After many delays due to other contemporary topics to write about, I’m back to another of what is destined to be possibly hundreds of entries in this Retrospective series, as I’m doing these movies 4 at a time, with few exceptions. After around maybe the 20th entry, I might denote the normal number along with the Roman numeral, not that there is really any need to read these in order.
Used Cars (1980)
Robert Zemeckis’ second movie, four years before his financial big break with Romancing the Stone and five before cementing himself as one of Hollywood’s new giants with Back to the Future, is a darkly comic sign of things to come.
His first flick, I want to hold your Hand, all about a bunch of Beatles fangirls trying to meet the fab four at Ed Sullivan, mirrors Used Cars as both were kindly received by the critics yet were box office failures. I probably should check out Zemeckis’ first one day but because it was released in the 70s’, I refrained from watching it.
Why this originally failed is what I’m wondering.
Romancing the Stone, which is on my list for 80s’ viewing for this site, likely won people over with it being an action-adventure/rom-com hybrid, a cheeky alternative to the concurrently releasing Indiana Jones movies, funny considering Zemeckis and Spielberg’s friendship and partnership over BTTF. Back to the Future, well, that is one of Hollywood’s most legendary sleeper hits, coming out of nowhere in the Summer of 1985 to be the year’s biggest film, and oh so deserving of it.
Why couldn’t Zemeckis’ flicks about 60’s fangirls and comically scummy used car salesman engender the same success? Of course, few directors launch themselves into both critical and monetary stardom at the start and maybe it was that factor alone that stymied Forrest Gump’s eventual director early on. Of course, the success of his filmography starting with either Stone or Future made his first two retroactively viewed and re-evaluated, as is want to happen. Similar to how the meteoric success of Final Fantasy VII led to greater attention to the first six games, especially for IV and VI.
Used Cars’ subject matter and mostly cynical depiction of human behavior might’ve also contributed to it being initially a financial clunker. It’s the story of two used car dealerships, located uniquely enough in Phoenix, Arizona. Two aging dealership owners, both played by Jack Warden and both named as a profane joke (Roy L. Fuchs and Luke Fuchs) are ever at odds, wanting the other to fall out of business. The much younger Rudy, played by our boy Kurt Russell, is the one who directly operates the dealership of the “lesser evil” due to the brother on that end being the eldest and having some severe heart issues.
One of the “greater evil” brother’s(Roy) plots leads to the other brother (Luke) dying and what does in the brother is just sad. While both Fuchs brothers are shysters, seeing how Roy’s henchmen kills Luke was plain cruel and hard to watch. Upon realizing what has happened to Luke, Rudy and his fellow dealership workers fake his survival, all so Roy can’t get that dealership and increase his fortunes. a battle of wits, scams and lemons begins between Rudy’s bad and Roy’s worse.
Rudy’s schemes to get people to buy his set of bad cars is always framed as being less egregious than Roy’s more morally damning behavior. Some of it is just mischievous if still illegal, like hijacking a TV broadcast to promote the dealership, leading to a juvenile but still effective gag at their expense.
Eventually, Luke’s estranged daughter Barbara (Deborah Harmon) arrives on the scene and both complicates and in a roundabout way later assists in keeping Rudy’s dealership from falling into Roy’s hands. It culminates in a legal battle over the number of cars Rudy claims to possess (a full mile of them) and if Roy wins the case, that will end the war of the con artists on the side of the guy who killed his own brother.
The set piece for how Rudy and Barbara plan to get those cars onto the lot in time to impress the judge( who is so, so eager to give out capital punishments) is pretty audacious and was a sign of how good Zemeckis was as a director who can coordinate a lot simultaneously and also foreshadows the high speed DeLorean antics of the Back to the Future trilogy.
Using hundreds of driving school students, a bunch of abandoned cars are fixed and made drivable( if nearly so) and are driven across the Arizona terrain to the dealership with the timer counting down before the judge comes to measure the length of all the cars. It leads to what is basically “Mad Max as a comedy”. It honestly resembles some of the bigger sequences from Fury Road though far less physically and technically taxing as a sequence.
