Category Archives: 1980s

#326 An American Werewolf In London

(1981, John Landis)

“Beware the moon”

It’s no longer Halloween, but it appears that today we still have the horror bug, and this is a movie that has it all. Werewolves! Gore! Murder! Yorkshiremen! Frank Oz in a non-puppet role! Today we’re looking at An American Werewolf In London.

Two American students are inexplicably on holiday in the Yorkshire Moors. After David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) wander into a spooky pub filled with terrifying Yorkshiremen, the two end up venturing onto the moors at night, where they’re attacked by a beast. Jack is killed, but David is saved when the scary Yorkshiremen shoot the beast. David is taken to hospital in London (as opposed to, I don’t know, Leeds) where he begins to experience strange visions of a horribly mutilated Jack who tells David that he’ll turn into a werewolf. David also falls for his nurse, Alex (Jenny Agutter), and the two begin a relationship.

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#324 The Big Red One

(1980, Samuel Fuller)

“By now we’d come to look at all replacements as dead men who temporarily had the use of the arms and legs. They came and went so fast and so regularly that sometimes we didn’t even learn their names”

If you’ve read through my blog by now, you probably are aware that one subject I’m sick of seeing in movies is World War II. Name a battle in that war and chances are there are at least five movies that examine it in great detail from multiple angles. We have movies from the perspective of innocent civilians caught up in horrendous circumstances. And now, apparently, we have a movie set entirely around a specific squad.

The Big Red One is focused on a band of American soldiers in the 1st Infantry Division, aka The Big Red One. During the events of the movie they fight in battles in North Africa, Sicily and Normandy. And…uh…that’s it. That’s the movie. Read the rest of this entry

#315 Fatal Attraction

(1987, Adrian Lyne)

“I’m not gonna be ignored, Dan!”

We’ve looked at a lot of movies recently that I’ve not been overly impressed with (Run Lola Run being an exception), and that’s a shame. It began to wear me down and start to lose my enthusiasm to watch new movies on the list. And then I watched Fatal Attraction.

Michael Douglas stars as Dan Gallagher, a successful New York attorney who meets a local magazine editor called Alex Forrest (Glenn Close). While Dan’s wife and daughter are away for the weekend visiting her parents, Dan has a one-night stand with Alex, which quickly turns out to have been a bad idea. Alex suddenly won’t stop calling, and begins to stalk Dan, which gradually escalates, putting his family in danger.

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#311 Full Metal Jacket

(1987, Stanley Kubrick)
“If you ladies leave my island, if you survive recruit training, you will be a weapon. You will be a minister of death praying for war”

The Vietnam War is steadily becoming a recurring topic here on SvTM. We’ve already reviewed The Deer Hunter and Platoon and had wildly differing opinions on them both. So today I think it’s time to look at another one, Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket.

Full Metal Jacket is a movie of two halves. In the first, we spend time on a military boot camp, training soldiers for Vietnam. The camp is led by drill sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey), who is a tough, stern man whose methods of teaching involve insulting cadets in order to break them down in order to build them back up as soldiers. While many of the cadets take to the training relatively easily, one cadet in particular, nicknamed “Gomer Pyle” (Vincent D’Onofrio) struggles immensely, and steadily begins to exhibit signs of a breakdown. The second half of the movie takes place in the war itself, where one of the cadets, Joker (Matthew Modine) is now a sergeant working as part of the military press. We follow him as he gradually sees more combat face to face, and realising the horrors of war.

So, first of all, this is the movie that doomed R. Lee Ermey to a life of typecasting as The Angry Drill Sergeant Type, and it’s easy to see why that happened. Ermey is just really good at it. Hartman is an imposing figure and it’s hard to know how to deal with him at times. However, this is a good thing. One minute he is terrifying, the next he’s disgustingly crude, and then suddenly he’s hilarious. Sometimes he’s all three at the same time somehow. What’s more, he manages this even while keeping up a permanent yelling performance that never changes.

