Category Archives: 1980s

Tron (1982)

*. In the forty-plus years since it was released Tron has become a sort of talisman, for some good reasons and others that are distortions of perspective.
*. As an example of the latter, Tron is often touted as one of the first CGI movies, but computer generated animation was quite limited at the time and there’s little of it in the movie. It’s mainly a product of more traditional techniques mixed in with backlit animation that gives everything a warm and fuzzy glow (and makes the actors look like silent film stars). This gives the movie a visual texture that’s very different from any CGI as we know it today. That’s not a bad thing, as I’d rather look at the animation here than at the lightshow at the end of The Abyss, a real CGI milestone from later in the decade. But this is more a movie about computers, or how we imagined their inner lives in 1982, than one made by or on computers, as they are today.
*. In other words, the look of the film is a throwback rather than anything prophetic. Where Tron did open a door on things to come had more to do with its basic premise of someone being sucked into a virtual or alternate reality video game. I don’t think this plot had ever been introduced before (in part because being stuck inside Space Invaders wouldn’t have looked like anything special), but it would go on to be the backbone of such books and films as Ready Player One and Space Jam: A New Legacy. And The Matrix franchise would pretty much be the same thing, except reversed, where the virtual reality turns out to be the real one.
*. But it’s a plot that is a throwback too, in that it’s basically a recycling of The Wizard of Oz. Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) is swept away by a digital-processing tornado and ends up in Oz, where he meets various friends and enemies who are played by the same actors we’ve already met in the real world (Bruce Boxleitner, Cindy Morgan, David Warner, Barnard Hughes) on his way to the Emerald City and the mighty Oz himself, or Master Control Program (MCP). There’s even a cute little non-verbal tagalong creature named Clu to be Flynn’s Toto.
*. At the time it came out I was definitely in the target audience, pounding pocketfuls of quarters into the machines at various downtown arcades, and I remember being keen to see it. I also remember being disappointed by it, though not as disappointed as I’d be by the video game. This wasn’t because the visuals underwhelmed, but because the story was so weak. There was nothing to cheer about, and I think even as a teenager I realized the whole thing was just a flimsy excuse to showcase a lot of hard work being done by the animation team. Sure it looked good, and the design elements here — from the tanks and lightcycles to the uniforms and the modular terrain — were first rate. But none of the characters seemed real, either as people or avatars, and the plot was just the usual weary quest.
*. Sticking with this theme of looking forward and back, here’s how Roger Ebert signed off his review back in 1982: “It’s brilliant at what it does, and in a technical way maybe it’s breaking ground for a generation of movies in which computer-generated universes will be the background for mind-generated stories about emotion-generated personalities. All things are possible.” Oh, Roger. Possible? Sure. But it didn’t quite turn out that way.

Caddyshack (1980)

*. Even at the time (not while it was in theatres, but on VHS a few years later) I didn’t “get” Caddyshack. A lot of my peers did, and they watched it endlessly while memorizing half the script. But I can’t remember finding anything about it funny then and today it plays even worse. And yet it’s fondly remembered by many, a book was even written about its production, and it was named by ESPN as “perhaps the funniest sports movie ever made.” I think that “perhaps” is being asked to do a lot of work.
*. There’s no real plot, but rather just some shenanigans at a posh golf club. The basic framework is stooge comedy, of the kind writer-director Harold Ramis would specialize in. He’d written Animal House and Meatballs, and this would be his directorial debut, before having a hand in Stripes, National Lampoon’s Vacation, and Ghostbusters. Along with some recurring playmates like Bill Murray, these movies were all based on the idea of snobs vs. slobs (a tag-line from the ads for Caddyshack). Spoiler alert: the slobs win. Things really are that simple.

*. So the regular kid Danny (Michael O’Keefe) is a caddy wanting to get ahead in the world by kissing the asses of rich old people. But, and this is important, snobs and slobs aren’t defined by their wealth because we have Rodney Dangerfield as a super-rich party crasher and Chevy Chase as more of what we’d recognize today as a cool rich dude. Poor Ted Knight has to carry the banner for Old Money elites, and he is seriously mocked and degraded. A slob sinks his yacht. A slob sleeps with his niece. A slob hits him in the nuts with a wayward drive. This latter insult was the only time I laughed in the whole movie, which tells you how unfunny the rest of it is and also reinforces that I think this kind of thing is hilarious.

