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Bengal’s 80s’ Retrospective Part V (Re-Release)

As I play through the contested but by my own account still excellent Last of Us Part II for my extensive review that I feel must include spoilers to really express how I’m feeling, I have finished watching an additional five films released back in the 1980s that I had never seen before.

Quest for Fire (1981)

 

Image by Rotten Tomatoes (Ron Perlman as the First of Us.)

Quest For Fire is considered one of the better,more accurate depictions of early humanity on film, even if it still,intentionally, played loose with the scientific reality of the time.

For what it reportedly got wrong, it has different versions of hominids within walking distance of each other including Sapiens (us) and less advanced strains of humanity like the main tribe of neanderthals, more ape-like and with pronounced foreheads.

It is true that various levels of evolving humanity did live concurrently and even interbred to create the species we are today. I jokingly wonder if the stupider aspects of who we are today, especially on display right now, are hereditary hand me downs from the dumber branches.

The funny thing is that a lot of what Quest for Fire displays in early human behavior was actually not considered to be true when the film was released in 1981, but was vindicated after the fact. This is a caveman feature for those who want a more authentic  experience than other films like the madly inaccurate One Million Years B.C. with fur bikini-lad Raquel Welch and Emmerich’s much more recent 10,000 B.C. which involve pyramids being built and a villain observing the moon through a telescope.

It doesn’t hurt that it is an engrossing and inevitably gross on occasion adventure to watch, no matter your stance on how deeply you care about pre-historical accuracy.

Quest for Fire, as the name suggests, is about three neanderthal-like tribesmen being sent off to find a more sustainable source of fire for their group following a brutal battle with utterly ape-like hominids that drove them out.

The lead, Naoh, is played by Everett McGill, who you might know as a treacherous American DEA agent who backstabs James Bond and his CIA best buddy Felix Leiter in License to Kill, as well as a wildly miscast Stilgar from Lynch’s Dune, much more on that later.

The other notable caveman in the search party is Amoukar, portrayed by Ron Perlman in a role who was born to play. No offense to the man, but he looks like a caveman without the awesome prosthetics and makeup.

The three meet on their search a sapien woman named Ika, who they inadvertently rescue from a group of primitives practicing cannibalism and were planning on having her next after her mate. She is played by Rae Dawn Chong, daughter of Tommy Chong and better known for playing Ahnold’s female companion from Commando.

She is the most sympathetic of the cast due to her troubles in trying to communicate a more advanced set of practices for the trio which eventually includes the method that will save them all: fire-making from a hand drill. She falls for Naoh even after he takes her without consent, a foreign concept that is somewhat understandable due to these being literally caveman and not this year’s Presidential candidates.

Quest for Fire is more than just the human discovery of renewable sources of fire, that Promethean breakthrough, but also better manners of self-defense/warfare, taming wild animals like the brilliantly realized mammoths, learning to understand humor and more intimate methods of procreating the species.

In more ways than one, Quest for Fire is a grandiose, hauntingly scored depiction of humanity’s distant past that strangely may be comforting to watch for someone in 2020 despite its crude violence and full frontal depictions of male and female nudity though tempered by full body paint( the Mystique effect) and an underlying understanding that these humans aren’t quite our humans yet, so it feels less explicit.

Humanity’s early years was a time of daily struggle for survival, where Nietzsche’s philosophy of “will to power” was likely never more true as well as Darwin’s Survival of the Fittest. The film all but states that it wasn’t just the “fittest” that survived, it was those who strove to become the “smartest” as well.

In a time of despair and terrifying uncertainty, perhaps looking at our beginning can shore ourselves up to prevent our end in the coming decades. If that is too much for you as an appeal to check it out, it has Ron Perlman at perhaps his acting best and all of it without utilizing any modern language.

It’s all made up prehistoric talk with various dialects for different tribes. The movie successfully communicates everything through what amounts to glorified grunting, actual grunting, body language, facial movement and the tone of any given scene. It’s almost a callback to the silent era where actual words where much less useful to tell a story back then.

