The Big Picture
1989, Aspen/Columbia, Rated PG-13
Directed by Christopher Guest
Written by Michael Varhol, Christopher Guest & Michael McKean
This whimsical satire pokes gentle fun at Hollywood, with Kevin Bacon playing Nick Chapman, who has won his film school's prestigious award as director of an innovative black-and-white short and suddenly finds himself courted by Tinseltown big shots, flakes and starlets. He wants to make an artistic feature film that delves into the labyrinth of human emotions, but once he gets a taste of the high life he begins to compromise his vision, so that by the time his agent, producer and sundry others are finished, his serious film has been transformed into a silly piece of nonsense entitled "Beach Nuts," involving a beachhouse full of frat boys and the ghosts of three stewardesses who live in the attic. Along the way, Chapman also alienates his girlfriend Susan (Emily Longstreth) and his best friend Emmet (Michael McKean.) In short, he loses sight of the "big picture" of life. When his movie deal falls through, he finds out how quickly one can become a has-been in Hollywood. Ironically, once he has mended fences with the people who really matter in his life and becomes impervious to the blandishments of the industry, he gets a second chance to make his movie -- and this time remains true to his vision.
The Big Picture was directed by Christopher Guest (This Is Spinal Tap) and is a quirky product complete with fantasy scenes a la Bacon's previous hit, 1988's She's Having A Baby. These are unnecessary distractions from what is, essentially, a very appealing morality tale that skewers the American movie industry in delightful fashion, particularly the "bottom-line" mentality that many artists deplored in the 1980s. The performances are solid throughout, with a couple of standouts -- Martin Short as Chapman's hilariously flamboyant agent, and Teri Hatcher as sultry actress Gretchen, cheerfully sleeping her way to stardom. The part of Nick Chapman -- a sympathetic "Everyman" tempted into wayward behavior before redeeming himself -- is the kind of role Bacon had already perfected in She's Having A Baby, while Emily Longstreth's subtle but effective presence as an anchor of normalcy in the wacky world of Hollywood should not go unappreciated. The Big Picture wasn't a big hit, but it is a funny, heartwarming film well worth viewing.
Eighties Club rating: ***
US box office: $117,000
US release date: 9.15.89
1989, Paramount, Rated R
Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by Craig Bolotin & Warren Lewis
Following his Academy Award-winning turn in 1987's Wall Street, Michael Douglas made two films -- Black Rain and The War of the Roses -- in which he convincingly played two quite different characters, and demonstrated he'd deserved that Best Actor Oscar. In this stylish and unconventional crime thriller directed by Ridley Scott (Aliens, Blade Runner), Douglas plays Nick Conklin, who at first blush seems to be nothing more than the stereotypically abrasive and hardboiled New York City cop. Thanks to Douglas, though, Conklin becomes a multifaceted -- and fascinating -- character, complete with serious character flaws. Accompanied by partner Charlie Vincent (played with verve by Andy Garcia), Conklin must deliver a Yakuza killer named Sato back to Japan. Sato escapes, Charlie is killed, and Conklin won't go home without apprehending the fugitive. The Japanese authorities don't like his cowboy methods, with one exception -- Assistant Inspector Matsumoto (Ken Takakura). As a Japanese, Matsumoto is a team player who does things strictly by the book, and at first he is taken aback by Conklin's willingness to break every rule to attain his goal. In fact, Conklin is being investigated by his own department for skimming money off seized drug money. In Matsumoto's eyes, Conklin has disgraced himself, his partner, and his department. But the Japanese inspector comes to respect Conklin for his unwavering commitment to the task of bringing Sato down. Eventually, Matsumoto finds himself breaking rules to help the gaijin cop.