But there’s more to this section of the movie than just Ermey yelling and eating up the scenery. There’s a certain degree of creepiness that seeps through much of the first half of the movie as the cadets grow into Marines and steadily fall into order. When they’re lying in bed chanting about how much they love their rifles, it feels like a cult, and the encouragement to beat up Pyle for his incompetence as a Marine makes it even creepier.

And then there’s Pyle himself. D’Onofrio plays a man who visibly breaks on screen every time Hartman yells in his face, throws his belongings around, taunts his poor fitness or generally wears him down. The ultimate snap is predictable but when it finally happens, it’s terrifying. The scene where his inevitable breakdown comes to fruition is one of the most tense and unnerving things I’ve ever seen in a movie, and Kubrick’s direction on this front was brilliant.

In fact, everything about the first half is fantastic, from the acting to the scripting, and even down to technical aspects such as the superb cinematography. It’s such a shame that this doesn’t last into the final half of the film.

The problem is, once we leave the boot camp, we’re in typical clichéd war movie territory again. Sadly, the movie lacks the effective characterisation that made Good Morning Vietnam and Platoon so watchable, since Kubrick made the decision to present a very clinical, distant style of film-making to the story. It worked when we were observers in the boot camp, not so much when we’re in the actual war.

Most of the cast is replaced, forcing to reacquaint ourselves with the characters, many of whom feel interchangeable anyway. Only Joker carries over, and he was the weakest of the cast in the first half. The action gets repetitive very quickly. It descends very easily into “men shooting other men (and a girl) for eternity” territory and never leaves. The second half simply forgets everything that made the first half so good, and ultimately ends up becoming very forgettable.

Full Metal Jacket should probably have been two separate movies, giving the second movie more time to develop, and giving the first movie a more satisfying conclusion. As it is, it’s a little messy but the first half is amazing.

Starring Matthew Modine, Adam Baldwin, Vincent D’Onofrio, R. Lee Ermey, Dorian Harewood, Arliss Howard, Kevyn Major Howard & Ed O’Ross
Written by Gustav Hasford, Stanley Kubrick & Michael Herr
Produced by Stanley Kubrick
Music by Abigail Mead
Cinematography by Douglas Milsome
Edited by Martin Hunter

Favourite Scene: “This is my rifle. There are many others like it but this one is mine.”
Scene That Bugged Me: The entire second half.

Watch it if: You don’t mind movies losing steam halfway through
Avoid it if: You hate shouty drill sergeants

#309 Hannah And Her Sisters

(1986, Woody Allen)

“How can you act when there’s nothing inside to come out?”

So I never particularly liked the last Woody Allen movie I watched for this blog. However, I don’t exactly have high hopes for this one either, especially because Allen himself is in the movie, and everything I’ve seen of the guy himself just feels uncomfortably awkward and not actually all that funny. Does that view stick after watching Hannah And Her Sisters? Let’s take a look.

Hannah And Her Sisters is a movie with an ensemble cast, featuring the titular Hannah (Mia Farrow) and her sisters Lee (Barbara Hershey) and Holly (Dianne West), all of whom have their own personal and professional dramas. Support characters include Hannah’s husband, Elliot (Michael Caine), who secretly has a thing for Lee, Lee’s much older partner, Frederick (Max Von Sydow), and Hannah’s neurotic ex-boyfriend Woody Allen who…is in the movie for some reason.

So, a movie with three plots all intertwining. Possible scandalous family drama. A rather splendid cast of top-notch actors. It’s a potential recipe for an awesome movie. Sadly, the movie fails to add up to the sum of its parts. And here are many reasons why.

First of all, the movie has a tendency to jump around a lot, struggling to stick with any character for any length of time. As a result, we never really learn much about anyone, and this of course leads to us not particularly caring about anyone. Everyone feels so distant from the audience, and since this is largely a character piece, that spoils the whole movie.

What’s more, what we do know about the cast does little to warm the audience to them. Much like The Big Chill, unless you’re a certain type of mid-1980s, middle-class, middle-aged, middle-of-the-road person, this film feels alien. Everyone talks big about art and literature and how oh-so-cultured they are, in a way that feels false and dull and pretentious. I feel like none of these people are people I’d spend any amount of time with, but the movie’s asking me to spend 2 hours with them.

