Thursday, November 30, 2006

[1981] MY YOUNG AUNTIE: This was right on the cusp of greatness. Clearly Lau Kar-Leung was trying to do something different with this one--it's a Shaw Brothers kung fu movie with a strong female protagonist, Kara Hui's Jing Dai-nan, and that's different right there. Dai-nan's been rushed into the Yu family in order to keep the family's wealth out of the hands of the philandering 2nd Uncle (Johnny Wang)--so she marries the family patriarch so she can inherit his wealth and pass it onto the good-natured 3rd Uncle (Lau doing the director-star thing.) Which puts her in the position of being the "elder" to a bunch of guys in their mid-50s and being the same age as her grandnephew Ah Tao (Hsiao Hou.) Hijinks ensue; Dai-nan is a backwoods country girl, first of all, and Lau puts her in a bunch of fish-out-of-water situations in a newly Westernizing Guangzhou--wearing heels for the first time, for example (and fighting in them.) And there's a attraction between Dai-nan and Tao, which they're both too immature to acknowledge openly (never minding that she's his great-aunt) so they frequently engage in contests of one-upmanship: whose kung fu is better, who can beat up more villains quicker, etc. Hou Hsiao's comedy really grated on me in the beginning, but I think it was intentional--he was supposed to be acting like a wild kid, in contrast to Dai-nan's acting like a wizened elder. Neither persona turned out to be true as the story went on and they got more comfortable with each other. Now most of the reviewers I read singled out the following as the film's major flaw: Dai-nan gets captured, and the film turns into a bunch of middle-aged dudes (the good uncles) vs another middle-aged dude (Wang) as they fight to free her. I think it probably is a flaw, even if the final fight is a great bunch of action and wraps everything up plausibly (2nd Uncle and 3rd Uncle are an even match, but--according to Ah Tao--3rd Uncle had to lose because of his guilty conscience. And the family wealth goes to 2nd Uncle as the patriarch intended.) But it keeps Dai-nan out of the action and you keep waiting for her to get in there and kick some ass and she never does; you notice the lack of her, even when Lau and Wang are fighting. Plus it strays away from the most interesting subplot, the Kara Hui-Hou Hsiao non-romance. Like I said--it's right on the verge of greatness, but not quite sure if it wanted to be Kara Hui's movie or your regular brother-vs-brother picture. But highly recommended all the same. (The scene where everybody goes to a masquerade ball dressed as white people and they go through every foreign dance style they can think of is priceless.)
[1980] RUDE BOY: So I decided that anything that had been on Night Flight was worth watching, and I'm kind of rethinking that after watching Rude Boy. It's an attempt at a documentary-style film where The Clash play themselves and friend-of-Strummer Ray Gange plays aimless youth Ray Gange. I get that they were trying to make some overarching statement about the state of Britain on the eve of Thatcher's ascendancy to the prime ministership, and so there's racist cops and neonazis and anti-neonazis and general malaise. The problem is that the live Clash stuff (both on and off stage) is more entertaining than all of the rest of the film. I think Gange had honest intentions in writing and starring in this thing, but everytime the film cuts to him in the midst of a Clash performance--just to remind us he's in the movie--it starts to look like narcicissm. Especially when his performance is so anti-charismatic; when Strummer asks him at one point what he's going to do with his life Gange is so incoherent and not in a good way that it's almost embarassing. Luckily Strummer launches into "Let The Good Times Roll" solo on the piano right after that, which reenergizes the movie. Yeah--if you plotted the energy of Rude Boy you'd get big peaks where the various Clash members are performing and huge valley when Gange has the movie to himself. So this movie has the rhythm of a sine wave. Huh. But yeah--this one's for the Clashophiles. As the document of its time it was trying to be it's pretty incoherent (and maybe that was on purpose, but it committed the additional sin of being dull.)

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

[1980] SPETTERS: It's good to know that even Verhoeven's small-scale Dutch-language movies are still completely trashy and pervy and entertaining. Spetters is a little coming-of-age story about three middle-class kids who mainly want to race bikes and idolize motocross champion Gerrit Witkamp (Rutger Hauer in a small though crucial part.) And there's a girl (Verhoeven favorite Renee Soutendijk) whom they all fall for in varying degrees, and there's tragedy, and comedy, and people growing up and moving on as they do in this genre. But there's undeniably Verhoevenian touches as well; copious nudity, for one (the male member should've gotten a costarring credit.) Over-the-top yet empty male bravado. A blonde woman (Soutendijk) who's perfectly comfortable using sex to get whatever she wants, and Verhoeven forgives and celebrates this character--she's the star of the picture and the rest of the cast sort of passes through it. And--I'm remembering what Pauline Kael said about Woody Allen, that only he could pass off a predilection for teenagers as a quest for true values. Well--to paraphrase her--only Paul Verhoeven could imagine an anal gangrape to be an effective way to drive a gay man out of the closet. But that's what he does! And it works somehow (just like Allen's perversions work.) My main problem is the way the movie dispatches Hans von Tongeren's character Rien, who gets crippled and left a paraplegic in an accident, and isn't able to race or perform sexually anymore, and I get the feeling the latter is more important to Verhoeven. So of course Rien has to kill himself, and half the characters don't seem to care even though they've been best pals for most of the movie. Verhoeven doesn't seem to care either--unsexuality means you're as good as dead in the Verhoevenverse. So it works in terms of the directors' instincts, but in terms of this movie and this plot it was about as necessary as Cherie Currie's death in Foxes. Yeah--Foxes and Spetters, your one-two "coming of age" punch for 1980, both flawed but very watchable.
[1980] DON'T PLAY WITH FIRE: I'm still digesting this one. Like We're Going To Eat You, it eschews traditional narrative in favor of shifting points of view where you can never quite be sure who is the pursuer and who is the pursued--it changes constantly. In We're Going To Eat You almost everyone in the remote village was a cannibal; in Don't Play With Fire almost everyone in Hong Kong is a sociopath, or a potential sociopath. Almost everyone's guilty of something, and that's why almost everyone dies in the end. So it's certainly as nihilistic as advertised, but in an energetic, entertaining way somehow, with the usual Tsuian emphasis of visuals over narrative--or using the visuals to tell the narrative, I should say. I agree with the reviewer at Hong Kong Cinemagic that the movie loses a lot of steam once Pearl (Lin Chen Chi) dies--she was it's heart, alternately sympathetic and hateful, and even though after she dies there's twenty minutes of movie and a huge apocalyptic shootout to go it just isn't as much fun anymore. I'm having a tough time summarizing this thing--it's a lot of things at once, unsettling and amusing and depressing, without being self-contradictory and while maintaining a consistent tone. You really should check it out--I bought mine here.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