Filmed entirely in Tokyo, Black Rain was slammed by some for it's less-than-flattering depiction of the Japanese culture. In the 1980s, the U.S. and Japan were locked in trade wars. Japanese products, often cheaper and better than their American counterparts, inundated the U.S. and put some home industries at risk. But to dismiss Black Rain as merely a cinematic manifestation of the xenophobia apparent in American society during the Eighties, at least with respect to Japan, is entirely too superficial a judgment. This film is an above-average cops-and-gangsters piece -- exciting, intelligent and gritty. It's also an intense exploration into cultural conflict. The dilemma of a Japan that is simultaneously resentful of and dependent on the U.S is accurately presented. And finally, the film is Kafkaesque in its portrayal of the individual struggling to break free of bureacracy's atrophied shackles. The Yakuza, the Japanese prefectural police and the NYPD are strikingly similar; all are bound by rules, all demand conformity. As Black Rain is an American film, it should not be faulted for celebrating the individual over the group. In the process of doing so it was bound to be perceived by some as disdainful of Japanese culture. Guided by Scott's masterful hand, and nicely augmented by Hans Zimmer's inspired score, Black Rain is as multifaceted as Douglas' Nick Conklin. Like Conklin, it has flaws, yet is possessed of more than enough redeeming virtues to tip the scales in favor of a viewing. (The film won an Academy Award for Best Sound.)
Eighties Club rating: ***
US box office: $45.6 million
US release date: 9.22.89
"I'll Be Holding On," Gregg Allman
"Beyond The Sea," Bobby Darin
"The Way You Do The Things You Do," UB40
"What'D I Say," Ray Charles
1986, Mark/Americent, Rated R
Directed by Bob Rafelson
Written by Ronald Bass
This film was touted as a "complex psychological thriller," but there is nothing complex or thrilling about it. Perplexing would be a better adjective. Debra Winger stars as Alexandra Barnes, a desk-bound Justice Department analyst who discovers a link between the apparently natural deaths of several wealthy men -- they had all recently married a young woman. Alexandra suspects that the same woman killed them all to inherit their fortunes, though she's not sure how the crimes were committed. This provides her with a golden opportunity to wrangle a field assignment. She tracks the suspect, Catharine (Theresa Russell), to Seattle, but is unable to prevent the "Black Widow" from murdering her next victim, and moves on to Hawaii, where Catharine has set her sights on a new target, a hotel tycoon.
At this point the film quickly unravels. Alexandra is intrigued by Catharine -- one might say obsessed. The Black Widow is beautiful, glamorous and self-assured, all attributes Alexandra feels she lacks. What's more, there is a hint of an attraction between the two women. Sadly, this intriguing element is abandoned by director Bob Rafelson, as it might have endowed the film with the complexity a psychological thriller requires. Instead, we are supposed to believe that Alexandra falls in love with the hotel tycoon, the Black Widow's intended victim. This tired old cliche carries us, wholly unconvinced, to one of the most disappointing and befuddled climaxes in film history, leaving the viewer feeling cheated.
We can only speculate how often "It would have been better if . . ." has entered into conversations about Black Widow. Certainly the film would have been improved had more insight into Catharine's motives been provided. There are clues -- her occasional childish temper tantrums when things don't go her way, in stark contrast to her usual icy calm. Why does this character hate men so, especially father figures? Had this been explored, and had the chemistry between Winger and Russell been exploited by developing the relationship between their characters, Black Widow would have been a much better film. Moviegoers in the Eighties were prepared for such a daring concept, but the filmmakers, in this case, underestimated us. All we have, then, is an opportunity to watch the talented Debra Winger at work. Consider all other opportunities missed.
