A revised CLOSE ENCOUNTER, Olivia Newton-John on rollerskates and Steve McQueen kick off August 1980
Plus when is a Bill Murray movie not a Bill Murray movie?
The premise is simple, but the task is not. Every single movie released in the United States during the 1980s, reviewed in chronological order, published month by month.
Buckle up, because this is The Last ‘80s Newsletter You’ll Ever Need…
Jimmy Carter was nominated for the Presidency at the Democratic National Convention.
17000 Polish workers went on strike, kicking off the Solidarity movement.
John Lennon and Yoko Ono started work on their classic album Double Fantasy.
And in Australia, Azaria Chamberlain disappeared, an event which would directly lead
to Meryl Streep’s timeless proclamation: “A DINGO ATE MY BABY!”
The difference between the actual reviews and these monthly introductions is that I’m trying to keep the biography out of the individual reviews. It’s tough, though. The way my brain works, most of my memories are tied to movies in some way, and the era I’m writing about now is when my memory really kicks in.
It felt like school started much later in 1980, like our vacation would never end. Summer was still lingering, and we made another trip to Memphis to see my grandmothers. Whenever I visited Memphis, it turned into a non-stop movie free-for-all. Both of my grandmothers figured out early that the easiest way to connect to me was to take me to a theater, and my mom’s mother, Ruby, took me to my very first drive-in to see Close Encounters when the re-release happened. I had already seen the film several times, plus I owned the novelization and the making-of book and the Fotonovel, and I felt like I had the film memorized. Even so, I jumped at the chance to go see it again with new footage added to the ending and to experience a drive-in for the very first time.
Close Encounters may have been the perfect film to see that way, too. My first primary impression of the evening is the way the film bled off the edge of the screen, blending into the night sky around it, especially as the mothership landed at Devil’s Tower. It felt like the ships could fly right off the screen and join us in the muggy Memphis evening. The second big memory was the way the mosquitos ate us alive. My grandmother was ready to tap out about 20 minutes into the film, chalking it up to the right idea on the wrong night, but I wasn’t going anywhere. I sat there, absolutely mesmerized, letting them drain me and not giving a shit as long as I got to see what was inside that spaceship.
I don’t know how memory works for anyone else or what you retain versus what you forget. I remember the reactions of the people who took me to the movies. I saw Xanadu twice in the span of a week, once with my grandmother who didn’t like any part of it and once with my mother and my aunt, who both absolutely loved it. Movie stars were a big part of the decision-making when it came to what we saw first, which is why Xanadu was an event to share with my mom. Grease had been a defining movie moment for her, and if there was even a chance Xanadu would give her some of the same pleasure, then it was an immediate must-see. In 1977, the original Smokey and the Bandit was just as big for my family as Star Wars, and we saw both of them many times in theaters. It was clear that Burt Reynolds was one of their favorite movie stars overall, someone my mom and my dad could agree on even if they had very different reasons that they loved him. Smokey II was a no-brainer, both in terms of our decision to see it and the experience it delivered, and we all loved it.
It was a big month for seeing films with just my dad, though, which wasn’t always the case. He often was too busy with work to join us on our trips, so when he got to go, too, it was fun to maximize the time we spent together. There was one movie that I did not get to see with him, even though I made the case for why we should go together. I knew he liked Chuck Norris. I liked kung-fu movies and we had watched Good Guys Wear Black on TV together. There was a new Chuck Norris movie. That seemed like enough of a reason. No sale. I was told at the time that the film was “too grown up” for me. The idea that The Octagon is “grown up” in any way is absolutely hilarious.
I did manage to find several things that were declared “safe for Drew,” though, and one in particular stuck with me. Steve McQueen was squarely in the “Dad movie” camp, and by this point, I had seen a handful of McQueen’s films on television. At ten, I wasn’t aware enough to know that he was dying, but my dad definitely knew. They weren’t selling The Hunter as “His last movie!” but that’s exactly what my dad told me when we went to go see it. We talked about why McQueen was cool. We talked about his favorite McQueen movies. This was around the time my dad started taking me to see older films in the theater occasionally, movies like Red River or The Cowboys or, not long after we saw this, The Great Escape. When I saw this one, it felt like one of the more “grown-up” movies I’d seen in a theater so far, which is odd since it was rated PG. You never know what’s going to land or why.
