In 1980 audiences walked up to the theater, noticed a $40 million artistic, serious historical drama was playing, and said to themselves, “Nah, we’ll just go see another Star Wars.” Neither Heaven’s Gate or The Empire Strikes back deserve full blame or credit for this changing tide, but they pushed the industry’s face in it. New Hollywood had captured that serious film-going audience, but that crowd was only so big. The majority of humanity would rather see a fun spectacle, and those could be made with that New Hollywood care too. Make it a sequel to the biggest movie event ever and you can just have all our money. Serious, original movies would continue to be made, just with more studio input (which I’d argue is usually good) and less visibility. Don’t worry though, it won’t be long until the age of independent film.
This is also the middle of a weird time for comedies. It’s got a bit of the silly 70s and a bit of the big new talents from places like SNL. Several high grossers are practically forgotten today. Disney was in a huge slump and I guess no one else thought to release anything for kids or families? Maybe something had to change generationally but it’s mind-blowing to me that no one was trying to get money off parents (except of course for Empire Strikes Back). It would be a good four or five years before what I typically think of as 80s kids or teen comedy took off.
The last thing I’d say 1980 has going on is a few films by great filmmakers who have done or will do better. These aren’t where I’d say to start with those guys unless the specific topics interest you, but still solid stuff. I already reviewed The Elephant Man here.
The Empire Strikes Back
I’m not going to describe or rate Empire for you. Star Wars is maybe America’s biggest cultural touchstone.
Sequels have always been present in Hollywood. Empire helped audiences and filmmakers think they could be a worthy endeavor instead of just blatant cash grabs. Once again the lesson seems to be that if you make something good, people want to give you their money. The explosion of both good and awful sequels in the 80s and beyond prove there’s never a shortage of people willing to exploit goodwill.
When powerful Wyoming cattlemen start killing poor immigrants to save their profits, an eastern lawyer turned western lawman tries to save their lives and fight back.
This is the movie frequently credited as killing United Artists, a studio originally created by famous directors to free themselves from the studio system. United Artists didn’t actually die and even if it had it wouldn’t have been just because of Heaven’s Gate, but the accusation isn’t totally baseless. When upcoming director Michael Cimino won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director with The Deer Hunter, he leveraged that good will into total control over Heaven’s Gate and proceeded to annihilate millions of dollars. On a seven year hot streak of releasing Best Picture nominees, United Artists was sold. The new management didn’t have another nominee until 1988.
Ultimately though, I don’t think it would have mattered if it was made on its original budget, since that budget was comparable to that of Empire Strikes Back, the original Star Wars, or Jaws. It doesn’t matter how much artistic control you give a director; he will never make a dark, three hour Western tragedy that will bring in Star Wars money. Once they found out how to replicate that success (which sometimes was surprisingly just to make another one), the artists lost some of their leverage. Studios didn’t need to give into their demands for total control to bring people to theaters anymore.
Oh yeah and as for Heaven’s Gate as a movie, it just wasn’t interesting. Cimino apparently assumed everyone loved the wedding scene from The Deer Hunter instead of the Russian roulette, because Heaven’s Gate opens with a vast, extended look at the main character’s Harvard graduation ceremony. Jump forward to Wyoming, where immigrants are being killed, which continues unchanging from here on and is always talked about as being unstoppable. An insane amount of time is spent showing us how full of life these impoverished immigrants are, as if their free-wheeling sense of fun is the reason they shouldn’t be murdered. The whole movie hinges on whether or not the main character will fight with them, which is to say the whole movie hinges his character, which is bland. Duh, he’s going to help them.
Robert De Niro plays Jake LaMotta, a boxer whose explosive rage first propels him to boxing success and later destroys his personal life.
Raging Bull is considered a huge deal, but even when I watched it again assuming I had missed something, I came out disappointed. The fight scenes show violent ferocity, and the closing fight is imposingly dark. Most of the running time though is focused on his personal life, where he’s a mean idiot picking fights with his loved ones, who are unreasonably defensive and also stupid. It’s never scary or intimidating, just uncomfortable. It loses even more steam when LaMotta tries to become a comedian in his old age and is terrible at it. I guess it’s supposed to be a tragedy but he never had any redeeming qualities besides being able to be punched a lot so who cares?