Eighties Club Rating: **
US box office: $25.2 million
US release date: 2.6.87
1987, Tri-Star, Rated PG-13
Directed by Blake Edwards
Written by Dale Launer
Bruce Willis makes his film debut in this Blake Edwards slapstick comedy that, on paper at least, has everything going for it -- a talented cast and the renowned director of classics like Breakfast at Tiffany's, Victor Victoria and The Pink Panther. Wllis stars as Walter Davis, a nerdish accountant hard-pressed to find a date for a very important company dinner in honor of a wealthy Japanese client. In desperation he seeks out his brother Ted (Phil Hartman), whose wife recruits her cousin, Nadia Gates (Kim Basinger). Walter approaches the date with trepidation, but is pleasantly surprised to discover that Nadia is both beautiful and sweet. Unfortunately, he forgets Ted's warning with respect to strong spirits -- in short, that Nadia and alcohol don't mix. By the time our starry-eyed couple reaches the dinner, Nadia is three sheets to the wind, and proceeds to make a shambles of the affair, costing Walter his job. Things quickly go from bad to worse, and by the end of the evening Walter has had his car stripped, been held up by a trio of girl punkers, chased around town by Nadia's ex-boyfriend, lawyer David Bedford (John Larroquette), and arrested for attempted murder. Nadia reluctantly promises to marry David if he'll keep Walter out of prison, and David gets the charges against Walter dropped by promising the judge -- who happens to be his somewhat less-than-loving father -- that he'll never practice law in California again. There's just one hitch in David's plans -- his bride-to-be is in love with Walter, and (in spite of everything) Walter has discovered he's in love with her.
Blind Date possesses Blake Edwards' trademark blend of sentiment and sight gags, and is genuinely, laugh-out-loud funny in spots. Willis (who was doing the TV series Moonlighting at the time) proves he could fill the big screen with his presence, while Larroquette, Hartman and William Daniels (who plays David's father) are right on the money with their performances. But the film suffers from a script that offers no character development or continuity; the most egregious example is Walter's abrupt transformation from a man who, understandably, wants nothing more to do with the woman who has destroyed his life to a lovesick wedding crasher. Kim Basinger (as usual) does the best she can with the material -- the scene in which she mimics Walter's curbside sobriety test is hilarious -- but Nadia Gates is never more than a male chauvinist's stereotype: When she's sober she's nice, but not too bright, and when she's drunk she's a sex-crazed vixen. (Madonna turned down the role, which just demonstrates her uncanny ability to make the right career moves.) Blind Date looks like a case of Edwards going through the motions, rehashing the same old material, and not very well this time. That's a shame, because with a little more attention to detail the film could have been a real winner.
Eighties Club rating: **
US box office: $39.3 million
US release date: 3.29.87
"Simply Meant To Be," Gary Morris & Jennifer Warnes
"Oh What A Night," Billy Vera & The Beaters
"Treasures," Stanley Jordan
1986, Paramount, Rated R
Directed by Michelle Manning
Written by Walter Hill * Lukas Heller from the novel by Ross MacDonald
On paper, Blue City had a lot going for it. The film was based on a novel by Ross Macdonald, one of the premier mystery writers, and the screenplay was co-written by Walter Hill. The soundtrack was by Ry Cooder, and the cast was not without talent. But sometimes a film just doesn't click, and Blue City is a case in point.
Billy Turner (Judd Nelson) is a young, brooding, two-fisted loner who comes home to a small town in Florida to find that his father has been murdered. He suspects his goldbricking stepmother and her mobster boyfriend of the crime, and recruits a childhood friend (David Caruso) and the friend's sister (Ally Sheedy), to get revenge. His plan: to rob the sleazy gambling den run by the mobster and terrorize the stepmother with anonymous phone calls and romps across her porch on his motorcycle -- just what any self-respecting juvenile delinquent would do.
Judd Nelson is a capable actor, but he can't manage to make a punk like Billy someone with whom the audience can sympathize. Perhaps not even Sean Penn or James Dean could have elicited one iota of audience sympathy in this case because the script didn't offer much for an actor to work with. Ally Sheedy looks embarrassed -- as she should be, especially with the scene of her stint as a go-go dancer at the casino. Only Caruso emerges with any credibility. It takes a very good actor to rise above material like this, and Caruso does just that. The direction by first-timer Michelle Manning is heavy-handed and uncertain. Ry Cooder's score is uninspired and sometimes intrusive. And the writing is so cliched that at times it is unintentionally funny.
From a cultural standpoint, Blue City is of interest because Nelson and Sheedy were members of Hollywood's "Brat Pack," a clique of young actors (Nelson, Sheedy, Rob Lowe, Andrew McCarthy, Demi Moore, Robert Downey, Jr., Emilio Estevez) who made a slew of movies in the Eighties. It's safe to say that this film did nothing to further the careers of Nelson and Sheedy. It's also interesting to watch the opening credits, very derivative of Miami Vice, which was all the rage when the film was being made. Note the neon blues and pinks of the credits transposed on sweeping aerial shots of Floridian coastal vistas and tell me you haven't seen that before.