My dad also took me to see The Final Countdown, which led to us talking about how he was alive when Pearl Harbor happened and how as far as I could imagine at ten years old, that made him the oldest person on the planet Earth. We also talked for the first time I can remember about his own time in the military. My dad was a paratrooper in Vietnam, and spent some time stationed in Germany after that, and his military experience was definitely defining for him. As the ‘80s wore on and Hollywood dug into Vietnam in earnest, that conversation continued to evolve, and I’m sure we’ll return to it here as the newsletter continues. It was a busy August and a memorable one, even though there weren’t as many movies as there were the last few months, and a great way to close out our first summer of the decade.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Special Edition
Richard Dreyfuss, François Truffaut, Teri Garr, Melinda Dillon, Bob Balaban, J. Patrick McNamara, Warren J. Kemmerling, Roberts Blossom, Philip Dodds, Cary Guffey, Shawn Bishop, Adrienne Campbell, Justin Dreyfuss, Lance Henriksen, Merrill Connally, George DiCenzo, Amy Douglass, Alexander Lockwood, Gene Dynarski, Mary Gafrey, Norman Bartold, Josef Sommer, Michael J. Dyer, Roger Ernest, Carl Weathers, F.J. O’Neill, Phil Dodds, Randy Mark Herman, Hal Barwood, Matthew Robbins, David Anderson, Richard L. Hawkins, Craig Shreeve, Bill Thurman, Roy E. Richards, Gene Rader, Eumenio Blanco, Daniel Nunez, Chuy Franco, Luis Contreras, James Keane, Dennis McMullen, Cy Young, Tom Howard, Richard Stuart, Bob Westmoreland, Matt Emery, Galen Thompson, John Dennis Johnston, John Ewing, Keith Atkinson, Robert Broyles, Kirk Raymond
cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond
music by John Williams
screenplay by Steven Spielberg
produced by Julia Phillips and Michael Phillips
directed by Steven Spielberg
2 hrs 17 mins
Roy Neary becomes obsessed with learning the truth about UFOs after a chance sighting one summer night.
When Steven Spielberg released Close Encounters to commercial and critical success he must have felt like he dodged a bullet. It was a notoriously difficult production, coming on the heels of the notoriously difficult Jaws and just before the notoriously difficult 1941. Spielberg was obviously gifted, but he was definitely still figuring out how to wrestle his vision up on the screen, and it must have been frustrating.
Even before George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola redefined the idea of tinkering, Spielberg took advantage of his own success to ask Columbia to allow him to go back in and revise Close Encounters, adding scenes throughout the film that he didn’t get to finish properly the first time around. The entire marketing push for this release of the film was “This time, you get to go inside the spaceship at the end!”, and from the moment they announced it, I was obsessed. Over the years, I’ve watched both versions of the film many times… well, actually, there are more than two at this point, but that’s a degree of minutiae that you can dig into yourself if you’re really curious thanks to the great Blu-ray or 4K releases. I find merit in many of Spielberg’s changes, and I love the original, and I don’t think one is necessarily superior to the other.
I don’t think you need the inside of the spaceship, though. The film isn’t about what Roy Neary sees inside the ship. It’s about his decision to leave everything and everyone on Earth behind so he can take that journey. Once he makes that choice and walks up the ramp, everything else is irrelevant. Steven Spielberg has talked about how he wouldn’t be able to make this film the same way now because he couldn’t imagine making the same choice that Roy makes. I get it. This is, in many ways, a young man’s movie. It feels like a reaction to the general distrust in institutions that had been fostered by the ‘70s, and that paranoia that the government lies to our faces was hard-earned at that point. There’s something about the way early Spielberg captured real faces. I love the extras, whether we’re in the suburbs around Roy’s house or in the various power stations and air traffic control centers or being evacuated from Wyoming… this feels like ‘70s America the way I remember it. The script for the film (credited to Spielberg but written by a variety of familiar names like Matthew Robbins & Hal Barwood and John Milius) doesn’t have a strong driving energy to it, which is one of the odd things I like about the movie. No one but Spielberg coming off of Jaws could have gotten this thing greenlit. “A bunch of people start imagining a shape and they can’t figure out why and then they all go to Wyoming and a spaceship plays music at them” sounds like a terrible movie. It works because Richard Dreyfuss and Melinda Dillon and Cary Guffey and Bob Balaban and even François Truffaut all give these great, grounded, human performances that utterly sell the absurdity, and because John Williams gave these aliens this iconic, unforgettable language of their own, and mainly because Spielberg directed every film in those days like he was never ever going to be allowed behind a camera again, with this intuitive storytelling sense of his that has only gotten stronger and more polished with age.