[1980] THE WATCHER IN THE WOODS: I loved this little movie from the post-Walt pre-Eisner era of Disney--it's like if Argento did a Disney movie, a completely bloodless supernatural thriller that still does all the scary stuff with P.O.V. shots where you don't know who's watching and a few jump scares and little girls with creepy voices. Lynn-Holly Johnson is your star of the picture who is in contact with....something, out in the woods. I knew she was a former figure skater going into this and if there's such a way as acting like a figure skater, she does it here--attractive and asexual at the same time and really, really earnest (with a cute little Chicagoland accent.) She's perfect for a Disney horror movie; she never gets too scared, so there's never any reason for anyone in the audience to get too scared, even when weird shit is happening to her like her sister's sudden possessions and a blindfolded girl begging for her help every time she looks in a mirror. Her performance keeps a damper on everything and makes this kid-safe--that's my argument--even though the director (John Hough--the Witch Mountain auteur!) is doing his best to shoot this like a traditional scary supernatural movie. Poking around the web it seems like quite a few people had a problem with the ending, which is very science fictiony (the watcher in the woods is some kind of extradimensional being trying to get home) but I didn't. It didn't have the traditional leave-the-theater-with-a-scare ending (like The Fog) and it settled everything without explaining too much, but you'd expect that from a kid's film. Yeah--this was like Carpenter or Argento or even De Palma (like with the obsession with viewpoints) with training wheels.

Monday, November 27, 2006

[1980] PRIVATE BENJAMIN: Yeah--as far as female empowerment comedies from the year 1980 go, this hasn't aged nearly as well as Nine to Five. It's not nearly as sharp, or as consistently funny. It's a weird two-act movie, a wacky basic training comedy in the first half and a light character study in the second, as Benjamin has to decide if she's going to be a princess all her life and put up with the things the movie is suggesting princesses have to put up with (like philandering husbands and a life limited to the home) or be the person who grew to enjoy army life (and the movie isn't at all clear on why that was a good thing for her--it just sort of asserts it.) You hear the term "star vehicle" tossed around a lot and this is a pretty clear example of it: it exists so that we can see Goldie Hawn do physical comedy, and a princess act, and fall in love, and stand up to her parents, and so on, and it succeeds as that--Goldie Hawn is presented in as positive a light as possible. But as a comedy or a drama (it can't decide which) it's pretty meh. (Watch for Keone Young--Storm Shadow himself--in the nigh-racist "Asian guy unsuccessfully picks up blonde white woman in bar" comic relief role.)

Sunday, November 26, 2006

[1980] BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS: I'm pretty sure this is the best-looking Corman movie I've ever seen. The ships are all distinct-lookng (it's The Seven Samurai in space, you see, and every one of the seven gets their own ship) and they did a good job of approximating the Star Wars style of spacefighting (though this is a Corman movie, so of course at least one of the shots was reused about five times.) Plus there's character actors out the wazoo--George Peppard, Robert Vaughn (Fukasaku and Corman the same year!), John Saxon, Sybil Danning, John Boy Walton. (Vaughn is probably the best, or his character is the most interesting: a supercriminal who's so wanted by the authorities that he just wants a place to live like a normal person.) But even with all that and John Sayles doing the dialogue and it generally being a pretty coherent movie in terms of plot and visuals, it still never got unbland enough for me--it's not bad or tasteless enough to be super-enjoyable trash, and it's not original enough to be one of those amazing B-pictures like the original Star Wars was. It's more like the Star Wars prequels in fact, a mixed bag of entertaining visuals that gives you a a bemused blah feeling when everything's over.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

[1980] GEHRAYEE: BOLLYHORROR! Well, sort of--it's a Hindi riff on The Exorcist, but there's no gore or spinning heads or anything. But there are weird noises on the soundtrack, and explosions of music when something mystical is happening, even if from the point of view of the characters there's nothing out of the ordinary. The plot was a leetle hard to follow (the subtitles were creative on the disc I got from Netflix) but basically a servant had his life turned upside down when the farmland he'd sweated his whole life away on was sold off to be turned into a factory--the current head of the family--a guy called Chennabassapa (Shreeram Lagoo)--who owned the land crushed this guy's loyalty like it was a bug. And so he took vengeance! And hired a shaman (the subtitles said "god man") to possess Chennabassapa's daughter Uma (Padmini Kolhapure) and scare the crap out of everyone and dredge up some nasty business in Chennabasspa's past. So like I said, no gore, but this is much more of a family drama than American horror movies tend to be; in our movies you can certainly read a slasher picture as embodying sublimated sexual tension or something, but the movie is ultimately about teenagers getting stabbed to death. This movie really is about a stubborn, thickheaded father ordering shock treatments for his daughter because it's something someone in the well-to-do middle class would do, and a traditional, weak-willed mother (Indrani Mukherjee) who can't stand up for herself or anyone else because that's not something she's supposed to do, and a son (Anant Nag) who as a result lacks anything like a clue about what to do when his sister starts going crazy. Yeah--it's the story of these three people's distinct failures in response to Uma's crisis, because they all end up hurting her in the attempt to reclaim her. The possession stuff is entertaining but it's not the reason for this movie's existence--it's more a device to put this family through the metaphysical wringer. Check it out if you're both in the mood for horror and in the mood for something a little different.
[1980] INSIDE MOVES: Dopey yet endearing--let's call it that. Roary (John Savage) tries to kill himself, fails but is left with a permanent limp, and winds up hanging at Max's Bar (in Oakland, according to Wikipedia) with a bunch of other handicapped people--a blind guy, a guy with hooks for hands (Harold Russell from The Best Years Of Our Lives), a guy in a wheelchair, and bartender Jerry (David Morse), a former basketball star who got in some kind of accident and can barely walk straight now. So Jerry and Roary become best pals, but then Jerry manages to get an operation done to fix his legs (through a really preposterous set of circumstances, let me tell you) and starts to taste success and leave his old buddies at Max's behind. And the movie is Jerry acting like a bigger and bigger jerk and Roary feeling betrayed until the inevitable reconciliation and happy ending. Savage is really good, though, and his performance as this wounded, yet hopeful, sad sack made me forgive some of the ridiculousness of the plot. Like Jerry getting an operation and suddenly becoming an NBA player (even if it was for the Warriors--and I hope the Warriors figuring prominently in a movie about lovable losers was completely intentional); I know the league was near its lowest point back then, but come on. But Savage is good and the weirdos are funny and there's a moral about not forgetting your friends that is close to being heavyhanded but Donner manages to be just restrained enough to make sure we're getting the message without smacking us in the face with it. It's a gentler kind of message movie.

