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Bengal’s 1980s retrospective PART I (Re-Release)

So, with the inevitable droughts of new content to review or talk about on this blog, my mind and I imagine many others drift to past popular culture to engage in. Box Office Mojo was a good place to check into films I might’ve passed up or even been unaware of.

The yearly box office gross accounting at the site begins in 1980 and its list of films released isn’t comprehensive. Some noteworthy films, one from Walter Hill, is actually absent from the year it was released.

I chalk it up to the site not having the information on that film’s financial results. Another glaring example of a cult classic that doesn’t have the numbers available is the first in Cannon Film’s Ninja trilogy, Enter the Ninja. The film that helped inspire an American interest in the warriors of the shadows. Fear not, I will be seeing and reviewing that film when I come around to it on my list.

Starting in 1980, I looked up the films accounted for in lowest to highest gross that year. I figure out the critical and if need be audience receptions to those films. Are they worth a watch?

While the critics’ opinion may be unfavorable, the film may have also earned a cult classic status and is still worth investing some time in. So far, I have seen seven films released in 1980 in the beginning of this attempt to catch up on cinema. The 80s, speaking as a man born in 1993, was a golden age for campy, charming B-movies, cult classics, or outright classics that continue to inspire the modern cinematic era.

I begin this series of mini-reviews with a sci-fi horror title from British director Ken Russell: Altered States.

Altered States

 

Image from IMDB (And I think I have issues)

I should start by mentioning that Ken Russell as a filmmaker was rather…intrigued by Catholicism, not so much in a reverent sense, but just in a subject to tackle artistically. It likely stemmed from his upbringing but over the years making films he was given some criticism over it.

This is the only Russell film I’ve seen so far so I can’t really say if Altered States’ visual imagery regarding Catholic iconography was anything egregious. But seeing William Hurt engage in sexual intercourse during an “altered state of consciousness trip” among other religious visions is just the tip of an insane iceberg. Considering the subject matter, I’d be disappointed if it wasn’t.

It all revolves around a scientist played by Hurt who ruins his marriage and enstranges those around him in his search for higher truth from these crazy hallucinogenic experiments.

I am not one to tell you or anyone if any of the science in Altered States has merit in the real world. Then again, two late-in-the-film experiences makes him both devolve into a caveman and become a prehistoric man-blob of some kind. The fiction in this science-fiction feature is so evident.

What I took away from Altered States was that for all the hypothesizing and visual madness the film throws at me with giddy glee, it did manage to provoke a reaction of general introspection on the nature of consciousness.

I am aware that the “isolation in a water tank” experience is not scientifically viable but maybe back in 1980 the truth of that “field” of science wasn’t quite there yet. It was a fun yet dark exploration of what would it be like if these experiments were viable. Science fiction is, by its nature about “what if” and it is often a cool yet scary place to visit.

The proof that Altered States worked for me despite the disproven nature of it field is Hurt’s performance which manages to both genuinely intellectual and unhinged at the right moments. The effects for the time hold up much better than you would think and almost manage to be the successor visually to 2001. Unlike Star Trek: The Motion Picture from a year prior, Altered States doesn’t waste its time with you.

The Long Riders

Image from Rotten Tomatoes (Ride and/or die)

Of the seven movies I have so far viewed, The Long Riders from Walter Hill is the one I have enjoyed the least.

It is one of many, many films about one of America’s famous outlaws, Jesse James and the James-Younger gang he led. The historical truth of James, even putting the whole bank robber aspect aside, makes him severely undeserving of the legend that was born out of him. Being part of a Confederate guerrilla force that committed explicit war crimes during the Civil War is enough to inspire contempt for the man.

The problem I have with the Long Riders isn’t the subject matter or the light romanticization of James and his gang. That is be almost expected even as recently as 1980.

It’s that a film with a generally large cast of gang members all of which consisted of real life actor-brothers( the Carradines, the Keaches, the Quaids) doesn’t give enough time to really cover their stories or their characters. the film is only an hour and 39 minutes and it feels like Hill rushed through the post civil war crime spree that took James from infamy in Missouri to downfall in Minnesota.

