Retropolis: My 80s in Film:1984

by Jim Dietz

 

After a thorough going through of my VHS archives I have returned to you citizens of Retropolis, here bearing gifts of a nostalgic kind. After all, nostalgia is the currency here in the Retro City. Lets move on to my top eight of 1984!

 

Honorable Mentions:

I like Gremlins more now than I did when it came out, Purple Rain is a movie I love the way I’d love a photo of me in a Members Only jacket. It’s easy to forget what a big cultural imprint Prince made BITD. Revenge of the Nerds is the epitome for me of a great teen R-rated comedy from that time. Stop Making Sense is a Jonathan Demme directed documentary of a performance by the Talking Heads at the height of their powers. Top Secret ,the Zucker brothers movie in between the end of Airplane movies and before The Naked Gun movies, is actually a hilarious spoof of both an Elvis movie and a WWII behind-enemy-lines thriller. Ghostbusters is, well,  Ghostbusters. I don’t really have to explain why I considered it, do I?  A Nightmare on Elm Street and the Terence Stamp crime thriller The Hit were also noteworthy releases that almost made this list..

This Is Spinal Tap– There is more comedic genius in five minutes of This is Spinal Tap than in most full-length comedic feature films. This is one of those movies that is iconic and quotable for a good reason and was ground zero for the brilliant Christopher Guest series of semi-improvisational comedy movies (starting with Waiting for Guffman) that used essentially the same cast as Spinal Tap. Upon rewatching this movie for this blog there was so much I had forgotten about this movie that was great beyond the go-to “this goes to 11” style quotes  Supporting performances by a pre-Nanny Fran Drescher, Paul Schaefer as a self-effacing local promoter, and Bruno Kirby as a Sinatra-obsessed limo driver are just as solid and hilarious as the comedy triad of Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer as the hapless members of  the band. Not only a laser-precise parody of the self-indulgent absurdity of heavy metal,  but one of the funniest movies ever made.

Repo Man– There was a specific period from the early to mid  80s, expressed best by the second wave of American Punk Rock (the first wave being the CBGB’s crowd that influenced the Sex Pistols), that wholeheartedly rejected the false construct of “Reagan’s America” for a more cynical, and frankly more realistic view of the world. This movie to me, more so than any other than perhaps Penelope Spheeris’s Decline of Western Civilization Volume 1, reflects that sarcastic rejection of the status quo in a cinematic sense. In my opinion Repo Man is Alex Cox’s best movie, right before  the ill-advised Sid and Nancy and the out-and-out debacle that was Straight to Hell that make up his “punk trilogy”. Emilio Estevez is Otto, a SoCal punk who falls in with a group of repo men  The legendary Harry Dean Stanton is Bud, the veteran repo man who decides to take Otto under his wing and show him the ropes. Tracey Walter and Vonetta McGee are both incredible in smaller roles, and the soundtrack is a great sampling of at-the-time relevant music, including the Circle Jerks (who appear in the movie as a lounge act), Black Flag and Iggy Pop. It’s also chock-full of weirdness, but in the best possible way.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom– Although it’s often slagged on like the red-headed stepchild of the Raiders franchise, Temple of Doom is still a solid film, with more of a classic pulpy feel than even the first movie. It’s one of the few prequels that actually works both on its own and in context to its franchises’ bigger story arc. Yes the violence may have been too intense for some kids and yes, Kate Capshaw’s shriek is only slightly less annoying than fingernails on a chalkboard, but this film really does hold up otherwise. The action sequences are on par with those of the first movie, the stakes are high, the villains are appropriately evil, and the climactic scene where Jones gives Mola Ram his comeuppance is a great payoff. Spielberg adhered even closer to the Republic/RKO serials that inspired the first movie. Although some of the more extreme scenes were the inspiration for the PG-13 subdivision in the MPAA ratings system, and series fans tend to place this entry at the bottom of the list, Temple of Doom is still streets ahead of most other adventure films.

The Terminator – For all the big-budget bombast of its sequels and subsequent spin-offs , the original Terminator is a tightly directed low-budget sci-fi movie with a very street-level feel. Rewatching it for this blog, it struck me how relatively small and lean this movie is in comparison to T2. Of course Schwarzenegger’s performance is iconic but Michael Biehn’s Kyle Reese is the one who really sells the plot and Linda Hamilton plays it smarter than most female leads in these kind of movies. Although James Cameron ended up becoming obsessed with making gigantic epic films, The Terminator stands out for its tightly constructed world and getting the most out of its relatively small budget. Good supporting work here too by Paul Winfield and Lance Henriksen.

