Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '89 - Mike Drew Flynn ""

Friday, August 23, 2019

Underrated '89 - Mike Drew Flynn

Mike Drew Flynn was raised in Oceanport, New Jersey, a town you have probably never heard of and that’s okay. A lifelong movie fanatic, things got real upon seeing Face/Off in the theater when he was nine years old. He currently writes for Andersonvision and is hard at work on correcting his perfectionist tendencies to touch up independent projects. Mr. Flynn currently resides in Los Angeles, waiting for visiting friends and family to get talked into going to the New Beverly Cinema.

Black Rain (dir. Ridley Scott)
I’ve talked about this one a lot on this site over the years. I’ve come to the conclusion, however, that this is easily Ridley Scott’s best film outside of Alien and Blade Runner. Scott’s work here forges a visceral adrenaline rush with his imposing visuals. While not the first time he had taken a detour from genre films, the way he captures both New York and Osaka give it an otherworldly look, especially thanks to Jan de Bont’s steely cinematography. As an action film, it goes for broke on Friedkin-esque grit and violence. I’ve heard friends and other online folk rag on Michael Douglas being miscast. He isn’t.

This was his follow-up to Wall Street—if this had been written for Stallone, even Kevin Costner, we’d be lamenting all the cop movie clichés and debating the ramifications of how xenophobic this film is. Instead, we’re given a brutal but thoughtful culture clash, as Douglas and partner Andy Garcia must come to a mutual understanding with the eastern perception of justice. That part is gloriously represented by Ken Takakura, who served a similar purpose in The Yakuza, a film I find equally thrilling. His introduction, where he instantly dispels Douglas’ aggravation with the Japanese police that he “[does] speak fucking English,” is a perfect introduction. Black Rain is something of a masterpiece, both as a referendum on the Ugly American and a unique action film that plays like Kurosawa produced by Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer.

For further fun, check out “Outburst of Rage,” a familiar selection from Hans Zimmer’s pulsating score, and marvel that the composer had his motifs for Christopher Nolan’s Batman films in plain sights for 20 years.
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Casualties of War (dir. Brian De Palma)
This is not my favorite De Palma movie. A lot of it stems from how disturbing this film is in its depiction of the Vietnam War. However, I recently watched Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s enthralling De Palma on Netflix and was surprised by the extensive time they devoted to this film. That compelled me to put it on this list. Having freed himself of critical scrutiny with The Untouchables, De Palma approaches not as a fever dream or stylized interpretation, as most films on the war had done. He plays his suspense card to delve into the psychology of young men saddled in an untenable situation and how it corrodes Michael J. Fox’s nervous private and Sean Penn’s loudmouthed sociopath.

De Palma has never been nominated for an Academy Award. If there ever was an opportunity, it would have been this late 80’s prestige run. Put this up against what Oliver Stone did the same year in Born on the Fourth of July, a film that, upon revisiting, I found pandering and antiseptic. That film is a movie. Casualties of War is cinema.
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Cohen & Tate (dir. Eric Red)
With The Hitcher and Near Dark, Eric Red carved out a place as a titan of action-oriented horror films. His directorial debut shares the same perversion of the road movie as the other two, as a kidnapping job causes friction between two hitmen. Roy Scheider and Adam Baldwin are remarkable in the lead roles. Given the archetypes of Tempered, Old Hitman and Hotheaded Young Hitman, they subvert themselves in the presence of their child quarry. Harley Cross, who plays the eight-year-old, holds a mirror to these chiseled, too easy to glamorize murderers. Red’s use of a child’s point of view makes matters more and less disquieting. It humanizes the story, but it makes the overall journey more brutal. There’s possibly more Verhoeven squibs in the last half-hour of this than all of Blue Steel, and that movie centers around a .44 Magnum-toting serial killer. Check this one out. Don’t spoil the ending for yourself.
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Crack House (dir. Michael Fischa)
Cannon rolled out this absurd anti-masterpiece on its deathbed, part anti-drug message, part crime/action film, and all exploitation. In my early college years, I started making a habit of going through watching a lot of films Quentin Tarantino talked up. I ate up Crack House alongside a lot of Bronson and Norris vehicles, but I made a point to seek this one out. There was something about an edgy teenage romance that made this interesting. In that department, it certainly is. The leads aren’t stars in the slightest measure. It’s as if the production had trouble finding the right actors and ended up with them, crunched for time and effort. The endearing thing about nowhere-fast Gregg Thomsen and ex-Playboy Playmate Cher Butler is that their wide-eyed approach to the “crack is whack” nonsense is the contrast the film’s unbridled sleaze needs.

