Category Archives: 80’s

Brain Waves: Miller’s Crossing

So I decided to continue my ’80s series into the ’90s. Whaddaya want, to fight about it? More reviews for me, more reviews for you. Everybody’s happy! Plus the ’80s didn’t necessarily end with the ’80s, if you know what I mean. The spirit of the ’80s was transformed, sure, but we see the influence of the decade’s films today. In the first few years, for instance, we see the emergence of a true cinematic two-headed giant, taking the genre-riffery that so populated the late ’80s and elevating it to more rigorous art with an analytic bent, combining the best of late ’80s playfulness with ’90s indie intellectualism. After all, someone had to pave the way for the soon-diluted hellish quirk fest that would be the late ’90s and early 2000s. After all, even the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

When Miller’s Crossing was released, the Coen Brothers were an unknown quantity still frolicking about in their wild years. They’d released one pitch-black neo-noir thriller and a second film its polar opposite, a light, frothy screwball comedy. The only thing the two films shared, their directors’ sure-hands aside, was a love for and desire to explore the heart of classic cinema. This same dogged spirit permeates Miller’s Crossing, their third film, and perhaps the one that best captures the spirit of what the Coens’ would become. Certainly, it’s the one that would pave the way most directly for Fargo, still probably their most famous film, if not their best. It is snarky, playful, inebriated yet sharp as a tack, smarmy, deconstructed and reconstructed, loopy, acute, and heady in the most amusing possible way. Calling it a comedy feels weird, but it’s undeniably funny; likewise, while it isn’t a “drama,” it deals with serious themes and finds itself in the company of their most textured films. The only sure thing you could call it – a gangster picture (and by god, this is not a movie, or a film, but a picture) – doesn’t even hold up under close analysis. It’s an unclassifiable beast of a project, an art film in genre clothing, but it wears its weight like air.

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Old Wave: The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

They say that Terry Gilliam was truly angry post-getting absolutely royally screwed over by a distributor that had no interest in his mind-melting glam rock  drunken rant on the internal contradictions of the literature dealing with totalitarian government (not to mention the contradictions in the US of 1985 that loved to thump their copies of Orwell at the Soviet Union and conveniently pass by the same arguments, and Orwell’s democratic socialism, when the oppressions of the US came to the conversation).

If “they” are right about Gilliam’s rage, it had clearly subsided in the three year interim before his next film. Or, if they hadn’t, Gilliam had at least developed an ability to poke fun at himself while mocking the censors in the process. This work, 1988’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, passed by the censors with much less eyebrow raising. And it’s easy to see while: although it is, in its own genial way, as radical as Brazil, it is much less obsessively difficult and intentionally obtuse, and it is less proud and open-faced about shouting its own radicalism right in the faces of the censors and rubbing their noses in it. Continue reading

Screw New Wave, Break Out the Maiden!: Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure

bill-and-tedUpdate June 2019: Another watch-through in light of the internet love for Keanu Reeves these days, and I still find Bill and Ted’s earnestness and innocence, their undying and seemingly unawares appreciation for a way of life that doesn’t even seem to register as a choice for them, to be ludicrously intoxicating all these years later. Sometimes this works to the film’s detriment: almost none of the scenes where Bill and Ted themselves aren’t on-screen work at all. Still though, the slightly elegiac tone that undercuts the otherwise spirited slapstick fracas is the real surprise here. The year-long delay in the film’s release date practically stamped it as a time-capsule of a bygone era even for its initial audience, and that sense of wistfulness is perhaps more evocative today in light of rock music’s own existential conundrum just two years after the film’s release (when grunge melancholy soundly ripped hair metal earnestness to shreds). Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure feels less like a time capsule than a dream that seems to know that its own era is already passing, and for that reason, it can’t but refuse to admit its own premature burial in order to salvage its soul and preserve its sanity. 

Original Review:

Most, and too many, reviews of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure focus on the contrasting futures of its two main stars. That Keanu Reeves went on to temporary mega-stardom while Alex Winter is just “the guy who’s not Keanu Reeves” is one of those endlessly befuddling, perplexing mysteries of pop culture that people love to ponder on about without rhyme or rhythm. Perhaps it was luck, or some vague sense that Keanu was more attractive, but discussing their futures misses the point. For in 1989, we only had Bill and Ted to go on, and in 2014, we should judge Bill and Ted on the merits of Bill and Ted, not the future careers of its two stars.

