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A Most Underrated Year: Revisiting the Films of 1981 (March)

March

Diva (3/11/81)
Modern Romance (3/13/81)
Three Brothers (3/19/81)
Cutter’s Way (3/20/81)
The Postman Always Rings Twice (3/20/81)
Thief (3/27/81)

Continuing our retrospective on the films of 1981, the most underrated year of cinema, March 1981 could be considered the month of Noir, with two American neo-noir thrillers (Cutter’s Way and Thief), an 80’s period remake of a 1940’s film noir classic (The Postman Always Rings Twice), and an edgy French neo-noir film that had a cool contemporary 80’s sheen (Diva). Rounding out the month’s notable films were a Rom-Com for neurotics directed by and starring Albert Brooks (Modern Romance), and an Italian drama that was Italy’s submission for the Academy Awards’ Best Foreign Film (Three Brothers).

Two films that opened on March 13 and made the top 5 in opening box office for March 1981 were the romantic comedy Back Roads starring Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones, and the horror film The Funhouse directed by Tobe Hooper which earned $3 million and $2.7 million respectively that weekend. But while those numbers were respectable for under 1000 theaters, ultimately they don’t make the notable list for 1981. Field and Jones show great chemistry in Back Roads, in which they play a prostitute and down on his luck ex-boxer who are forced to travel from Alabama to California with limited funds and even less patience for each other. It’s a well crafted film and grossed over $11 million, but is ultimately what you would expect of the genre, and the average story is only elevated by the talents of the leads. The Funhouse is a Tobe Hooper film that seems to have slipped through the cracks over time. The man who brought Leatherface to the screen with 1974’s classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (which is still one of the all time great movie titles) takes us inside a nefarious carnival as four teenagers on a double date decide to stick around the funhouse after closing time, and are trapped and pursued after they witness one of the carnies (dressed as Frankenstein) murder the fortune teller. Compared to 1981’s earlier horror releases The Funhouse has better production value, but ultimately it’s the slow pace and lack of suspense that make the film middle rate at best.

Modern Romance (also released on March 13, 1981) is a film about how not to be in a relationship. Film editor Robert Cole (Albert Brooks) puts himself through constant angst and mental torture over his relationship with Mary (Kathryn Harrold). He falls into the traps of overthinking and “grass is greener” syndrome at the expense of Mary’s patience and devotion, making him more of a partner that constantly wears you down than lifts you up. With each scene in the film the audience can recognize Robert in someone they know (or even themselves), and throughout the break ups and rebounds he really has no one to blame but himself. Sometimes you just need to make a choice and run with it. Despite Robert’s cringe worthy behavior (wrapped in Albert Brooks’ classic comedic style), Modern Romance is a romantic comedy that people can relate to more than the traditional romance films the genre is better known for. Looking deeper into the film’s title, Modern Romance is a reflection on the changes in lifestyles, dynamics and subsequently romance itself at the dawn of the 80’s, making it less about love shared by two people and more about what two individuals bring into “the relationship.”

Director Bob Rafelson’s remake of 1946’s film noir classic The Postman Always Rings Twice (released on March 20) is one of the intriguing films of 1981. It was actually the fourth film adaptation of James M. Cain’s 1934 novel of the same title, but for the purpose of simplicity its reference as a remake in this review will be against the 1946 version directed by Tay Garnett. Every remake has to balance respecting the original film and standing on its own: a shot for shot remake can fall flat, and veering too much from the original plot where the only similarity is a shared title defeats the purpose of a remake altogether. 1981’s The Postman Always Rings Twice stars Jack Nicholson as Frank Chambers, a Depression era drifter who takes a job at a California rest stop owned by Nick Papadakis (John Colicos) and his younger wife Cora (Jessica Lange). Frank and Cora begin a torrid affair and soon plot to kill Nick and collect on his $10,000 life insurance policy. The plot is mostly faithful to the 1946 film that starred John Garfield as Frank and Lana Turner as Cora, it has a strong script by David Mamet, atmospheric cinematography by the great Sven Nykvist, and raw sensuality that Nicholson and Lange bring to their roles. And there lies the dilemma with 1981’s The Postman Always Rings Twice: the individual elements are well done and the finished film is a solid production, but it’s debatable as to whether it justified a remake (it earned $12 domestic and an additional $32 million internationally). And this debate is part of the reason it’s included in my list of notable films of 1981. Had 1981’s The Postman Always Rings Twice not been a remake of one of the classic examples of film noir it actually could have stood on its own, though it may not have qualified as noir or neo-noir but rather as a period thriller. Movie fans should see this film not only to compare the 1946 and 1981 versions, but also the previous international adaptations Le Dernier Tournant (France, 1939) and Ossessione (Italy, 1943) as a study on the place remakes have in cinema.

Three Brothers (aka Tre Fratelli), directed by Francesco Rosi is a drama about the lives of three brothers who travel from their separate lives in Rome, Naples and Turin to their rural southern hometown upon the passing of their mother. The oldest son Raffaele (Philippe Noiret), is a judge torn over taking on a case that could cost him his life, Rocco (Vittorio Mezzogiorno, who also plays the role of their father in his younger years) is a counselor for troubled youths, and Nicola (Michele Placido) is a factory worker dealing with a failing marriage. Time in the shared bedroom of their childhood home gives them an opportunity to reconnect and reevaluate their current circumstances and what lies next for them. The film’s pace is as tranquil as the Southern countryside, and the weight of the burdens on the three brothers’ shoulders is occasionally lifted by sentimental flashbacks to the early years of their parents marriage. This film is as much a meditation as it is a drama, not on mourning but on the stages of life, the roads taken, and the complications that arise with adulthood. Sometimes, as in the case of the tre fratelli, you just need to go back home for awhile.

Cutter’s Way

Release Date: March 20, 1981 (as Cutter and Bone)
Starring Jeff Bridges, John Heard, Lisa Eichhorn, Ann Dusenberry
Directed by Ivan Passer, Screenplay by Jeffrey Alan Fiskin (based by the book Cutter and Bone by Newton Thornburg), Cinematography by Jordan Cronenweth

Cutter’s Way, Directed by Ivan Passer and based on Newton Thornburg’s novel Cutter and Bone, is a largely forgotten film that deserves to be rediscovered. Having never seen or heard of Cutter’s Way prior to this year (its currently streaming on Tubi and PlutoTV), I purposely didn’t do any research on the film prior to screening it. So it was cool to go into a screening completely unaware of what to expect, and Cutter’s Way hooked me in from the opening scenes with a tight story, subtle but atmospheric cinematography and memorable performances by Jeff Bridges, John Heard and Lisa Eichhorn.

Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges) is an underachiever drifting through life half-heartedly selling yachts for his friend’s company and barely satisfying the married women of Santa Barbara. His good looks only get him so far, and his Austin-Healey that’s seen better days can barely get him across town. On a rainy night after a forgettable tryst at a local hotel, Bone’s car breaks down on a dark side street. He sees a car stop behind him and the driver dump something in a trash can. As Bone gets out of his car to ask for help, he’s nearly run down by the silhouetted driver. Bone glances back at the trash can but the rain picks up, and he quickly walks away without seeing a woman’s lifeless legs visibly sticking out of the trash can.