The Special Edition leans into the whole Pinocchio thing a little too overtly, but it contains some great stuff, and I think the eventual final version that Spielberg created in 1998 is the best of both worlds. I think Roy’s breakdown is more haunting in the final version, and there’s one shot of a shadow passing over Roy’s car on a back country road that is one of my favorite shots in any version of the film. Spielberg was never really interested in the inside of the ship, which was Columbia’s demand when they allowed him to go back and shoot more material to finish the film for the 1980 re-release, and it makes sense that he took that footage out when he put together his final version. If nothing else, The Special Edition is an important precursor to the modern media landscape where it feels like some directors are never quite finished with their movies. I’m looking at you, Ridley Scott.
The Final Countdown
Kirk Douglas, Martin Sheen, Katharine Ross, James Farentino, Ron O’Neal, Charles Durning, Victor Mohica, James Coleman, Soon-Tek Oh, Joe Lowry, Alvin Ing, Mark Thomas, Harold Bergman, Dan Fitzgerald, Lloyd Kaufman, Peter Douglas, Ted Richert, George Warren, Gary Morgan, Phil Philbin, Robert Goodman, Richard Liberty, Neil Ronco, Bill Couch, Jack McDermott, Masayuki Yamazuki, George H. Strohsahl Jr., Ronald R. Stoops, Kenneth J. Jaskolski, Sergei M. Kowalchik, Jake Dennis, Jim Toone, Edward J. Deats, Robert L. Huffman, James R. Augustus, Sam P. Baldwin, Ronnie J. Ellis, Timothy W. Gersbacher, Wayne L. Flesher, William S. Frost, David H. Signor, Tommy Abel, Andrew Akerson, Edward Andrews, Nick L. Anelli, Frank R. Arko, Emory W. Brown, Michael K. Balint, James Bullick, Andris Dambekain, John T. Davis, Michael A. Davis, James A. Dennis Jr., Frank D. Ramio, Jerry D. Elliott, Richard Farrell, James W. Huston, Richard M. Johnson, Ronald Kissel, Michael J. Kubat, Raymond P. Langley, Eric Lofquist, Kermit L. McCorble, Robert K. Miller, Gerry Mountcastle, William McCluskey, Alan Mullen, Charles F. Myers, Jeffrey L. Myers, Randy M. Olin, David F. Person, Raymond M. Reynaud, Daniel C. Rockwell, Francis Ross, Trevor R. Sandison, Gregory T. Swarney, Andrey Swystun, Christopher V. Totis, Mark Trenor, Brian Tyndall, Peter D. Vogt, David Wanamaker, Stephen G. Weaver, Jan P. Werson, Steven G. Williams, Aaron B. Wilson, Michael Wilson, David E. Young
cinematography by Victor J. Kemper
music by John Scott
screenplay by David Ambrose & Gerry Davis and Thomas Hunter & Peter Powell
story by Thomas Hunter & Peter Powell and David Ambrose
produced by Peter Douglas
directed by Don Taylor
1 hr 43 mins
When the USS Nimitz is thrown back through time, they realize they have a chance to stop the attack on Pearl Harbor.
I wish I liked this one more. In some ways, this is an old-fashioned adventure film in which the crew of a nuclear aircraft carrier is transported back in time and given the impossible task of deciding whether or not to alter history. The producers made a deal with the US military that gave them full access to the U.S.S. Nimitz and the full cooperation of the crew, and in doing so, they managed to get some remarkable footage involving fighter jets.
It’s a weird script, though, one that makes very little dramatic use of the time-travel set-up, and the workman-like direction by Don Taylor does little to smooth over the long dry patches where very little happens. When I say something feels like television in the early ‘80s, that’s very different than the same statement today. At this point, television was a totally different muscle because you had to shoot fast and you had to shoot cheap. Good television directors were guys who could get things in a couple of takes and move on, guys who kept everything moving. If you happened to make something genuinely good when you were making TV in the ‘50s or ‘60s, great. That’s exciting. But as long as you made it on time and kept it cheap, you were employed. Don Taylor was a character actor for a while and when he made the jump to directing, he cut his teeth on fare like Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Rifleman, Zane Grey Theater, and Night Gallery. His early films were innocuous fare like Everything’s Ducky (Mickey Rooney and Buddy Hackett are sailors who bring a duck on their boat) and a surfing movie with Fabian. Escape From the Planet of the Apes feels like a modestly-scaled TV episode anyway, and I honestly thought his Tom Sawyer musical from 1973 was a TV movie. I like the pulp energy of his work on The Island of Dr. Moreau and Damien: Omen II, and it felt like the longer he made movies, the more chances he took and the more he was able to make them feel like movies and not just episodes of TV shows. This was Taylor’s last theatrical movie, and maybe it was just too big a bite. It feels like a whiff across the board.