*. Bill Murray plays Elmer Fudd chasing a gopher that is digging up the fairways. It’s a truly awful performance, though he does have one good line about receiving a blessing from the Dalai Lama. Rodney Dangerfield steals all there is to steal of a show with his usual shtick (which wasn’t that well known at the time). Chevy Chase is weirdly subdued and frankly hard to read.
*. As per usual for films of this type and at this time there’s drug humour, and scatological humour (a chocolate bar dropped in a pool is mistaken for a turd, or “doody”), and gratuitous nudity. So gratuitous that Cindy Morgan objected to it, but the producer told her she had to do it or she’d never work again.
*. I know I’m getting grumpier as I get older, which is why I started off by saying that I didn’t think there was anything funny about Caddyshack even when I was a teenager. The fact that it hasn’t dated well while it’s stature as a comedy classic has only grown can I think be attributed mainly to nostalgia among those who grew up with it. They don’t make movies like this anymore, and that’s something that some people regret. I don’t see it as good or bad, but only dismiss Caddyshack as being the kind of thing that was really popular once. That popularity now only seems a historical curiosity. The slobs won and became the new snobs. Then they got old.

The Cherry Orchard (1981)

*. The Cherry Orchard has been a popular play both in its own day and our own (I think I saw two student productions when I was at university) but it’s always  been dogged by a question of the proper tone to take with it. And when I say “always” I mean right from the start. Its first production, directed by Konstantin Stanislavski (he of the Method), was presented as a tragedy, which upset Chekhov who insisted on subtitling it a comedy.
*. People have been arguing ever since about whether it is tragedy, comedy, tragi-comedy, or just some different kind of tragedy or comedy than what we’re used to. A lot depends on (1) how sympathetically you view the old landed gentry falling into a state of shabby gentility, and (2) what you think of the rising man Lopakhin. Is he a realist climbing the ranks through intelligence and hard work, or a cruel opportunist who only cares about the bottom line?

*. I think this BBC television production directed by Richard Eyre doesn’t come down firmly on either side. We feel for Judi Dench as Lyuba, who while misty-eyed is no idiot. And Bill Paterson’s Lopakhin (set apart from the others by his broad Scottish accent, climaxing in his big “Loook at me nooo!” speech) isn’t mean-spirited so much as exasperated at the idiots he’s trying to help.
*. For what it’s worth, Chekhov seems to have thought of Lopakhin as the hero of the piece, while the gentry are a collection of freaks and mental cripples. They are, in fact, clowns. Gayev plays air billiards. Trofimov is the eternal servant who even takes a pratfall after his big renunciation of Lyuba. Yepikhodov (a young Timothy Spall) is the walking accident. And the servants aren’t much better. Firs has one-and-a-half feet in the grave, and Yasha is a cartoon bounder who even gets a blowjob from Dunyasha in Act Two, a bawdy bit of interpretation from Eyre that makes a lot out of how nice it is to smoke a cigar . . . with a pretty girl’s head in your lap.

*. You have to laugh at all these people. And feel a little sorry for some of them. But you don’t laugh at Lopakhin or Varya (Harriet Walter). And I think the best part of the play is the final scene between these two, which leaves everything unsaid in addressing the question of why Lopakhin doesn’t propose to Varya.
*. Leading up to this it seems as though Lopakhin is actually more attracted, and I mean that in a sexual sense, to Lyuba. Judi Dench has such a reputation as a sort of Angela Lansbury figure who has always been everyone’s mom or grandmother that it’s nice to see her here in a role where you can see her running off to Paris with her lover. She’s a cougar with some teeth yet (she played Anya, Lyuba’s daughter, in a 1962 BBC production. if you can track it down). But Lyuba is obviously angling for Lopakhin to marry Varya and everybody seems on board . . . until they aren’t. What happens? Well, nothing happens. And it’s such a great scene watching the two of them give up on the idea of marriage without ever addressing it directly. It was all just talk between them, and now they’ve talked enough.
*. As you’d expect for a television film from this period it looks muddy as hell, but I actually thought that went with the sepia-toned feel of the piece. Which is good, because I doubt it’s possible to clean it up to make it look any better. Shot on video. there’s nothing to be restored. So what you’re getting here is a studio-bound filmed play. There aren’t even any location establishing shots. But everybody does their job and I came away from it at least thinking that I’d seen a good . . . play.