Bone finds his friend Alex Cutter (John Heard) at a local watering hole. Cutter, a Vietnam veteran who lost an eye, arm and leg in the war, sucks the air our of the bar with his obnoxious tongue at a table of politely quiet patrons, until a racist quip lands him one step away from getting his ass kicked by two nearby pool players. But as he’s likely done many times before, Bone talks the situation down and the offended parties walk away. Bone takes Cutter’s keys and drives to Cutter’s house, where the all too patient Mo (Lisa Eichhorn, playing the role as more martyr than saint) drinks her way through her marriage to Cutter. As they share a freshly opened bottle of vodka, Mo hardly convinces Bone that she’s actually happy and would have still married Cutter had Bone not kept drifting in an out of her life.

The next morning two sanitation workers find the bloodied body of a young woman in the garbage can. With Bone’s Austin-Healey parked just ahead, detectives pay him a visit at Cutter’s house and haul him in for questioning. After six hours of interrogation and facing the 17 year old victim’s sister, Valerie Duran (played by Ann Dusenberry), Bone is released and is met at the city’s founder’s day parade by Mo and a jovial Alex who’s relishing Bone’s picture on the front page of the newspaper as the murder suspect. As they watch the parade, Bone recognizes one of the participants, an older man with dark sunglasses, as the man he saw in the alley the night before. Cutter drags him through the parade to get a better look at him and tells Bone it’s J.J. Cord, one of the pillars of Santa Monica society.

Afterwards at a diner, Cutter continues to question Bone to see if his story aligns with the recently reported event of Cord’s car found mysteriously burned the night before, shortly after Bone would have seen it in the alley. Bone answers with every reason possible why it’s unlikely Cord killed the Valerie’s sister. As far as he’s concerned, he’s told the police everything he saw and what he told them isn’t changing. When Cutter and Valerie ambush Bone the next morning, they read him a magazine interview of Cord in which he openly mentioned occasionally picking up hitchhikers. Bone isn’t budging, even when they tell him they visited a nearby gas station where the attendant told them a man resembling Cord had bought two cans of gasoline in the middle of the night, which he could have used to set fire to his car and destroy evidence of the murder. But their not so subtle conversation at the restaurant is overheard by Cord’s wife (played by Patricia Donahue), whose composure and silence should not be confused with complacency.

Cutter devises a plan for the three of them to write an extortion note for Bone to deliver to Cort’s office. But rather than threaten Cord for hush money, their plan is to get him to incriminate himself with a payoff so they can turn him into the police. Despite Bone’s reluctance to follow through on Cutter’s crazy idea, there’s a part of him that feels the obligation to bring the girl’s murderer to justice. But a man like Cord, played with an eerie, steely coolness by Stephen Elliott, didn’t get to his place in life by giving relevance to the demands of the little people. And they learn the hard way that a position of power is the greatest advantage in spite of the truth.

No spoilers here. Cutter’s Way keeps the audience guessing whether Alex Cutter is pursuing justice or a conspiracy theory, and if the obstacles he and Bone face are coincidence or messages to back off. But these questions go deeper when we learn that Cutter was also a child of privilege who grew up in the same circles as J.J. Cord, a man known for using questionable and aggressive business tactics to get what he wants. Are Cutter’s ramblings the product of his disillusioned, post Vietnam War outlook on life, or those of a privileged rich boy with a perpetual lack of accountability? Is he seeking to take down Cord as a personal vendetta, or as a statement against the upbringing he’s now ashamed of?

Conversely Richard Bone is driven in his lack of action by self preservation. Unlike Cutter he has no personal vendettas or principles that drive him, but there is a part of him that’s desperate to break from an underachieving life stuck in a frustrating state of neutral which, like his broken down Austin-Healey, fails to move him forward.

Screenwriter Jeffrey Alan Fiskin crafted a straightforward story that isn’t convoluted by overlapping plots or overdone backstory. Ivan Passer’s direction is subtle and effective in bringing classic film noir elements to a contemporary 80’s setting, expertly cut by editor Caroline Ferriol (The Stunt Man, 9 ½ Weeks, The Seventh Sign) and enveloped by a haunting score by Jack Nitzche (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Stand By Me). As the opening credits rolled, one name that caught my attention was that of cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, who at the time of filming Cutter’s Way was one year away from shooting the incredible Blade Runner. Cronenweth took the simple, contemporary story and locations of Cutter’s Way and elevated them on celluloid to the point where you can almost feel the early morning mist on the screen.

But Cutter’s Way should be best remembered by the performances of Bridges, Heard (in a standout performance that should have propelled him to leading man status) and the criminally underrated Lisa Eichhorn as the tragic Mo, who in the simple act of asking Bone to pass a bottle, projects the hurt in her eyes, the weight on her shoulders and her misguided love for Cutter. If not for anything else, see this movie for her performance alone.

Next up: We continue revisiting March 1981 with reviews of Michael Mann’s Thief starring James Caan and the French thriller Diva directed by Jean-Jacques Beineix.

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A Most Underrated Year: Revisiting the Films of 1981 (January and February)

January

The first month in what was to be a very notable year for film wasn’t exactly…well, notable. January was generally known as one of the two months of the calendar year (along with August) in which studios dumped their worst films for release, and January 1981 was no exception to this tradition. That month’s schedule of forgettable low budget horror movies (Scream, Blood Beach) and under performing wide releases (The Incredible Shrinking Woman) hardly forecast what would turn into a solid year of cinema.

Joel Schumacher’s The Incredible Shrinking Woman (released January 30) grossed $20 million and is probably the most remembered film from that month, but in my opinion it doesn’t crack the list of notable films of 1981. Based on 1957’s The Incredible Shrinking Man, Lily Tomlin plays Pat Kramer, a suburban wife and mother whose body can’t stop shrinking due to exposure to chemicals in household products. Despite the film being a solid showcase of Lily Tomlin’s talent in which she plays several characters, ultimately the film doesn’t hold up due to an uneven string of scenes that parody an America dominated by advertising and consumerism too hard and to the point of caricature where an audience isn’t engaged in the message or the characters.

In contrast, director Robert Butler’s lower budget comedy Underground Aces, with an ensemble cast that includes Dirk Benedict, T.K. Carter, Melanie Griffith and Robert Hegyes, hasn’t exactly made its way up to cult status over the last forty years. It’s one of the forgotten films of 1981 (think 1976’s Car Wash but set in the valet garage of a hotel), but a surprisingly well crafted comedy with a style and humor that’s of its time, although some elements of Underground Aces’ story and characters would not hold up by today’s standards. Worth noting: cinematographer Thomas Del Ruth would go on to DP several classic films of the 1980’s: Blue Thunder, The Breakfast Club, Stand By Me and The Running Man.

Scanners

Release Date: January 14, 1981
Written and Directed by David Cronenberg
Starring Stephen Lack, Jennifer O’Neal, Michael Ironside and Patrick McGoohan
Cinematography by Mark Irwin, Edited by Ronald Sanders

The first standout film of 1981 is David Cronenberg’s Scanners, which premiered in the U.S. on January 14th. Cronenberg’s two previous films ranged from the gory horror of 1977’s Rabid to the psychological terror of 1979’s The Brood. 1981’s Scanners is a “psionic” thriller that is heavy on drama and suspense but with a controlled, methodical style. That’s not to say that Scanners is a subdued film, as evidenced by car chases, gun fights and just the right amount of gory special effects including a memorable head explosion. Cronenberg injects an old school style of mystery and suspense, and ramps up the tension with charged scenes involving the scanners telekinetic power, represented primarily by a heavy musical score, sound effects and the talents of the cast.