The cast tries. Charles Durning is given a thankless role as a senator who the Nimitz rescues, not realizing he was supposed to die during the attacks. He’s the one pushing the Nimitz to step in and do something once he accepts that they’re really from the future. The film never decides if the Nimitz should or shouldn’t get involved, and it doesn’t really play out any consequences from the half-hearted choice they make. It feels like the moment they had the idea for the film’s hook, they thought their work was done and forgot to actually write the story. A good hook, access to a battleship, and a groovy poster do not a good movie make, and The Final Countdown feels like an empty box, all gift wrapping and no actual gift.
Steve McQueen, Eli Wallach, Kathryn Harrold, LeVar Burton, Ben Johnson, Richard Venture, Tracey Walter, Thomas Rosales Jr., Teddy Wilson, Ray Bickel, Bobby Bass, Karl Schueneman, Margaret Mary O’Hara, James Spinks, Frank Delfino, Zora Margolis, Poppy Lagos, Dea St. La Mount, Lillian Adams, Thor Nielsen, Stan Wojno, Jodi Moon, Kathy Cunningham, Kelly K. Learman, Michael D. Roberts, Kevin Hagen, Luis Avalos, Wynn Irvin, Frank Arno, Rick DiAngelo, Ralph Thorson, Mathilda Calan, F. William Parker, Nathaniel Taylor, Tony Burton, Morgan Roberts, Frederick Sistaine, Taurean Blacque, Ale Ross, Patti Clifton, Jay Scorpio, Jeff Viola, Christopher Keane, Delores Robinson, Anthony Mannino, Joella Deffenbaugh, Marilyn Jones, William B. Snider, Chris Richmond, Willie Lee Gaffney, Debbie Miller, Robert A. Janz, D.B. Frick, Ramiro Medina, Bill Hart, Bill Willens
cinematography by Fred J. Koenekamp
music by Michel Legrand
screenplay by Ted Leighton and Peter Hyams
based on the book by Christopher Keane and Ralph Thorson
produced by Mort Engelberg
directed by Buzz Kulik
1 hr 37 mins
Ralph “Papa” Thorson is a bounty hunter in this slice-of-life drama about trying to balance his life and work in a dangerous profession.
This month marked the final films for a number of these journeyman filmmakers who cut their teeth in episodic television in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Don Taylor on The Final Countdown was very similar to Buzz Kulik on this film, although I’d argue Buzz had higher highs along the way with Brian’s Song, Shamus, and Bad Ronald. Kulik started work on one more theatrical feature, but he got replaced on it, and after that, he worked exclusively in television, just like Taylor did. There’s a shaggy, amiable charm to this episodic look at the life of Papa Thorson, a real-life bounty hunter. I guess in 1980, the entire idea of a modern-day bounty hunter seemed outrageous, but this thing’s positively sedate by today’s standards and that’s part of the movie’s charm.
I love how the film opens with Steve McQueen trying to parallel park and doing a terrible job of it. McQueen’s a legendarily good driver in real life and helped redefine car chases on film with Bullitt, so there’s something hilarious about Thorson being a sort of low-grade menace every time he’s behind the wheel. He understood how to tweak his onscreen image, and even on a film where he was evidently suffering a fair amount behind-the-scenes, he finds ways to add tiny observational human comedy to almost every scene. If there’s any major narrative structure here, it has to do with Papa’s pregnant girlfriend Dotty (the gorgeous Kathryn Harrold) and a loony (played by the always-great Tracey Walter) from his past who is stalking and threatening him. The rest of the movie is just a series of bounties that Papa goes to retrieve. There’s a great early scene where he has to round up the nephew of a local lawman even after he’s been warned to get out of town, and there’s an excellent sequence in Nebraska where he has to track down The Branch Brothers, a couple of dynamite-tossing hillbilly assholes.
The film’s action highlight is a long chase sequence through Chicago that ends up onboard an elevated train, and it’s really well-staged and shot. Papa’s never presented as particularly superheroic, instead getting by based on perseverance and cunning. He’s kind of a shit to Dotty for the entire movie, and she is painted as a kind of saint. She’s a schoolteacher and when he’s not around, she basically runs his house as a clubhouse for all of Papa’s bounty hunter buddies. He’s constantly pushing her away and telling her why he won’t marry her, and I get that it’s the kind of tic that they wrote into movie star movies in this era, but it just makes Papa seem like an asshole. In the end, she has their baby after he drives them (badly) to the hospital, and you’ve got to hope it softens him and makes him step up. I would have watched more Papa Thorson films if McQueen had lived. There’s something about this that feels like you’re jumping into the middle of a great shambling ‘70s TV show like Columbo or The Rockford Files, and while it’s not a home run classic, it is a respectable send off to one of our greatest macho movie icons, defusing his iconography and celebrating it at the same time.