For all that Quest for Fire makes the Paleolithic period utterly unappealing and dirty as all hell, it’s also uplifting in what it says about humanity’s ultimately successful launch into the future unto now.

The Beastmaster (1982)

Image from Central Arkansas Library System (Calvin and Hobbes: Origins) 

The film that HBO effectively saved from obscurity, so much so that back in the 90s’ a common slang for the channel was “Hey,Beastmaster’s On”. Beastmaster is one part of what is one of my favorite movie trends of the 1980s’, mostly derived from the early to mid period of the decade: Sword and Sorcery.

There is something so enjoyable to me about this particular era of film-making handling this subgenre of heroic and dark fantasy, a cultivation of the breakthroughs of Robert E. Howard and Tolkien’s work.

It can be genuinely intelligent with a sprinkle of stupid like Conan the Barbarian( more on that later), mostly stupid( Sword and the Sorcerer) or wholly stupid and cheap like the Ator series, best exemplified by MST3K’s famous riffing of it.

The Beastmaster, based on a book if you can believe it, is somewhere between Conan’s smart and the mostly stupid of Sword and Sorcerer. It has a clear desire to have appeal to kids due its He-Man looking hero Dar having the magical ability to communicate, befriend and command animals of all shapes and sizes.

Being a PG film before PG-13, it is also quite violent and features pretty clear female nudity with little to no sexual undertones though a deleted scene had a love scene between Dar and his love interest Kiri, played by future bond girl Tanya Roberts. It didn’t help that they’re in truth cousins and still get together at the end. A movie after a Lannister’s heart.

Dar is the son of a deposed king who on top of having been secreted out of the kingdom to avoid the wrath of the evil wizard Maax, played by Rip Torn in top form, was also poisoned by a coven of witches in Maax’s service. The poison didn’t take and he instead became the animal whisperer of all animal whisperers. His adoptive father also made him a badass warrior.

Once his village is destroyed by a mercenary army in Maax’s employ, leaving Dar the sole survivor, he goes in search of the vile band who wronged him and through his powers recruits an eagle, an adorable pair of ferrets and an awesome black tiger. One of the cats that played the tiger was I believe sickened by the black paint they put on him, which makes Beastmaster rather notorious for having animals harmed in the making of a production.

Just as disturbing is when Dar first meets Kiri, who is in truth the niece to the king, which in turn makes their eventual romance a little hard to accept. After Dar sees her bathing nude in a waterfall/pond, he lures her with help from the ferrets into a clearing and tries to have her way with her against her wishes, very unlike a sympathetic hero.

He doesn’t go all the way once he realizes she’s a slave and comes to care for her beyond lust even after learning their familial connection. Another ally in Dar’s quest for justice is Seth(John Amos), the black bodyguard to the king and overall commander of the army, living in hiding with Prince Tal, Dar’s brother.

Perhaps due to lacking any magical properties unlike Dar and being a mentor figure to the Prince only, I don’t know if Seth falls into the “Magical Negro” stereotype. He is more or less treated like any other big cheese with authority from the kingdom before Maax’s coup which makes him more comfortable for me to digest.

The Beastmaster, for all the legitimate sword and sorcery fun and creativity displayed through the great choreography with the animals, doesn’t feel like a full-on cult classic in terms of quality. Marc Singer’s delivery of Dar’s lines are stilted in places and it’s the use of commanding animals to do tasks and fight back enemies that gives the movie a strong enough identity to stand out from in its crowded genre of cinema.

If you haven’t already, give it a watch to see how it stacks in the cult, sword and sorcery and 80’s markets and it won’t take much convincing I think on my part to tell you to skip the two sequels, based on what I read up about them.

Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Image from The Blog of Delights (Ahnold before his middle teeth get fixed.)

Perhaps the best of the 80’s sword and sorcery films, Conan the Barbarian is more widely acknowledged for being Schwarzenegger’s break-through film into Hollywood stardom, which The Terminator would solidify two years later.