Strange Brew (1983)

*. What a flashback for me. Or does it qualify as nostalgia? It’s been so long.
*. The characters of Bob and Doug McKenzie (played by Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis) were not a big part of my childhood, but they were memorable. I watched them on SCTV. I didn’t have their comedy album but I heard it enough times. I can remember watching Strange Brew with people who knew all the lines.
*. I don’t think I’ve seen Strange Brew since then. That is, in over thirty years. To my surprise I enjoyed seeing it again. But the decades may have helped. Not that the humour has aged well, but because at the time the Great White North shtick was wearing thin and getting tired. Not having heard it, or even about it, for so long made it less annoying.
*. The set-up is pure stooge comedy. Bob and Doug are the classic dumb and dumber pairing, Bill & Ted before Bill & Ted, and Wayne and Garth before Wayne and Garth. That said, I also find this to be a very weird movie, but in a good way. It’s not just unrestrained in its bending of reality and slapstick (especially at the end), but surreal. The weirdest part is the way the crazy people who have been drugged with a special beer are made to play violent hockey games while being controlled by organ music. That’s strange. Not particularly funny, but hard to forget.

*. Another weird thing is the Hamlet parallel. Apparently Dave Thomas wanted the story to be based on Hamlet, but then asked to open things up more when the first draft of the script was too faithful to the play. My question is what the point of all this was anyway. So the brewery is called Elsinore and the guy who owns it is killed by his brother, who then marries his widow and takes over the beer-making business. The murdered owner then appears to his daughter as an electronic ghost. This might have been interesting, but nothing is done with any of it and the character of the uncle and especially the mother are wholly disposable. The real villain is Max von Sydow’s Brewmeister Smith.
*. Bob and Doug hear the following sermon while touring the new, fully-automated brewery: “Welcome to 1984. The age of automation and unemployment. The rise of the machine and the fall of man. The end of the human era.” We laughed at that in the early ’80s. Oh, we hadn’t seen anything yet.
*. Overall, it’s still cute. There are a few hits and a lot of misses. The romance between Rosie and Pam never shows the faintest spark. Max von Sydow doesn’t get to do anything interesting. Really, the movie only works, when it works at all, when the boys are on screen. The rest is just padding. Still, it moves pretty well even when it’s not going anywhere and remains an essential bit of Canadiana. Thirty years from now I suspect it will still have an audience. Or cult. Yes, it’s very much a movie of its time, but the weirdness has endured.

Dune (1984)

*. David Lynch’s Dune is widely regarded, correctly I believe, as an epic failure. Lynch doesn’t like to talk about it now, aside from considering it a film he never should have gotten involved with in the first place, describing the process of making it as “a slow dying-the-death, and a terrible, terrible experience.” And yet it was Lynch’s most successful movie, at least in terms of the box office on its initial theatrical run.
*. It’s not credited as Frank Herbert’s Dune, like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or Stephen King’s It. It’s been years since I’ve read Dune, so I’m not sure how faithful an adaptation it is. I reckon a lot of it came out of Lynch’s imagination. When he was first contacted by Raffaella De Laurentiis to direct he hadn’t even heard of the book. But these freestyling elements may be the best parts. The pug? The Holstein cow they’re cutting up? Paul’s weird little sister, who seems to have wandered into things from the red room? The really unhappy looking cat, taped to a rat, that Thufir Hawat is supposed to milk?

*. As for Sting’s Art Deco Speedo, that was serendipity. He was supposed to be nude but at the last minute they had to give him something to cover up. I’d say they did pretty well. It goes with his troll-doll look and the way the whole House of Harkonnen are played way, way over the top.