Royce D. Applegate, Lewis Arquette, Tom Baker, Dorothy Van, Beans Morocco, J.J. Barry, Pat Benson, Jack Bernardi, Jane Alice Brandon, Thomas Brunelle, Paul Carmen, Billy Curtis, Paul David, Anthony Davis, Danny Dayton, Alan Dexter, Anson Downes, David Downing, Murphy Dunne, Walker Edmiston, Tom Erhart, Jim Evering, Johnny Fain, Kinky Friedman, Sean Frye, Paul Gale, Rod Gist, Buddy Hackett, Sid Haig, Larry Hankin, Ralph Harris, Sandy Helberg, Howard Hesseman, Ronald E. House, David Hunt, Phyllis Katz, Karen Lamm, Ed Lauter, Hap Lawrence, Kenneth Lawrence, Britt Leach, David Landsberg, Vincent Lucchesi, Ysabel MacCloskey, Roberta Maguire, Rikki Marin, Jimmy Martinez, Dan McBride, Rod McCary, Bleu McKenzie, Ira Miller, Michael Miller, Louisa Mortiz, Jaye P. Morgan, Bill Murray, Nancy Lee Noble, Van Dyke Parks, Lefty Pedroski, Ian Praiser, George Reynolds, Misty Rowe, Avery Schreiber, Doug Steckler, Dave Shelley, Robin Sherwood, Richard Stanley, Lynne Marie Stewart, Howard Storm, Billy Superball, Kurt Taylor, Betty Thomas, Susan Tyrrell, Morgan Upton, Mark Volman, Robert Wexler, Teddy Wilson, Kipp Whitman, Bill Zuckert, Garry Goodrow, Pamela Hoffman, John H. Mayer, Joe Nixon, Gary Owens, Roger Peltz, Harry Shearer
cinematography by Jack Beckett
music by Murphy Dunne
screenplay by Ian Praiser & Varley Smith and Ira Miller & Royce D. Applegate
produced by Joel Chernoff
directed by Ira Miller
1 hr 24 mins
A sketch comedy film that plays like a long compilation of movie trailers.
Sketch comedy films are incredibly difficult to pull off. It’s easy to come up with a few killer gags, but sustaining a comic energy for 90 solid minutes when you don’t have any characters or dramatic structure can tax even the most gifted comic filmmakers.
It’s safe to say that Ira Miller did not crack the code. Trained by the Second City, Miller kicked around LA in the ‘70s, working on TV shows like Welcome Back Kotter and appearing in small roles in movies like Blazing Saddles and Tunnel Vision. Loose Shoes, which is sometimes known as Coming Attractions, plays like a long series of trailers for non-existent movies, and most of the jokes never rise above thumpingly obvious word play like “The Howard Huge Story” or “Billy Jerk Goes To Oz.” If you look at the poster, you’d think you’re getting tons of Bill Murray and Howard Hesseman, but they both make a single brief appearance.
The one satirical broadside they fire here that really lands is also where the film gets its title. Back in 1976, a member of Gerald Ford’s administration gave an interview where he infamously said that all “the coloreds” really wanted out of life was “a tight pussy, loose shoes, and a warm place to shit.” The film builds to a supposed 1940s musical short film called Dark Town After Dark which is built around a giant Cab Calloway-style musical number where those three things are the chorus. It’s a savage response to ignorant institutional racism, and it would have hit even harder if they’d released the film in 1978 when it was made instead of holding it until after Meatballs had become a box-office hit.
The film is also notable as one of the early efforts of Brooksfilms. In their first year, they made three movies, and they could not have covered a broader range of tone and ability than they did. The first was Fatso, which we covered already, the second was this, and the third was October’s The Elephant Man. It’s hard to believe any company could release that masterpiece and this nearly-unwatchable mess in the same year, and it’s telling that Mel Brooks rarely produced overt comedies other than his own directorial efforts through the company in the future.