Worst of all, Woody Allen gives himself way too much screen-time. His character doesn’t need to be there. His connection to the other characters is tenuous at best, and he’s so goddamn annoying. He’s a ball of neuroses and hypochondria and spends 99% of his time whining about how shitty life is to be a successful TV producer with a decently sized apartment in New York. Oh boo hoo for you, Woody. Boo fucking hoo.

And no, he wasn’t funny. Nor was anyone else in this hipster movie before hipsters were even much of a thing. This is supposed to be a comedy, but not once did I laugh. Not even a chuckle. Not even a smile. This isn’t comedy. This is Woody Allen farting out a script and then filming it, somehow convincing a bunch of decent actors to help him laugh at his own self-satisfied jokes.

There also isn’t really anything holding this movie together. Ostensibly, everything’s supposed to come back to Hannah in some way, but she gets barely any screen-time compared to the director. She’s often relegated to background character status and when she does become the focus she just comes across as bland and featureless, which seems to be a common thing for Woody Allen to do with Mia Farrow for some reason.

Oh, and the movie ultimately descends into everyone bitching at each other and failing to have any kind of proper adult discussion with each other. And any interaction between Allen and Farrow feels painfully uncomfortable considering the real life drama that transpired between them.

Hannah And Her Sisters is ultimately a pretentious waste of time on top of being a tremendous waste of talent with most of its cast. I have nothing positive to say about it.

Starring Michael Caine, Mia Farrow, Carrie Fisher, Barbara Hershey, Lloyd Nolan, Maureen O’Sullivan, Daniel Stern, Max Von Sydow, Dianne Wiest & Woody Allen
Written by Woody Allen
Produced by Robert Greenhut
Cinematography by Carlo Di Palma
Edited by Susan E. Morse

Favourite Scene: None of it.
Scene That Bugged Me: All of it.

Watch it if: Seriously, don’t
Avoid it if: You’re not an aging hipster

#306 Platoon

(1986, Oliver Stone)

“We did not fight the enemy, we fought ourselves”

Last time we saw a Western that managed to get me vaguely interested in places, although failed to win me over to the genre. Today we’re looking at film in another genre I kind of dislike and seeing if it manages to attract my attention in any way. Yes, this time it’s war movies, and we’re looking at Vietnam War movie Platoon.

Seen through the eyes of naïve trooper Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen), Platoon aims to show a grim picture of the Vietnam War, based on writer/director Oliver Stone’s real-life experiences. He gains a mentor in Sergeant Elias (Willem Defoe) and a nemesis in the form of the cynical and somewhat violent Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger). As the movie progresses Chris has to deal with the horrors of war and realise that sometimes even the “good guys” are capable of some terrible things.

So yes, it’s yet another “war is hell” movie. So Platoon is full of exactly what you’d expect – an awful lot of scenes of soldiers and innocents caught in the crossfire breaking down and crying a lot, lots of blood and gore and death and lots of long, lingering shots of the despair and hopelessness of war, especially with a war as pointless and draining as Vietnam.

But here’s the catch. Platoon avoids a lot of the problems of other “war is hell” movies by not labouring the point. Honestly, it was a massive breath of fresh air to not have the camera linger on limbless soldiers weeping in foxholes for about an hour while a composer gets to go to town on a mournful piano. There’s plenty of lingering horror here, of course, but it never once hangs around the house. It doesn’t try and manipulate the audience. It doesn’t overdo itself. And I, for one, welcome this. Other war movies could do well to follow this example.

So instead of emotional manipulation of the audience, Platoon opts for character development. It sets up a clear protagonist and defines at least two more characters as important, and then focuses on how these three interact. We also get plenty of fleshed-out moments between squad members interacting in realistic ways, building up a comradery and generally being human beings. And I hugely appreciate that Oliver Stone chose to take this route, because it makes the film that much stronger as a whole.