Your mileage on the dark and bawdy comedy will vary, and I was often rotating between being impressed and disquieted, but it is ultimately an impressive early showing for Robert Zemeckis and friends, an indicator that there was indeed a bigwig in the making. It earns the reputation of being a once overlooked, now proper cult classic, rather than an embarrassing growing pain.
Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind (1980) (HK)
From director Tsui Hark, the man who would eventually give us, in my own words, the Chinese Evil Dead with A Chinese Ghost Story, comes a tale of a group of Hong Kong teens with a penchant for making nonlethal explosives who meet a mentally disturbed teenage girl. A girl who has a penchant for torturing animals. It is as offputting as it sounds but it is yet an arresting dark dramedy.
Those three teen boys, Paul, Lung and Ko are pranksters, performing harmless yet still disruptive gags across town. They meet that demented girl Wan-Chu after running from the scene of their latest prank. She’ll rat out the boys unless they play along with her own extreme series of pranks. All of this while having her brother Tan be part of the HKPD.
The new crazier series of pranks gets them wrapped up in organized crime and a conspiracy involving Caucasian gun runners. The situation is both comical and distressingly dark as it keeps on getting worse and worse and worse and the youthful recklessness of those same kids exacerbates matters that left me struggling between a groan and a laugh. It all culminates in a group of mob hitmen hunting down the kids at a mountainside cemetery with Tan being the only one with any chance of saving their hapless asses.
I was only able to find Dangerous Encounters on Youtube, for free but on copied over VHS quality, the same as when I watched Sweet Home for Halloween Horrorthon. It was intelligible enough but I really wished a better version of this film was available to watch as it really deserves to be seen crisply.
I don’t really know the full extent of Hong Kong politics, not as much as I maybe should, but Dangerous Encounters is seen as being a politically charged film, towards the contemporary politics of the British Protectorate in 1980. 17 years away is the giving away of the city state back to mainland China, noteworthy in that the U.K. actually honored the deal.
Of course, HK going back to mainland China eventually led to a slow disintegration of the metropolis’ democratic institutions, as evidenced by the many protests that have made international news in recent years. But how does that actually fit with this movie? At the end of the film, as the last surviving teen fires an assault rifle in the air out of frustration from what had transpired, photos of the 1967 Hong Kong riots scroll across the screen.
Those protests involved pro-CCP (Chinese Communist Party) advocates using deadly force, including bombs. It was reflective not so much of a yearning from the populace to have a Communist takeover occur, but an expression of frustration over the British government not governing well enough, which they themselves would later admit to.
Is Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind pro-Communist, in favor of the ultimately quelled pro-CCP protesters? I have no idea, and it wasn’t until the very end of the movie that any concrete mention of something related to that history was brought up.
In spite of what is or is not the intended political takeaways, Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind is best viewed as a darkly comic crime story with some pretty exceptional set pieces. The three that stand out are as follows.
The first is the girl taking control of a tourist bus, asking them all to strip to their underwear, ordering the driver on a merry chase for the cops. She keeps the driver and tourists in check with threat of setting off a DIY explosive. Not for any political or cultural statement. Because she can, because she’s bored. A dog chasing cars. The boys have the tools, she has the twisted imagination for them.
The second is an underground parking lot meeting that ends up being a run for dear life for the three boys as a seemingly unending number of mooks pour in trying to kill them, all set to this strangely soothing song that I first heard, funnily enough in the radio for Grand Theft Auto IV.
The third is the aforementioned cemetery finale, that is both literally and figuratively, quite gut-wrenching, and probably not for the reasons you might think, mostly.
Rarely has such a dark, ethically upsetting movie felt like an honest to god popcorn entertainment to me. Despite the unfortunate, occasionally obscuring VHS quality, I was having a really great time mostly due to the fact I really had no idea where it was going, what kind of comeuppance for our adolescent characters was or was not lying in wait on the horizon.
While it is quite easy to sympathize with the three boys as they never wanted to go as far as they did, and were all but blackmailed into it by the girl, you keep hoping she gets what’s coming to her, especially due to her being responsible for a grisly end to a poor stray cat. You’re also left wondering if her sane detective brother can make it out of the web of trouble she ends up creating alive.
Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind is not for everyone. I have a generally strong as steel skin for this kind of subject matter and am honestly drawn to stories that can be both morally grey yet entertaining, even better if you add a delicious spice of black humor to make its ironies in play sing to me. If you want a less perturbing Hong Kong experience from Tsui Hark, A Chinese Ghost Story is ready and waiting for you.
If you can find a version of the movie that is better than VHS, hit me up with where it’s at.
Breaker Morant (1980) (Australia)
Renowned Australian director Bruce Beresford (Crimes of the Heart, Driving Miss Daisy) swears up and down that the central, titular figure of his 1980 historical drama was in fact a bad dude. I believe him when he says that but I can understand why it might be hard to parse out the intended authorial intent here.
During the Second Boer War in the 1900s, fought in South Africa, Harry “Breaker” Morant (Edward Woodward) and two of his fellow Australian soldier pals are put on trial for committing war crimes. It is noteworthy for being possibly the first prosecution of war crimes in Britain’s very long military history. The three men are on trial for executing captured, defenseless Boer (Afrikaners, Dutch colonists in Africa) prisoners of war as well as a peaceful German pastor who was by all accounts completely not a threat to Morant’s regiment.
The excuse given is that one of Morant’s friends, Captain Simon Hunt, was killed by Boers during a skirmish at a farmhouse. Despite Hunt dying more or less within the rules of engagement, Morant and his two subordinates, Lt. Peter Handcock (Bryan Brown) and Lt. George Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald) are pissed off at his death and want some revenge. They claim they were in their rights to commit the war crime due to fighting against a guerilla army.
Due to how creepily effective guerilla warfare can be, more so on a psychological level, Morant believes more “extreme” methods are justifiable. He calls it rule “303”, named after the class of bullets their bolt action rifles use. Maybe something could be said of that rule against the Boers but does it really hold up when some poor German missionary also gets rule 303, under the weak auspices he could’ve been a Boer spy?
The film does draw attention to the idea that the British military had condoned this contemptible practice up to a point and only when it became politically convenient do they now rule it as the atrocity it always was. That being said, Morant and friends did go ahead and ,”ahem”, follow those orders. They are still meant to be held accountable for committing unjustifiable acts, even by the standards of their era.
These “stiff upper lip” gentlemen of the British empire, albeit Australian, let their emotions and paranoia get the better of them and they ultimately pay the price with their deaths or imprisonment. Morant and Handcock are executed ironically through firing squad at sunrise and Witton, due to having a less damning part to play in the crimes, is sent to a penal colony. Considering he’s Australian, that is quite ironic as well.
Fun history fact: In the sequence where Morant and Handcock walk to the two chairs on the bluff where they will meet their ends, they solemnly hold hands and keep holding them into they leave the mortal coil. The filmmakers had no idea while filming that the real Morant and Handcock did the exact same thing during their final moments. They thought it was an “addition” that would be suitably dramatic. What are the odds?
Of course, if justice was fully served in response to the deaths of those P.O.Ws and that German minister, the higher ups that had allowed “rule 303” up until that point would’ve have also been condemned and punished in the military tribunal. More firing squads or penal servitude would’ve been served up. Alas.
So, it can be said fairly that Morant, Handcock and Witton where both perpetrator and victim, not one or the other. No one should call them hero and yet the nature of the trial they went through and that Witton following his prison time wrote a book in sterling defense of Morant and Handcock created a modern Australian myth: that in truth the three men were tragic “heroes”, victims of the powers that be back on the English island.
It all but certainly is tied into Australian nationalist identity, one of the sparks that would in time lead to full-on independence from the British empire. The more understandable grievance that both Australia and New Zealand for that matter would use to support a peaceful separation from the Empire were the ghastly losses they suffered fighting in World War 1 a little over a decade after the Morant trial.