It’s also one of the more obvious attempts to promote the philosophy of Fredrick Nietzsche from the eyes of two people who really dig their own interpretation of the divisive German philosopher, Oliver Stone and John Milius who co-wrote. Stone and Milius are politically opposed yet came together over a mutual love of Nietzsche and presumed affection for Robert E. Howard’s iconic literary figure.

Conan the Barbarian, in spite of still containing cheesy elements of the period’s take on the genre, is still grandiose and smart enough to stand as something that feels serious, genuine, not tongue in cheek. Yes, your tongue may very well be in your cheek when you hear Arnold’s unintentionally amusing grunts and moans when in close combat or wrestling a giant snake, but otherwise, bemusement is not what is intended as reaction.

It doesn’t hurt that Basil Paledouris’ score is utterly incredible and captures better than anything else the mythic, romantic world that Conan inhabits. It was so good that Nintendo got the license to use the most famous track “Riddle of Steel/ Riders of Doom” for the Legend of Zelda series. It accompanies Conan’s father giving him some life advice involving the use of swords to a pretty epic assault on their village by the titular riders under the command of James Earl Jones’ delightfully evil Thulsa Doom.

Have a listen here through a trailer for The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

I wonder how many back in 1998 knew that was from Conan. Anyway, Thulsa Doom is the closest we will ever get to James Earl Jones not just voicing but physically playing Darth Vader.

Conan the Barbarian has been noted for its themes beyond a sympathetic exploration of Nietzsche’s beliefs like “What doesn’t kill you” as explicitly quoted at the start of the film to the upsides and downsides of “Will to Power”. Conan represents the upside of pursuing it and Thulsa the downside. It’s also been noted for its possibly neutral examination of toxic masculinity, more retroactive than not.

In a world like Conan’s, after having lost his village and parents and been forced to spend the rest of his childhood pushing a wheel for a never explained reason, surviving and growing stronger through it gives him the ability to express his might.

In one of the most quoted, if not most quoted moment, Conan under a slaver’s rule is told what is best in life. He responds: “To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you and hear the lamentations of their woman.”

Conan, following an average hero’s arc, will go on to do at least one of those things, such as the first. He doesn’t seem to care much for the lamentations of women, and perhaps based on the worldview of the writers, likely more Stone than Milius, women are not treated all that poorly by Conan. He falls in love with a female warrior and companion Valeria and comes to see her no less equal in sharing the glory of their exploits alongside his best buddy Subotai.

True, Conan holds in the tears effortlessly when Valeria is slain by Thulsa Doom and he lights a pyre for her as a funeral afterwards. Men being seen as crying for any reason has been culturally considered to be “unmanly” though it is physically and psychologically seen as healthy. Probably without knowing that, Tolkien let his mostly male band of heroes in LOTR like Aragon cry. Perhaps to split the difference, a man does cry out of grief for Valeria’s death, Subotai, who does it in Conan’s stead.

Whether or not Conan the Barbarian is a true proponent of ugly ideas about what masculinity should be, like killing or humiliating your enemies, being a dick for your own ego or shouting down or hurting anyone who opposes your own sense of what is right and wrong, is not fully known to me.

It seems much more progressive a film than its supposed promotion of toxic masculinity would suggest. Yes, Conan does slay his way to victory against Thulsa for revenge, but he does so with care for his friends and loved ones and he is given more selfless motivation to bring down Doom due to a Midsommar looking cult he’s running. He was also tasked by a King played by Max von Sydow to rescue his daughter who became part of the cult, but you can sense that Arnold’s Conan isn’t all about himself.

Whether or not this movie makes you comfortable with its handling of Nietzsche’s messages is another matter. I suppose it does make the statement that good and evil can be done in the name of “Will to power”, like Doom’s subjugating of hundreds if not thousands of people and Conan’s violent method of stopping him.

Maybe the message is to acknowledge the timeworn reality of what “Will to power” is and strive to make the best of it for both your sake and others.

