom in Patrice Leconte's brilliant first drama, but as the film continues, we discover that he is far from the only voyeur as he's hounded by a police detective and neighbors who suspect him of murder.

Based upon George Simenon's novel Les Fian├žailles de M. Hire, the Belgian author's book was first brought to life in the 1947 film PANIQUE by Julien Duvivier, which sparked Leconte's imagination and also inspired him to go back and make his own adaptation of the novel as opposed to a mere remake.

Centered on a lonely outcast, the eponymous Hire grows bolder thanks to his love for Sandrine Bonnaire's Alice, whom he watches obsessively every night (and who in turn gets turned on by it herself). Although it's Alice who serves as the muse that makes Hire venture out into the world, this same set-up of two strangers – out of step with society – who find the right rhythm in one another can be found in countless other Leconte films, including THE GIRL ON THE BRIDGE and INTIMATE STRANGERS.

An official selection at Cannes that introduced Leconte to the world and went on to be listed as one of Ebert's Great Movies, although it's woefully out-of-print, for Leconte devotees eager to see his first foray into his favorite subject of erotic desire, MONSIEUR HIRE is well worth tracking down as I did, on used DVD.
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An apocalyptic thriller that takes place – AFTER HOURS style – all in one frantic night, the reason that Steve De Jarnatt's freewheeling film works as well as it does is because it's fueled by an optimistic, damn the torpedoes sense of wonder and romance.

Embodied by winsome leads Mare Winningham and Anthony Edwards who meet cute at the La Brea Tar Pits, we follow their burgeoning romance until Harry's (Edwards) bad luck intervenes with a power outage, followed by nuclear disaster.

Picking up a ringing payphone to hear a soldier who, having misdialed the area code, warns his dad that we're on the bring of a world ending war, it's up to Harry to tell a diner full of people from all walks of life the news. Fearing he may be Chicken Little, especially after bodies start falling amid the panic, Harry risks life and limb to get to the apartment of the woman he just met but already loves in the hopes that they can escape together.

A film where the behind-the-scenes story of how it survived limbo hell and the writer-director bought it back from the studio to make it himself is almost as wild as the events onscreen, MIRACLE MILE has become something of a word-of-mouth cult classic over the years. And it's for a very good reason as, amid the biting humor of blink-and-you-miss-it jabs at organized religion and the Hollywood trades, De Jarnatt delivers an unforgettable, underrated thriller with a heart of gold, as embodied in the feverishly original, awesomely '80s score by Tangerine Dream.
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Following in the footsteps of Rambo II or ROCKY IV, on the surface, you could dismiss director Bob Radler's BEST OF THE BEST, which chronicles a ragtag group of American fighters as they train to take on South Korea in a world karate championship, as just another jingoistic '80s movie. Yet while it does have its share of cheese, when you actually spend some time with the film, you discover real heart below the surface as evidenced in a genuinely moving subplot about forgiveness vs. revenge.

Inspired by Phillip Rhee's experiences representing the United States against South Korea in Taekwondo, the charismatic Rhee steals the film from its otherwise terrific lead Eric Roberts, as a man whose high ideals about friendship and respect in the face of violence are tested by memories of his brother's death, which come back to haunt Rhee in a particularly cruel twist of fate.

Also co-starring James Earl Jones and Chris Penn, one of my favorite characters besides Rhee's Tommy (who I found so touching that I cried when I first saw the film as a girl) is Sally Kirkland's intelligent, Eastern philosophy practitioner Kathryn Wade. A beautiful blonde authority figure who helps train the team to use their minds to make them strong, one of the most refreshing things about BEST OF THE BEST is that, not even once does the film flirt with turning her into the mere girlfriend of one of the handsome fighters. A far cry from the type of role we're used to seeing in the decade as epitomized by Kelly McGillis in the emptily jingoistic TOP GUN, thanks to Kirkland and Rhee's unlikely supporting players, BEST OF THE BEST helped move patriotic sports movies in a newer, more inclusive direction.
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Tired of being known as Yazoo City, Mississippi's promiscuous Miss Hot Tamale, Carnelle Scott (Holly Hunter) dyes her hair cherry red and enters to be a Miss Firecracker contestant in the town's fourth of July beauty pageant.

Marking the feature filmmaking debut of director Thomas Schlamme - who followed up MISS FIRECRACKER with another underrated cult favorite, SO I MARRIED AN AXE MURDERER - this delightful, if gleefully strange endeavor, adapted from Pulitzer Prize winner Beth Henley's 1984 play, was penned by the playwright.

Out-of-print on DVD, the film, which is often available on demand on apps like Fandor or Tubi, offers a phenomenal post RAISING ARIZONA and BROADCAST NEWS showcase for Holly Hunter as the guileless optimist who, in tap dancing to music only she can hear, doesn't know she might be headed for a fall.