*. Given that this movie is, as I say, an epic fail, let’s start off with highlights like these, and the fact that this movie has such a wonderful look. The art design here is terrific: we wouldn’t see anything approaching this kind of originality in a big-budget SF movie again until The Fifth Element. They could have gone with a more traditional swords-and-lasers look, as Denis Villeneuve would nearly forty years later, but instead mixed in a bunch of 1920s and ’30s costumes and décor. Ridley Scott was originally tabbed to direct and I think he would have done a great job but I like a lot of what Lynch brought to the table.
*. Alas, when I say I love the look of the film what I mean are the sets (of which there were eighty, built on sixteen soundstages), costumes, and props. The effects have dated badly. Overall, I think the personal combat shields still look cool and the sandworms hold up pretty well, though the business of the Fremen riding them at the end is laughable, especially with their shouting out the ki-yahs! and pew-pews! as they imbue their weapons with words of power. Furthermore, all of the space scenes are awful and the blue screen work very much of its time. The scenes where the giant slug opens the portals for interstellar travel are just garbage. I couldn’t understand what the hell was going on. Though the slug in the tank at the beginning was great.
*. And there are many other problems. Instead of breaking the movie into two parts, as Scott intended and Villeneuve would do, Lynch had to bring it all in at just over a couple of hours (which was an hour shaved from his director’s cut). Good luck with that. Given the amount of information that has to be introduced it seems like almost every other scene is given over to expository dialogue (“explain the stillsuit, please”). That still more of this is added by way of irritating voiceovers only makes a bad situation worse. Then there is the fact that Lynch isn’t a great action director, and none of the big action scenes feels connected to the rest of the plot. They just feel dropped in as a way of maybe waking people up.
*. The credits had great promise. Lynch is a genius. Freddie Francis shot the movie. Music by Toto and Brian Eno (well, it was 1984). A cast filled with scene-stealers. But none of it works because all of these people feel like they’re in the wrong place (except maybe for Sting, and Siân Phillips as the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam). I mean, Patrick Stewart (apparently not the Patrick Stewart they wanted), Max von Sydow, José Ferrer, Brad Dourif (here comes the crazy!), Dean Stockwell, Sean Young . . . they just don’t work. Perhaps no one could have pulled their characters off given how overwhelmed they were by the script and the production, but they all feel totally out of place. And Kyle MacLachlan just isn’t Paul. Even Timothée Chalamet did better in the part, and I was not impressed by Chalamet’s performance one bit.
*. In sum, this Dune is something terrible, but it’s not the total disaster it might have been. Lynch makes something of it, especially in the early going. But the difficulties they were having with the material are glaringly obvious, the ending is way too rushed, and the sandworm assault is a colossal joke.
*. Such a debacle, combined with the failure of Jodorowsky’s project to get off the ground, branded Dune as unfilmable for decades. In fact, there were only a couple of developments necessary to make it happen. Once they got them figured out, blockbusterdom would be automatic. Though the results would not be as inspired. I don’t really see this as a cult film so much as a very silly one, but all the same I wonder if it might end up being the Dune that lasts.

Burroughs: The Movie (1983)

*. I can’t say I went into this one with high hopes. I don’t think William S. Burroughs was a great writer. In fact, I don’t think he was even a good writer. He survives today, I believe, mostly as a cult figure for his transgressive qualities/shock value. Meanwhile, in terms of his personality and biography I find him to be a creepy figure, bordering on downright repellant.
*. But he was at least a character, which makes him a good subject for a biography. As a documentary Burroughs just follows him around as he performs. And he is always performing. Various friends are interviewed, and you get the sense that most of them, especially Allen Ginsberg, are more than happy to play along.
*. There’s a bigger point here about biographies, either written or on film, of living figures. On the one hand, you’d expect that subject to be someone the author or filmmaker admires, at least to some extent. I think that was the case with director Howard Brookner here. On the other hand, working closely with the subject of your biography, and being given access, inevitably means you are compromised. To put it bluntly, you are being used. There have been notorious cases of this recently when it comes to writing the lives of literary figures, but it’s the same in any medium.
*. I think the best that can be hoped for in such efforts is a glimpse of something that one suspects the subject didn’t want made public. With Burroughs I don’t think there’s much in the way of revelations, and what minefields there are were avoided. Burroughs was an admitted junky, but the extent to which he was also a sexual predator (he basically partook of what we’d now call Third World sex tourism) and/or a murderer (he shot his wife) is left largely unexamined.
*. But then Byron took drugs, abused his wife, and ran off to places where he could have sex with boys, and he’s fondly remembered now as just the rake who was “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” We seem to put up with a lot from celebs.
*. Oddly enough, the figure who apparently came out looking the worst in the film, at least according to Brookner, was James Grauerholz, who boasts of supplanting Burroughs’ son. That part didn’t sit well with me either, and the whole thing felt creepy as hell. But again: it’s the moments like these that give the film what value it has.
*. Did I feel any greater respect for Burroughs after watching this? No. Did I come away with a better understanding of him? Not really. His face is as fixed a mask as his flat delivery and three-piece suits, and while there are flickers behind that mask they are flickers of something I didn’t like, and certainly didn’t want to spend any more time with.
*. There’s something about drug culture that doesn’t last. Some of the Beats had talent, but I don’t think there’s much they wrote that has lasted. On the Road. Howl. I feel the same way about psychedelic music. I’d keep Pink Floyd, but what else from that era? Just a few songs.
*. If I could check my distaste for Burroughs at the door I’d say this was a game documentary, involving the editing of many hours of footage shot over several years. I like the idea of dramatizing the operating room scene, even if the results are, I guess appropriately, skid row. It’s been restored for the Criterion release but still looks dirty. If you’re a fan of Burroughs you might like that, though I doubt you’ll learn anything new.
*. In his later years, which would include the years covered in the making of this film, Burroughs was on his way to becoming a brand, even pitching Nikes at one point. This was a professional achievement as surprising as it was depressing. For what it says about celebrity and about us. Would you buy a pair of shoes from this guy?