If that is all too much to process, it’s also a rollicking good adventure with a great atmosphere propelled by the Poledouris score and a great sense of capturing not the narrative of Howard’s work, but the spirit. All that infused by a cocktail of politically divergent screenwriters coming together to tell a story that may not wholly be connected but works very much on its own merits.

The Secret of Nimh (1982)

Image from Never Heard of WordPress ( Mrs. Brisby and one old as hell mystic rat.)

Don Bluth’s Secret of Nimh hearkens one back to a different time.

A time when Bluth’s movies were considered more than acceptable alternatives to Disney’s animated output. When G-rated movies could have blood, death and a generally dark look and tone. To a time when David Carradine’s daddy John voiced the most ominously badass looking owl with his just as badass baritone.

Based on a children’s novel by Robert C. O’Brien, The Secret of Nimh involves a young widower mouse who is trying to care for her ill son right as it is very much time for her family and the local animal community to get the hell out of dodge. The suitcase that makes up her home is in a farm that is about to destroyed due to harvest season being nigh and the time of plowing coming with it.

A local group of super intelligent rats that live nearby offer her medicine and the chance to safely take them to safety in time before plowing begins. In her efforts to protect and save her family, she learns the, well, secret of Nimh and how it eerily echoes the plotline of Rise of the Planet of the Apes released 29 years later.

Essentially, human experimentation of rodents inadvertently results in rats and mice that have become self aware and with a desire to leave their imprisonment at the National Institute of Mental Health (get it?) and make their lives their own. Their brave mouse leader,Jonathan, was Mrs. Brisby’s husband before being eaten by the farm’s ugly as sin cat, Dragon.

The basic gist for what Mrs. Brisby needs to do to succeed is find “uncommon courage” and with it will power a ruby necklace that will help her. Don Bluth has gone on record that some of the logic of the world is left intentionally to your interpretation.

For instance, what is science and what is honest to God magic? While the rats of NIMH are explained to have recieved their human level intelligence by intravenous drug, all the other animals that were never at NIMH like Mrs. Brisby, the crow Jeremy played by Dom Deluise and the Great Owl also seem to have intelligence on par with the rats.

True, there are super smart ones like the mystic Nicodemus played by Derek Jacobi but it seems hard to tell exactly what the important difference is in the animals’ intelligence. Also, elements like accurate prophecy, the ruby necklace’s blatantly magical properties confuses me as to the logic of this movie’s world.

Perhaps I should’ve paid more attention or maybe this is a movie deserving of one than one watch to get the full picture. It is saved by breathtakingly detailed animation, especially for the time and a creativity and color to its world that is unforgettable.

It’s also much ballsier than most kids movies I’ve seen in tone, subject matter and characters both heroic and not getting killed off screen. This is before the PG-13 rating came in so maybe the G rating could get away with much more back then. Secret of NIMH released today would get PG without question though it’s not hard enough for the next level up.

The Secret of NIMH stands out in my own history for how I mistook it for a completely separate movie. I remember watching on maybe more than one occasion a film called Once upon a Forest but couldn’t register the movie’s title as this preceded my getting a pair of glasses to properly see.

It also involves a group of mice going on a adventure for a reason I have entirely forgotten, even after watching the Nostalgia Critic’s review of it much closer to now. Another reason for my confusing the two movies is that there is a scene where some of the mice are captured by humans, thinking they are about to suffer a horrible fate though in truth, those humans are actually trying to help them, showing a more sympathetic angle to rodent-human relations than Bluth’s movie.

All I can say now is that The Secret of Nimh, for all its logical blind spots and matters left unanswered is still a well animated piece of work with a great soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith and a little bit of that childlike wonder filtered in to my twenty-something despair filled body.

Check it out though you will have to put up with a very grating performance by Deluise as the crow companion to Mrs. Brisby.

Dune (1984)

Image by Philosophy in Film (Yes, that is Patrick Stewart holding a pug about to charge into battle, why do you ask?)