Raise The Titanic
Jason Robards, Richard Jordan, David Selby, Anne Archer, Alec Guinness, Bo Brundin, M. Emmet Walsh, J.D. Cannon, Norman Bartold, Elya Baskin, Dirk Blocker, Robert Broyles, Paul Carr, Michael C. Gwynne, Harvey Lewis, Charles Macaulay, Stewart Moss, Michael Pataki, Marvin Silbersher, Mark L. Taylor, Maurice Kowalewski, Nancy Nevinson, Trent Dolan, Paul Tuerpe, Sander Vanocur, Ken Place, Michael Ensign, Craig Shreeve, Brendan Burns, Jonathan Moore, George Whiteman, Hilly Hicks, Mike Kulcsar, Alexander Firsow, Mark Hammer, Ron David, Franchelle Stewart Dorn, Jon-Claire Lee, Norvell McDonald, Jim Scopelitis, Gabrielle DeCuir, James W. Gavin, Bert Drake, Nicos Savalas, Roy Evans, Tom Curnow, Clive Cussler
cinematography by Matthew F. Leonetti
music by John Barry
screenplay by Adam Kennedy
adaptation by Eric Hughes
based on the novel by Clive Cussler
produced by William Frye
directed by Jerry Jameson
1 hr 55 mins
As the Cold War reaches a head, the US and the USSR race to gain control of a mysterious mineral that was last seen onboard the RMS Titanic.
Talk about sweaty. In real life, Clive Cussler was a genuine underwater recovery expert, the founder of NUMA, the National Underwater and Marine Agency, and he has been involved the discovery and recovery of dozens of shipwrecks and underwater sites. I should love the Dirk Pitt books. I love pulp series, and Dirk Pitt seems like he’s cut from the same larger-than-life cloth as many of the characters I dig. He’s the start of the vast majority of Cussler’s novels, and by the time he got to Raise the Titanic!, the third book, the series was chugging along and picking up fans rapidly. They are quick reads, and it’s clear Cussler knows the world he’s writing about, but he’s a lot like Clancy. He writes in incredible technical detail, often overwhelming whatever energy there is in the storytelling, and he’s not great with character. The film has to work so hard to even get to the idea of why they might plausibly have to raise the Titanic from the ocean floor that it spends most of its running time justifying itself instead of actually telling us a story that would make any minor complaints irrelevant. You can feel the desperation pouring off of this thing.
This film adaptation was meant to be the kickoff to a big Bond-style movie franchise, but it’s no wonder they fell short. This thing is a sleeping pill, and despite that great pulpy title, the Titanic is little more than a goofy red herring. This is really a spy “thriller” in which everyone’s trying to find a mineral that can be used to power a particular weapons system that sounds a lot like Reagan’s Star Wars missile defense program. Richard Jordan plays Pitt, and that might have been enough of a bad decision to scuttle the franchise right there. Jordan’s a solid character guy but he has nothing like the right kind of movie star charisma to carry a franchise. It’s hard to remember he’s the lead even as you’re watching the movie. Beyond that, the film never makes the case for why Pitt has to be the guy to do this job. If you’re going to make a movie like this, you need to convince the audience that the lead character is the one person to send in, the one person who can get it done. You need to show his special skills, show what makes him special, and Pitt’s a drip here. He could be anyone, and that’s a problem.
For a thriller, there is basically no action in the entire film. People stand around and discuss things. A lot. Considering how much money they reportedly spent on the tank effects for the movie, someone got screwed. It is laughably uninvolving, and by the time the Titanic is raised, you won’t give a shit about the big fake-out ending. They took another shot at this franchise years later with Sahara, where Matthew McConaughey played Dirk Pitt, and that failed in its own unique fashion. It certainly seems like Dirk Pitt is doomed to be an eternal also-ran, though, unless someone can make a far more compelling argument than this for why he deserves his own movies.
The Fiendish Plot Of Dr. Fu Manchu
Peter Sellers, Helen Mirren, David Tomlinson, Sid Caesar, Simon Williams, Steve Franken, Stratford Johns, John Le Mesurier, John Sharp, Clément Harari, Kwan-Young Lee, John Tan, Philip Tan, Serge Julien, Johns Rajohnson, Pralith Jngam Oeurn, Lim Bun Song, Clive Dunn, Burt Kwouk, John Taylor, Katia Thenko, David Powers, Marc Wilkinson, Grace Coyle, Jacquline Fogt, Iska Khan, George Hilsdon, René Aranda
cinematography by Jean Tournier
music by Marc Wilkinson
screenplay by Rudy Dochtermann and Jim Moloney
based on the character created by Sax Rohmer
produced by Zev Braun and Leland Nolan
directed by Piers Haggard
1 hr 40 mins
When Fu Manchu’s life-sustaining secret formula is destroyed, he goes on a world-wide crime spree to recreate it.
First, let me apologize for that poster. Holy shit. I’ll say this… it’s honest advertising, because that is one grotesquely racist cartoon poster, and this is one grotesquely racist comedy movie. This is not a case of something that aged poorly. This was rancid and gross in 1980 when it was released, like a horrible parody of the worst impulses of everything else Sellers had ever done.