Some examples? Okay, sure. Two soldiers are horribly mutilated in an explosion, and we get a few quick shots of one of them dying. It doesn’t run in slow motion or force us to feel sad, it merely shows us and lets us deal with it ourselves. Sergeant Barnes is portrayed as a bad person but it’s not played up like some pantomime villain – when he points a gun at a young Vietnamese girl, it’s a relatively quick moment but it tells us everything. We get just enough information and are allowed to consider the implications ourselves.

What also helps is that every single actor in this movie is fantastic. It’s pre-“Tiger Blood” Sheen, when he looked like he wanted to beat his dad at acting skill. Tom Berenger is evil and menacing without overdoing it. Willem Defoe plays his part as mentor so well that even I started looking up to him. Even the support cast, with their much smaller roles, feel like essential parts of a larger whole. It couldn’t have worked without them. Although having said that, I genuinely don’t remember Johnny Depp being in it but he’s on the cast list so who knows.

The main issue with Platoon, however, is that it doesn’t really feel like it has much of a plot, or much to drive it from one scene to another. There’s the vague “Barnes is a bad man” plot, but this feels like a subplot rather than the driving force behind the movie. There isn’t even a central conflict. It’s basically Vietnam War Stuff: The Movie, which kind of works and kind of doesn’t.

Platoon is a very good movie. Not entirely my taste as films go, but its ability to demonstrate the horrors of war without overdoing it and the uniformly brilliant acting mean that I can certainly appreciate the craft involved, and it’s definitely one of the better war movies I’ve seen.

Starring Tom Berenger, Willem Defoe & Charlie Sheen
Written by Oliver Stone
Produced by Arnold Kopelson
Music by Georges Delerue
Cinematography by Robert Richardson
Edited by Claire Simpson

Favourite Scene: The scenes in the Vietnamese village, which show the depths at which Barnes is willing to plunge, were perfectly executed.
Scene That Bugged Me: The movie feels like it loses momentum towards the end when it almost becomes a generic war movie.

Watch it if: You want a genuinely fascinating war movie
Avoid it if: You’re expecting Charlie Sheen to show about how much he’s “winning”

#303 Fast Times At Ridgemont High

(1982, Amy Heckerling)

“I woke up in a great mood, I don’t know what the hell happened”

It’s the eighties! Time to do a lot of coke and vote for Ronald Reagan! Yeah! Yes, today we are looking at one of the classic teen comedies of the 80s, Fast Times At Ridgemont High, a movie about sex, growing up and dancing to The Go-Go’s. But is it any good?

Fast Times At Ridgemont High focuses on a group of various teenagers who attend Ridgemont High. At the centre are sophomores Stacy Hamilton (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Mark Ratner (Brian Backer), who receive advice from their older friends Linda (Phoebe Cates) and Mike (Robert Romanus), who believe themselves to be wiser in romance. There are also subplots involving Stacy’s brother Brad (Judge Reinhold) who works his way through a variety of terrible jobs, and unrelated stoner kid Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn) who has a run-in with strict teacher Mr Hand (Ray Walston).

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#291 The Right Stuff

(1983, Phillip Kaufman)

“There was a demon that lived in the air. They said whoever challenged him would die.”

In the 1950s and 1960s, Russia and America were in a race to explore beyond the boundaries of our atmosphere and into outer space. It was a time of great experimentation and wonder, but the efforts to explore space required men with a willingness to put their lives on the line for the advancement of humanity. The Right Stuff is the story of these men, the pioneering astronauts of the Mercury program.

So there isn’t much of a plot to The Right Stuff then. It’s basically a series of events leading up to the completion of the Mercury program and little more. We start in the days of high-speed flight experimentation, when daring pilots pushed to break the sound barrier and go faster than anyone has ever gone before. This then leads into the development of NASA and the recruitment of the seven astronauts who would go on to explore Earth’s orbit.

As someone who is interested in the exploration of space, I was looking forward to this movie. I was curious to see the full story, and waited with anticipation to see how it was handled.

