Category Archives: 80’s

Sound Waves? I Don’t Know. A Lame Pun About How Bats See with Sound: Batman Returns

In 1989, a little would-be blusterous rabble-rouser who fell deeply in love with classic genre film history made a little independent film about an inconsequential twerp of a hero named Batman. And he just about conquered the world in doing so. Problems aside – namely the fact that it wasn’t much of a Batman film – it was a competent bit of Gothic blockbuster fluff and well-deserving of a sequel by the same filmmaker. And, with the sheer quantity of money the film brought in, Warner Bros. wasn’t about to go and deny the opportunity for another several hundred million dollars their way.

Now. There is an old saying about what happens when you give hungry, passionate directors too much money and they become stagnant and bored with their success. That happened with Tim Burton, just as it always happens with unique voices of his sort in the all-devouring Hollywood machine. But it didn’t happen with Batman Returns. Correction: it absolutely did not happen with Batman Returns, one of the dreariest, gnarliest Hollywood blockbusters ever released, and dare I say one of the most anti-blockbuster.
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The Waves, Man, The Waves: Point Break

Point Break - 1991Edited July 2016:

In a sane world, Point Break would have been released, forgotten, and then rediscovered and mocked for years on end as an early ’90s curio of archly-’80s action film types hyperbolically peacocking in a most philharmonic register, pushed to near-aneurysm limits of male moodiness no ’80s film ever dared to threaten. It should be terrible, simply put. Like, really really terrible. But then we do not live in a sane world. And Point Break is a pretty terrific barnstorming action monstrosity the likes of which the ’80s proper produced only a handful of times.

Even stranger: why it absolutely should have been horrible and why it is undoubtedly successful are inextricably and forever bound together in a Frankensteinian brew of knuckle-dusting, live-wire, allegro kinesis and full-tilt, pulpy bafflement. Director Kathryn Bigelow was infamously labeled a sell-out, a  woman playing in a man’s world and joining the testosterone rat race to achieve success at the cost of her own soul. In reality, she turns the mirror on the rats and lets them bask in their roided-out bodies until they drown in the pungent masculine sweat. This inferno of action is actually a purgatory of caricature, a self-conscious orchestration of action movie types maddened and stirred to the realm of outright nonsensical hysteria. Parody not by distancing itself from the genre’s adolescence but by fulfilling the genre’s wildest, most adolescent fantasies until they puncture themselves with their own self-importance, Point Break is murder by flattery.  Continue reading

Brain Waves: Barton Fink

If the Coens had fiction and the intellectual dents of the anarchic human brain on the mind with Miller’s
Crossing, they doubled-down with Barton Fink. Probably the Coens’ strangest and most esoteric piece, Barton Fink is both a wry exploration of the “troubled artist” trope and a purposefully artificial construct to throw a kvetch Hollywood’s way. It’s a formalist’s dream, but it uses formalism to shoot formalism in the kneecaps and poke the wound a few hundred times. It’s no Sunset Blvd, but it’s one of the few Hollywood parables with the chutzpah to dive into the cynical stew of a Wilder and never come up for breath.

We’ve all heard this sort of story before, because Hollywood loves to self-aggrandize even in the negative. Barton Fink (John Turturro), an NY playwright, goes to LA to break into screenwriting. In the midst of seemingly trying his hardest to do everything but that, he meets Charlie (John Goodman), a neighbor whose local haunt happens to be Barton’s room. Along the way, Charlie teaches Barton a little about Hollywood living (namely that it ain’t). But the fact that we’ve all heard this story before is exactly what the Coens’ are preying on, for if we’ve heard it before, we’ve never heard it from a two-headed soothsayer.

Barton Fink begins with Barton Fink, and what the two authors who’ve created him want to do to abuse him. He’s one of the Coens’ finest characters, a fascinatingly neurotic loner ably played by consistent Coen Brothers collaborator John Turturro (by 1991 knee-deep on his way to becoming a stand-in Coen Brothers version of Alvy Singer, albeit more sniveling). However, there’s a key difference: here, the filmmakers don’t have sympathy for their lead character. They only find pity. He rants and raves about his writer’s block and the difficulties he has selling a story to the immolating, hollow, bogus Hollywood machine, but the film subtly undercuts his character by rendering him almost inconsequential, nothing short of a phony himself, an eternal victim without the backbone of the true New York underdog he claims as an identity. Ultimately, he is as artificial as the Hollywood cronies he has to deal with, or the famous Faulkner-esque writer he, and the Coens, admire, who is here rendered deranged fool. If the Coens are the most literate director-writers working in America today, they aren’t above tearing so-called literate Hollywood sell-outs a new one, and implicating themselves in the process. Continue reading

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 things 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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