Friday, November 24, 2006

[1980] GALAXINA: Jeez, it's low budget and everything, but it's successful at recreating parts of the Star Wars and Alien aesthetics when it needs to, and combining it with general weirdness and softcore porn and both broad and usually ill-conceived humor. It's like one of those sleazy, corny, entertaining Heavy Metal serials. Directed by William Sachs (of The Incredible Melting Man fame; the same giant power station hallway from that movie makes an appearance), who definitely didn't have much money for space stuff but made the right investments on stuff like creatures (recreating the Mos Eisley bar scene as a brothel and as a frontier saloon) and interiors and shooting in weird color stocks and doing long slow takes of the Stephen Macht-Dorothy Stratten romance (where the film becomes almost genuinely romantic.) Avery Schreiber is singularly goofy as Cornelius Butt--and it's a stupid joke but the way he says "butt" is always funny. And naming a character "Cornelius Butt" is the level of the humor in this movie, though there is a very good version of the "to serve man/It's a cookbook!" gag. I liked it, it's an endearing little piece of cheapo pop filmmaking and the 2.3 out of 10 it has at the IMDB is either a perfect score or completely backwards. (The commentary by Macht and Sachs on the DVD is super entertaining, by the way. Listen for Sachs taking shots at Peter Bogdanovich at about the 100 minute mark.)

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

[1980] NINE TO FIVE: It's a mainstreaming of feminist ideals into a really successful entertainment. Like Fame, it kind of globs a 70s aesthetic onto what would become 80s feel-good exuberance--both those movies began to define 80sness, in fact. And it's a women's revenge movie--another 70s staple--but the vengeance is either a fantasy (the set of scenes where Tomlin, Fonda and Parton all dream about killing Dabney Coleman) or a huge mistake. Like when Tomlin poisons Coleman, or Dolly ties him up, or Fonda ends up shooting at him, nobody's really effectively vindictive. The worst they can do is chain up Dabney in his own home--that's the extent to which he is stripped of his manhood. So it's half-assed as a feminist fable, is my argument. But it's so well-cast. Tomlin is the genuinely funny, acerbic one; Fonda is the stiff, formal, unintentionally funny one; Parton is Dolly Parton and that's the only role she ever played but she's trying her hardest here (it was her first movie.) And Dabney treads the line between masculine bluster and manly fear-of-women (misogyny is too harsh a word) really well, and the bit part characters are perfect--the office lush, the office snitch, the eccentric company president. The commentary on the 25th annual DVD is really entertaining, by the way (the "sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot edition;" Jane Fonda has aged into your crazy spinster aunt, by the way, but you probably knew that already) and really gets across how much everyone involved enjoyed making this thing. And it really shows up on the screen, too--everybody's having such a good time and the film is just out to enjoy itself (watered-down feminism aside) and it's a pleasure to watch.

EDIT: Well--the commentary kind of degenerates into a string of silences and narrating-the-action after about an hour. But it's good for that hour.
[1980] THE BIG BRAWL: This has to be the oddest film in the Chan catalog, right? It starts off in a Prohibition-era Chicago that entertained itself with an early form of roller derby--which is of course not dramatically weirder than (say) the day-glo street gangs in Rumble in the Bronx. But the fights are so unlike any other Jackie Chan movie, since he's either fighting character actors or professional wrestlers. So the fights are slow and ungraceful without being especially brutal, and there's little opportunity for Jackie to do his thing. On the other hand you have Jose Ferrer (complete with foul-mouthed mob grandmother) and Mako chewing the scenery with gusto. It's not nearly as bad as its reputation suggests, but its also the most atypical Jackie Chan movie that I've seen. Clouse could not quite figure out what to do with him.
[1980] CHEECH & CHONG'S NEXT MOVIE: For the first half hour I was completely writing this thing off--all of the stuff with Cheech and Chong at home or in the van is painfully unfunny. The schtick with their straightlaced neighbor is awful. But from around the time where Chong goes off to meet Cheech's cousin (Cheech doing like a Texan (?) version of the Cheech character) and Pee Wee Herman enters the picture the film becomes surreal and sort of interesting. Chong (who directed) shot everything pretty evenly, there's no hint from the direction about when you're supposed to laugh, or even if there's something funny going on. So you get these lengthy static shots where they're doing their gags and the other characters totally have the giggles at whatever they do and one gets the idea the movie is not about being funny, it's about accurately representing the stoner experience. And I like the movie during these parts. There's this amazing scene in the welfare office that's mostly in one take where Cheech is seducing his girlfriend in the background and in the foreground Michael Winslow is breaking out the sound effects and Chong is bemused and there's a crazy old man who won't stop laughing--bizarre stuff. But the obvious gags mostly fell flat for me--I think they're really bad at slapstick.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