Scanners begins with a disheveled and disturbed Cameron Vale (played by Steven Lack) acting erratically in a shopping mall, taking other people’s cigarettes and food without giving any thought to his behavior or their stares. But when he hears a woman’s dismissive comments about him he projects a telepathic burst that causes her to seizure but also exposes him to the undercover agents tasked with finding his kind. He’s knocked out by a tranquilizer dart, and wakes up strapped to a bed in a research facility located in an abandoned industrial building which is run by Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) who informs Cameron that he is a scanner, a telepath capable of reading, controlling and destroying people’s minds. Dr. Ruth (yes, Dr. Ruth…) wants Cameron to stay at the facility as one of his subjects to teach him to use and control his telekinetic power.

In an auditorium at the company ConSec, a presenter announces he will telekinetically scan each member of the audience. He warns them of the adverse side effects of scanning, but one man, Darryl Revok (played by Michael Ironside) agrees to be the first subject and joins him in front of the audience. Revok calmly goes along by thinking of something personal for the presenter to telepathically connect to, but it’s clear that Revok is more in control of the scan, putting them in a telepathic tug of war that leads to the presenter’s head exploding. Revok is quickly taken at gunpoint, but subtly “scans” a doctor to inject a tranquilizer into his own hand rather than Revok’s. Shortly after, as Revok pretends to be out cold in the back of a ConSec car, he telepathically controls the driver of one of the company vehicles to crash, which creates a diversion and allows him to control and overpower his captors in order to escape.

These events prompt ConSec’s new head of security Greg Keller to propose dropping the scanner program which Dr. Ruth is heading. According to Ruth, the list of 236 known scanners in their program has been compromised by an underground, subversive scanner group led by Revok. Ruth recruits Cameron to infiltrate the subversive scanners, but Keller’s concerns run deeper than skepticism, and his self interests push him to secretly meet with a yet to be revealed contact that is meant to thwart Cameron’s efforts.

No spoilers here. Despite the low tech approach to many of the telepathic elements of the film, Cronenberg wrote and directed an engaging story with cinematography by Mark Irwin (The Dead Zone, Dumb and Dumber, Old School) and editing by Ronald Sanders (The Dead Zone, The Fly, Naked Lunch). At times Cronenberg’s script can be a little too heavy on the exposition and dialogue, and the low tech, music heavy telepathic sequences take a little getting used to (and some suspension of disbelief), but Scanners is a solid thriller that gets into your head, with Cronenberg effectively representing the cacophony in Cameron’s mind and the scanners’ desperation for answers and control.

February

February 1981 had more notable films than the anemic month of January, bringing out a police drama (Fort Apache, The Bronx), a thriller (Eyewitness), a beloved international road movie (Goodbye Pork Pie), and an under appreciated animated film (American Pop). But despite the quality of these releases, the overall U.S. box office continued to lag save for Fort Apache, The Bronx’s $29 million domestic gross. The Canadian horror film My Bloody Valentine qualifies as a guilty pleasure, and two other films released in February 1981, the underwhelming action thriller Sphinx directed by Franklin Schaffner (Patton, The Poseidon Adventure) and the misguided comedy reboot Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen starring Peter Ustinov in the title role (which even back then was cringeworthy and offensive), failed to meet to expectations and were the bombs of the month.

My Bloody Valentine, directed by George Mihalka, is set in a small mining town where a deranged killer has returned after twenty years to go on a killing spree leading up to Valentine’s Day. The killer, a former miner who lost his mind and resorted to cannibalism to survive a cave in, leaves boxes of candy with the hearts of his victims and warnings to cancel the town’s first Valentine’s Day dance in twenty years. The mayor and police chief cancel the dance to thwart the killer’s promised bloodbath, but a group young of miners and their girlfriends won’t have their night taken from them and hold their own party at the mine. And as you would expect, they’re taken out one by one. This film is filled with typical horror tropes (the legend of a local killer, the younger generation not taking it seriously and just looking to have a good time, shots from the killer’s POV, messages left with his latest victims warning of future killings) but solid cinematography, direction and editing resulting in a higher production value than January’s painful to watch Scream. But the film’s strong start quickly devolves in the second act due to the script’s one dimensional characters and weak dialogue that plays more like a horror spoof forty years later. And while not making the notable list for 1981 My Bloody Valentine could be a guilty pleasure in a horror movie filled night with friends.

New Zealand’s classic road comedy Goodbye Pork Pie directed by Geoff Murphy is a film that’s sadly off the radar in the U.S. due to the fact it’s incredibly hard to find on streaming services and DVD. But in spite of this, it’s a film that I vividly remember and enjoyed watching on cable TV around 1983, and I was happy to find Goodbye Pork Pie on the list of 1981’s releases for me to include in this retrospective. The film begins with Gerry (Kelly Johnson) using the money and ID from a dropped wallet to rent (technically steal) a car and drive to Auckland. While on the road in the film’s classic yellow Mini, Gerry picks up the heartbroken John (Tony Barry) who is trying to get to Invercargill to win back his girlfriend Sue (Shirley Gruar). Police chases and hilarity ensue. This is exactly the type of film I love to find: a low budget film with a fun story, memorable characters, and cinematography that makes the most of its locations. The full version of Goodbye Pork Pie is available here.

Eyewitness directed by Peter Yates (Bullitt, The Deep, Breaking Away, Krull) and starring Sigourney Weaver and William Hurt is February 1981’s sleeper pick. Hurt plays Daryll Deever, an office building janitor who witnesses the aftermath of a gang style hit on a Vietnamese businessman during his cleaning rounds. He tries to stay out of the investigation but ambitious television reporter Tony Sokolow (played by Weaver) tries to get the story out of him. It’s a classic 80s thriller with noir-ish tones and a straightforward plot that doesn’t overachieve. And though it didn’t recoup its $8.5 million budget, it’s still an enjoyable thriller with a great supporting cast that includes Christopher Plummer and James Woods.

American Pop is another great example of director Ralph Bakshi’s incredible animation in a career that includes Fritz the Cat, Wizards, and The Lord of the Rings. American Pop is a journey through American music history told through the lives of four generations of a New York family navigating their way through the tenements of 1911 to the mean streets of the 1970s. Bakshi’s brings back the rotoscope animation style that he used in 1978’s classic The Lord of the Rings, which perfectly complements this musical drama. To this day American Pop is a step above his other non-fantasy films Heavy Traffic and Hey Good Lookin’ and is considered one of Bakshi’s best works even if it didn’t find an audience during its initial release. I hesitate to call American Pop a rediscovered classic because of how revered it is among animation fans forty years later. It’s a film worth seeking as a testament to great traditional animation and the genius and talent of Ralph Bakshi.

Fort Apache, The Bronx

Release Date: February 6, 1981
Starring Paul Newman, Ken Wahl, Rachel Ticotin, Ed Asner, Danny Aiello, Pam Grier
Directed by Daniel Petrie, written by Heywood Gould
Cinematography by John Alcott, Edited by Rita Roland

Released on February 6th 1981, director Daniel Petrie’s Fort Apache, The Bronx is a police drama from the era of the “good old bad old days” of early 80’s New York City, with the burned out buildings and demolished blocks of the Bronx, the inescapable graffiti, and the lack of services needed to keep the city clean and safe. The film’s opening title makes it clear the film is from the perspective of the police officers to prepare the audience for a warts and all portrayal of their jobs and their beat.

The film begins with two officers sitting in their patrol car on duty in an industrial part of the Bronx. They’re approached by prostitute Charlotte (Pam Grier) who tries to sweet talk them into some business but they politely decline. But she has other things in mind as she pulls out a revolver and shoots them dead in their car. Several local kids come out of the abandoned storefronts and buildings and quickly loot the dead bodies for their guns and badges.