Due to Villenueve’s very promising two-part attempt at adapting the first and most beloved entry in Frank Herbert’s groundbreaking science fiction series, I decided to add a movie further down the line for me to watch for this retrospective. I also bought and read the original book to prepare myself for both Lynch’s polarizing take and the maybe, maybe not arriving in December new take.

Dune is a great novel though I would struggle to consider it a new favorite of mine in the same spirit I felt reading thorough all seven Harry Potters, all three parts of the Lord of the Rings or Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Early on in the novel, the use of new made up words and the casual use of them made it a bit hard for me to keep my attention. Eventually, the narrative congealed into a fascinating observation on humanity’s technologically progressive yet culturally regressive possible future with added allegory of Middle-Eastern politics, colonialism, and what a messianic figure might actually be thinking if he became a messianic figure.

There is a lot to digest in Dune aided by a leisurely pace on top of its length. I especially dig how the protagonist, Paul Atreides, now Muad-Dib, has become a religious icon deeply concerned with how horribly bloody his legacy will be and how he has become a colder, less likable person in the attempt to avert an honest to God Jihad, as said deliberately in the book.

Dune is a rare piece of Western fiction that emphasizes its inspiration from Islam first rather than most often Christianity first and Judaism second, if at all. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth and far more obviously Lewis’ Narnia took after the life and legacy of Jesus Christ. Why not have a shot at taking after Mohammed and Allah once in a while?

So, after a long as hell tirade on my takeaway from the novel and what I felt it symbolized, how does David Lynch’s cult film handle it?

Well, I can’t say it’s entirely a wash, ironic I say that considering the majority of Dune takes place on Arrakis, the desert planet that almost certainly inspired Star Wars’ Tattoine.

Some of the set design, such as House Atreides’ fortress and its relation to a nearby plateau is pretty spot on. The sandworms look very authentic to how I pictured them and they look good as a effect even now. A couple of the choices of actors and actresses for the characters are good, like Kyle Mclachlen as Paul, Francesca Annis as Lady Jessica and Jurgen Prochnow as Duke Leto Atreides, with good relation to book description. Everyone else, however, does not match how I pictured them, some to crazy lengths.

Patrick Stewart as Gurney Halleck doesn’t look the part based on the ugly description given in novel, but it’s Patrick Stewart, I still liked his take despite his lack of screentime. That same generosity can’t be given to anyone else.

Dean Stockwell as Dr. Yueh and Everett Mcgill as Stilgar especially bug me due to how they take white actors and put them in roles I’m almost certain were meant to be Asian and Middle-Eastern appearing in the novel. I know Dune takes place a long,long,long,long,long,long,long time in the future but it just doesn’t click when I compare the name and description in book to what I saw onscreen.

An Asian actor will be playing Yueh in the new movie and Javier Bardem while Hispanic and not Middle-Eastern, much better fits with how I imagine Stilgar to appear. Had a Dune movie been made almost immediately after the novel’s 1965 release, I can think of no one better to play Stilgar than Omar Sharif.

But it’s not just whitewashing that’s a problem. It’s not just the actor’s appearance not matching the novel as I can be more forgiving if they still play the part accurately, like Jim Broadbent playing but not resembling Professor Slughorn in Harry Potter. No, it’s being seemingly on purpose different from the behavior and mannerism of Herbert’s description.

This is mostly delegated to the poor Harkonnens, the main antagonists. Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, the super fat head of the house in the book reminded me of several rotund figures that were also cold, calculating masterminds. There was Marvel’s Kingpin, who is more massively muscled than fat, as he is very happy to showcase to Daredevil and Spider-Man’s horror.

There is Varys, the bald, plump spymaster for the Kingdom of Westoros in A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones, though he is a work behind-the-scenes, never the head honcho kind of character.

I even thought of the Allfather from Garth Ennis’ Preacher, who also has an eating disorder like the Baron. Wouldn’t be surprised if some of these characters I’ve mentioned were inspired by the Baron. In terms of an actor and his voice, none come more clearly to my head than Orson Welles. Jodorowsky’s infamously cancelled version had tapped the considerably fatter Welles to do the role in the 70s and was promised to have great meals every day by a chef of his choice.