I am a Peter Sellers fan. I adore the Pink Panther films and The Party and Being There, and I think it’s clear that Sellers needed a collaborator who could stand up to him to get his best work. Sellers comes from a long tradition of British comedy and British performance where actors played all sorts of different races, and it’s easy to say “at the time, it wasn’t seen as racist,” but that’s not really true. There were plenty of people who had trouble with The Party and Sellers playing an Indian lead character, and there were plenty of people who had a problem with the way the Pink Panther films treated Kato and the way it used kung-fu. I can explain my love of those films, and I think there is real affection in both The Party and the Pink Panther films, a sweetness that I think is largely because of Blake Edwards.
There is no affection in this film towards either the Sax Rohmer material that inspired it or Asian culture. Fu Manchu was created before World War I, and he was originally inspired by a white music hall magician who was already leaning on long-standing stereotypes of the cruelty of Chinese devils. Rohmer was deeply racist, a believer in phrenology and racial superiority, and his Fu Manchu novels were hugely popular, selling the idea of a Chinese underworld dedicated to the ruination of Western culture. It would be easy to blame director Piers Haggard for the film’s ideas and tone, but he was fired, as were several directors before him. This was all Sellers, start to finish, and if anyone has to take the blame for just how wrong-headed and wrong-hearted this thing is, it should be Sellers.
He plays two roles here, both Fu Manchu and police detective Sir Denis Nayland Smith, and he doesn’t seem to have enough energy to even play one role, much less juggle the two leads while also ghost-directing. The movie opens with a quick appearance by Burt Kwouk as one of Fu Manchu’s servants. He drops the Elixir Vitae, the secret formula that has kept Fu Manchu alive for almost 200 years, and Fu Manchu is forced to to go on a crime spree to assemble the ingredients to reproduce the formula. It’s clear they’re leaning on that Kwouk/Sellers connection to start the film off with a bang, but it doesn’t work. Helen Mirren plays a young police constable, and she’s adorable in the film but it’s a terrible role. It’s even worse to watch them waste Sid Caesar and, in his final film role, the great David Tomlinson. Nobody’s got anything funny to do, and there are some truly baffling choices in the film, like Nayalnd-Smith’s obsession with his lawnmower or the film’s bizarre ending where he turns into Elvis for some reason. It’s impossible not to think of other better Sellers films while watching this, especially when there are so few laughs generated by anything he does onscreen. What made Edwards such a perfect director for Sellers was the way he would build these incredible set pieces where Sellers could just score one home run after another. There’s not a single scene here that feels like it builds to a laugh or even sets the stage for one. It’s also incredibly uncomfortable to watch them have to repeatedly shock Sellers back to life considering how he actually died. It’s a sad and ugly ending to a tremendous career, but it casts a strange shadow over the rest of his work by virtue of just how much control he had over this particular project.
Olivia Newton-John, Gene Kelly, Michael Beck, James Floyan, Dimitra Arliss, Katie Hanley, Fred Mcarren, Renn Woods, Sandahl Bergman, Lynne Latham, Melinda Phelps, Cherise Bates, Juliette Marshall, Marliyn Tokuda, Yvette Van Voorhees, Teri Beckerman, Marty Davis, Bebe Drake, Mickey McMeel, Aharon Iplaé, Lise Lang, Melvin Jones, Matt Lattanzi, Ira Newborn, Jo Ann Harris, Cynthia Leake, Patty Keene, Fee Waybill, Stephen Pearlman, Church Ortiz, Randy T. Williams, David Tress, Madison Arnold, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Coral Browne, Maria V. Langston, Clyde J. Barrett, Cheryl Baxter, Hilary Beane, Annie Behringer, Judith Bernett, Teda Bracci, Ellen Cadwallader, Stelio Calagias, Lonny Carbajal, Hillary Carlip, Lynda Chase, Russell Clark, Contessa Cohn, Derrick Cross, Gary Dion, Marisol Garcia, Miranda Garrison, Sandy Gray, Jei Guerrero, Cheryl Hangland, Yolanda Hernandez, Susan Inouye, Veda Jackson, Michael James, Deborah Jenssen, Leroy Jones, Fred Kirby, Brenda Lee, Dale Leeche, Victoria Mansi, Michael Martinez, Yvette Matthews, Tykin Mikals, Glenn Nash, Christine Nazareth, Tim O’Brien, Jeff Osser, Shelley Pang, Sally Pansing, Arlette Patterson, Alan Peterson, Lena Pousette, Vic Prim, Melody Santangello, Tony Selznick, Kathy Singleton, Cindy Spooner, Michael Springer, Re Styles, Jim Thompson, Francisco Torres, Bobby Walker, Michael O. Watkins, Adria Wilson, Darcel Wynne, Noreen Xavier, Mark Ziebell, The Mumm Brothers, Chain Reaction, Tom Sachelle, Paul Sachelle, Kyle Hanford, Michael Donley, Robert Winters, The Tubes
cinematography by Victor J. Kemper
music by Barry De Vorzon and Jeff Lynne
screenplay by Richard Christian Danus and Marc Reid Rubel
produced by Lawrence Gordon and Joel Silver and Brendan Cahill
directed by Robert Greenwald
1 hr 36 mins
When an artist and a former big-band musician are brought together by a muse, the result is a spectacular roller disco club called Xanadu.