Imagine my disappointment when the movie spends forever getting to the development of NASA, and instead hangs around a bunch of high-speed test pilots who seemingly have no connection to the space program aside from their efforts aiding in the development of rockets. The problem is, it turns these guys into characters, especially Chuck Yeager, the first man to break the sound barrier, and spends a lot of time saying that he was the best pilot EVAH and tries to make us feel sorry for the fact he never got to be an astronaut.

But this ends up feeling like padding. In a three-hour movie. So you can imagine how well that went down with me.

When we do get to the astronauts, The Right Stuff is determined to focus on the personalities and relationships of the astronauts above the technical details of the Mercury program. This is fine, especially as good characters make for better stories than a bunch of technical figures. However, Phillip Kaufman didn’t do a great job of developing these men as real characters. They were all painted as All-American Heroes™, all square jaws and no personalities. Worst of all, he failed to adequately demonstrate that these men had “the right stuff” that made them volunteer for the program. You know, the whole point of the title of the movie.

There are also numerous scenes involving the astronauts’ wives, designed to flesh out these men even more, but these scenes more often than not just got in the way of everything. What’s more, Annie Glenn’s stutter was never explained, leaving us to wonder why she struggled to speak properly; I only understood this because I looked it up online. If you have to do background research on a movie, the movie has failed to communicate properly. Essentially, The Right Stuff spends a lot of time on things that drag the movie and less time on things that actually matter to communicating the events accurately.

It’s not a complete failure, however. Some of the interaction between the astronauts has some genuine comedy, and the portrayal of NASA during this time as a confused organisation that was basically throwing everything at the wall to see what would stick was wonderfully unexpected. No one involved seems to know exactly what they’re doing, and this was nice because I honestly expected them to paint NASA as heroic and intelligent and the beacon of human advancement, but instead we get a bumbling band of scientists who aren’t even sure if their tests on the astronauts are actually helpful.

Also, when the movie does manage to focus on the thing we came to see – the space program – it does a phenomenal job. The space race is portrayed as both tense and slightly silly, and these two conflicting sides end up sticking together quite nicely, with the pompous politics between the US and Russia sitting surprisingly well against the exciting space launches. I was on the edge of my seat before Alan Shepherd went up, despite knowing that he succeeded and came back safely.

Overall, The Right Stuff was interesting to an extent, but part of this may have stemmed from my own personal interest in the space program. When it stuck to its guns and focused on the important events, it did its job very well, but the amount of padding and dragged-out sections bring the entire experience down a little.

Starring Fred Ward, Dennis Quaid, Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Sam Shepard, Barbara Hershey, Lance Henriksen, Veronica Cartwright, Jane Dornacker, Harry Shearer, Jeff Goldblum & Kim Stanley
Written by Tom Wolfe (book) and Philip Kaufman
Produced by Irwin Winkler
Music by Bill Conti
Cinematography by Caleb Deschanel
Edited by Glenn Farr, Lisa Fruchtman, Stephen A. Rotter, Douglas Stewart & Tom Rolf

Favourite Scene: Alan Shepherd goes into space. Took a while to get there, but at least it paid off.
Scene That Bugged Me: Oh boo hoo poor Chuck Yaeger never got to be an astronaut. Let’s pad out the ending of this three-hour movie with more scenes featuring him.

Watch it if: You’re the Space Core from Portal 2
Avoid it if: You want a dry account of the history of the space program

#286 Peking Opera Blues

(1986, Tsui Hark)
刀馬旦

A while ago, I reviewed Once Upon A Time In China, a movie which was frequently presented to me as a serious film about Chinese history, and then it turned out to be a chop-socky kung fu flick. Well, Peking Opera Blues, from the same director, appears to have the same issue. Presented as a serious drama surrounding Peking opera, it’s actually a slightly silly action film. But is it any good?

Peking Opera Blues is set in 1913 Peking, centred on a rebellion against the government of the time. The story features three female leads who form an unlikely team: Tsao Wan (Brigitte Lin), a general’s daughter secretly plotting against her father, Bai Niu (Sally Yeh), the daughter of a Peking opera impresario, and Sheung Hung (Cherie Chung), a young musician searching for a box of stolen jewels.