At the South Bronx’s 41st Precinct, seventeen year veteran officer Murphy (Paul Newman) shows his young partner officer Corelli (Ken Wahl) the ropes, and explains how the borough gets notoriety based on the cop killings and insurance fires shown on the news. They respond to a suicidal tenant in an apartment building, grabbing him just as he is about to jump off the roof, and take him to local hospital despite the fact it doesn’t have a psych ward. Nurse Isabella (Rachel Ticotin) processes him and catches the eye of the older Murphy. As Murphy and Corelli cruise for a lunch spot, they spot a purse snatcher and chase him through the park. The fortysomething Murphy can’t catch up to him and he gets away. Murphy’s colleague officer Morgan (Danny Aiello) asks why he didn’t just shoot the purse snatcher since they could have dropped a knife on him and called it self defense. Murphy disregards the advice, but not without a tinge of disgust.

Captain Dugan (Sully Boyar) is retiring from the 41st Precinct and is replaced by the “by the book” Captain Connolly (Ed Asner). Connolly arrives for his first day on the job in a precinct that’s lacking in discipline, starting with the desk sergeant who when chastised for not screening visitors, informs Connolly that he’s 22 years on the job and is happy to retire at half pension before he takes any crap from him. As the jaded Captain Dugan fills him in on the 41st Precinct (dubbed Fort Apache for being an outpost in hostile territory) Connolly is more interested in which officers are corrupt and the questionable disability claims and absences, calling Dugan out on the precinct’s lack of motivation. Dugan refuses to take the blame for the city’s failures that led to the borough’s struggles with high unemployment and crime, and wishes Connolly the best.

Murphy is the over the hill cop that should have moved up higher in the force. Corelli is the young ambitious cop who is embracing the changes of the 80s, taking in self help books and wanting to work his way up to detective. They spot a pimp beating up Charlotte and separate them, telling them to keep their drama off the street. The pimp pulls out a few bills as a thank you, but Murphy makes it clear he won’t accept the payoff by taking it out on his luxury car. Murphy tells Corelli he won’t be owned over a couple of bucks, but Corelli reminds him they live in a world they didn’t make.

Corelli and Murphy respond to an ambulance call but the building they’re called to is dark and looks abandoned, raising their suspicion. They knock on a family’s door and they’re sent to the back of a crowded, dark apartment to a sick girl’s bedroom. Only she’s not sick: she’s having a baby. She’s 13 and hid it from her family but now she’s in labor. Murphy and Corelli close the bedroom door and Murphy, who’s been through this before, talks her through the delivery. They bring the young girl and her newborn to the hospital, where Murphy tells Isabella that was his 17th delivery. She invites him to come back at the end of her shift to take her for a drink.

Murphy takes Isabella to a local bar frequented by the precinct, but he’s unable to get her to open up about herself. Murphy tells her that he made detective once, but lost his position when a criminal he busted got off light and his lawyer got Murphy bumped back down to beat cop. He could stop a hood, but not a lawyer. They head back to his place, but he soon realizes Isabella isn’t exactly who he thought she was.

Murphy is no boy scout, but his years on the force has built in him a sense of commitment to the job and the community he serves, even if it is tempered by jaded wisdom. He’s prone to voicing his opinions a little too strongly, not endearing him to Captain Connolly, but doesn’t rock the boat with his fellow officers. But when he and Corelli witness a fellow officer cross the line and murder an innocent bystander, the game changes and Murphy is forced to decide whether or not to inform on him.

No spoilers here. Fort Apache, The Bronx is a non-stop ride along with a strong cast down to the character actors and a story that shows the police as outsiders in the borough they’re tasked to protect. Director Daniel Petrie directed television from the 50’s through the 70’s, and at times Fort Apache, The Bronx feels less cinematic and more in the style of a television episode, but he keeps the drama high both inside the 41st Precinct and in the streets of the Bronx. Cinematographer John Alcott’s camera work is more understated than his previous work on Barry Lyndon and The Shining, but he films the urban landscape honestly and gets the most out of each shot. Unfortunately a few of the characters are over the top, and the story develops too many plot points to all be adequately resolved in the third act, making me wish there was an additional thirty minutes in the film to flesh out more of the characters and their motivations, especially Pam Grier’s enigmatic Charlotte whose actions in the opening scene set the tone for the film. But at the end of the day, this film belongs to Paul Newman, who plays the tired, jaded Murphy with a steely eyed pathos that draws you in to one of the decade’s better cop dramas.

So two months into 1981’s underrated year of film, there are five notable films to revisit and rediscover. Things started to pick up in March with films like Thief, Diva and Cutter’s Way, which will be covered in our next post!

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A Most Underrated Year: Revisiting the Films of 1981

It’s been way too long since the last film retrospective appeared on Fante’s Inferno. My previous posts on the films of the Summers of 1982, 1983 and 1984 were a lot of fun to write, and even more fun to research. But with each year that passed since my last retrospective in 2014, I kept telling myself to get started on the next one, only to have life get in the way of revisiting the films of the Summer of 1985 and onward. So to find the subject of my next film retrospective, I reviewed the list of film releases from 35 and 40 years ago (to stay within my unofficial 80s timeline) to revisit the classics of that era but more importantly to rediscover some forgotten gems.

I initially planned on writing a retrospective on the films of the Summer of 1981, which in my opinion had a very solid lineup. But 1981 was also the year that some of my all time favorite films were released, namely John Boorman’s Excalibur and Peter Weir’s Gallipoli (both of which are still in my personal top ten list of favorite films). Over the years I’ve reviewed several films from 1981 on this site (The Hand, The Last Chase, Gregory’s Girl, Southern Comfort and Time Bandits), so looking over the entire year’s film releases made me realize that 1981 as a whole had a strong mix of classics, cult favorites, guilty pleasures, and a few underrated and forgotten films that deserve to be revisited. Many of them can be found on streaming services today, which allowed me to dig deeper into that year’s lineup and rewatch a few of the less remembered films for the first time in four decades.

But researching this cinematic year led to a very surprising and unexpected opinion: that 1981 is one of the most underrated years of cinema, not only of the 1980s, but of the last 50 years.

I know, I know, that’s a bold statement. But I wrote “underrated” and not “best” for a reason. And while 1939 is considered the definitive “Best Year of Movies,” two recent books add the films of 1962 and 1999 to the debate, and in my opinion 1994 wasn’t too shabby either. Without question the films of 1939 still hold the crown of the greatest cinematic year due to their classic, enduring qualities and the reverence with which they are held to this day. And while only a small handful of films from 1981 could be considered true classics today, the fact that many of the lesser known films from that year are still very enjoyable forty years later legitimately puts 1981 in the category of “underrated” and well worth another look.

It’s safe to say none of the films of 1981 have reached the stature of 1972’s The Godfather, though Raiders of the Lost Ark is one film from 1981 that has earned both classic and blockbuster status along the lines of Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977), and was the highest grossing film that year. But two of 1981’s Oscar winners Reds and Chariots of Fire probably don’t get watched with the same frequency these days. If you look at the films of 1972, 1975 or 1977, you’ll see a number of great films (for example 1972 also had Deliverance, Cabaret, and Jeremiah Johnson; 1975 included One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Dog Day Afternoon and Three Days of the Condor; and 1977 included Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Saturday Night Fever and A Bridge Too Far), but in my opinion 1981 pulls ahead in terms of the consistency in the quality of a lot of films across all genres, even the hidden gems and cult favorites.

