Over the summer I made it to half the movies in VIFF’s Back to the 80s series. I got a healthy dose of macho action, quippy one-liners, and Bill Paxton.1
Back to the Future 👍👍
Is there any better film, from the 80s or otherwise? There is not. Fantastic acting, quotable lines, catchy music, iconic costumes, memorable gags, engaging story. Even the title is a doozy. It cooks.
The Stunt Man
I have a soft spot for movies about making movies, but this one left me cold. The acting is stiff, the romance ham-fisted, the plot nonsensical.
It was released in 1980 and has the grainy, muddy look of 70s cinema. Is it the film stock they used? I bet a cinematographer could tell me why I prefer 80s movie aesthetics over those from the prior decade.
Escape From New York 👍
Is a convicted criminal the best choice to rescue the president? What alternatives did they consider before turning the entirety of Manhattan into a prison colony? How did Snake Plissken lose his eye? Is Snake his Christian name? This movie leaves me with more questions than it answers, but boy is it fun.
The DeLorean from Back to the Future is the coolest car of 80s cinema, but the crime boss’s Cadillac with chandeliers for headlights and a disco ball hanging from its review mirror takes second place.
Raging Bull 👍
I cannot say I enjoy watching this movie, but I’m not supposed to. The boxing scenes are brutal. Martin Scorsese is a master of creating unlikable characters, but he outdoes himself with protagonist Jake LaMotta. I expected a redemption arc, but he starts a piece of garbage and ends as one.
I was surprised to discover that the final scene of Boogie Nights is an homage to the final scene of Raging Bull.
It is, right? I’m not making this up?
Hollywood never fails to pair a beautiful young woman with an old creep. But it’s not all bad. The crumbling casino town is a poignant backdrop and a fitting reflection of the aging main character. Add sick Saskatchewan burns and a cameo by Wallace Shawn and you get a decent watch.
An American Werewolf in London
Neither as scary nor as funny as I expected. It seems like a missed opportunity to contrast and lampoon American and British culture. The werewolf transformation effects are top notch though, and I dig the abrupt ending where they kill the werewolf and immediately roll credits. More movies should pack it in once the action finishes (I’m looking at you Return of the King).2
Fast Times at Ridgemont High 👍👍
I’m perplexed by the portrayal of malls in movies. For me the mall is the last place I want to be. This is true now and it was true when I was a teenager. But here they look like a blast — everyone’s hanging out, flirting, getting up to youthful shenanigans. When I went (usually on an impossible quest to find jeans that fit my gangly frame), it was nothing but blinding fluorescent lights, despondent salespeople, and stressed parents watching their toddlers melt down. Were malls genuinely fun in the 80s, or is this an invention of American cinema?
Anyway, this film is a treasure.
I now understand the genesis of Grand Theft Auto. But not the idolization of Tony Montana in pop culture. He’s a sad man with broken relationships and no friends. With all that wealth and Miami digs I expect he’d jump on the occasional jet ski and enjoy the spoils of his crime empire, but this gloomy wretch has zero fun. His interior decorating is on point though.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial 👍
How does Spielberg do it? How does he make E.T. — wrinkly and damp, with expired-hot-dogs-from-7/11 fingers — endearing? The puppetry is incredible. The story is schmaltzy, but it’s impossible not to be charmed by the pizza-eating, DnD-playing, bicycle-riding kids as they thwart the authorities and send that gross space frog back to his home planet.
There’s a melancholy to this one. The characters are too old for the “everything is possible” excitement of adolescence, but too young for midlife crises. Instead you get squandered potential, dissatisfaction with married life, and a sense that their camaraderie will never be as strong as they go their separate ways. The end of an era; the last gasp of youth and its freedom.
That’s a bleak description, but I swear it’s a compelling watch. I can think of few other movies that explore that most unlikable of demographics — men in their 20s — in a relatable way. It’s funny not because of outrageous hijinks (there are hijinks, but they’re dumb), but because of conversations identical to ones I’ve been in myself. You can envision what these men will be like in two decades. Neither fabulous successes nor pitiful failures, not wildly happy but not sad sacks either.3 Just ordinary. I like that.
The Road Warrior 👍👍
A simple plot executed to perfection. The storyboards of psychotic biker punks in S&M gear tearing around the Australian desert in tricked out dune buggies would make me nervous if I was a studio head, but it works.
Granted, I’m not the target audience for “young woman has affair with older man” dramas, but this was a dreary outing. I like the premise — a woman tries to recreate the passionate romance that her mother enjoyed decades earlier — but the characters are so serious and solemn that it’s hard to believe they’re attracted to each other at all.
Trivia: director Amy Holden Jones’ previous film was The Slumber Party Massacre. Helluva departure.
Blade Runner 👍👍
I enjoy this more with each viewing. I didn’t care for it when I first saw it, perhaps because I was expecting sci-fi action akin to Aliens instead of a meditation on what it means to be human, but with calibrated expectations it’s terrific. Is it weird that the scene I remember best is Harrison Ford slurping noodles? No? Thank you.