Eighties Club rating: *
US box office: $6.9 million
US release date: 5.2.86
1983, RCA/Columbia, Rated R
Directed by John Badham
Written by Don Jakoby & Dan O'Bannon (& Dean Riesner)
One of the main themes of post-Watergate Hollywood was the corruption and evil perceived to be running rampant in the United States government. In fact, Big Brother was as great a threat to citizens as the USSR, if not greater, according to adherents. This theme had run its course by the early Eighties, though it occasionally recurs with films such as the recent Enemy of the State. Blue Thunder is of interest because it was released on the cusp of that transformation from paranoia to patriotism. Seventies sentiment is predominant in the scenes on the ground, and Eighties technology reigns supreme in the aerial scenes -- which are first-rate, by the way. Frank Murphy (Roy Scheider) is an officer in LAPD's Astro Division; in other words, he flies a police helicopter. When he's not shining a spotlight on crime down below, he's introducing his new partner, Lymangood (Daniel Stern) to a young woman who exercises nude in front of her window. In other words, Murphy is excellent at what he does but he's also a rebel, a cop who'll bend the rules when he needs to. And that, as it turns out, is a good thing, when Murphy is chosen to check out Blue Thunder, an attack helicopter created by the military, ostensibly to fight terrorism. And Blue Thunder is quite a machine; it can fly 200 mph and do it silently, on "whisper" mode. It can "see" and "hear" through walls and at great distances. Its computers are linked to law enforcement's databases. And its 20mm nose cannon can fire 4,000 rpm.
That's all well and good -- except that there's a nefarious government plot to use Blue Thunder on American citizens engaged in civil disturbance (read "riots.") When a city councilwoman finds out about this, she's killed. And when Murphy finds out about that he's next on the bad guys' hit list. The chief bad guy is a fellow Vietnam vet, Colonel Cochrane (Malcolm McDowell.) Murphy's chief ally is girlfriend Kate (Candy Clark). We know Kate has what it takes because she'll cheerily drive the wrong way down a busy one-way street with her young child in the car. Just as we know that Murphy will prevail over Cochrane; if he doesn't he won't get to say "Catch ya later" after dispatching the villain. You see, Cochrane keeps saying "Catch ya later" throughout the film to taunt our hero. That's simply one predictable element in a hackneyed script that incorporates every tired old convention of action flicks. Apart from its historical reference points, what lifts Blue Thunder above mediocrity is the typically superb performance by Warren Oates (one of his last, as he died shortly after filming was completed) and Blue Thunder itself, modeled after the French Gazelle and the AH 64 Apache. (For those who wonder if the roll Murphy executes in the climactic chase scene is possible, the AH 64 apparently proved it was during tests being conducted when this film was being made.) The film won an Academy Award nomination for Best Film Editing and spawned a TV series in 1984 starring James Farentino and Dana Carvey. The conspiracy-theory angst was notably absent.
Eighties Club rating: **
US box office: $42.3 million
US release date: 5.13.83
1981, Warner Bros., Rated R
Written & Directed by
The film noir of the 1940s is a true phenomenon of moviemaking history, and a number of immortal films -- The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, Out of the Past, to name but a few -- represent the genre's cream of the crop. So does a single '80s film: Body Heat. Ned Racine (William Hurt) is a seedy Florida lawyer who has an affair with the sultry Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner), a married woman whose businessman-husband is often away. Moved by a desperate and insatiable passion for Matty, Ned plots and carries out the murder of Edmund Walker (Richard Crenna). It seems like the perfect crime -- until things begin to unravel, and Ned begins to suspect that, despite all her protestations of love, Matty has manipulated him and, now, is plotting to kill him.