It’s an impressive production so I’m willing to suggest that’s just not my type of story or lead character. Decades of Martin Scorsese’s huge impact on movies probably eroded his shock factor for me as well. Even then he’s got at least five movies better than Raging Bull.
When one son is killed in an accident and the other son attempts suicide, the Jarrett family cope with tragedy in vastly different ways.
Ordinary People is frequently referred to as “How did Raging Bull lose Best Picture to this??” but it deserves better. This is a fantastic depiction of grief and a dissolving family. Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, Judd Hirsch, and Timothy Hutton all portray the views their characters represent perfectly. When Ordinary People came out it was praised for its positive and realistic depiction of therapy and psychiatric care, and a big focus of the movie is public suspicions of psychiatry. It reminds me of Good Will Hunting, but better because it’s more tragic and realistic. No one will ever expect you to have seen Ordinary People and it doesn’t have a huge place in movie history, but once you see it you might join me in recommending it.
Jack and Wendy Torrance take a job as caretakers of an isolated mountain hotel during the winter. Their young son Danny’s psychic abilities tip him off to a supernatural presence in the hotel that drives Jack insane.
Stanley Kubrick is the master of slow intensity. Here he controls every moment and every shot to build a feeling of dread. Wendy paging through Jack’s manuscript is creepier than some whole horror movies. The hedge maze is shot to make us feel lost too. When Jack bursts through the door, the camera moves to give his actions weight, and makes it feel like he’s coming at us. The elevator full of blood is suffocating. A movie needs more than just iconic moments but it’s tough for a movie to be bad when it’s made almost entirely of them.
Jack Nicholson gets all the attention but both he and Shelley Duvall are great. The interactions between them are uneven because they need to be in this depiction of the worst-case scenario for marriage.
A criminal is saved from execution because of his resemblance to the dying clan leader. Samurai battles ensue.
I don’t remember any of the plot or characters of this movie. Probably a bad sign. All I remember are the huge samurai battles which, I mean, yeah, they’re huge. That also made them seem impersonal. The main upside is the visuals and even then it’s not director Akira Kurosawa’s best.
The Blues Brothers
In the first film based on a Saturday Night Live sketch, two brothers get their old band back together to raise money to save the orphanage that raised them.
I would have assumed John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd comedy would carry the movie, but it’s taken over by the music and locations and just the huge production of it all. The Blues Brothers has more in common with musicals than comedies, since so much of the plot blatantly exists to make big musical numbers happen. When the musical numbers start to be a bit much you’re bailed out by a Belushi freak-out or a comically huge car pile-up. Comedy styles are usually easy to copy but The Blues Brothers is one of a kind.
Danny Noonan works at an upscale country club to raise money to go to college. He tries to win the favor of a snobbish judge who considers awarding him a scholarship. When a rowdy jokester starts frequenting the club his clashes with the judge escalate and Danny must choose a side.
At risk of angering golfers everywhere, I think Caddyshack is overrated. It has funny moments but its focus is all over the place. Every time Rodney Dangerfield shows up they spend way too much time on him. It’s great when he obliviously crashes his boat but after the fifth quip in a row it just seems like they paused the movie for a stand-up routine. Bill Murray freaking out his co-workers is kinda funny but everything with the gopher seems like they wanted to give him something to do and had time to fill.
Danny is a surprisingly interesting character and all Chevy Chase’s stuff here is fun as the worst role model around, so it’s not necessarily bad. It was just given a bigger legacy than it earned because people who seek sports movies have a low bar for quality.
9 to 5
Three women learn to be friends and wrest control of their office from their chauvinistic boss.
This is a pretty solid girl power comedy. Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton, and Lily Tomlin are all quite funny. I thought it would be just pleasant but they definitely made it weird and surprising at times too.
Feminism was a hot topic in society at this time, and a lot of that focus was on the workplace. 9 to 5 attacked the topic but maybe this is why I don’t see much about it now. With its social point made it’s not quite enough to stand the test of time.
When the crew contracts food poisoning, a traumatized former pilot must overcome his fear of flying to land the aircraft.
I love Airplane! but I could never blindly suggest it to anyone. It’s a very specific kind of dumb comedy. If you think it’s funny for a guy to say he has a drinking problem and it turns out that problem is missing his mouth entirely when he tries to drink anything, watch it.