That’s not to say there weren’t any clunkers or outright bombs that year. For every Raiders of the Lost Ark, On Golden Pond and Chariot of Fire, there was Sphinx, Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen, and the best example of the worst type of film: Going Ape! Like any other cinematic year before or since, there are films that have been forgotten for good reason. But others may also fall into the category of “badly made but fun to watch.” One thing I never do when I revisit an older film is to judge it by today’s standards with regard to effects, cinematography, etc. I’ll mentally turn the clock back and view a film and judge it on its merits of the time. Easier said than done with some films, but I choose to give each of these a fair shake even if some were intended as B movies and lacking in production value. Even some of the lowest budget horror or action films can still be enjoyable in their own right.

Let’s take a look at some of the notable films of 1981:

January to March:
Scanners
Fort Apache The Bronx
Diva
Goodbye Pork Pie
Modern Romance
American Pop
Eyewitness
Cutter’s Way
The Postman Always Rings Twice
Thief

April to June:
Atlantic City
Nighthawks
Excalibur
The Howling
Knightriders
The Hand
Ms. 45
Bustin’ Loose
The Four Seasons
The Last Chase
Gregory’s Girl
Cheech & Chong’s Nice Dreams
Clash of the Titans
History of the World: Part I
Raiders of the Lost Ark
The Cannonball Run
Superman II
Dragonslayer
For Your Eyes Only
Stripes

July to September
The Decline of Western Civilization
Escape from New York
Arthur
Blow Out
Eye of the Needle
Wolfen
Escape to Victory
Gallipoli
Heavy Metal
An American Werewolf in London
Prince of the City
Body Heat
Continental Divide
Das Boot
Raggedy Man
Southern Comfort
True Confessions

October to December
Enter the Ninja
My Dinner with Andre
The Evil Dead
Time Bandits
Ragtime
Whose Life Is It Anyway?
Four Friends
Pennies From Heaven
Absence of Malice
Chariots of Fire
Taps
Quest for Fire
On Golden Pond
Reds

This list will likely bring out comments defending some of the less successful films, questioning their inclusion as “notable,” or debating whether some of the acclaimed films of that year even hold up today. A few additional titles from 1981 might also be included in this retrospective. I look forward to a spirited discussion.

First up in this retrospective will be the films of January through March of 1981!

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Southern Comfort (1981)

Release Date: September 25, 1981
Starring: Keith Carradine, Powers Boothe, Fred Ward, T.K. Carter, Franklyn Seales, Lewis Smith, Alan Autry (credited as Carlos Brown), Les Lannom, Brion James, Peter Coyote
Written by: Michael Kane, Walter Hill, David Giler
Directed by: Walter Hill

I love rediscovering an obscure film from the 80’s that still hits on all cylinders decades later.  When my family first got cable TV in 1981 it gave me exposure to quality (and some not so quality) films that I normally would not have been introduced to at our local cinemas.  Southern Comfort, directed by Walter Hill, is one of those great films that was easy to find on cable TV back then but became harder to find over the years.  With the film’s recent availability on Amazon Prime, it was time to revisit it.

Walter Hill is best known for The Warriors and 48 Hours, but his impressive list of films includes hard hitting dramas (Hard Times, The Driver), a beloved comedy (Brewster’s Millions), an action film (Red Heat) and less conventional dramas like the neo-noir Streets of Fire and blues themed Faustian tale Crossroads.  But the 1981 drama/thriller Southern Comfort is a solid film that inexplicably slipped through the cracks over time despite an engaging story and great cast.

The film begins in 1973 Louisiana.  Army National Guardsmen are on maneuvers in the bayou.  Captain Poole (played by Peter Coyote) assembles a squad of eight men for a standard recon mission.  Their morale is apathetic at best and it doesn’t get any better with arrival of Hardin (played by Powers Boothe), a transfer from Texas who wants to put in his time and get home to his wife.  Stuckey (played by Lewis Smith) tries to lighten the mood by firing blank rounds from his machine gun at Poole’s second-in-command Sergeant Casper (played by Les Lannom), which shows the amount of respect they have for him (and also makes a viewer wonder why the surrounding troops didn’t respond to it as a threat – my one caveat with the film).  Spencer (Keith Carradine) boosts the men’s motivation when he tells them he has hired several prostitutes to wait for them at a rendezvous point at the end of their recon mission.

Several hours into the recon mission Captain Poole realizes their course has been blocked by a river that rose with the winter rains.  Their choice is to continue forward to find their rendezvous point or backtrack to base and start the recon all over again.  At a trapping post, faced with a river they are unable to cross and the entertainment waiting for them at their eventual rendezvous point, they “requisition” three canoes from local trappers who aren’t around to give permission.  At the suggestion of straight laced high school coach Bowden (played by Alan Autry but credited as Carlos Brown), the squad leaves one canoe behind with a note explaining where they will find the other canoes.  But despite the soldiers’ best intentions the trappers are not happy with a group of outsiders interfering with their property.

The group is halfway across the river when the French speaking Cajun trappers angrily make their presence known.  Reece (played by Fred Ward) manages to get a few rude words out in French.  Poole attempts to explain they’ll get their canoes back, but the situation spirals out of control when joker Stuckey fires a couple of dozen blank rounds at them.  The trappers, unaware they are blanks, return fire and shoot Poole in the head, killing him.  Leaderless and lost, the guardsmen now need to survive in unfamiliar territory without live ammunition.

Fear and infighting within the group set in.  Spencer reveals that Reese has his own box of live ammunition.  Casper orders him to turn it over to distribute among the squad but Reese is more than willing to give Casper a bullet to the head to keep his stash.  Hardin sneaks up behind Reese with a knife to his throat and the bullets are turned over.  Casper does his best to keep order and lead the squad, but despite his experience and knowledge of military procedure, he’s unable to command the respect of the men.

The next day they find the trappers cabin and capture the only inhabitant, a one-armed trapper (Brion James).  But the group has different ideas as to how their new prisoner should be treated.  After Simms (played by Franklyn Seales) cracks him across the jaw he’s unwilling to talk.  Bowden’s composure erodes and he’s hellbent on payback.  Oblivious to the supplies they could have collected, he sets the trapper’s cabin on fire and nearly kills all of them when a storage of dynamite goes off.  With even less live ammunition they continue through the bayou dragging both a prisoner and Poole’s lifeless body.  They can’t find the highway and they take it as a morbid sign when they encounter eight dead rabbits (one for each of them) hanging in their path.

Without a compass, Spencer and Casper disagree over which direction to go.  As they attempt to get their bearings, a group of hunting dogs attack them with Stuckey and Cribbs (played by T.K. Carter) getting the worst of it.  The squad is now the hunted, descending into fear, despair and paranoia with each deadly trap they encounter.  When they’re not feeling the presence of their hunters, the squad begins to turn on itself.  Bowden cracks and is tied up so as not to become a danger to himself and the squad.  Reese tries his own methods of interrogation on their prisoner which leads to a knife-wielding showdown with Hardin.  With no end to their ordeal in sight, Casper’s quoting of the manual finally turns the men against him and they follow Spencer.

No spoilers here.  Walter Hill’s direction and cinematographer Andrew Laszlo’s photography of the bayou puts the audience right in the middle of the squad’s nightmare.  It’s the portrayal of the “local’s” desire to protect their land and way of life that effectively brings out the growing fear and desperation of the guardsmen (a few shots are not for the squeamish).  It’s too easy to compare Southern Comfort to the critically acclaimed Deliverance (unfortunately even the film’s poster is guilty of this), but Southern Comfort stands on its own as a powerful psychological drama that keeps the audience engaged to the very end.