[1980] BREAKER MORANT: I looked this thing up before I started watching it and it's based on a play, and I hope I didn't let that fact prejudice me too badly because I don't think this movie ever quite stops being a filmed play. Some of the shots are cinematic, like the execution of Morant (Edward Woodward) and Handcock (Bryan Brown.) But it's mainly a courtroom drama and it's probably hard to get too cinematic with this sort of material. I've read (in Wikipedia; standard disclaimer) that they show this in Australian history classes, and having seen this it makes sense: it's nothing too daring visually, but conveys the lesson of men being sacrificed to empire while mixing in the ambiguities of Morant's character as well (was he killing Boer POWs for revenge? Was he ordered? Was it both?) It works very well as a history lesson. And Woodward and Brown are awesomely sardonic as the doomed men. It's just not a hugely different movie in terms of style; it's better than your average teledrama but not by a lot.
[1980] ATLANTIC CITY: Hey--it's a noir about the geriatric versions of characters in old noirs. Burt Lancaster is a lifetime hustler who ekes out an existence in AC as a number-runner and manservant to the widow of a gangster, played by Kate Reid. Both of them very much think they're still what they used to be--Reid drops her husband's name at any given opportunity, even though she and Lancaster seem to be the only ones who remember him. And Lancaster--evidently a failed gangster--still thinks the good times are right around the corner. And he turns out to be right! I kept waiting for something awful to happen to the people we like in the movie and it end up with that noir everybody-loses ending, but Malle and John Guare (the screenwriter) showed their characters a lot of kindness by letting them get away with their ill-gotten gains. Most of them, anyway; Susan Sarandon's husband dies in the first half hour. I'm skipping over the plot here--Lancaster comes into possession of a lump of cocaine and it's like the first big score he's ever had, and he's selling it off and finally in possession of some easy money, and of course the underworld wants its cocaine back. Add in Sarandon as an aspiring casino dealer and Lancaster's fantasy object--he keeps wanting her to be his moll or something--and there's your movie. The dialogue was tremendous, especially Reid as the gangster princess and Hollis McLaren as Sarandon's flower child sister. Definitely a must-see for the year 1980; maybe not the most hugely important movie but it told its story very well. And as a New Jersey Studies major it was great to see a movie 1. that looked like it was filmed entirely in New Jersey (thanks for nothing, Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle) and 2. actually posited New Jersey as a place people want to go to, not get away from (while also positing Saskatchewan as the place people want to leave. Just as unfairly, I'm sure.)

Sunday, November 19, 2006

[1980] HOME MOVIES: Hey--more De Palma! Like Gates of Heaven I am sure this only a 1980 film by some obscure technicality, but whatever. It's a De Palma comedy, which means it isn't laugh out loud funny (for the most part), more an exercise in absurdity. Like when Keith Gordon dons blackface as a disguise to catch his dad in the act of cheating on his mom so he can finalize their divorce. Or when Nancy Allen's evil alter ego turns out to be a rabbit puppet (like the Ventriloquist in Batman) who wants her to go back to being a stripper. Kirk Douglas is wandering through the picture as a film director who has made Gordon's family his subject matter--there's frequent cuts between Douglas' movie-in-the-movie and the movie itself, but there's no clear dividing line between the two. And Gerrit Graham (the Gordon character's brother) is an insane Iron John-like men's empowerment cultist. Supposedly De Palma made this with a class on independent filmmaking at Sarah Lawrence, and it definitely has a student film aesthetic to it, no split screens or crazy crane shots. But it's also supposed to be the closest thing De Palma ever did to an autobiography--Keith Gordon's Denis Byrd is supposed to be a stand-in for young De Palma (he's nerdy, technically apt, unable to get a fraction of the attention from his mother that she showers on his older brother (Graham), and he has a major crush on Nancy Allen.) Basically, you'll love this if you're a De Palma fan, and if you're not it's an amusing little curiosity.

EDIT: I forgot to mention that the opening credits is done over animated versions of the actors done over as horrific caricatures--which actually is a possible metaphor for the rest of the movie. Nothing is creepier to me than creepy animation for some reason.
[1980] CADDYSHACK: You know, I always avoided this movie--I mean, I've seen it in snippets at like two in the morning on TBS or USA and I always thought it was just Bill Murray versus that stupid frigging gopher and Chevy Chase being an ass. But it's much better than that--I think Ramis was aspiring for Marx Brothershood with this, and he more or less succeeded. But it's also got that Marx Brothersian need for a straight man (though Danny Noonan is probably funnier than Zeppo was) and a rambling plot that frequently drags the movie down. The good: 1. Chevy Chase's zen golf scene. 2. The female characters, who never got to do that much in Marx Brothers movies, are at least as amoral as the men here (though less funny.) Both Lacey Underall and Maggie O'Hooligan sleep around unabashedly, and there's no point at which the lower-class and very Irish Maggie becomes more or less morally virtuous than the WASPy Lacey. 3. Class issues are sometimes front and center--note that an Irishman (Noonan) and an Italian (Tony D'Annunzio) are in competition for Lacey. 4. Rodney Dangerfield was amazing in the noveau riche role. 5. Ted Knight was amazing in the overstuffed Margaret Dumont role. The bad: 1. They had people laughing at Rodney Dangerfield's jokes in-movie. C'mon--trust the audience to know when to laugh. 2. And having Kenny Loggins songs be the musical cue for Dangerfield's populism has not aged well. 3. Oddly, I felt the film fizzled whenever they paired comedians together--Dangerfield and Chase had little chemistry, and the Chase and Murray scene in Carl Spackler's room....I know some people like it, but I found it pointless. But overall--jeez, this is a great comedy. It probably won't replace Airplane! for me for the year 1980 (which I've seen much more, but I also think it's a faster, sharper movie) but it's still a really good comedy.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

[1980] URBAN COWBOY: The first hour or so of this is a trashterpiece, with the escalating craziness between uber-Texans Bud (New Jersey's own John Travolata) and Sissy (Cleveland's own Debra Winger.) She's flirting, he hits her, they marry, she keeps flirting, he's still hitting her, he wants to ride the bull, she wants to ride the bull, he's threatened by that, she's got issues herself, et cetera. Travolta is good--I can't judge his accent, though--and Winger is phenomenonally unselfconscous as the tomboyish Sissy, caught between idolizing cowboys and wanting to be one herself. She's really the movie's dramatic motor, even if it's Travolta in the starring role. Or at least she's more complicated than Travolta's mix of jealousy, hubris and a dash of aw-shucks style humility. But once they leave each other we linger too long on each of the bad relationships they're using to make each other jealous, and the climatic mechanical bull-riding isn't much of anything drama-wise. See it for Travolta and Winger at the top of their games.