In particular, this time-lapse avenue of criticism misses the point for this film, because there really isn’t, nor is there supposed to be, a difference between the two performers. Based on their performances here, neither seem long-lost talents as individuals. What both performances are, however, is completely and entirely fit for their roles here, which is all that matters in an immediate sense. The point has been made about Reeves on end: he is effective when the role requires him to be himself, and that was never more-so true than here. And the same could be said about Winter, assuming anyone knew anything about his personal life.
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Genre Riff New Wave Animated Edition: Who Framed Roger Rabbit

Long-time coming for the ever-hungry child-in-a-toy-store director that is Robert Zemeckis, Who Framed Roger Rabbit was his repayment for bringing the monstrous box office success of Back to the Future to the screen with pop and pizzaz aplenty. If Back to the Future was a delicious cotton-candy confection with a hidden rambunctiousness filtered into deconstructing space and time, Who Framed Roger Rabbit was Zemeckis’ ultimate tribute to cinema as a visual art form. It’s also the film he’d been building toward, Back to the Future having couched his clear dreamer’s eye technicality in a more subdued package. For, nowadays, when one thinks of Robert Zemeckis, one thinks of technology and advancement, in that order. He’s always been more interested in cinema as a plaything than anything else. It was a means to an end for him. If in recent years this has seen his reach exceed his grasp as he pursued avenues less filmically formed, he never achieved an “end” more loving and lovely than Who Framed Roger Rabbit, his 1988 dissection of genre and reality all curled up in just about the snuggest, most effervescent package you can find.
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Genre Apex New Wave: Die Hard

Edited June 2016

It is almost impossible to imagine a superior version of John McTiernan’s Die Hard. In addition to popularizing an entire sub-genre of action movies, it rightfully claims its place among the greatest films of its genre. Its premise is matched in its simplicity and lack of temptation to stray only by its ingenious precision and punishingly direct storytelling. Terrorists invade a building, take hostages, and remove any threats except, of course, one lone NYC cop (on vacation in LA to reconnect with his wife Holly) who must now save the day single-handedly. If it sounds trivial, well, this kind of film hadn’t really been done as often by 1988, and, either way, it’s really more about the species than the broad kingdom.

Among its laundry list of accolades lies virtually everything one could want from a high-octane action film; vertiginous pacing, nerve-frying direction, malicious editing that works like clockwork to hurtle the film forward in the bare minimum amount of time it could possibly take, and a human touch that slithers up on you when you’re busy being dissected. It is one of the few films made in the last thirty years that can legitimately claim to be an apotheosis of a form, insofar as it seeks to do one thing and does that one thing with a nigh-incomparable effectiveness. It’s a work of minimalist necessity, taking the form of a particularly pinpoint gear system. At the level of bare storytelling mechanics, it is stripped to the bone and almost psychotically elegant.
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Genre Riff New Wave Episode III, The Return of the Storybook: The Princess Bride

By this point, it would seem apparent that if ’80s popular cinema was at an all-time low in larger-scale narrative creativity and form, at least ’80s genre cinema often knew it was as chintzy and fake as all hell and tried its damnedest to use this as an asset rather than a detriment. By 1987 we find this trend at its absolute apex with one of the few true unambiguous comedies to seek to re-energize tired genre filmmaking: Rob Reiner’s arch-fantasy parody The Princess Bride. And like most of the best films to come out of this trend, it approaches its chosen poison-pen love letter topic, fantasy, from a place of love rather than the smug self-superiority that would engulf and cloud any such genre riff post-1995. For this reason, more than any other, it attains the sort of genial fluffiness and ebullient effervescence most fantasy films can’t even dream about.
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Genre Riff New Wave Round 2: Evil Dead II

Sometimes it’s the simple things that pay off most readily, you know? A few non-actors. A cabin Woods. Two dozen buckets of cinematic fury and might. A story that can be summed up as “those non-actors in that cabin face off against those two dozen buckets of cinematic fury and might and have their asses handed to them”. Thus is Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II, such a simple and elegant horror film it doesn’t need to explicate a damn thing. There’s a book. It unlocks some demons. And it’s in a cabin. Why does the book do this, and what are its limits? Who cares. All that matters is that it is the most direct and unworried clothesline upon which Sam Raimi can absolutely tear not one but two genres a new one, and tear down the whole idea of genre as a construct in doing so.