Southern Comfort is available on DVD and Blu-Ray on Amazon.  As an Amazon Affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases.  Thank you for your support!

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Movies For Memorial Day 2016

With Memorial Day coming up on Monday May 30th, I would like to thank all military veterans and active members of the armed forces for their service and sacrifice.

Some of my earliest movie memories are of watching old combat films from the 40’s and 50’s on a black and white TV on Saturday afternoons at my grandparents house.  They were mostly lower budget films and I’ve forgotten many of their titles, but those Saturday afternoon films on TV made the combat movie one of my favorite film genres.

Every year I check the TV listings and streaming services for the best military themed films to watch over Memorial Day Weekend.  Turner Classics always has a solid lineup of feature films, but Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu have a great selection of feature films and documentaries as well.  Here are some highlights:

On Turner Classic Movies (All Times Eastern):

Saturday May 28th:

11:15 AM: The Flying Leathernecks (1951)
1:00 PM: They Were Expendable (1945)
8:00 PM: The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
11:00 PM: A Bridge Too Far (1977)

Sunday May 29th:

3:00 PM: Mister Roberts (1955)
8:00 PM: Glory (1989)
10:15 PM: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Monday May 30:

3:30 AM: The Big Parade (1925)
9:00 AM: Sergeant York (1941)
2:15 PM: The Great Escape (1963)

Netflix:

Restrepo (2010)
We Were Soldiers (2002)
The Longest Day (1962)
Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)
The Enemy Below (1957)
Brothers In War (2014)
Unsung Heroes: The Story of America’s Female Patriots (2014)
Honor Flight (2012)
World War II In Colour (2009)
Ken Burns: The War (2007)
Ken Burns: The Civil War (1990)
Twelve O’Clock High (1949)
Von Ryan’s Express (1965)

Amazon Prime:

Band of Brothers (2001)
Ken Burns: The Civil War (1990)
The World At War (1973)
Taking Chance (2009)
The Longest Day (1962)
Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)
Twelve O’Clock High (1949)
The Tuskegee Airmen (1995)
Rescue Dawn (2006)
When Trumpets Fade (1998)
The Man Left Behind (2012)
The Enemy Below (1957)
Von Ryan’s Express (1965)

Hulu:

Medal of Honor: The History (2014)
War Stories with Oliver North (2001)
A Time for Honor (2002)

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Movies For Memorial Day 2015

With Memorial Day coming up on Monday May 25th, I’d like to take this moment to thank all veterans and active members of the armed forces for their service and sacrifice.

The combat film has always been one of my favorite cinematic genres, with Peter Weir’s Gallipoli, Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One, and of course Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan ranking highly among my all time favorite films.  Memorial Day Weekend in my home also includes a screening of the amazing Band of Brothers.  

Every year I check the TV listings, Netflix and Amazon Instant Video for the best military themed films and documentaries to watch over the holiday weekend.  As always, Turner Classic Movies has several classics in their lineup this weekend.  Amazon Instant Video has an elaborate selection, but unfortunately few of those titles are available on Amazon Prime (though you can never go wrong with Band of Brothers, The Civil War, and Patton).  Netflix doesn’t have as many feature film options as Amazon Instant Video, but has a good selection of documentaries.  Here are some highlights:

On Turner Classic Movies (all times Eastern):

Saturday 5/23:

6:00 AM – Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)
5:30 PM – Twelve O’Clock High (1949)
10:30 PM – Glory (1989)
12:45 AM – The Horse Soldiers (1959)

Sunday 5/24:

6:00 AM – Sahara (1943)
12:00 PM – The Story of G.I. Joe (1945)
2:00 PM – Bataan (1943)
6:00 PM – The Steel Helmet (1951)

Monday 5/25:

6:45 AM – The Green Berets (1968)
8:00 PM – Battleground (1949)
10:15 PM – Patton (1970)

Netflix (Streaming):

Wings (1927)
The Longest Day (1962)
Patton (1970)
Twelve O’Clock High (1949)
The War: A Ken Burns Film (2007)
The Civil War (1990)
The First World War From Above (2010)
Vietnam in HD (2011)

Amazon Instant Video:

Band of Brothers (2001)*
The Pacific (2010)*
Medal of Honor (2008)*
The War: A Ken Burns Film (2007)*
The Civil War (1990)*
American Sniper (2014)
Lone Survivor (2013)
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Gallipoli (1981)
All Quiet On the Western Front (1930)
Sergeant York (1941)
The Fighting 69th (1940)
Patton (1970)*
The Big Red One (1980)
Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)
The Great Escape (1963)
The Longest Day (1962)
We Were Soldiers (2002)
The Green Berets (1968)
Glory (1989)
The Steel Helmet (1951)
* = Available on Amazon Prime

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Runaway Train (1985)

Runaway Train Movie Poster

Release Date: December 6, 1985
Starring: John Voight, Eric Roberts, Rebecca DeMornay, John P. Ryan, Kenneth McMillan, T.K. Carter, Kyle T. Heffner
Directed by Andrey Konchalovskiey; Screenplay by Djordje Milicevic, Paul Zindel and Edward Bunker based on a screenplay by Akira Kurosawa

Some movies are meant to be watched during the winter months.  John Carpenter’s classic 1982 horror film The Thing is the first one that comes to mind.  And with a snowstorm working its way through New York last night, I was looking for a film that suited my environment.  One that stuck out on Netflix was the 1985 drama Runaway Train starring Jon Voight (Midnight Cowboy, Coming Home), Eric Roberts (Star 80, The Pope of Greenwich Village) and Rebecca DeMornay (Risky Business, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle).  Here’s a film that I vividly remember not seeing when it was released in theaters and subsequently on cable back in the 80’s.  I still don’t understand why I let this movie slip through the cracks since it had the elements of a hard hitting drama and a solid cast that would have been more than enough to get me to screen it at least once back then.  Luckily for me it’s currently available on both Netflix and Amazon Prime, so better late than never.

The story begins at Alaska’s maximum security Stonehaven Prison, where according to assistant warden Ranken (played by John P. Ryan) the average sentence is 22 years.  Ranken has a particularly sadistic streak for hardened inmate Manny Manheim (Voight), keeping him welded shut in his cell for three years after several previous escape attempts.  When Ranken is ordered by a Federal court to allow him out of his cell, Manny makes the most of the opportunity and plans a new escape with his brother Jonah.  Ranken fully expects Manny to make another attempt over the wall, and welcomes the opportunity so he can finally take Manny out permanently.  During a prison boxing match, an inmate attacks Manny with a knife as Ranken stands in the rafters with a guard ready to shoot, but Manny sees through his game and eggs Ranken on to take his best shot.  Jonah is injured defending Manny and ends up in the prison hospital, unable to make the escape.

Fellow inmate and former boxer Buck McGeehy (Eric Roberts) helps Manny slip by the guards by hiding him in a laundry cart, and decides to join Manny in his escape.  From the outset, the older, wiser Manny has to deal with the raw, impulsive Buck.  They work their way out the prison through the sewer, but it’s the dead of winter and they have to run several miles to a rail depot in order to hop a train to freedom.  While raiding an employee locker room for warmer clothes, Buck leaves his prison shirt (with inmate number) behind.  While this oversight is more than enough to get Ranken on their tails, they have another twist of fate in store for them.  Manny picks the best looking train of the lot, and they hop on to the rear car to hide.  But as the train departs, the conductor suffers a fatal heart attack, leaving Manny and Buck completely unaware they are on a death ride.