Friday, November 17, 2006

[1980] IRON SWALLOW: This is Lady Snowblood told in the kung fu metaphor, sort of. Chia Ling is maiming old guys, apparently without purpose, but it turns she's taking revenge for the rape of her mother and the murder of her father. The lead villain (Yee Yuen) hires a paid killer to bump off the old men (his old associates) and make it look like Chia did it. Plus his son is secretly Chia's sister and he strongly suspects his father is up to no good. And there's the conflicts that drive this movie. Honestly, this is quite a good little kung fu flick, with a few moments of jarring brutality. (Somebody on the web said it was a Kill Bill movie, but since it has an ear cutting scene maybe Reservoir Dogs is more likley.) But the DVD was terrible--copied off video, badly dubbed (and there's no Hong Kong release I could find), panned and scanned. It's a tight, enjoyable movie but I wish there was a decent version.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

[1980] THE ELEPHANT MAN: I've heard this described as either minor Lynch or "normal" Lynch and I guess it's kind of both, because I'm not sure there's a whole lot going on here. It's definitely not weird like a David Lynch movie is supposed to be--oh sure, there's the freaky opening scene with the elephants attacking John Merrick's mom (I think), and the trippy, out-of-nowhere ending with John ascending to the heavens and his mother's voice and image (sort of the similar return to the womb via death to the end of 2001.) Merrick is definitely physically weird, but there doesn't seem to be much weird about him on the inside, besides an overweening commitment to politeness--I kept waiting for him to tell people to stop patronizing him, which never came, and I guess that's the point, that Merrick is as ugly as possible on the outside and as kind as possible on the inside. So is the movie as testament to that immense good natured-ness from a guy who got a shitty deal from the world and chose not to hate it? I don't think it's much more than that. And that's not a put-down or anything, more of a testament to the focused way Lynch told this story. Yeah--it's a simple story about being good-natured in situations where nobody could reasonably be expected to be good-natured, shot beautifully in black and white.
[1980] FOXES: What a sweet little movie. It goes grim at the end--just because you're doing a movie about the end of youth doesn't mean you have to kill off one of your youths--but it's a good enough character study of LA-area youth aimlessness circa 1979. The performances were the nicest part. Jodie Foster before she was ACTING! constantly; she just does what the role calls for, no more and no less--she's the frequently overwhelmed leader of her even more frequently overwhelmed circle of friends. Sally Kellerman is interesting as Foster's mom; she's another aimless character, but she's aged aimlessness. Cherie Currie (a 70s pop star, apparently) is quite good as the wayward member of Foster's circle. I don't have a problem with this.

EDIT: I was amused to see Warrior of the Lost World/Kickboxer auteur David Worth doing the cinematography for this.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

[1980] BRONCO BILLY: It's the other Scatman Crothers movie from 1980! It's uneven and weird, but not in an unpleasant way--I read it as an attempt to graft Clint's revisionist Western impulses onto something like a Sturges or a Capra screwball comedy, and then set it in modern times. Clint stars as the lead attraction of a third-rate travelling cowboy show (playing at state fairs and the like, and playing at orphanages and mental institutions for free) who never stops being in character--he wants to be a cowboy and have cowboy ethics and not take any hoo-hah from anybody (even though he's from New Jersey, as it turns out) so he is a cowboy; he is "as he wants to be," as he says at one point. That's sort of the moral of the fable of Bronco Billy, getting to be who you want to be, even though you're broke half the time and your tent burns down and you have to humiliate yourself to get one of your "pardners" out of jail. (The requisite evil sheriff makes Bronco Billy admit that he--the sheriff--is faster than Billy. Horrors!) But the film is marred by Sondra Locke's performance as a frigid New York society gal who finds herself in the company of Billy and his employees. Her introduction as a cruel harpy is so overbroad--think Lilith on "Cheers" but times ten--that it essentially cripples the movie for the first half hour or so. She mellows out as the film goes on, but the damage is done, and it's never quite clear why she ends up falling for Billy. It's an all-around odd movie but it's heart is basically in the right place, equal parts cynical and earnest. (Allegedly one of Eastwood's favorites among the films he directed.)

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

[1980] MON ONCLE D'AMERIQUE: You know, when respectable film critics hype the heck out of certain directors--like Alain Resnais--you, the film novice, are not quite sure what to expect when you start watching their films. I mean, when I started watching this I was not expecting a clever, whimsical little tale of thwarted relationships and thwarted ambitions. But that's what I got! This is the story of Rene Ragueneau (Gerard Depardieu), a middle management type of working slob; Janine Garnier (a very Cate-Blanchett-meets-Gwyneth-Paltrow Nicole Garcia), a young and single professional; who is the mistress of Jean Le Gall (Roger Pierre), a respectable government minister of some kind (I think.) And their various failures and trials. The first fifteen minutes or so are quick 'n' dirty biographies of each of the leads, done in quick, ironinc flashbacks, reminding me of Wes Anderson, or contemporary Japanese whimsy like Stereo Future or Kamikaze Girls. Plus Resnais is using as another distancing technique voiceovers by and interviews with Henri Laborit, who apparently was a respectable pharmacology researcher (I think his theories are no longer in favor, though.) Laborit's there to a further layer of explanation for the character's foibles, but the effect is mostly comic, like when Resnais quickly cuts from characters trapped in awful situations to rats trapped in electrified cages (or when he has rat-headed actors quickly reenact previous scenes.) AND there's another layer of irony provided by quickly inserting scenes from old black and white movies--so there's about five Greek choruses going on at once. It kind of craps out in the end, but it mostly keeps you moving with the energetic whimsy throughout. (The title--My American Uncle--refers to the three leads mentioning American uncles on occasion, and how these mysterious uncles tried to be better than they actually were, and how they were inspiring, but none of the characters were actually sure if their uncles had succeeded at anything in the new world. So it's America as impossible dream, I guess.)