Truth be told, when Hill lets the bullets fly and the horses ride out does it qualities shine better. The disastrous robbery in Northfield, Minnesota is actually a well crafted spectacle with beautifully executed slow motion which accentuates the wounds inflicted on the gang and their growing desperation to escape a heavily armed town as well as some stunts so good it would rival the work of George Miller’s Mad Max series.

The downtime involving historical scene setting and character development doesn’t hold up as well. It’s possible that the Netflix DVD not having the option for subtitles means I often didn’t catch what anyone was saying.

I still suggest The Long Riders as a watch as the moments of action and violence are truly well scripted and shot. For those who can’t get enough of the legend of Jesse James, the film doesn’t treat him that kindly for a romantic take. In fact, the acts of violence both from and at the James-Younger gang may make it an example of showing at least visually the horrible truth of that portion of the American West’s history.

It’s odd to call Missouri and Minnesota part of the Wild West, but what a nice way to show how much things have changed since then.

The Big Red One

Image from IMDB (Yes, that is Mark Hamill)

The Big Red One is that really good WW2 film that fell under the radar and only in recent years has received  recognition that seemed deserved back in its 1980 release. Of course, the theatrical cut is not the same as the Restoration which was a longer and I imagine more robust take on a American squad’s journey from North Africa to Nazi Germany.

In terms of its violence, it can still register a shocked reaction, but nothing in its depiction of war is as visceral as Spielberg’s game-changer Saving Private Ryan 18 years later or Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge.

The most violent image I remember is that of a French-led Algerian soldier practicing the tradition of cutting the ears off deceased enemies. Something that only stops when Lee Marvin’s aging sergeant learns they’ve been cutting Allied ears as well.

That serves as a microcosm of the underlying message of The Big Red One. Sure, on the outside it’s about a five man team of GI’s in the First Marine Division( Big Red One) learning to fight and survive together in the African and European theaters of the second world war. By design, pretty necessary. The darker message is that the good guys of the war are not immune to the same inhumane practices that war tempts in us.

Killing is inevitable in any serious conflict. The Big Red One carry it out as professionally as they can. Lee Marvin’s Sergeant is also a veteran of the first world war and accidentally killed a German soldier four hours after the Armistice that ended that horrifying ordeal. Marvin is haunted the entire film and tries his best to get the job done, keep his squad alive and avoid the same mistakes he made.

Mark Hamill is, obviously, the most noteworthy actor other than Marvin to appear in the film, and I can’t really think of another live action role of Hamill’s that was worth a damn other than recently in the first Kingsman movie. It sucks that The Big Red One flopped back in the day. Maybe its success could’ve kept Hamill afloat without the need for voice acting.

Another facet that makes The Big Red One a still somewhat unsung success is how the dialect and mannerisms of the squad don’t feel as cliched or tired as the countless films about the American war experience have made it over time.

It probably helps that both Marvin and director Samuel Fuller were WW2 veterans, the former surviving the terrors of the Pacific including the tragedy of Saipan and the latter being part of the BRO itself. They knew firsthand what they were talking about and it still shows all these years later.

Ordinary People

 

Image from IMDB (Father and Son dealing with some Mommy issues)

Many Best Picture Oscars have contested selections. This year’s Awards had last year’s Green Book win the gold and many people have many different reasons why that shouldn’t have won what is now more than ever, an arbitrary honor. It’s the collective memory and consideration of people, critics or not, that consider what film was the real best film to come out any given year.

Nowadays, if you think of the best film of 1980, three films likely come to mind if you are knowledgeable about movies and the years they are released in. Not as many people as I would like to admit, admittingly.

Those three films are Kubrick’s The Shining, The Empire Strikes Back and Scorsese’s Raging Bull. Only Raging Bull got the nomination yet Ordinary People was victorious. Scorsese took the loss well as he like the winner. What a good sport.

Seeing as how I have not seen Raging Bull, which is probably something I should add to my watchlist, I’ll take people’s word that Ordinary People was a good even great film that didn’t deserve the “highest” honor of 1980. More importantly, what did I think?

I thought it was a thoughtful, sad, yet strangely hopeful tale of accepting trauma, the truth that some people in your life are not the way you want them to be and that there are ways to cope with those harsh truths. Timothy Hutton’s teenage lead is seeing a shrink played amazingly well by Judd Hirsch( Jeff Goldblum’s very Jewish dad in Independence Day).