Jim Brown and Richard Roundtree show up, albeit in the capacity Bruce Willis appears in all those DTV movies he does now. There’s also Anthony Geary, playing a coked-out principal that prays on the young Butler’s addiction. I vividly remember this being something Tarantino loved. What I can say about Geary here is that UHF is almost the second funniest thing he did in 1989. I’ll see you at the New Bev the next time they show this.
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Dead Bang (dir. John Frankenheimer)
“It started… with a death… and it’s going to end… with a bang. DEAD BANG!” When a black convenience store clerk is murdered by a white supremacist, L.A. cop Don Johnson is on the case. He’s so on the case that he derails Bob Balaban’s Christmas for help and assaults his boss (Michael Jeter!) so he won’t lose the case. Eventually, the trail leads to a “white and pure” cabal of neo-Nazis in Colorado (RE: Canada) that isn’t welcoming to TV’s Sonny Crockett. Tired of the equally racist goons running the town, Tim Reid and his deputies volunteer to go kill the Fourth Reice.

I’ve highlighted The Challenge and 52 Pick-Up on this site as examples of John Frankenheimer still having things in order in spite of the consensus that Ronin was his comeback. This is no different; it aspires to be more important than it is, but settling for its B-movie thrills, Dead Bang is compelling, violent, and even dryly funny. It does teeter on the brink of a TV movie with squibs and f-bombs that eluded the censors. The evils of white supremacy are criticized with as much eloquence as Morton Downey Jr. However, to see Johnson get his chance at being an action movie star is quite good. His commitment to Miami Vice derailed multiple big-screen gigs—notably The Untouchables and Die Hard—but he’s suitably intense as LAPD badass Jerry Beck. He’s also not afraid to look pathetic, vomiting after a foot chase and casually breaking his glasses at his desk.

In short, a good movie, but the trailer is a masterpiece.
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Gleaming the Cube (dir. Graeme Clifford)
Ah, the only neo-noir that meets the criteria for skateboarding and arms smuggling. Christian Slater plays as a teenage skateboarder with Rust Cohle-like inspirational nihilism for days. I love that he ponders whether nuclear war or 7-Eleven is worse. He explains that a farm vet “helps cows get well so they can live long enough to be turned into Quarter Pounders.” This is Michael Tolkin’s first feature credit. Yes, the man who wrote The Player started here, and yes, you would say that Tim Robbins might’ve delivered that line better. Hell, I can even hear the pitch getting through Griffin Mill’s office. Writing this off as camp as easy, but to know it, like actually gleaming the cube, pries open the soul.
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Johnny Handsome (dir. Walter Hill)
Excluding Brewster’s Millions, a financially successful but lifeless detour into comedy, Walter Hill was unmatched as a journeyman throughout the 1980’s. He closed the decade with this inspired throwback to dime-novel thrillers of the 1940’s. After a botched robbery, Mickey Rourke has his facial deformities undone by an empathetic surgeon (Forest Whitaker), but his past catches up quicker than the plastic surgery can set in. Infamous for his offbeat career choices, Rourke shines as a man whose transition to a better life is already receding. The Hollywood romance with Elizabeth McGovern humanizes him in a way his ulterior motives for going straight do not. Stealing the movie, however, are Lance Henriksen and Ellen Barkin as the psychotic couple that set Johnny up to fail. Sunny and Rafe serve as a personification of Hill’s New Orleans, where the thriving culture is a façade for criminality. Henriksen and Barkin view their performances as the craft services area. Watching them play off each other feels a lot like Dorothy Vallens never escaped Frank Booth’s abusive grasp, reveling in all the joyrides and amyl nitrate huffing. As the hard-boiled detective who isn’t keen on Johnny’s new life, Morgan Freeman has a lot of fun in a role that breaks from his routine as a star player in awards-season favorites.

Johnny Handsome definitely has all the hallmarks of Hill’s tough-guy classics, including one of Ry Cooder’s best collaborations with the filmmaker. What sets it apart from his other films is how morally bleak it is. Carolco could have easily told him to clean up the gray areas, but they let him go with his gut. By the time its ending comes, his involvement with Tales from the Crypt makes a lot more sense.
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Leviathan (dir. George P. Cosmatos)
In the 90’s, Hollywood entered a notorious cycle of one-upmanship that fostered dueling projects about everything from history (Christopher Columbus, Wyatt Earp) to disasters (volcanoes, meteors). In the late 80’s, there was an attempted gold rush for the underwater science fiction movie. The most entertainment value is in George P. Cosmatos’ follow-up to Cobra, which trades match-chewing Stallone for a gnarly Stan Winston-designed sea monster. The plot has little to offer in originality, but what else were you expecting from RoboCop, Col. Trautman, Winston, and other actors you know from your favorite movies and shows teaming up to fight a mammalian giant squid? Leviathan has no time for pretension. The screenplay, by David Webb Peoples and Die Hard’s Jeb Stuart, is a work of colorful one-liners and B-movie insanity. Cosmatos, not one to skimp on gore, lays a good mix of people eating and Cronenberg-esque mutations. He also, as I have implied, does not care about the greater good. If you want that movie, there’s The Abyss, but this one can’t be written off.
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Licence to Kill (dir. John Glen)
My favorite James Bond movie, another one I’ve dropped wisdom on a few times here. The franchise’s fading popularity and one of the most formidable summer movie seasons of all time worked against its favor. It also didn’t help that it had far more violence than the other 15 Bond films, but this was, as many Bond films are, a reflection of film in the moment. Grounded in a storyline with personal stakes and antagonistic forces that crave monetary success, Licence to Kill is very much a reaction to the post-Reagan satirical bite of the action genre. In quick succession, films like Lethal Weapon, RoboCop, and Die Hard had rebuked the Schwarzenegger/Stallone market with flawed heroes and business-oriented villains without a lick of sympathy. Respectively, we see this reflected in Timothy Dalton’s vengeance-driven Bond and Robert Davi’s cold drug dealer, Franz Sanchez. Carey Lowell’s fierce CIA agent gets a substantial role in the film’s action, and even the loopy addition of Wayne Newton as a prancing lampoon of Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart is right in line.