Monday, November 13, 2006

[1980] GATES OF HEAVEN: ROGER EBERT! BEST MOVIE EVER! I don't think it's quite that good but I guess the Rog is just championing a little-seen film that he thinks everybody should see--and I would agree that this is something you should see. The selling point is that it's a documentary about a pet cemetary but really it's only tangentially about that. It's more like Morris cobbling the stories together of the cemetary owners and the owners of the deceased pets into a 83-minute long meditation on the ever-present human fear of death and how one form this took was this one particular pet cemetary. There's some good subplots, too; the rendering plant manager was hilarious--he's sort of cast as the clear-eyed cynic in the first half of the film, versus the visionary South Dakotan who made it his mission in life to give pets decent burials and not just thrown "in the trash" (as he says a few times.) Later we switch to the second cemetary (the first one goes out of business) where it's a family business and we have two sons who have sort of fallen into the family business without intending to: an older son who's had some failures and had to move back into the cemetary business and is constantly on-camera talking up self-helpish strategies for how to be a successful person, and a younger son who works hard at the business but is a bit laid back and basically just wants to play his guitar when he can. So you have some family dynamics going on in here too. Morris clearly enjoys his subjects--there's very little condescension here, even to the doofy pet owners who are sometimes comic relief (like when this one lady is trying to get her dog to sing to her) and at other times just really desperately hopeful people, trying to honor the way they felt about their animals as best they can. It's quite good and moving stuff. (I do dispute the 1980-ness of this film, though. From what I can tell it was in the can and being shown at festivals pre-1980, but it didn't pick up a distributor until 1980. But if that's what counts for the IMDB, then that is what we shall go with.)

Sunday, November 12, 2006

I'M STARTING TO HATE HEARING ABOUT BORAT: How many legit points about American anti-Semitism can a British guy--Sacha Cohen--make about a nation that made an international star out of Sasha Cohen?
[1980] PERMANENT VACATION: This one would be of most interest to the Jarmuschophiles, I think. I am not, but only because I haven't seen much by him, not even Broken Flowers yet--so I'm not in the strongly anti-Jarmusch camp that I understand does exist. It's his first film, shot right after film school, and it's basically this kid (Chris Parker) wandering through New York and getting into muted encounters with various crazies and eccentrics (it's kind of a muted low-budget version of Mike Leigh's Naked, or that's what this reminded me of.) I guess it's the poetry of living life without any plan at all, and being very strongly committed to not having a plan. Yeah. The reviews I read all sort of placed this in terms of the greater context of Jarmusch's work and not as something that necessarily was great on its own. (On it's own it's a very student project-looking extended riff on destitute-by-choice urban living.) So maybe I'll understand this a little better when I get to Stranger Than Paradise in 1984. It's sort of a hard film for me to really love, though.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

[1980] DRESSED TO KILL: This was amazing. If you wanted to say this was the best film of the year 1980 I would not think you were nuts. The art gallery scene, the seduction, and then the fact that it all terminates in a venereal disease gag; Angie Dickinson's murder, with all the quick editing and the way Nancy Allen suddenly finally sees the murderer in the mirror; Dennis Franz doing Sipowicz all the way back in 1980; the weird train scene where you can't tell who's chasing who; and the final dream sequence where De Palma gets one last dig in at you. The guy who reviewed this at Slant says Kael called this a comedy and I basically agree. It's a thriller-comedy (like when you talk about a horror-comedy, which are far more common.) The jokes, or the reversals of expectations, are all visual, though, which makes it somewhat difficult to talk about, but you really should see it.
[1980] THE FOG: Like Inferno, this one's big on creating a sense of dread but lower on providing a payoff--like, one corpse falls out of a closet and one Hal Holbrook jumps out of the darkness as far as jump scares go. Apparently all the scary stuff--the ghosts themselves, the muders in the boat, the opening scenes when the fog takes over the town--was added in afterwards after the suits complained the movie wasn't scary enough. And you know what, it still isn't that scary? But it's still a really complete movie--for being a horror picture where the monster is basically a giant fog bank it does very well for itself. I was actually less frightened when the ghost pirates arrived, because then I was on familiar slasher/zombie ground. Apparently the intention here was to do something like Poe or Lovecraft, where there's this primal ancient force that humans can't ever quite escape from, and I don't think it's successful as something like that (Argento is much closer to that sort of ominpresent menace.) But it is successful as a ghost pirate drama. Yeah--if you're looking for thrills you'll be somewhat disappointed, but as an ensemble drama it's really good. And Adrienne Barbeau's Stevie Wayne is one of the more memorable heroes in the Carpenter pantheon, trapped in that lighthouse as she was but still directing the action across the town via the radio, and saving her son as well.

Friday, November 10, 2006

[1980] FAME: It's overstuffed and relentlessly shallow, which kind of makes sense as an approach for a movie about students in a performing arts high school. But that approach is the whole movie--it's all style and exuberance without saying anything particularly interesting about its characters. And they're not even characters--they're just sort of types, the overconfident type and the mousy girl and the misunderstood genius and the repressed gay guy and the hood who wants to dance and on and on. The musical numbers were fun (especially the finale) but in between there's just way too much schlock.

EDIT: But I did enjoy the opening montage of auditions--Parker somehow did them where you didn't feel too bad for any of the kids who didn't get in; there's none of that American Idol-style contempt for the failures. Even some of the kids who apparently blew their interviews (from the way Parker was portraying them) got into the school, so I guess he was trying to say something about the luck factor of success. And it's refreshing to see movie musical numbers that are as far away from Busby Berkley as possible (no choreography, or choreography that's supposed to look relatively spontaneous, no overhead shots or chorus lines or people dancing in unison.) It's still too long and doesn't have enough going on between the ears, though. And when you're doing a cult movie, is it really wise to start serving up snippets of other, better cult movies, as Fame did with The Rocky Horror Picture Show?