Dune– (excerpted from a previous column all about Dune)    One of the many endearing qualities of my wife, and believe me there are many, is that she loves the movie Dune as much as I do. There are several movies that I know are cinematically not that great but I love anyway, for example Top Secret, They Live, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai or more recently, Pacific Rim. I know they aren’t that good as movies or whatever but I love them just same and will watch them whenever I get a chance.

David Lynch’s Dune is the king of this category. The studios had been trying to make a Dune movie for 15 years with directors like Jodorowsky and Ridley Scott attached to it at different times and finally, at the end of their ownership term of the rights on the book, the DeLaurentiises passed it off to Lynch. Critics hated Dune; Roger Ebert gave it a 1 out of 5 stars and named it his worst movie of 1984, a year not exactly short on crappy movies. Audiences stayed away in droves; the film only made 30 million dollars back worldwide of its reported 45 million dollar budget. Science fiction fans blasted it for not adhering close enough to Frank Herbert’s incredibly dense source material or for being too weird and David Lynch fans hated it for not being Lynchian enough for them. This was the guy that made Eraserhead after all. Lynch himself hated the final cut of the movie so much he took his name off of his directing and screenwriting credits and replaced them with “Alan Smithee”and , almost as a side effect, Dune effectively also ended the burgeoning acting career of Sting.

So why do I love it? Oh for so many reasons. First of all the cast is outrageous including Patrick Stewart, Jurgen Prochnow, Max Von Sydow, Dean Stockwell, Francesca Annis, future crazy person Sean Young, Brad Dourif and in the lead role of planetary messiah a young Kyle MacLachlan. The production design and art direction are incredible in their detail in a way that would be done with CGI if Dune were made today and the style of their far-future culture is a weird mix of steampunk and Flash Gordon deco. The dialogue is all stagey and delivered as if each line is the most important thing that character has ever said. Even the main character’s internal dialogue is emphatic and full of gravitas and written in a way that no human has ever naturally spoken. The soundtrack is by 80’s supergroup Toto with contributions by Brian Eno. Even the special effects by Albert Whitlock are top-notch for 1984. For all the controversy as it was made for its bloated budget it seems like every dollar is on the screen. For all the crap this movie takes from fanboys and critics, there is and will never be another movie quite like it.

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension -As a kid I was all-in on Buckaroo Banzai: I read the Marvel Comics adaptation and the novelization, bought the issue of Starlog magazine with the “behind the scenes” articles and even owned the soundtrack on cassette. I am the one fan who still holds out hope for the BB vs. the World Crime League sequel we were promised at the end of this movie’s credits sequence. There is very little chance that I could be objective about the quantifiable quality of this movie, but I love it. John Lithgow’s Dr. Emilio Lizardo is one of the goofiest and most fun movie villains ever, the supporting cast includes Christopher Lloyd, Carl Lumbly, and a really young Clancy Brown, and Peter Weller is at his most Peter Weller-y.(Weller-esque?) as the brain surgeon/scientist/rock star/test pilot Banzai, a reimagining of the Doc Savage-style pulp hero for the MTV generation. A campy, fun action movie that might be too silly for some, but I love it.


Blood Simple– Blood Simple is the Coen brothers’ first film, and its a doozy of a Jim Thompson-style noir with incredible performances by awesome character actors like Dan Hedaya, John Getz, Frances McDormand and M. Emmet Walsh. It starts simply (pun intended) enough with Hedaya’s character hiring Walsh, a sleazy private detective, to get proof of his wife’s infidelity and from there the movie spirals into a noir cataclysm of murder, betrayal and revenge that I refuse to spoil in any way for you. Its that kind of movie. Blood Simple is remarkably accomplished for a first film, and Barry Sonnenfeld’s cinematography sets a definite tone that seems to grab from both classic film noir and Hitchcock. Of all the new noir films of the 80s (Body Heat, The Nicholson remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice, etc.) this is my favorite.

Starman– Probably the least characteristic of all of John Carpenter’s films in that he neither wrote the screenplay nor the score for it, Starman in fact was a project that had been shopped to several directors including Peter Hyams, John Badham and Tony Scott before landing in Carpenter’s lap. It’s also the only John Carpenter film ever nominated for an Academy Award’ a Best Actor nod for Jeff Bridges. Even though the property wasn’t his own, Carpenter does everything he can with the source material, especially pulling off the neat trick of differentiating it from the movie it is extremely similar to in plot and concept, ET the Extra Terrestrial, by emphasizing the fish-out-of-water stuff (which Bridges totally nails) and the interplay of Bridges’ character and Karen Allen’s in a kind of redux of a road movie that at its core has a lot of heart. After the financial disappointment of his version of The Thing, Carpenter wanted to prove he could make a studio style movie and he does so here without compromising the quality of his work.

 

Stay tuned for the next installment featuring 1985! If you love movies then by all means check out the Out Now with Aaron and Abe podcast available at www.hhwlod.com .

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