It isn’t really saying much, considering its competition and the positively dreary state of American film during that particular decade, but Evil Dead II might be the battiest, most zestily-directed American film of its decade. Now I recognize this as hyperbole, but Raimi invites hyperbole, and the film earns it. Goodness gracious, the camerawork alone does whirlwinds around anything else being released around the same time, damn near earning the title all its own. Raimi’s whiplash maelstrom never knew a finer shelter than comedy-horror, and it never did the genre prouder than here. The things this camera does need to be experienced, so I’ll refrain from discussing specifics. Let’s just say the man chooses the most inventive position possible for almost every shot and pinwheels his tormented meat-bag humans around his camera like Damian with his first rodent, and he partakes in the mischief every chance he gets. The camera lurches about from space to space, doing almost literally everything it possibly can to simultaneously involve us in the action and elevate us above the action, separating off Raimi’s characters for mockery.
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Genre Riff New Wave: Big Trouble in Little China

Update late 2018: With the new Halloween film out in theaters, the implacable, autumnal chill of the John Carpenter classic that kickstarted that series is as irrevocable as ever. But, while I adore his Halloween, as wonderfully quotidian and keyed-in to late’ 70s social malaise as it is timelessly antediluvian, I have a soft spot for this far more squirrely little film, Halloween’s polar opposite, and a comic paradise to Halloween’s purgatorio and the frostbitten inferno of The Thing. 

A self-aware critique in the spirit of Said, this film is as loopy in its meditations and as mischievous in its skepticisms about social convention as any of Carpenter’s films, and it still feels like a more deliciously disreputable extension of Raiders of the Lost Ark, to name another ’80s bastion of American masculinity that is, in fact, infamously recalcitrant in its attitude toward its protagonists’ white-male-hero bonafides. Few filmmakers could pivot from the monstrous to the ridiculous quite like Carpenter.

Original Review:

Edited June 2016

John Carpenter always wanted to make a martial arts film. With Big Trouble in Little China, he reconstituted something closer to THE martial arts film. This is, of course, not to say it is the best martial arts ever made (far from it). Rather, this is a film that tries its damnedest to pay homage to the genre by marinating it in its own juices, a kind of ur-martial arts film that doubles back to self-parody. Pure tripe of the 14-karat variety, Big Trouble has goofy, slantwise characters, a schlocky-shifty sensibility cooked to perfection, mostly non-stop action that twirls and flourishes with pizzaz and gusto like choreographed ballet (albeit of the grubby variety), and above all, it paints a vision of the world in which everybody, and I mean everybody, knows martial arts and is just waiting around for an opportunity to use it.  Less a send-up of martial arts than a critique of anglicizing Eastern products, Big Trouble is a teasing rib at the carnival of Indiana Jones imitators cascading through the ’80s landscape. In particular, it presents a self-mocking portrait of Western films which mobilize Eastern martial arts and thereby essentialize and exoticize it.
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Zombie New Wave, No Budget Restrictions: Day of the Dead

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Underwhelming audiences upon its release in 1985, George A Romero’s third Dead movie has in recent years undergone something of a critical revaluation, with some even wishfully proclaiming it a misunderstood masterpiece (a claim abetted by the fact that it is, by his own admission, Romero’s favorite among the series). Reticent yet more talkative than the previous Dead movies, this one perhaps fell afoul of audiences because,  excepting the rather gnarly ending and a few select bits earlier on,  Day eschews the expected blood-and-guts horror smorgasbord for a miasma of despondence and slowly-encroaching dread. Rebelling against the initial reception, many modern critics have claimed the film is a more deliberate, somber affair that has aged shockingly well due to its emphasis on philosophy and politics over outright gore. In all of this, how does the film stack up? Continue reading

Fluffy Anarchism ‘n’ Artifice New Wave: Back to the Future and Pee-wee’s Big Adventure

Back to the Future

Unlike many other great pops-men in the film world, Robert Zemeckis is a legitimate auteur, which is to say, he has a unique vision he aims to see fulfilled in his finished product and one which requires a significant amount of effect on his part. I’ll never forgive him for Forrest Gump, a wretched a combination of schmaltzy artificial cotton candy and “I’m above politics and thus more moral than you” traditionalism that nonetheless must innately be entirely political, which manages to one-up itself by just plain having boring wallpaper as a central character (who also happens to be deeply problematic and inhumanly insensitive in its glamorization of the mentally handicapped here rendered as inoffensively cute, innocent, and above all too-moral-to-be-human). Quite a long-winded barn-storming gasping rage of a sentence, but the film had a vision. One which alternated between boring, problematic, and scary, but a vision nonetheless, one which he sought out and achieved through what loosely approximates filmmaking “craft”.
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