For most fans, including this one artist, this is the Baron Harkonnen.

Image from Wikipedia

This is Lynch’s version played by Kenneth Mcmillan.

Image from Theiapolis

So, the Baron, along with the rest of his household are apparently like an evil version of the Weasleys, while being overly jovial in their cruelty rather than just coldly cruel, love some type of black goo they eat and pour over their body( at least the Baron does) and they send young men to be molested and subsequently murdered by the Baron.

This might be some metaphor for AIDS which was in horrific full swing in 84′, as the Baron has some disgusting pustules and boils on his body. This may also act in reflecting how Frank Herbert was, even for his time, very homophobic. It’s hinted in the book that the Baron preys or takes sexual interest in young men, including even his nephew Feyd-Rautha. This can all be true or its Lynch being his usual odd, occasionally gross self.

Speaking of which, Feyd is played pretty well and with some measure of infectious enthusiasm by Sting. Again, he looks little like how I pictured Feyd but for what it’s worth, Sting’s performance is the best thing about the Harkonnens for me.

More than bad casting or visual representation, Dune’s chief problem reminds me of a much, much worse film: Shyamalan’s despised The Last Airbender. The 2010 attempt at translating Avatar: The Last Airbender into cinematic format had a shit-ton of problems in nearly every department save the occasionally great score by James Newton Howard.

The chief problem was stuffing a twenty episode season of story into a film clocking around an hour and 40 minutes, including credits. The best screenwriter possible couldn’t reasonably expect to make a decent abridged take on the story in that amount of time. If I was in charge of an Avatar: Last Airbender movie adaptation, I’d make at least two decently long movies based on one season, and even then.

Dune, unlike ATLA, is a long novel, not an animated TV season. Dune 84′ is also longer than The Last Airbender at 2 hours and 16 minutes. Still not enough time to translate Dune well, hence why Villenueve is carving it into two movies. Good man.

For the first portion of the film, Lynch’s Dune is fairly close to faithful in relating the story, albeit with way too much exposition, some of it downright redundant. Once Paul and Jessica escape death by the Harkonnens, that’s when the narrative and its connection with the novel’s pacing goes right off a cliff and into a sandworm’s gullet.

In order to speed things along, in theory, the movie uses a prophecy relating to Arrakis’ two moons( not in the book) to predict Paul’s future as leader of the planet’s native people, the Fremen, have as lover and concubine Chani( Sean Young post Blade Runner) and eventually drive the Emperor to confront him and gain vengeance over the Harkonnens.

Important moments to Paul and Jessica’s growing connection with the Fremen are zoomed through at lightspeed. The weirding way, which I didn’t fully grasp while reading but apparently acts as a super advanced perhaps magical martial arts becomes a voice based gun. Okay.

Paul and Chani’s relationship and romance, while not that well developed or as much as I would like in the book, happens over montage and narration, almost exactly like a romance subplot in The Last Airbender. Did Shyamalan use Lynch’s Dune as basis for plot structure? Not much of a twist if true.

It takes all the interesting shades of gray that made the original Dune what it was and suffocates it like too much sand in favor of a very streamlined rush to the finish line where Paul becomes an unabashed savior of humanity, triumphant against his foes, with no internal doubt as to what he has become and is doing. He even brings rain to Arrakis, which didn’t happen in the novel because it wholly misses the point of the story and that it would kill all the sandworms that Paul and co. use as steeds.

Dune is mostly easy on the eyes, with some few hits among the many misses and is bolstered by an awesome title theme by Brian Eno and a generally great score by of all people, Toto. They did miss an opportunity at the end to have an altered version of their “Africa”. “I bless the rains in Arrakis!” Not much else to bless, I’m afraid.

Well, there’s always this December and the following year to see a cinematic Dune done right or better. Though COVID-19 might hold up the arrival of a newer, better Kwisatz Haderach.

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