The Right Stuff 👍
I read the book beforehand and went into this with trepidation, fearing an adaptation that augments the source material with Michael Bay-esque flag-waving. Happily it keeps the “ra ra” patriotism in check. The allusions to Old West valour are pure cheese, but I’ll give them a pass. The dawn of the space race is a fascinating piece of history and this dramatization nails it.
Repo Man 👍
Partway through I realized I’d lost the plot and had no idea what was going on. But that doesn’t matter, it’s a riot. The characters are wacky, the jokes are killer, and the production is shoddy in the best way. The blank placeholder packaging on food feels lazy, like the art department took the day off, and the dialogue sounds like a first draft (“let’s go do some crimes”). It has my new favourite death scene and made me appreciate the musicality of the Circle Jerks. Who needs a comprehensible plot.
Paris, Texas 👍
The plot device of an amnesiac discovering his past, whether it’s Memento, The Bourne Identity, or this movie, is evergreen. This is no action thriller, but the slow drip of details about the protagonist’s past kept me in suspense, and the emotional ending it builds to is wrenching.
This has an earnestness that I want to like, but the amateur acting is painful to sit through. The punk characters feel like what Repo Man is parodying. Worse is their fight with the strip club-frequenting, dog-shooting, cartoonishly evil rednecks. It’s a groaner.
In surprising “also made this” trivia a la Love Letters, director Penelope Spheeris went on to make The Little Rascals. Perfect title for this movie.
First Blood 👍
Pure masculinity, all bruised egos and reckless decision-making. The Pacific Northwest is a great setting for an action film. Cold, wet, foggy, dark. I was so engrossed by the taut manhunt that Rambo’s heartfelt monologue about the horrors of the Vietnam War took me off guard. I picture Sylvester Stallone as a mumbly punching bag, but the man can act.
Once Upon a Time in America 👍
This feels like a Martin Scorsese movie, what with the gangsters and New York and Robert De Niro + Joe Pesci, but slower, more romantic, meditative. There’s ugliness on display, but Scorsese would make it nastier. But probably no shorter.
We watched the 4+ hour extended director’s cut. I enjoyed it, but movies shouldn’t be this long (I’m looking at you Return of the King).4 Maybe a five-part miniseries. To its credit it includes an intermission, which should be required by law for any film that cracks the two hour mark.
The final shot of De Niro’s character spiking the camera and grinning made me think of the last shot of Magnolia.
Earlier I mentioned the similarity between the final shots of Raging Bull and Boogie Nights. I’m not imagining this, right? Paul Thomas Anderson: De Niro superfan.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 👍
This movie is scary, sure — Freddy Krueger is a frightening fellow — but what makes it a winner for me is the scene where the protagonist, her mother having confiscated her coffee pot and caffeine pills moments before, proceeds to pull out an entire coffee maker with fresh steaming pot from below her nightstand. Incredible.
Lost In America
I had the benefit of watching this among an audience of older folks who guffawed at jokes that I found merely amusing. I chalk this up to comedies aging poorly. I know it’ll happen to the treasured comedies of today. Gen Alpha will watch Napoleon Dynamite in twenty years and struggle to recognize its genius.5
Desert Hearts 👍
Brokeback Mountain seems less groundbreaking when you find out they made the same thing two decades earlier, but with women. The Western setting with the preconceptions we bring to it is fertile ground for this story.
To Live and Die In L.A. 👍
Another that clearly influenced Grand Theft Auto. We have dirty cops, strip clubs, car chases, shootouts, and polluted Los Angeles. The protagonist’s partner is days away from retirement, all set to enjoy his golden years, when he tries to bust a counterfeit money ring and gets shot by the baddies. Is this movie the genesis of this trope? The whole thing is a long series of clichés, but I suspect it spawned those clichés.
The car chase scene is gripping. I had déjà vu as they ripped through those wide concrete viaducts. Repo Man features a chase in the same location, as does Terminator 2 and RoboCop 2 and a bajillion other movies. That’s a public works project that pays for itself.
Streets of Fire 👍
This has a lot going for it:
- Neo-50s setting (diners, neon signs, and Studebakers, but grimy, like it takes place in Gotham City)
- Rockabilly soundtrack
- Exploding motorcycles
- Sledgehammer fight
- A tough-talker named Billy Fish (played by Rick Moranis, the last person in the world who can pull off hard-boiled dialogue)
- Willem Defoe in leather overalls
I mean, get a load of this:
Despite this killer cocktail of ingredients, it doesn’t totally work for me. But it gets a thumbs up for its ambition. And costume department.
Blue Velvet 👍
This movie is demented.
Near Dark 👍
We watched a grimy 35mm print and I can’t think of a better way to see this film. The setting is dirty and dusty, all trailer parks and industrial wasteland where being a vampire is neither glamorous nor sexy. I’ll rewatch this any time I start to think being undead would be nifty (you never know, the opportunity could arise).