Altered States (1980)

*. I’m not sure why, but I’ve always had a special place in my heart for Altered States. I remember when I was in grade school I wrote an SF short story making use of the isolation tank I’d seen in the commercials (I didn’t see the movie on its initial release). Something about that image got to me.
*. But I don’t think it’s just a quirky, personal response. I honestly think it’s a good movie, and one that holds up remarkably well.
*. I say “remarkably” for a couple of reasons. In the first place, it’s a movie that was just a bit behind its own time already in 1980, with Edward Jessup (William Hurt in his big screen debut) tripping into altered states of consciousness being very much a product of the drug culture of the previous decade. John Lilly or Timothy Leary (possible models for Jessup) and the psychedelic Star Gate from 2001 were relics of the ’60s. Actually, Ken Russell’s career seemed pretty much over by 1980 as well. And yet it’s a movie that seems fresher than ever today.

*. The other reason I find it remarkable it’s so good has to do with its troubled production. Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky (whose own novel he was adapting) withdrew from the project after fighting with Russell, and even went so far as to have his full name removed from the credits (he appears as Sidney Aaron). Apparently he was upset his lines weren’t being delivered with the respect they deserved, which is a novice screenwriter’s complaint. It’s also unfair, as almost every review of the film praised Russell for having the dialogue delivered quickly or with overlapping voices to make it seem more natural (or cover up how bad it was). Danny Peary, no fan of Russell, is scathing on this point: “It’s more than likely [Chayefsky] came out publicly against Russell because he realized early on that that no faithful adaptation of his book could result in a good film. He needed a scapegoat in order to keep his own reputation intact. But if you don’t like Altered States, blame Chayefsky.”
*. Whoever’s side you take, these disputes usually bode ill. Pauline Kael thought Altered States “an aggressively silly head-horror movie” primarily for being “the misalliance of two wildly different hyperbolic talents.” “Creative conflict” is mostly a myth. When people who are supposed to be working together on set don’t get along bad things usually happen. But not here. Also, movies this far-fetched and messy rarely come together, but that’s again not what happened. Altered States is visually chaotic, but it doesn’t fall apart.
*. Take Jessup’s visions. They are all over the map in terms of their content, but they still manage to have a weird coherence. The thing is, since they represent a dive into the collective unconscious and prehistory of the species, literally anything can be found down there. As with dreams, if they made sense they wouldn’t make sense.