It’s not just a gingerly paced rehabilitation odyssey for Hutton, but a painful series of self-actualization for his parents portrayed by Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore. At times, I actually felt more sympathy for the Dad than the son as not only is he more quietly accepting his oldest son’s untimely death, he’s realizing that same son was the only member of the family his wife genuinely cared about. Selective sociopathy.

Nothing about Ordinary People screams Best Picture winner in any category I can think of. Perhaps I haven’t seen enough movies. It’s still pretty good and worth a watch, especially as a visually enjoyably time capsule of the 70s becoming the 80s.

The Last Metro

Image from Letterboxd (Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France)

One of Francois Truffaut’s last films before cancer shortened his life too soon, The Last Metro is about a Jewish theater owner hiding in the basement while his gentile wife keeps the show going in a Paris controlled by the Nazis.

While Paris’ beautiful metropolitain’ subway is mentioned and has minor plot relevance, I didn’t quite get why it was the title of the movie. It might have been about the question of whether to smuggle the Jewish husband out of the city to the safety of a neutral state like Spain. Spoilers, it doesn’t happen that way.

An interesting love triangle is the focus of the work, revolving the gentile wife now theater manager, the hiding husband and the newly hired performer played by renowned French actor Gerard Depardieu. The temptation lies in the wife falling for the charming actor as an escape from the liability that her persecuted husband might become. All while trying to keep the theater open amidst Nazi censorship standards.

Despite appreciating Truffaut’s 400 Blows and his interesting take on Fahrenheit 451, I’m not the biggest fan of the self proclaimed film buff, almost a French precursor to Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith. In that the fans are the ones running the show. The Last Metro is kept interesting for myself due to the drama that naturally arises from a setting of Paris under Hitler’s thumb.

As Truffaut intends, your sympathies for the leads evolve with the actions, likable or not.

Gerard’s Bernard is a great actor who wants to get in the pants of Catherine Deneuve’s Marion but is tempered by genuine affection for her growing over time. Marion starts to have feelings for him back while still loving her hidden husband, lying about his  status as cover. Inevitably, Heinz Bennett’s Lucas grows restless living in the dank basement, wanting to return to his love of conducting the arts.

The resolution is welcome and more hopeful than I would expect from a director who helped push the “art” in arthouse cinema. Maybe he wanted to craft a feelgood narrative for a European country that had to suspend much of its dignity when occupied. That even a worse case scenario has a prideful outcome worthy of a nation like France.

That being said, Truffaut is wisely unafraid to treat the French people as multifaceted and flawed. Daxiat, a film critic turned Nazi collaborator and propagandist, is the greatest threat to Lucas being discovered. He is a grim admission of the French character of WW2. The French acted as victim, persecutor and hero in the war. All three are present and all three make worth of Truffaut’s second to last feature.

The Stunt Man

Image from Haphazard Stuff (A director and his stunt man taking an uncomfortable break)

The Stunt Man, which rather appropriately based on the titular character, flew under the radar of most in 1980, is not really about a possibly evil director who knowingly threatens the safety of his cast and crew. It’s not about the ethics or lack thereof of the moviemaking process, Hollywood or not.

It’s about perspective, that the truth is often as reliable as our brains process it. Really interesting theme to digest as I endure the “post-truth” world of today.

A Vietnam veteran who committed a crime which even after he eventually explains it to his love interest I have a hard time understanding, ends up recruited as a stunt man for the lead in a WW1 epic. It’s conveniently being shot at a Californian resort town of all places. Again, perspective can be all the difference.

The interesting thing about Cameron, the fugitive turned stunt man, is that he isn’t revealed to be a wrongfully convicted man, like the heroic A-Team. He is very much guilty of a crime, though one that doesn’t seem the most morally ruinous in all fairness. The movie doesn’t just play on what you perceive visually, but what you feel.

The three leads, Cameron (Steve Railsback), the director Eli Cross (Peter O’Toole) and Nina( Barbara Hershey) all have moments when you find them more than a little difficult to like. You’re supposed to dislike or at least be apprehensive of the director who is intentionally made to resemble a demonic figure.