Sure, there’s “better” Bond films. Goldfinger defined the formula. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service proved the hero couldn’t walk off into the sunset. GoldenEye is a stunning modernization. Skyfall made a case for the franchise as something other than a tentpole release. For me, however, nothing satisfies quite like this does.
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Miracle Mile (dir. Steve De Jarnatt)
This masterful cautionary tale is one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen. While it doesn’t fall squarely into horror, the genre whiplash—a charming romance that turns into a disturbing Cold War paranoia thriller—is astounding. When I first watched it, I wasn’t aware of the film’s structure. Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham have a believable, optimistic arc in the first act that is so pure, it could be reedited into a romantic comedy for the masses. When the date ends, so does the happiness. De Jarnatt lets go of the setup and asks us to trust his narrative hand. To have to witness Edwards’ attempts to buy time in not telling Winningham, who he’s just met, of impending apocalyptic doom is as heartbreaking as it is scary. At that, I’ll pull short of discussing the film as a whole—this one is crucial to see with as little known possible.
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Sea of Love (dir. Harold Becker)
How could a critically acclaimed box-office hit be underrated? With its lurid subject matter, Sea of Love should have gotten into the pop-culture vernacular, long term, in some way, but it lacks the unsubtle sleaze that would soon appoint Joe Eszterhas the Pope of Erotica… which works in its favor. The great Richard Price wrote a screenplay that certainly steams up the room, but the cerebral noir tendencies of the Wire writer give the film a fresh perspective. Al Pacino’s performance as a cop who might literally be sleeping with the enemy holds the brooding intensity his 70’s run, which is why this one was so passionately credited as his comeback. It also features one of the best lines of dialogue Pacino has ever delivered in his 50-year career: “Come the wet-ass hour, I’m everybody’s daddy!” Michael Mann probably retooled his Heat script the second he got home and even threw in “Who? Are you a fucking owl?” in there because it sounded better coming out of Pacino.

What is more significant, however, is how good the supporting cast is. As Pacino’s partner, John Goodman gives the film a levity that is required—hell, it might be one of the best cop sidekick performances ever. Michael Rooker, whose work in Henry hadn’t come to the masses yet, shows why his work for John McNaughton bought him an incredible run of supporting roles. Then, there’s Ellen Barkin, who I’d call one of the most underrated actresses of her generation. She’s handed a role that, with the wrong choice, would be camp plastered all over Mr. Skin. Barkin’s characterization is implicit, a woman whose does not have sex as the first priority. She sees attraction in the deeper meaning of her suitors, which, in turn, makes the story more lively. Harold Becker, whose previous film, The Boost, is one of the great unintentional comedies, rebounds with his workman style here. The third act veers into a silly boss fight between Pacino and the killer, but it’s not enough to undermine what is a compelling thriller.
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True Believer (dir. Joseph Ruben)
Before I go on, James Woods is an unabashed piece of shit whose politics and leering misogyny have squandered the truth of his incredible resume. I’ve gone over my love of his 80’s work, specifically Cop, while discussing 1988, and this one is no different. In the hands of a better writer, this could have been a classic. For one, it’s Joseph Ruben followup to The Stepfather, arguably the most intellectual slasher film that came out of the decade. Woods is paired with Robert Downey Jr., whose charisma and smarmy quirks made him a sort of anti-Tom Cruise in the era. A lot of the film’s virtues lie in how powerful both actors are, and in its concept. Woods has an incredible role in Eddie Dodd, a fabled civil liberties voice drowned out by the right-wing leanings of the courts. That also applies to Downey, playing a rookie lawyer with a conservative look and a progressive outlook. Together, their chemistry is dynamite. It’s the story, however, that holds it back. There’s a great hook in how Dodd sees a resurgence in the case of a wrongly incarcerated Korean man, but Strick’s screenplay relies so much on action sequences that you half-expect Kurtwood Smith’s antagonistic litigator to become a reprisal of Clarence Boddicker.

Nevertheless, the character development of this film is definitive. Just because A-plus characters end up in a B-movie plot does not make it bad. The plot decisions make Woods and Downey Jr. more gravitating. Ultimately, there’s only one crime in the film: Woods’ haircut. The best way I can describe it is William Petersen’s unkempt look from Manhunter with a dead ferret glued on as a ponytail. Hideous as it is, that should have its own IMDb page.
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1 comment:

SteveQ said...

I once owned 11 copies of that "Black Rain," as I was trying to get a copy of Imamura's "Black Rain" also from 1989.