*. I think there’s a point here also that bears on a criticism I’ve heard made of Jessup’s transformation. Instead of having the lead actor turn into the Primal Man, as is traditional in transformation scenes in Jekyll-and-Hyde and Werewolf movies, they have an entirely different person playing the “monster.” In this case it’s Miguel Godreau, a much smaller man than Hurt. This is hard to figure just on a physical level (how does Jessup shrink so much?), but I don’t have any problem with it. The thing is, the Primal Man doesn’t represent Jessup’s Mr. Hyde, or unleashed id. He is the physical embodiment of our common genetic ancestry. He is us. Of course you could then say that homo sapiens, or even “life” itself, has no genetic memory of the Big Bang or the beginning of the universe either, but that would be examining what is a crazy premise anyway too carefully.
*. What I do think you can criticize the movie for is the ending, which is both incredibly abrupt and overly sentimental. To have come so far only to be told that love conquers all is disappointing. And it’s not even that believable, since Jessup has been presented as such a self-centered jerk throughout the movie, his final transformation registers as his least likely yet.
*. The score was by John Corigliano and I find it both ahead of its time and very effective. The effects were underbudgeted, but still look good to me. Those bladders under the skin work every time, and while nothing dates faster than CGI, the hallway scene here holds up a lot better than similar scenes in more recent films.
*. One thing I don’t think the film gets enough credit for is how scary it is. Well, really there’s only the one scary sequence, when the Primal Man gets loose in the building’s basement. But I remember that part of the movie scaring the heck out of me the first time I saw it and I thought it worked just as well today. There’s always something especially frightening about a face suddenly appearing in a window you’re looking through. Something about it being extremely close, but with an invisible barrier between us and the danger. That gets me every time.
*. I’m glad this one has held on with a cult following, though I don’t know how popular it is today. I think it’s really very well done. Everyone in the cast works well (Blair Brown as the love interest, and Bob Balaban and Charles Haid as the concerned friends), the music and sound are top drawer, the effects are always interesting, Russell’s direction is imaginative and under control (I love how he works the hallway-as-birth canal motif), and the story is both bizarre and involving. Yes, it’s a movie that for whatever reason I’ve always felt a personal connection to, but it’s also one I don’t hesitate to recommend to friends. You can certainly call it silly, but it’s a good movie that’s lasted forty years now. And it may last even longer.

The Killing Fields (1984)

*. The Watergate era has been mythologized as a golden age of American journalism, which is an observation that has several facets. Reporters became heroes in the ’70s (or, perhaps an even better word, stars), but it’s also the case that the public, who were still reading newspapers back then, cared a lot more about the stories being covered. Today’s political scandals are much worse than Watergate, but since the news media ecosystem is so fractured, not to mention so roundly despised and mistrusted, the scandals (and crimes) get lost in the noise.
*. The Killing Fields takes us back to that golden age (it’s set in the mid-’70s) and a pair of heroic newsmen covering a story (the Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia) that could still at least evoke sympathy from an American audience. It’s sad to think of how far we’ve fallen since then, and how unlikely it would be for such a movie to be made today. Even the idea that Dith Pran (Haing S. Ngor) would stay behind in Cambodia in part because of his love for his country but even more because of his sense of calling in being a reporter, would strike most of us today as unbelievable.
*. Producer David Puttnam wanted Roland Joffé to direct because Joffé had seen the script and recognized that it was primarily a movie about friendship rather than politics. On the DVD commentary Joffé is eloquent on this: “I think friendship is undervalued in our generation, curiously enough, in our age. It’s as though the only relationships that really have any value are supposed to be those between men and women, sexual relationships. Which of course are wonderful and superb but life is full of many things and I think that real friendships in many respects may be more enduring than relationships that are bonded around sexual love. In some respects I think this film was a hymn to that.”

*. And so it is. This is one of the great movies about a passionate male friendship that is not sexual, even if it is, as Joffé thought, “a love story.” This may be due, in part, to the fact (or at least reported fact) that men don’t often form such attachments, at least to the extent that many women do. In any event, it provides a core of honesty here that holds the whole movie in its grip. We feel how much Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterson) and Pran care for each other, which makes us care about them.
*. Ngor was not an actor. In fact he was a doctor who had himself escaped the Khmer Rouge labour camps. Apparently the casting director saw him at a Cambodian wedding in Los Angeles. Remarkable how things like that happen. He’d go on to win a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award, though he could easily be seen as being the lead.
*. But Ngor wasn’t the only newbie. Joffé had never directed a feature film before, though he’d done a lot of TV work. This was only John Malkovich’s second movie. He was an unknown, just as was Julian Sands. I don’t know how much movie work Mike Oldfield had done before doing the score but I don’t think there was a lot. And apparently he didn’t care for the experience here very much.
*. An interesting choice to go without subtitles, but I think it pays off. Joffé says he thought it added to the sense of Cambodia turning into “an incomprehensible world,” but it may be more elemental than that. Under the Khmer Rouge language has lost its meaning. Everything is symbolic. Being able to read glances and gestures becomes of great importance and silence is one’s only option to survive.