Having written Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back, Lawrence Kasdan earned the opportunity to write and direct Body Heat -- and he made the most of it, crafting a timeless masterpiece of a romance thriller that also turned out to be one of the most enduring movies of the decade. Once in a great while every aspect of a project clicks, and that's certainly the case here. William Hurt and Kathleen Turner have a chemistry that seems to singe the screen, their love scenes are unsurpassed in cinematic erotica. Though they both won awards for other roles, this is the movie for which they'll be best remembered. The supporting cast, particularly Mickey Rourke and J.A. Preston as Ned's friends -- one a professional arsonist and the other the by-the-book cop who must bring Ned to justice -- are superb, and Crenna, as always, is right on as the hapless husband. The cinematography is straight out of the film noir handbook -- it's fair to say that Kasdan created in Body Heat a sterling tribute to the genre that also happens to transcend the genre. John Barry, who has won four Oscars for his original film scores, should have won another for his work on this film, which is haunting and memorable. One film critic wrote of Kasdan and Body Heat that it is the most stunning debut movie ever. That's not hyperbole.
Eighties Club rating: ****
US release date: 8.28.81
"You Can't Always Get What You Want," Rolling Stones
"Joy To The World," Three Dog Night
"Feel Like A Number," Bob Seger
(& more; Varese Records)
The Breakfast Club
1985, A&M/Universal, Rated R
Written & Directed by John Hughes
As the man behind the camera for such films as Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Pretty in Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful and She's Having A Baby, John Hughes is undoubtedly the most important director of the 1980s. His best work deals with the decade's youth, and of all the films that fall into this category, The Breakfast Club is the one that best endures the test of time. It is arguably the ultimate Eighties teen flick, and as such still finds favor among the youth of today. The premise is deceptively simple: five high school students spend ten hours together in Saturday detention. Each student represents a clique --and a stereotype; there's the jock (Emilio Estevez), the prom queen (Molly Ringwald), the geek (Anthony Michael Hall), the delinquent (Judd Nelson) and the freak (Ally Sheedy). They begin their ordeal thinking they have little or nothing in common with one another. But that turns out not to be the case. As the day progresses, they discover, at first reluctantly and then with wonder, that they share problems common to most teenagers. Their parents don't understand them. They suffer the constraints of their peer group. And they are burdened with their fair share of teen angst as they search for a reason and a place to belong in a world not of their making.
Critics of The Breakfast Club almost always base their conclusions on the premise that the problems of the five teenagers are mundane, even banal. The script merely touches on such important issues of teen suicide and parental abuse, they say. These criticisms can only come, it seems to us, from those who have forgotten what it was like to be a teenager; self-worth is about as important an issue as there can be, and that's what The Breakfast Club is all about. Apart from that, the film is an Eighties icon because it features five members of the Brat Pack (or four, if you choose not to include Anthony Michael Hall) -- that group of young actors who took Hollywood by storm in the 1980s. While the others do a perfectly fine job in their roles, it's Judd Nelson who really stands out as Bender, the rebel. His character is at times obnoxious, yet thanks to Nelson retains the viewer's sympathy. It is his finest role. And some would say this is John Hughes' finest film. Certainly, it is one of the finest.
Eighties Club rating: ****
US box office: $38.1 million
US release date: 2.15.85
"Don't You (Forget About Me)," Simple Minds
"Fire In The Twilight," Wang Chung
"We Are Not Alone," Karla DeVito
"Waiting," Elizabeth Daily
1989, Samuel Goldwyn, Rated R
Directed by Bill Forsyth
Written by John Sayles
Burt Reynolds was one of the top film stars of the 1970s, and rightly so, with movies like Deliverance (1972), White Lightning (1973), The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (1973), The Longest Yard (1974), Smokey and the Bandit (1977) and Semi-Tough (1977). But with a couple of exceptions, his work in the '80s was sub-par -- Stick, Heat, Malone, Rent-a-Cop, Switching Channels were, at best, strictly average. One could almost sense that Reynolds knew he was working with inferior material and was just going through the motions. By the end of the decade, his film career stalled, Reynolds was doing television (B.L. Stryker).