A terrific ensemble piece filled with memorable moments from Mary Steenburgen, Tim Robbins, Alfre Woodard, and Scott Glenn, MISS FIRECRACKER might have fallen under the radar these past thirty years but it melts hearts faster than a cherry red snow cone on a hot summer day.
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Based on John Godey's 1972 novel, The Three Worlds of Johnny Handsome, within the first act of director Walter Hill's Film Noir tinged work, black and white movie fans are apt to find similarities between HANDSOME and the 1947 Humphrey Bogart vehicle DARK PASSAGE.

Sharing not just the similar premise of a crook who undergoes plastic surgery with his own agenda to settle a score but the same frame composition of a near subjective camera during the critical first thirty minutes, Hill places characters directly in the center of the frame as we watch them speak through the eyes of our eponymous antihero.

And throughout HANDSOME, Hill deftly balances classical filmmaking techniques with the far grittier world of Neo-Noir in this underrated sleeper, featuring an outstanding Mickey Rourke. Having dipped his toe in Noir in Lawrence Kasdan's BODY HEAT, here Rourke dives in headfirst to fascinate and frustrate viewers as a man who sacrifices love and the possibility of a real future for a quick, heady hit of revenge.

Sharply written and crisply executed with moodily atmospheric Louisiana visuals, RAMBO producers Andrew Vajna and Mario Kassar's character driven film might wander into violent '80s excess from time-to-time but overall, JOHNNY HANDSOME – co-starring Forrest Whitaker, Morgan Freeman, and Ellen Barkin – remains a solid throwback to its Noir inspiration.
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Talking to the woman he's having an affair with about the increasingly close friendship developing between their spouses, the chauvinistic car dealer played by William Petersen tells Sean Young, “I'm not worried about sex, I'm worried about them having a relationship.” It's a clever line that not only sums up the speaker and the situation but more importantly, the entire plot of COUSINS.

A woefully underrated, charming character driven romantic comedy from a post ST. ELMO'S FIRE Joel Schumacher, COUSINS tells dozens of small stories about the people in the periphery of its shots but none are as compelling as the love story blossoming between the fed up spouses played by Ted Danson and Isabella Rossellini.

The American remake of director Jean-Charles Tacchella's Oscar nominated 1975 French film COUSIN COUSINE, as the action plays out across three weddings and a funeral, we watch as Danson's carefree dance teacher woos the wife (Rossellini) of the man (Petersen) with whom his wife (Young) is having an affair, less out of spite than overwhelming attraction.

From buying her a hat because he knows how much her husband hates them to arranging “coincidental” meet ups at the same restaurant so they can spend even more time together (spouses be damned), the chemistry between Danson and Rossellini becomes too combustible to ignore as the leads play off one another remarkably well.

Written by Stephen Metcalfe, who penned another one of 1989's great underrated character pieces via JACKNIFE, while some of COUSINS' characters, like Danson's fatalistic screen son are particularly creepy by today's standards, fortunately the film, which boasts a score by TWIN PEAKS' Angelo Badalamenti, continues to shine.
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Banging, booming, and buzzing on the cul-de-sac Mayfield Place in the middle of the night, in the beginning of THE 'BURBS, director Joe Dante foreshadows the weirdness to come with sound. Though it's not the greatest way to start a vacation, married family man Ray Peterson (Tom Hanks) wouldn't have it any other way.

Declining his wife's (Carrie Fisher) invitation to go to the lake to instead loll around his home, Ray's plans fall apart hours later as he and his neighbors begin gathering intel on the Klopeks, whom he's jokingly dubbed “the neighbors from hell.” We soon learn, however, that he may be right.

From digging holes in the middle of the night to beating the hell out of their garbage, once the annoying old man on the block vanishes in thin air – without his dog or his toupee – Ray and company suspect foul play. And, looking over at the creepy Klopek home, the group decides they're going in, no matter what it takes.

Playing easily identifiable archetypes from Bruce Dern's hard-ass Vietnam Vet with a trophy wife to Corey Feldman's Spicoli like high school neighbor, the crackerjack cast digs into the rapid fire wit of Dana Olsen's satirical script in a way that's immediately relatable to those who've spent time in the suburbs. Introducing our leads in a terrific early sequence where composer Jerry Goldsmith changes up his theme depending upon which neighbor is onscreen, in Joe Dante's cult classic, everything from carefully staged pratfalls and sight gags to sound and visual effects blend together to create a film that's as spooky as it is funny.

Underappreciated by critics who didn't latch onto the high concept premise and just go with it, while it's essentially a big screen sitcom that takes place entirely on one street, when it comes to this script, this cast, and this director, most viewers will happily follow the Mayfield Placers anywhere … even to the Klopeks'.
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1 comment:

Richard said...

Great list! I'm excited to check some of these out. The 'Burbs and Dead Calm are two of my all time favourites.