*. The score is disjointed, perhaps because the movie was being recut and Oldfield felt he had to keep changing it. But I think Pauline Kael is wrong to dismiss it or blame it for ruining some of the best scenes by “hyping death.” I think it has great passages, like the terrific airlift out of Phnom Penh, but also some over-the-top misfires. Even at his least effective, however, I prefer what Oldfield does to Sydney listening to “Nessun dora” in his apartment or John Lennon’s “Imagine” coming on at the end. Talk about trite.
*. Kael’s review is significant in another way. She seems to have been of many minds about the movie. For example, she calls it “an ambitious movie made with an inept, sometimes sly, and very often equivocal script.” Inept, sly, and equivocal? As with the score, I think it’s all three. It’s an uneven movie, but one with real integrity in its message. At 140 minutes it doesn’t feel a bit too long and even the epic scenes — the deurbanization of Phnom Penh, Pran’s march through the mucky Golgotha — occur on a human level.
*. Beautifully shot, with only the one animated blood spatter marring the proceedings. Boy does that look bad! Like Reptilicus bad. They should go back and fix that up now. They have the technology.
*. A chilling portrayal of the horror of the killing fields. The transformation of children into soulless zombies may be the scariest part. Elsewhere there are some slips, but the central story is carried along through some brilliantly worked-up scenes that have stayed with me ever since I first saw the movie, and long after I’d forgotten the few flaccid moments in between.

Henry V (1989)


*. In my notes on Olivier’s Henry V I noted David Thomson’s comment about how there is no gainsaying the version of Henry V you were born with, and that for that reason he remains “helplessly loyal to Olivier.” I said there that I thought this was probably true, but that for me Kenneth Branagh’s film would always have such a place. I’d only add here that this Henry V also holds a special record in my personal movie-going history, being the only film I went to see, upon its release, three times. I was an English student at the time and it just seemed like the best thing ever to me.
*. I still rate it very, very highly. I think it’s the best of all of Branagh’s Shakespeare adaptations, and that he really never did anything near as good. Seeing as he wasn’t even thirty here, there’s something a little sad about that.


*. As remarkable an achievement as this film was for Branagh — and it marked his directing debut — I’d say he has to share accolades with composer Patrick Doyle, whose first film score this was. This is, in my opinion, one of the four or five very best scores ever written, especially if you consider it in total and how well it works with the rest of the film. It’s not overstated, but you’d be forgiven for thinking it is because it feels large. How on earth it escaped even being nominated for any major awards is a complete mystery to me. Who picks these things? But, as with Branagh, I’m not sure Doyle ever did anything else as good (though his overture for Much Ado About Nothing is a masterpiece).
*. I take it that the long dolly shot over the battlefield with the Non Nobis arrangement playing is meant to recall the electric dolly shot that covered the cavalry charge in Olivier’s film. A nice pairing that.
*. It’s usually described as being a more realistic take on Shakespeare, and the first thing that’s meant by this is mud. Not the single wet spot on the sunny emerald Technicolor green of Olivier’s illuminated battlefield but rather a Passchendaele-like mud bowl that the combatants wallow in.


*. More than the mud, however, the film’s realism resides in its language. You may never hear Shakespeare delivered as naturalistically as it is here, and at such speed and with such obvious relish. You can almost feel Branagh’s delight in rolling the words around in his mouth. And this works because Henry, being a king, is a performer. He knows it, and everyone around him, all the way down to the boy, knows it. When he’s bellowing at the walls of Harfleur or rallying the troops before Agincourt it’s understood that it’s all just a show. But playing the part of a king well was a king’s job, back in the day when it was a job.


*. Branagh also amplifies the language in two ways. The quiet scenes are played in close-ups, which exaggerate small gestures (a nod, a roll of the eyes, tears), while the louder, more confrontational parts are emphasized by frequent cuts to the speaker’s audience. It’s the same principle as the laugh track, where seeing or hearing the response to the speaker’s words on screen helps direct or amplify our own response. This is something Branagh does throughout, both when dealing with groups of people (the English soldiers Henry rallies) or in one-on-one verbal assaults (the poor herald Montjoy has to keep looking humbled after being dressed down again and again).


*. The Eastcheap gang were played pretty much as buffoons by Olivier, and here they’re far more sympathetically drawn. The thing is, as a group they’d been in decline throughout this trilogy of plays, and now with Falstaff dead there’s a real air of morbidity hanging over them all. With even Nell and the Boy dying in the end, Pistol isn’t just diminished but returning to a diminished world. He’s finally been written out of History.
*. Derek Jacobi’s Chorus works quite well, in modern dress, perhaps because we’re likely to recognize him as one of those talking-head presenters, David Starkey maybe, in some History channel docudrama. Remarkably, it never takes us out of the play.