The tragic history of the Australian/New Zealander soldiers (ANZACs) were most noteworthy in the appalling battle of Gallipoli, as dramatized in another Australian film, Peter Weir’s Gallipoli, starring Mel Gibson. WW1 was full of lopsided bloodbaths, but Gallipoli stood out in its pure hopelessness and needless loss of men and supplies. It is one of the most recognized failures of Winston Churchill’s career. For more contemporary audiences, 2016’s Battlefield 1 presented Gallipoli as an insanely bloody fiasco. So severe was Gallipoli alone that both nations recognize the conflict that enabled their national consciousness with ANZAC day, April 25th every year.
So, yes, the people of Australia and New Zealand definitely had justifiable beef with the British Empire’s management of their Commonwealths. Thankfully, both stuck around to help out the U.K. during WW2. Hell, they may have still been Britain’s ally out of mutual necessity anyway.
That being said, the pseudo-history surrounding Breaker Morant is unfortunate. Beresford never intended for his movie to add to that mythology. He wanted to show that even affirmed war criminals can have moments of genuine humanity, that before the acts they committed they could be and were agreeable people, with those that loved them and that they loved back. If anything, it should make the criminal behavior they still committed be more disturbing.
If it could happen to Breaker and friends, it could happen to you. Worst of all, in the century that has passed since the Second Boer war, it has happened many, many times, let alone from my own country. Consider the war crimes committed by Americans in both Vietnam and the endless War on Terror. Think about those perpetrators and what good they had lived before those acts. Some might’ve or are sociopaths or psychopaths, not all were. Think about this if you decide serving your country militarily is for you.
Could you do better than Breaker Morant? Could I?
Shaan (with a little bit of Sholay) (1980) (India)
When it comes to bengalcritiques being a more comprehensive deep-dive into 80s’ cinema than most, I do try to mean it. When you think of 80s’ moviemaking, your thoughts are likely drawn mostly to what Hollywood was making at the time. Maybe some English language foreign films can also count, mostly from the U.K.
Well, I have been showcasing some non-American 1980s’ pictures, as is obvious from having just talked about a Hong Kong and Australian flick.
Well, Indian cinema definitely should factor into the equation and Bollywood alone has for damn certain pulled its weight in this decade and possibly every decade since they started making movies. Bollywood makes the most movies every year of any nation and that’s not counting the also lucrative Tollywood and Kollywood markets, which in more recent years have achieved better outside recognition. That being said, when you think of Indian movies, Bollywood is at the forefront of the average person’s understanding.
They are known for being long, full of musical numbers, many subplots to justify lengths that surpass 2 and a half hours or longer, as well as a curious mix of different genres all in one. A Bollywood action movie is rarely just an action movie. It can and likely will include comedy, romance, musicals and cultural/political commentary. Yes, non-Indian films are perfectly capable of mixing genres too, but Bollywood showcases its at times bewildering hybridization of subject matters and tone which likely helped lead to this side of World cinema having an international following.
Before I talk about the first of many, many, many, many Bollywood films to be featured down the road of Bengal’s 80s’ Retrospective, let’s talk about the 1975 landmark title that is arguably the film that patented what Bollywood films would be for decades to come, perhaps even unto present day: Sholay.
If you have already watched a more recent Bollywood movie, a movie that came out after Sholay, you may wonder what the big deal is. Well, a trend in moviemaking has to start somewhere. Sholay was and remains one of the most financially successful Bollywood productions of all time, and by extension might make it one of the most successful motion pictures ever made. The sheer size of India’s population makes a Bollywood success appear far more massive than most Hollywood success stories.
It is the tale of two charming Indian rogues, criminals with a heart of gold. While being taken to prison on a train, they assist the cop who has them in custody with fighting off bandits raiding the train. For their efforts, the cop lets them go, so long as they stay out of trouble, pinky promise.
The two go on a series of merry adventures, where their criminal behavior is more playful and mischievous than anything else, such as intentionally getting in prison so they can troll a Hitler-looking prison warden among other things. Eventually, the cop they helped asks them to come to his valley home: he needs their assistance with helping his home village fight off the notorious Gabbar Singh. Singh is a vicious bandit leader who not only wants tribute from the all but helpless village but loves to torment them as well.