The poster is explicit about that. The accidental death of the stunt man before Cameron and Cross’ ambivalence about that loss strikes an unnerving chord. While Cross may or may not be a bad person, the lead figure, Cameron is no angel either. You begin to wonder if he, not Cross, is the true villain of the feature.

There is a lot to digest in The Stunt Man and it may be worth more than one viewing to fully understand what entirely happens. If that isn’t enough of a recommendation, the movie lives up to the promise of the title and does have some impressive set pieces for the limited budget.

A World War 1 fighter plane strafing and destroying a German beach garrison, all a film set being viewed by the curious pier visitors. A daring rooftop chase where the stunt man outruns dozens of German soldiers and ends up in a lewd finale crashing into a brothel where off duty soldiers are getting the other piece of the action.

It’s telling that once Cameron reaches that stage of the sequence being filmed, I was almost tricked into thinking he was actually an Allied fighter pilot, stuck deep in the beast’s belly, about to be skewered with among other items, the soldier’s sharp pickelhaubs.

Despite knowing ahead of time it’s all staged make believe, me and Cameron can lose track of reality and fall head first into the illusion that is movie magic. Question is, for a man with something to hide, how does he reconcile what is true about everything else if he can’t be fully honest with himself?

Let me ask you a question, how often had you thought some violent, risky stunt you saw on a camera was the truth and not some cleverly disguised trick? In this day and age, The Stunt Man makes more sense now than it did then. Maybe that’s why it bombed.

Motel Hell

Image from The Dissolve (No, Saw wasn’t the first to think up the bad guy wearing a pig’s head. Good thing, honestly.)

Aside from being regarded a cult classic horror comedy, what drew me to selecting Motel Hell to watch was that it helped inspire a boss fight for Resident Evil 7.

A major encounter early in the game involves the player character Ethan ending up being knocked into a caged room by one of the antagonists, Jack Baker. After giving him some pain with your guns, he opens up a fence and gets out a chainsaw. Fortunately, there is also a chainsaw for you to use.

Unfortunately, unlike Jack’s, which is scissor-shaped( a call back to another horror series called Clock Tower), yours often needs to be restarted due to a lack of fuel. You proceed to duel with the saws until either you win or you die. That is almost exactly what happens at the end of Motel Hell ,where the witless young sheriff fights his much older cannibal brother to end the gross source of Farmer Vincent’s Meats.

What keeps Motel Hell from being too revolting for its own good is a good amount of humor about the whole experience as well as being really creative with how the crazed farmer and his sister go about the “farming process”. It involves a pre-Cheers/Pixar John Ratzenberger, for one. Sadly, he doesn’t make it. It does make his eventual role of Hamm in the Toy Story films all the more hilarious if you can stomach the thought.

One thing that surprisingly works in the movie’s favor is that while not everyone involved is necessarily evil, everyone is to some extent off their rocker too. Wolfman Jack of American Graffiti fame plays a strange televangelist with connections to Farmer Vincent (Rory Calhoun).

The deputy(Paul Linke), while at times lovingly gullible and stupid, kinda ruins it by forcing himself on the female lead Terry (Nina Axelrod). He is only stopped by the police chatter that involves one of his brother’s preying on the travelers passing through. Terry herself, who is tricked into thinking her boyfriend died in a car crash she survived and caused by Vincent, is also strange.

Not so much in her being into much older men like her fifty something boyfriend, who has a much worse fate in store thanks to the brother and sister who take her in, but after an “accident” caused by the jealous sister Ida(Nancy Parsons), she falls in love with Vincent for rescuing her. As a fictional purple cat once said, “We’re all mad here”.

The craziness of the cast combined with wondering how this cannibal couple will be brought down makes the disgusting stuff seen or implied much more palatable and almost solid social commentary. You know, on how absolutely right or wrong the human diets really are. How close are we all to being as bad as Vincent or Ida Smith if we are so easily tricked with their meats?

I did have two regrets while watching Motel Hell and none of them were aimed at the quality of the film. I should not have eaten some messy chicken wings for this type of film and this was more deserving of a late September/ October viewing.

That’s why all the horror films I have marked for viewing later are going to be relegated to that time period. You know, get in the spirit of the season, like Motel Hell was successfully trying to do a month or so too early.

More to come when I have another six films in my system. Got to finish The Boys too.

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