Thursday, November 09, 2006


EDIT: And I do wish they'd stop with the "biggest win in school history" or at least say "biggest win in school history since 1869--the first game in college football history would almost have to be the biggest win. Especially since it was over those jokers at Princeton. HA!
[1980] STARDUST MEMORIES: It's a sweet little metamovie about relationships that apparently pissed off the Woodman's fanbase because he made fun of them throughout. I am not a big Woody Allen fan, so perhaps that's why I quite enjoyed this. The Woddy Allen character in this is a film director who's gone from making comedies to serious movies and his fanbase is constantly stalking him and he's pursuing three relationships at once, between the reliable woman (Marie-Christine Barrault), the crazy woman (Charlotte Rampling), and the unobtainable woman (Jessica Harper--and has anyone else been in a De Palma movie, an Argento, and a Woody Allen?) You know--basic Allen territory. Except he's constantly blurring the lines--he's constantly cutting between the life of Sandy Bates (Woody) and the oeuvre of Sandy Bates, which is either psychoanalytical comedy or Bergman imitation, and of course it's great that Woody gets his own joke. The ending really sold it for me: the lights come up, and the cast of Stardust Memories leave the theater and critique their own performances, and then Allen comes in, lingers, and leaves. It's a nice little "thank you for coming" touch that I don't know why this thing upset people--the fanbase ribbing turns out to be gentle.
[1980] GLORIA: My first Cassavetes! This is allegedly not the one to start with and I probably agree--I enjoyed it but it's pretty slight and flawed by a child performance that's not so much terrible as it is unfathomable--the kid was given gobs of dialogue no six-year-old (or thereabouts) would ever say. I think the idea was to have sort of an aging version of a gun moll character from old noirs (Gena Rowlands) be forced into this situation where she'd have to care for this kid despite having minimal maternal instincts. She's found herself taking care of a kid whose family was killed by the mob and he's got this book with names and bank accounts in it that the mob still wants. And she's tough as nails and they're on the run and if this was a normal movie she'd be a guy and he'd be, like, a woman twenty years younger. But it isn't so the somewhat inexplicable bonding between them occurs at a parent-child level, excepting one bizarre scene where he tries to seduce her. It's definitely a different movie, so if you're in the mood for a familiar story told in an unconventional way here it is.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

[1980] HE KNOWS YOU'RE ALONE: Best known as Tom Hanks' first film, though the seeds of greatness were not evident here. It's a competent but fairly generic slasher film--there's this killer who killed a bride years ago and now he's back killing brides and whole bridal parties too. And a detective who couldn't stop him the first time, and a goofy friend who the film sort of suggests may or not be the killer even though they already showed us who the killer was five minutes in. The film tries to be intelligent by being self-referential; it opens in a slasher movie-within-the-movie (which was actually a fairly well done scene), Tom Hanks' character makes a speech about why we love horror pictures and why we love to be scared, there's a ride through a haunted house where the protagonist (Caitlin O'Heaney) can't tell the fiction from the actual killer stalking her. But it's not stylish enough to overcome its predictability (predictability in the sense of its pretty clear which characters are going to die.) Definitely not the great lost slasher classic of the 80s.
[1980] ZIGEUNERWEISEN: This was Seijun Suzuki's first movie after he was blacklisted through the 70s for making incoherent movies; legend has it he couldn't get distribution for this one, and he had to tour with the film, going city to city with an inflatable theater. It ended up winning multiple Japanese Academy Awards. Now, my first Suzuki was Princess Raccoon, which I loved. I'm not quite sure how I feel about this one, though. It's definitely got something to do with the supernatural, but it's definitely not out to scare you, and the supernatural elements only become obvious in about the last 15 minutes. The rest of the time its a tale of multiple love triangles between a calm, Westernized professor (Toshiya Fujita--and "Westernized" is important--this is set in the Taisho period (and is part of the Taisho Trilogy with Kagero-Za and Yumeji) which was after 1912 and before 1926), his wife (Michiyo Ookusu), a crazy traditionalist professor (Yoshio Harada) who may or may not have killed a woman, his wife and a geisha (both played by Naoko Otani, but it's sort of an odd dual role as she plays them both pretty similarly.) And that's your narrative, just bouncing these characters off each other. But there's weird touches (besides Suzuki's usual weird touches) to let you know something else is going on here. Nakasano (Harada) is obsessed with bones--he fantasizes about them when he first meets Otani's geisha. He's turned on by Shuko (Ookusu) when she's sick with a rash. She, on the other hand, finds rotten fruit delicious and--in one jarring scene--actually licks his eyeball. It's stuff like this, and a general sense of pleasure in decay and amorality, that makes more sense in light of the supernatural stuff at the ending. Basically (HA!) the world of the dead is bleeding over into the world of the living and once you get that twist at the end your understanding of the movie (which could just as easily be seen as a lot of interesting confusion) starts to change. So I'm definitely going to need to watch this again; the reviews have pointed out that it is a challenging film, and I agree. But it is Suzuki and I don't think he messes with you just to mess with you, and further viewings should be rewarding (they were with Princess Raccoon.)
[1980] INFERNO: Those Argento/De Palma comparisons are really apt, I think--both love playing around with your expectations much more than giving you what you think you want. Inferno, for instance, put me in a sense of constant dread throughout, but most of the payoffs were pretty tame--a lady gets attacked by cats, a corpse slowly floats into view, death personified turns out to be a skeleton in a hood. But maybe anything would be tame compared to the buildup Argento was giving all these scenes. He sort of throws every part of the screen vocabulary that means "something bad is about to happen" at you--cameras that follow their victims, actors on one side of the frame and you just know something bad is going to pop into the other side (though it doesn't), voices in the background, quick cuts to random violence, corners that the actors can see around but we can't. And then somebody does get attacked or Leigh McCloskey finds Mater Tenebrarum's secret chamber and Argento tells Keith Emerson to crank up the synthesizers as if to say, "Relax, kids! Just messing with you. The scary part is over now." Until the next scary part--and this movie is all scary parts where it isn't slow-developing murder scenes. Some reviewers have noted that Inferno is sort of a filmed nightmare and I agree with that; the characters are compelled to swim into underground chambers and pull up floorboards and travel down into What Lies Beneath in a way that reminded me of that sort of passive action that happens during a dream. And it's a nightmare because of all the dread, obviously, and because McCloskey's character basically gets to wake up in the end and escape the nightmare. He's so wooden in this that it has to be intentional--he's dream-acting! (Irene Miracle plays his sister--if there was a Special Acheivement Oscar for Best Underwater Performance she'd have one.) So yeah--if you're the kind of person who can't enjoy a horror film because the characters make dumb decisions this is definitely not the film for you. But if you can accept the characters as basically actors in a dream--or don't need a ton of blood and guts to get your thrills--you may enjoy this quite a bit.