Singh has become one of the most beloved villains in Bollywood cinema, as recognized and remembered as Darth Vader and Hannibal Lecter is to American viewers. He has specifically been parodied and referenced in many films made after Sholay. He certainly does more than a few truly heinous things to make me not forget him anytime soon.
The two far more heroic crooks come to the village’s aid, acting as armed guards and scouts, basically Seven Samurai minus five. They do take their absolute sweet time actually trying to fight Singh head on. Why? Well we have almost three hours to fill silly! We have lavish, elaborate musical numbers, budding romances and revelations on how much Singh has personally wronged the cop alone.
Because of the format insisting on a near three hour narrative structure, when the two good crooks do decide to finally stop Singh once and for all, it can feel abrupt and sudden, almost like the movie just realized, “Oh, crap, we got to wrap this up now! Get cracking!” That is a feeling that also registered in a later Bollywood film to be discussed, but not in Shaan.
Shaan is directed by Ramesh Sippy, the man behind Sholay and also stars two of its leads, the ones who played those lovable rogues. In Shaan, we once again initially follow a somewhat overweight but no less badass Indian Supercop, going toe to toe with the scum of Mumbai’s underworld (Bollywood is derived from Mumbai, or Bombay). He remains consistently disappointed that his two younger brothers, both con men, fail to live up to his own lawful standards.
Eventually, the eldest brother’s law-protecting actions makes him a target of Mumbai’s underworld boss and from that moment, he is doomed. Shaakal is the boss and he can be described less like the Kingpin from Marvel comics (despite also being bald) and more like he is a bonafide James Bond villain. I made him the header image for this section for a reason.
Remember how I said Bollywood films can have tonal whiplash almost as a feature of the style rather than a bug? Well, once Shaakal enters the picture, it becomes an Indian James Bond movie, minus all the sexy stuff that remains for the most part a big no-no to Indian cinematic custom. Even the act of romantic kissing is shooed away, as the next Bollywood film I will cover makes an outright joke about. However, the Bond villain, his supercool island lair, offing henchmen that fail him and loving the sound of his own voice, that is beautifully preserved for your enjoyment. Basically, you get to hear Blofeld in Hindu and I think you will like that a lot.
There is no specific James Bond character but instead a band of Indian heroes who decide to take the fight to Shaakal personally. The two con artist brothers and their quasi-girlfriends/love interests, and a remorseful agent of Shaakal come together to first infiltrate the villain’s operations and then confront him directly.
It’s a testament to the flexibility in translation of the Bond movie formula that even a sexual expression prohibitive culture like India can get a knack out of something from England’s most famous secret agent. Of course, the budget of Shaan is not really up to snuff with most if any Bond film, let alone at the time, but the attempt is heartfelt and the production value impressive still, all things considered.
When Shaakal’s base predictably starts blowing up like with the average Bond villain lair, starting all the way back with Dr. No, you might be genuinely surprised at how effective a copy it is of what can be gleaned from what was then nearly 20 years of 007 action.
If the Bond but Indian stuff isn’t enough, there is still plenty of impromptu musical numbers, songs that love repeating the same sentences over and over and of course, the amusing mix of comedic silliness and dramatic self-seriousness that is part of the exotic appeal of a Bollywood movie, even if the ingredients are commonly derived from something Western. Just a reminder of India’s extremely complicated history as being once part of the British Empire.
If you have the spare time for a full on Bollywood experience from decades past, I would probably suggest Sholay first as it is a landmark, trendsetting experience. I saw Shaan first, not realizing it was from the same people that made Sholay. Upon discovering that, I saw Sholay next with my dad before venturing to my next film, Bollywood or not.
Of the two, I actually enjoyed Shaan more, mostly due to the novelty of seeing a 007 film being given the Bollywood treatment at all and solidly. Shaakal alone is worth the price of rental though of course you will have to wait a while because Indian cinema likes them long. It might be a testament to the concept that maybe one of the Indian people’s cultural tenets is that of patience. Not that you will be bored before Bolly-Blofeld shows up.
Next time: A 2021 best of the year countdown and after that, TBD.