In Breaking In, Reynolds puts forth an effort and creates a character against type. Ernie Mullins is a small-time burglar. He's over 60 and has bad knees and the only relationship he's managed to sustain is with a hooker. But he does have a lot of experience in his chosen field -- experience he decides to impart to his protege, Mike, played by Casey Siemaszko. The latter does a fine job too in what was probably touted as his "breakthrough" role. The two lead actors play off each other quite comfortably, and benefit from an intelligent script by John Sayles and the skilled direction of Bill Forsyth (Local Hero), who knows how to evoke the humor, pathos and irony -- in short, the humanity -- in a story. But Breaking In lacks one vital element: Purpose. As a "slice-of-life" glance at the brief partnership of two thieves, one old and the other young, one low-key and the other brash, it's mildly interesting. But like a good novel, a good film has to be more than that. There has to be a moral, and if not a moral, then a lesson, a tragedy, a triumph, an epiphany, something that gives it depth and meaning. Ernie and Mike pull a few jobs, then Ernie goes to jail, end of story. Mike doesn't seem to benefit from Ernie's wisdom, and Ernie doesn't appear to benefit -- or suffer -- from his association with Mike. And the audience doesn't particularly benefit from spending an hour-and-a-half watching Breaking In, either. Even when he tried, Burt Reynolds couldn't catch a break in the '80s.
Eighties Club rating: **
US box office: $1.9 million
US release date: 10.13.89
1983, Orion, Rated R
Directed by Jim McBride
Written by Jim McBride and L.M. Kit Carson from a screenplay by Jean-Luc Godard, from a story by Francois Truffaut
In 1960, Jean-Luc Godard's first directorial effort, A Bout de Souffle, became an instant classic, propelling the careers of stars Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg into the stratosphere and launching what has become known as New Wave cinema. The story of a French hood who shoots a cop and goes on the lam with an American girl was pretty standard boilerplate; it was Godard's vision, and the film's offbeat style, that made it a stand-out. In 1983, an underground director named Jim McBride decided to do a remake entitled Breathless. Fresh from his starmaking roles in American Gigolo (1980) and An Officer and A Gentleman (1982), Gere took on the task of playing Jesse Lujack, a professional car thief who mortally wounds a cop on his way from Las Vegas to Los Angeles in a stolen sports car. Once in L.A., Jesse seeks out Monica, a French student attending UCLA with whom he'd spent a weekend in Vegas -- a role played by 19-year-old model Valerie Kaprisky in her film debut. While trying to raise enough money to escape into Mexico, Jesse attempts to lure Monica into giving up her promising future and running away with him. By the time Monica makes up her mind it's too late -- the police are closing in on the star-crossed lovers.
Critics slammed Breathless when it was released, condemning it as a remake inferior to the original in every respect. And they're right; Godard's film is superior. But taken on it's own, Breathless has several things going for it. The team of Gere/Kaprisky fairly sizzle on the screen. For his part, Gere manages to present us with a antihero that is at the same time a sympathetic and amoral character, a free spirit as incapable of conformity as his comic-book hero, Silver Surfer. Jesse is a tragic figure, committed to living for the moment, who cannot accept the fact that life is full of disappointment. Kaprisky's Monica embodies the sensuous innocence of a woman/child, and Gere cements his standing as a genuine Hollywood sex symbol. And while Godard's work was intended as a tribute to old gangster films, McBride's vision is a paean to American pop culture rebelliousness. Jesse, like his idol Jerry Lee Lewis, flaunts the rules, stretches the envelope, and pursues excess over moderation. But in the Eighties, the only real rebels left, apparently, are felons. The film is highly stylized; like it's main characters, it makes up with looks what it lacks in substance. In any other decade that would have been a liability, but in 1983 it made Breathless a harbinger of things to come.
Eighties Club rating: ***
US box office: $19.9 million
"Breathless," Jerry Lee Lewis
"(What A) Wonderful World," Sam Cooke
"High School Confidential," Jerry Lee Lewis
"Jack The Ripper," Link Wray and the Wraymen
"365 Is My Number/The Message," King Sunny Ade
"Celtic Soul Brothers," Dexy's Midnight Runners
"Message Of Love," The Pretenders