The railroad company’s dispatch office is notified of the runaway train and dispatchers Frank Barstow (Kyle T. Heffner) and Dave Prince (T.K. Carter) attempt to stop the train through their computer system.  But the brakes have burned off and the train, which has just collided with the caboose of an oncoming train, is accelerating toward a chemical plant.  They are ordered by company representative Eddie McDonald (played by Kenneth McMillan) to derail the train, unaware that anyone is on board.  As the train approaches the derailment point, someone on board sounds the horn and the company is forced to get the train back on the main railroad line.  Sara (Rebecca deMornay), a railroad employee, was napping on the train and woke up to realize the conductor had overridden the brake system and they are on course for a collision.  But danger also lurks behind them as Ranken is hot on Manny and Buck’s trail.

No spoilers here.  This is a great movie and deserved the acclaim it received, particularly the Academy Award nominations for Voight (Best Actor) and Roberts (Best Supporting Actor).  Voight brings out his inner Charles Bronson as Manny, and the dynamic between his character and Roberts’ Buck is the glue that binds the action sequences so the film isn’t just a non-stop adrenaline rush.  Manny not only keeps Buck in check from the moment they escape Stonehaven, but also tries to beat some sense into him so he doesn’t get caught later on down the road.  This monologue is the perfect example of the generation gap between them:

The supporting cast also makes the film more than an action movie.  Kenneth McMillan (Ragtime, The Pope of Greenwich Village), one of my favorite character actors of all time, is fun to watch as the stressed out company representative Eddie MacDonald; Rebecca DeMornay’s character Sara is a departure from her more famous roles in Risky Business and The Hand that Rocks the Cradle and holds her own against two escaped convicts; but John P. Ryan’s performance as Ranken stole the movie and added a hunter/hunted dynamic to the story that reminds the audience of the danger that is waiting for Manny and Buck even if they make it off the train alive.  Concidentally, the scenes of Ranken giving chase reminded me of the character Kraven the Hunter from The Amazing Spider-Man comic books.

I definitely won’t let another 30 years go by before enjoying Runaway Train again, and will include it on my list of winter films going forward.

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The Summer of ’84: Red Dawn

Fante’s Inferno celebrates summer moviegoing with a look back at the films of the Summer of 1984.

Red Dawn

Red Dawn Movie Poster

Release Date: August 10, 1984

Starring Patrick Swayze, C. Thomas Howell, Powers Booth, Harry Dean Stanton, Charlie Sheen, Lea Thompson, Jennifer Grey, Darren Dalton, Brad Savage, Doug Toby

Directed by John Milius; Screenplay by Kevin Reynolds and John Milius

John Milius’ 1984 action/war drama Red Dawn is a movie that I’ve enjoyed on many occasions since I first saw it on cable TV back in the mid-80’s.  I was too young to see it during its theatrical release, and I was probably more interested in the non-action films like Gremlins, Ghostbusters and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom that wonderful summer.  Despite missing it in theaters back in 1984, Red Dawn is one of those films that I stop and watch every time I come across it on TV regardless of how far into the movie it is.  Each screening leads to a new discovery for me, whether it’s the impact from a line of dialogue, a nuance of a performance or a hidden gag by director John Milius.  Many scenes in Red Dawn still stand out for me as some of my cinematic favorites, and the film ranks very high on my personal list of favorite war films.

It’s an peaceful small town morning in Calumet, Colorado.  Jed Eckert (Patrick Swayze) drops off his brother Matt (Charlie Sheen in his first film role) and friend Arturo (Doug Toby) at the local high school before heading off to his job at the town gas station.  History teacher Mr. Teasdale (Frank MacRae) gives a lecture on Genghis Khan (complete with a drawing of the Mongol overlord that is actually a caricature of director John Milius – a nod to his passion project to produce and direct a film on Genghis Khan), but his lesson is interrupted when paratroopers mysteriously drop in behind the school.  No sooner than he steps out of the building to find out what is going on, he is shot by a Russian soldier and it’s clear to everyone that Calumet is under attack.  Bullets rain on the school and RPGs blow up a school bus as the students try to escape.  Jed’s truck roars into the school parking lot and grabs Matt, Arturo and three other students Robert (C. Thomas Howell), Danny (Brad Savage) and Daryl (Darren Dalton) as the Soviet and Cuban armies take over the town.  They drive to Robert’s father’s sporting goods store and stock up on food, guns and supplies before hiding out in the mountains.

Their plan is to hold out in the mountains until it’s safe to return to Calumet.  After a month, the boys are low on food and have to take the risk of going back into town.  They walk through the aftermath of an American defeat and realize how desperate the situation has become.  Soviet tanks roam the streets, martial law has been imposed, books are burned, and Alexander Nevsky plays in the local cinema (with free admission).  They learn that Jed’s father and many other men of Calumet have been deemed too dangerous and have been sent to a re-education camp located at the town drive in where they are beaten and bombarded with Soviet propaganda.

On their way back to the mountains they stop at the home of Mr. Mason (played by Ben Johnson) and learn that Calumet is now part of Occupied Territory and that Robert’s father was killed for aiding them.  He gives them a radio and asks Jed to take his granddaughters Erika (Lea Thompson) and Toni (Jennifer Grey) with them.  But their mountain hideout is soon exposed when they kill three soldiers that found them by accident.  Cuban Colonel Bella (Ron O’Neal) steps up activity in the mountains and orders retaliation.  The sight of their fathers death by firing squad forces the teenagers to take the offensive and use the invaders own weapons against them.  They start a guerrilla war against the Soviet and Cuban occupiers, and with each small victory they let their enemy know who they are: the Wolverines.  Downed Air Forced Lieutenant Colonel Tanner (in a great performance by Powers Booth) joins them and gets them up to speed on the state of the war:

Red Dawn shouldn’t be categorized as simply an action film.  I’ve always seen it as a war drama with a solid script and carried by a strong cast.  The action scenes are just as hard hitting today as they were 30 years ago, and the dramatic scenes are more emotionally powerful than I remembered from previous screenings, with Patrick Swayze’s performance standing out the most.  Milius and Reynolds crafted a story that stresses the importance of family bonds, members of a community sticking together in challenging times, and fighting to persevere.  Ric Waite’s cinematography captures the beauty of the heartland and the home the Wolverines are fighting for, and Basil Poledouris’ strong, emotionally uplifting score sets the tone throughout the film.

Over the last three decades, every screening of this film was always met with enthusiasm among me and my friends.  But  a recent screening of the fantastic documentary Milius opened my eyes to some of the harsh criticisms of  Red Dawn upon its release, and the effect it subsequently had on director John Milius’ career.  If anything, I have an even greater appreciation of Red Dawn and John Milius for bringing it to the screen.  Sure some of his messages might be a little less than subtle and the viewer needs a certain amount of suspension of disbelief that a group of teenagers can take on the Soviet and Cuban armies.  But at the end of the day, Red Dawn is a fun ride and a great “What If?” story of a dystopian America at the dawn of World War III.

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The Summer of ’84: Ghostbusters

Fante’s Inferno celebrates summer movie going with a look back at the films of the Summer of 1984.

Ghostbusters

Ghostbusters Movie Poster

Release Date: June 8, 1984

Directed by Ivan Reitman; Screenplay by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis

Starring Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Sigourney Weaver, Rick Moranis, Ernie Hudson, William Atherton, Annie Potts

For the three years that I’ve been writing my retrospectives on the films of the Summers of 1982, 1983 and now 1984, whether it’s the summer’s biggest blockbuster or one of the smaller hidden gems, there’s always been that one film in each year’s summer lineup that I look forward to reviewing the most.  The Summer of ’84 had a very strong lineup of high grossing crowd pleasers (particularly Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Gremlins), but the film that stands out the most from that summer is Ivan Reitman’s classic supernatural comedy Ghostbusters.