This feels like a rich text. A combination of 1984, Metropolis, and Modern Times sounds like a slam dunk, but wow does it drag. The grey blandness, the dreadful romance, the endless ducts — all add up to an experience that I wanted to end.
Scary! The scene where the marines discover the alien nest and you see what they see via staticky head mounted cameras is terrifying, the sort of visceral experience that horror games strive for. The visual effects hold up. The sound effects are even better. The engineers responsible for the mech audio deserve an Oscar (and Wikipedia tells me they got one, so all is well).
Something Wild 👍
A yuppie cuts loose much like in Lost In America, but this was more entertaining. You cringe watching Jeff Daniels ignore red flags and make bad decisions. Then Ray Liotta shows up and you know it’s about to get dire. That man is scary.
I like to imagine an alternative universe where the actors switch roles. Ray Liotta plays a doofy nice guy and Jeff Daniels a menacing ex-con. What fun.
Down by Law
I now understand the boredom of being stuck in prison with a taciturn Tom Waits. Fortunately things go from painfully slow to just slow when World’s Most Charming Man Roberto Benigni shows up. More of him please. And more Louisiana. New Orleans and its surrounding bayous are a striking setting.
The exact right ratio of story to dance montages (1:9 by my calculations). There’s a lot to criticize — the one dimensional characters, the paper thin plot, the tired “blue collar vs. privileged class” themes — but that misses the point. Patrick Swayze is cool, rich dweebs suck. They dance. It’s steamy. The audience gets what we want.
I expect viewers remember the final dance number or Mr. Swayze’s strapping physique, but one scene stood out to me. To entertain its female guests, the resort breaks out a suitcase of wigs. Is “wig sampling” a real activity that resorts offer? Please tell me that if I visit a Four Seasons I can order room service, soak in the hot tub, and see how I look with a beehive.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off 👍👍
If you can only choose one John Hughes movie, you can’t beat FBDO. It’s heartfelt and funny with an absurdist streak that works. Their teenage experience doesn’t mirror mine, but I know the urge to play hooky for a day. Unfortunately my hometown has no museums of modern art, the most upscale restaurant is Crabby Joe’s Bar & Grill, and none of my friends’ dads own Ferraris. But I’d have no friends in the first place if I acted anything like Ferris Bueller; charming, yes, but the dude is psychotic.
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (bonus)
Not an 80s movie, but since it’s a sequel to that most iconic of 80s franchises, I’m including it. Alas, it was merely fine. It has a train fight scene.6 A treasure hunt. Nazis getting their tushies handed to them. The ingredients are there, but the result is humdrum. I won’t protest if we wrap the series here.
In Cinema Speculation, Tarantino dishes on 80s filmmaking.
But the curse of eighties cinema wasn’t that they wouldn’t let you shoot somebody jerking off to Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace. It was that the complex and complicated lead characters of the seventies were the characters that eighties cinema avoided completely. Complex characters aren’t necessarily sympathetic. Interesting people aren’t always likable. But in the Hollywood of the eighties likability was everything. A novel could have a low-down son of a bitch at its center, as long as that low-down son of a bitch was an interesting character.
But not a movie. Not in the eighties.
He has a point. But if 80s filmmakers succumbed to the “juvenilization of cinema,” they at least knew how to entertain. Imagine it’s 1984 and you see Terminator, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Repo Man, Once Upon a Time in America, Gremlins, This Is Spinal Tap, Blood Simple, Romancing the Stone, Ghostbusters, and The Muppets Take Manhattan. All in one year. Not to mention those foundational texts of Hollywood, Breakin’ and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.7 What a time to be alive.8
I also got my fill of music videos from the golden age of MTV, which they showed instead of trailers before each movie. A highlight was listening to elderly ladies in the row behind me harp on No Sleep Till Brooklyn. They were not fans. “I don’t understand what they’re doing. This is incoherent!” What’s not to get about a hip hop group masquerading as a hair metal band that steals bags of money from a vault while a gorilla plays a guitar solo? But I won’t deny that the Beastie Boys could benefit from more exposition. ↩
Like everybody I give The Return of the King grief for its protracted ending, but let the record show that I love this movie. ↩
I like to imagine that the characters played by some actors are the same characters they play in other movies. Mickey Rourke in Diner (who I thought was Kiefer Sutherland the entire time) goes on to become the titular wrestler in The Wrestler. We see him beat up a guy in Diner; it makes sense. Daniel Stern’s marriage fails and he turns to a life of crime in Home Alone. Rich troublemaker Kevin Bacon cleans up his act and becomes an astronaut in Apollo 13. At least one of them does well for themselves. ↩
Previous disclaimer applies; The Return of the King rules. ↩
Napoleon Dynamite is the greatest comedy our world has ever known. Don’t fight me on this. ↩
It doesn’t help that earlier I watched both Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning, which has a train fight scene, and Buster Keaton’s The General, which is nothing but a train fight scene. I’ve grown tired of this set piece. ↩
It took Hollywood seven months from the release of Breakin’ to get Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo into theatres. Then only five for the final instalment Rappin’. Talk about hustle. ↩