Look at me pretending this movie has a story.
Robert Greenwald spoke at one point about how the script for this film was about 45 pages long and how he gave up trying to make it into a conventional story. Xanadu is often ridiculous, with a seriously miscast Michael Beck at the center of it, and yet, I love it. I have an unabashed fondness for every cheeseball second of this thing. I’m sure part of it is that I love ELO. Jeff Lynne is syrupy and silly and over the top, even for a disco pop artist, and that’s what I love about his work. He doesn’t believe there’s a top, so he can’t go over it. Ten strings won’t do if you can add a thousand, and that aesthetic seems to be part of every choice on this film. Jeff Lynne may not be the filmmaker, but he may be the film’s north star, the guy setting the tone everyone else matches.
I hate the Razzies, and they love saying that this movie and Can’t Stop The Music are the reasons they created the awards in the first place. Fuck that. Xanadu is earnest and largely plotless, and the central romance really isn’t that romantic, but none of that matters. It works anyway. Robert Greenwald has had a long career as a terrific documentarian, and he’s made really solid movies like The Burning Bed and Sweet Hearts Dance. Xanadu is not the work of an incompetent, but rather a guy who has been handed a bag of sand and asked to juggle it. He had already had a huge career before Xanadu, and when he was asked to step in, there were high hopes for the movie. Olivia Newton-John had a huge hit with Grease and seemed like a newly minted musical star on the rise. If she had been paired with John Travolta again, as the producers originally wanted, this might have made more immediate sense. Certainly, they leaned on the idea that they had Gene Kelly in the film as a big deal, a way to bridge generations. It’s a fascinating clash of styles, and there may be a reason not everyone was trying to make 1940s musicals crossed with disco. The ‘70s were not a good time for the big-budget movie musical in general, though, so betting big on Olivia Newton-John and Gene Kelly probably seemed like as safe a bet as anyone could make.
The film ended up going almost four times over its original budget, largely because of that script issue. Based loosely on the 1947 musical Down to Earth, the film opens with the Greek muses coming to life off of a mural, and one of them start to rollerskate around LA, where she ends up meeting both Sonny (Beck) and Danny (Kelly), bringing the two of them together for reasons that don’t really make any sense. There’s a version of this film that could easily connect all these dots and make you really root for Kira (Newton-John) to give up being a muse to be with the man she inspired. That’s basically the same shape as Grease if you think about it, but they never figured out how to make this script quite come together. They really never figure out what to do with Sonny, and Beck is all wrong for a musical romance. He works in something like The Warriors because he can smolder well, but light and funny just isn’t his bag.
The sets for the film were built on the same Hollywood backlot that also hosted the dreamlike sets for Francis Coppola’s One From The Heart, meaning this may have been the epicenter of all of the world’s neon at one point. The film doesn’t really work like a conventional musical where characters are singing or communicating through song. It’s all just part of creating a vibe, and that’s where I think Xanadu somehow works. It’s a vibe, a mood, and if I want to feel a certain kind of pure sugary optimism, I put on Xanadu. You can see the seams where they stitched this thing together. There’s one big dance number between Newton-John and Kelly that was a last-minute reshoot, and there’s an animated number by Don Bluth that was added because they didn’t have enough money to go shoot another live-action musical number. Okay. I love both scenes, so I don’t care. There are so many great tracks here, like “I’m Alive,” “Magic,” “Suddenly,” “All Over the World,” “Don’t Walk Away,” and of course, the title track, and it doesn’t feel like a single one of them moves the movie forward. No matter. Whenever I watch the film, it gets stuck in my head for months, and ultimately, this film challenges every notion of what a “good” movie is for me, and I couldn’t care less. Strap on the skates and let’s roller boogie all night long.
Since we’re only doing two issues this month, I’m going to take a few extra days getting the next one ready. I’ll see you back here at 9 am on the 20th, and we’ll wrap up the last month of our first summer.
Today’s installment is a freebie, but next month, where we’ve got the real meat of the month, is for subscribers only. It’s just $5 a month, and you’ll help me make it to the finish line on the most ambitious critical project I’ve ever attempted!