Friday, November 03, 2006

[1980] THE LEGEND OF TIANYUN MOUNTAIN: My first foray into mainland China for this project! This one was on the Asia Weekly 100 greatest Chinese films list; directed by Xie Jin, it seems to be one of the earliest "scar" movies, which addressed/criticized/exposed the horrors, excesses and atrocities of the Cultural Revolution. The direction is very much of the "realist" style: minimal orchestration, quiet, understated performances, nobody getting shot or jumping out of buildings or anything. It's a thwarted love story: two women fall for the same guy, but once he gets sent out to the boonies for being a bourgeois intellectual only one of them sticks with them, and she's portrayed as more sad-sackish (she wears glasses--wasn't that always a mark of the intellectual in communist propaganda?) The other is a gung-ho party type who can't take life in the hinterlands so she marries a party member back in the city and moves on from there. Of course, years later her ex's file comes up for review in her office and she has a whole lot of guilt to work out, because she's the one living the comfortable life while her ex and her old friend sweat it out on the farm. It's not as terribly propagandish as you would think a film of this era would be, and mostly works out to be a quiet drama of missed opportunities and eroded idealism. Check it out just to see what a good pre-Zhang Yimou/Chen Kaige People's Republic film looks like--the VCD is both cheap and pretty decent looking.
[1980] QURBANI: And then comes Qurbani to restore my faith in Bollywood. Directed and starring Feroz Khan (who looks and dresses oddly like Johnny Cash throughout) it's completely overstuffed and never lets up--for two and a half hours it keeps coming, chucking violence and songs and Zeenat Aman in a bikini at you. It's allegedly based around a love triangle between Aman, Khan and Vinod Khanna's character, but once Khan's established that yes, Zeenat loves them both, or something, we move on to some meaty male bonding and Khanna's sacrifice to save girlfriend, daughter and best friend--but it's Khan running toward him in slow motion as he dies. And I love the endlessly repeated James Bond-meets-Morricone sountrack. Definitely worth checking out.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

[1980] RED ROSE: OK--still trying to figure out this whole Bollywood thing. I found a few guides (here, here and here), and while I'm not convinced it's completely worth it (all the Indian cinemas seem really insular to me, without a lot to offer outsiders) I'm committed to watching at least a little Hindi cinema. Which leads me to Red Rose, which is sort of a thriller about a naive shopgirl (Poonam Dhillon) marrying a guy who has a real need to kill women. If you can get past the usual patient Bollywood pace it's actually a pretty good piece of trash. Your deranged killer (Rajesh Khanna--apparently a huge star in the 70s, and taking a huge risk playing an antihero here) has been raised to be his father's instrument of revenge for his wife's infidelities--he lures girls back to his mansion, records himself sleeping with and then killing them, and then passes the film along to his father to watch. And then he buries them underneath a single red rose and we have our title. Of course, he actually falls for his latest victim, which puts him a strange place psychologically, and the rest of the film is consumed with his breakdown. Donna Summer's "I Feel Love" makes a memorable appearance as the background music for a murder in a disco.
[1980] THE YOUNG MASTER: Jackie Chan's directorial debut! The plot is rudimentary, and actually distracting at times, since it's about Jackie's harsh master throwing him out after he loses a dragon puppet race. So it's sort of jarring when we forget all about that for awhile and go right into Jackie's comedy stuff. There's a chair fight with Yuen Biao that's pretty good, and a much better fight with Lily Li where she uses her skirt as a weapon--something Jackie himself repeats later when he's taking out a couple of toughs. I thought the final fight againt Whang In-Sik was on the verge of going too long (it felt like at least 15 minutes) because Jackie was taking a beating--that's what he does--and of course he's going to come back and win (he hulks up at one point and becomes nigh invulnerable) but it's such an enjoyable fight I ended up not caring about the length (or the hulking up.) It's quite a brutal fight, by the way; it's not overchoreographed, and Chan pumped up the audio on the slaps and on his own ragged breathing during the part of the fight he was getting his butt kicked. Not a complete film by any means, but the fights that I mentioned are fantastic.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

[1980] RESURRECTION: Yes, Burstyn is great in this, but the direction is really static and I can't tell you how many times I noticed the lack of anything other than ambient noise and dialogue on the soundtrack. Flat direction doesn't add anything to a stoy about a woman who has a near-death experience and comes back with the ability to heal people--and the direction really should add something to that kind of story, and not be as barebones as possible. There's some nice scenes of Burstyn healing people and temporarily taking on their maladies as she does, but really, a movie about the supernatural should at least be semi-mysterious. It's worth watching for Burstyn but don't go crazy tracking down a copy (it's never been on DVD--I got my bootleg here.)
[1980] ALTERED STATES: My only problem with this one is that the love story part never quite matches the phantasmagorical imagery part--shouldn't the love for Blair Brown that brings William Hurt back from the brink of madness/devolution/evolution/whatever be stated a little more clearly? It's one of those situations where you would like the movie to show you why these two like each other, instead of just having the characters announce their love sometimes. It needed more sentiment, but I don't think Ken Russell does sentiment. But in terms of mood, and imagery, and crazy over-the-top soundtracks, this thing is one of a kind. Not that the imagery exactly makes sense in terms of the story--like, if he's regressing, shouldn't Dante's Inferno come before the crucifixion and not after? But the imagery itself, though....for some reason Tron comes up a lot in reviews of Altered States, and I guess (besides the 80s connection) both are flawed movies with absolutely unique sets of visuals. Like the amoebaman, or Hurt banging into the walls trying to put the amoebaman back in his place in the evolutionary sequence. Or the multi-eyed goat. Or when the lizard becomes his wife and then they both get eroded away in the sands of time. Even the ape man wasn't that bad, though it's the one stretch of the movie that gets a little mundane. Yeah--aside from the cheapness of the romance that's supposed to be holding everything together this is a bunch of good stuff.
[1980] WE'RE GOING TO EAT YOU: What a delirious piece of filmmaking (to sound like a film critic for a minute here.) This one definitely gets by on energy more than anything else. There's some kind of plot in there about Agent 999 (Norman Chu--the bad guy in The Sword) following the trail of the bandit Rolex to a tiny, out-of-the-way village populated by cannibals, but that's just Tsui's excuse to show as much gore as he could get away with (which isn't a whole lot relative to an Italian cannibal movie.) And to put Agent 999 in as many crazy situations as possible, which he has to fight his way out of (and Corey Yuen I believe was the action director.) And a giant transvestite and tons of slapstick. Genre-wise it's all over the place but tonally it's consistent--it's "how many ways can we tell tasteless, bloody jokes for 90 minutes?" So it is, of course, completely worth your time.