When I first saw Ghostbusters on the Summer of ’84’s lineup, my first thought was “How the heck has it been thirty years?!” (a sentiment shared by many of my friends).  It doesn’t feel like that much time has passed because countless screenings of Ghostbusters over the years have kept it fresh in my mind.  I’ve seen the film more times than any other released during the Summer of ’84 and I still quote some of the more memorable lines (say “Don’t cross the streams” to anyone over 40 and they’ll immediately get the Ghostbusters reference).

The film begins with a librarian experiencing an encounter with a ghost in the New York Public Library.  Dr. Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) drags Dr. Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) from his shady student research experiment to investigate the occurrence with Dr. Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis).  They encounter the ghost first hand, and return to their office at Columbia University to find their equipment being removed and their funding cut off due to questionable research and dubious results.  Confronted with the prospect of never working in academia again and having to find work in the private sector, Venkman proposes they strike out on their own and start a company dedicated to catching ghosts.  Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) contacts the Ghostbusters when she opens her refrigerator and finds another dimension and a demonic dog.  Smitten, Venkman takes a personal interest in her case.  After a slow start, business picks up with a high level of paranormal activity in New York City, but they’re shut down by the EPA for unlicensed equipment and the ectoplasm hits the fan.

The last time I saw Ghostbusters was during the pre-CGI era and its effects were still pretty cutting edge.  Going into this week’s screening I had to prepare myself that the effects of Ghostbusters, while amazing back in the 80’s, would look dated by today’s standards.  Watching Ghostbusters again this week I realized my reservations were unfounded.  The film is just as enjoyable today because it’s the story and the cast that make this movie great.  The effects are secondary to Aykroyd and Ramis’s script, Reitman’s direction and a talented cast.  Bill Murray is the anchor of the Ghostbusters as Dr. Peter Venkman but the rest of the cast doesn’t take the back seat, with each actor elevating the comedy by adding their own genius: the everyman quality of Dan Aykroyd’s Dr. Ray Stantz, the late, great Harold Ramis’ deadpan Dr. Igon Spengler, to the supporting characters played by Sigourney Weaver as the Ghostbusters client and Venkman’s love interest Dana Barrett, her dorky accountant neighbor Louis played by Rick Moranis, Ernie Hudson as their newhire Winston Zeddmore, and William Atherton as the arrogant EPA bureaucrat Walter Peck.

I remember watching Ghostbusters in the theater back in June of 1984.  It opened the same weekend as Joe Dante’s Gremlins, which is surprising considering even with that direct competition and their neck and neck battle for the weekend box office ($13.6 million for Ghostbusters to $12.5 million for Gremlins) Ghostbusters still grossed over $200 million as the top grossing film of the summer and the #2 grossing film of 1984. It’s easy to see why both films were favorites of my generation, they’re both fun movies that were perfect for summer.  But in the long run I understand why Ghostbusters would prevail as the more popular film because it was more accessible to an adult audience, while Gremlins feels like more of a guilty pleasure.

I may have seen Gremlins in the theater first, but that didn’t take away from the enjoyment of watching Ghostbusters that wonderful summer.  One thing I enjoyed the most when I revisited Ghostbusters this week was that I was able to pick up on a number of one-liners that would have been over my head at age 12.  I also enjoyed the fact that for the first time since June 1984 I was able to see Ghostbusters as it was meant to be seen in letterbox format rather than the pan and scan version that was on cable TV and home video for over 20 years.  I was able to overlook the dated special effects because despite the supernatural/paranormal aspect of the story, the movie wasn’t as heavy on the visual effects as I thought.  Had the film been shot today (or rather, when the reboot is filmed in the next couple of years), CGI would have dominated the screen and at the end of the day would only look fake.  In spite of CGI’s ability to create a whole world out of a green screen shot, in many cases it only ends up being a distraction rather than a seamless effect because it just doesn’t look “right.”

On that note I have to say it was quite refreshing to see New York City as it was in 1984.  The establishing shot of New York Public Library at the beginning of the film is hidden by scaffolding because maintenance work was actually being done on the facade at that time.  If shot today the scaffolding would have been magically removed by CGI and a majority of the cityscape would have been painted in.  I loved just seeing New York as it was shot on a hard negative, particularly that every corner of Manhattan you saw in Ghostbusters wasn’t dominated by a bank, pharmacy or Starbucks.

I guess the main purpose of my revisiting Ghostbusters this week wasn’t to see if it still holds up 30 years later, because every screening of this classic comedy has been equally enjoyable for me over the years.   What I really found myself thinking more than anything was the lost opportunity to get four comedic geniuses back together for a third installment of one of the great comedies of the 80’s.  Murray, Ramis, Aykroyd and Reitman are at the top of their games for Ghostbusters, which makes the fact that they’ll never all be in Ghostbusters 3 all the more heartbreaking for fans of the first two.  There’s been talk of Bridesmaids director Paul Feig in discussions for a reboot of Ghostbusters, possibly with an all female cast.  As funny as that film might be, and as much money as it might gross, it wouldn’t provide the same sense of anticipation of a sequel or the nostalgia of the joy of watching the first two Ghostbusters films.  In my humble opinion the Ghostbusters are Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson.  Without them and Ivan Reitman, a reboot just doesn’t have the soul of a beloved original.  And without them, who you gonna call?

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The Films of the Summer of 1984

For the last two years my retrospectives on the films of the Summers of 1982 and 1983 allowed me to revisit some of the best fantasy and sci-fi films of the 80’s and enjoy them on a new level as a 40 something.  In some cases I would approach a film with a sense of trepidation, wondering if you truly can go back and enjoy an old favorite on the same level 30 years later.  At the end of each series, I learned that many of these films withstand the test of time and sometimes you really can go back.

I truly thought each “Summer Of” retrospective would be the last.  After The Summer of ’82 I didn’t think there could be another lineup of summer films that could compare to Blade Runner, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, The Road Warrior, Conan the Barbarian, Poltergeist, The Thing, TRON and E.T.: The Extra-terrestrial.  It was a magical summer for fans of fantasy and sci-fi films and there hasn’t been another like it.  But I had enjoyed writing that retrospective so much that I had gone through withdrawal and for the next year hoped for another opportunity to revisit a summer’s worth of films.  That void was filled with my retrospective on The Summer of ’83 which included a lineup of films that have been personal favorites of mine for over 30 years.  Even as I closed out that series, I didn’t think I would have an opportunity to write another “Summer Of.”

Then I saw the lineup for the films of the Summer of ’84 and realized another retrospective was possible.

The Summer of ’82 was about a lineup of the best fantasy and sci-fi films of the decade (Blade Runner, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Conan the Barbarian).  The Summer of ’83 was about a lineup of my personal favorites (WarGames, Fire and Ice).  The Summer of 1984 was still heavy on the adventure and sci-fi films, including some of the most crowd pleasing films of the decade as well as a few cult favorites:

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (5/23/84)
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (6/1/84)
Ghostbusters (6/8/84)
Gremlins (6/8/84)
Conan the Destroyer (6/29/84)
The Last Starfighter (7/13/84)
Red Dawn (8/10/84)

Once I saw this list, I knew I had to revisit them again.

I’m taking these retrospectives year by year, but if the films of the Summer of ’85 etc. bring out the same sense of nostalgia for my original movie-going experiences, I’ll keep them coming.

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