Peking Opera Blues starts by throwing everything at us. Here’s a general’s daughter who likes to dress like a man! Here’s a musician trying to steal some jewels! Here’s some Peking opera! Here’s a huge rebellion! HERE ARE ALL THE THINGS!

The problem is, this initially leads to the viewer being horrendously overwhelmed by the sheer number of characters and plot points and general goings-on, and it isn’t really a good way to start. For probably the first half-hour of the movie, I was lost. Too much was happening and too little was being explained and I was all set to hate everything.

But then the movie started getting somewhat silly. Over-the-top action sequences exploded onto the screen and the movie started chucking jokes around constantly, and my opinion dramatically changed. These action sequences are consistently excellent, with excellent choreography blending with expert comic timing, and it made the movie a lot of fun to watch.

It’s all basically what you’d expect from a heavily choreographed Hong Kong movie. We get crazy martial arts mixing into traditional Peking opera performances, tons of wire-work and fist fights, and some dramatic escape sequences too. Of course, I still don’t know why the film is presented as a serious drama about opera, because it really isn’t.

Also around this time, the movie starts being clearer about who our protagonists are, especially when they form their alliances, and the plot starts falling into place. Even better, once the confusion clears up, it becomes apparent that all of the leads are charming and likeable.

What’s more, this enhances the action. As the movie progresses, we start caring more and more about our protagonists and we want them to succeed. As I watched them flail around and generally kick ass, I felt myself cheering them on, wanting everything to turn out well. Silly scenes mixed in with all this, such as a series of scenes where the trio get drunk and then try and hide from Bai Niu’s father in her bedroom, add to the fun immensely.

Of course, it isn’t perfect. There is a desire to tell a serious story in here, and sometimes things can be a bit jarring at times. As an example, after lots of silly over-the-top action sequences and buddy comedy jokes, there’s a genuinely gruesome torture scene that threw me completely. It felt so out of place in such a fun movie that I began to wonder if I was beginning to watch a completely different movie.

It also still never consistently explains its central plot. Sure, we care about our characters and we know that the generals are bad people and we should be rooting for the rebels, but…there’s no backstory. Stuff just happens and we’re expected to understand. It’s a little bit disappointing, really.

But overall, Peking Opera Blues isn’t a disappointment. It’s a blast to watch, and hilarious to boot. Definitely recommended for fans of Hong Kong cinema.

Starring Brigitte Lin, Cherie Chung, Sally Yeh, Paul Chun, Wu Ma & Kenneth Tsang
Written by Raymond To
Produced by Claudia Chung Jan & Hark Tsui
Music by James Wong
Cinematography by Hang-Sang Poon
Edited by David Wu

Favourite Scene: The drunken hang-out scene and the following bedroom scene with about four people hiding under a blanket.
Scene That Bugged Me: That torture scene really doesn’t fit at all.

Watch it if: You enjoy Hong Kong cinema
Avoid it if: You’re expecting a serious movie about the history of Peking opera

#284 Down By Law

(1986, Jim Jarmusch)

“America’s the big melting pot. You bring it to a boil and all the scum rises to the top.”

The last time I reviewed a Jim Jarmusch movie it was a Western, which probably wasn’t the best way to get introduced to him considering my track record with the genre. So maybe this movie will be better, since it’s a prison drama, and “prison drama” tends to evoke things like Shawshank Redemption and A Man Escaped, which I highly enjoyed.

Oh, the lead role is occupied by gravel-voiced blues singer Tom Waits? Well, um…I guess that’s not automatically going to make this bad, right? I mean, Björk was good in Dancer In The Dark, so being a singer doesn’t automatically make you a bad actor, surely…

Down By Law is about three men who meet in prison. Zack (Tom Waits), a radio DJ, and Jack (John Lurie), a pimp, have been set up, while Bob (Roberto Bengini) was arrested for manslaughter. The three men attempt to break out of prison and form an unlikely friendship.

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