*. It doesn’t strike me as a particularly political interpretation — unlike Olivier’s, which was very much a film of its historical moment. Though, as befits the more realistic presentation, the war is presented as something engineered through the operation of power politics, with the scheming bishops in league with Brian Blessed’s Exeter, a character whose bluff and hearty exterior belies a shady, manipulative warmonger. Dramatically, these opening scenes are surprisingly fresh and edgy, and have only taken on a greater resonance in a time that now has some more recent experience in the selling and marketing of imperialist wars.


*. I think all of this makes the film very Shakespearean, meaning full of ambiguities and complexities. Olivier never wanted us to mistake that we were watching a play, but a play that was expanding to encompass a wider stage. Branagh’s film wants us to see the world as a stage, which it is when dealing with such a subject as this anyway.
*. As with any really successful film, the stars were in alignment. Branagh and Doyle both making electric debuts, a supporting cast including a number of veteran stalwarts (I particularly like Paul Scofield), a full chemistry set with Branagh wooing Emma Thompson, and just perfect execution in nearly every production department. You don’t even notice that the battle scenes seem to all be taking place in the same little mud hole, the action is kept so fluid and crowded. There’s nothing like the cavalry charge from Olivier’s film, but has a Shakespearean battle ever been as expertly constructed as this? I can only think of what Welles did in Chimes at Midnight, and nobody’s ever topped that.
*. That Henry V is one of Shakespeare’s best and most film-friendly plays also helps. But I guess I have to fall back on what Thomson said as for why this may be my favourite Shakespeare film. I might not have been born with it, but I was born for it. In nearly thirty years I don’t feel any diminishment in its hold on me and I’ll likely remain helplessly loyal.


The Dresser (1983)

*. Based on a 1980 play by Ronald Harwood, which was based in turn on Harwood’s own (post-WW2) experiences as dresser to the actor Sir Donald Wolfit. As is often the case with adaptations supervised by the author (Harwood co-produced and wrote the screenplay for this film version) it actually takes more liberties than you might expect in moving beyond being just a filmed version of the play, and some of the location stuff of England being bombed looks really good. Does it add much to the story aside from a nice backdrop? Does it help for us to see Sir having his market meltdown instead of just being told about it? That I’m not so sure about.
*. Also sticking through the jump from stage to screen was Tom Courtenay, who played Norman during the play’s initial theatrical run. Again I wonder if this was the best move. The thing is, my own sense is that Courtenay overplays the role in a manner more fitting on stage than on screen. I do like him in the part, but wonder if director Peter Yates might have wanted him to dial it down a bit.
*. Then again, Courtenay was playing opposite Albert Finney as Sir, and Finney was dialing it up too. I wonder how deliberate this was (I was wondering about a lot of things watching this movie). Yates could excel with actors playing cool. Think of Steve McQueen in Bullitt or Robert Mitchum in The Friends of Eddie Coyle. But here he wanted large. Like Sir flagging down a train in a station.
*. Adding to this sense that Courtenay and Finney are coming on too strong is the fact of their ages. The play seems to me to be about two elderly figures. Sir, who is at death’s door, is even drawn in a way that suggests dementia. But Finney was only 47 and is too hale and hearty for the part, while Courtenay was roughly the same age. In contrast, when Richard Eyre did a TV version in 2015 he did it with Anthony Hopkins and Ian McKellen in the leads. Hopkins and McKellen are roughly the same age as Finney and Courtenay, but their version was made over 30 years later, when they were in their mid- to late-70s. Is 77 the new 47? I don’t think things have reached that point yet.

*. I prefer the 2015 version, but think this one is definitely watchable. Of course it was catnip for critics and got all sorts of awards attention. Even though I don’t really see it as a play “about” the theatre world so much as being about codependent relationships. Norman is more of a nurse than a dresser, utterly committed to propping Sir up and keeping him going, perhaps feeling that this gives him a kind of power. The kind of power one attains by debasing himself before his idol. I like the scene where Sir makes him go out in front of the audience to make an address. Does Sir see this as a punishment? Does he relish Norman’s humiliation? And does Norman enjoy it a bit himself? After all, imagine him going on the same stage as Sir!
*. Roger Ebert saw the dynamic at work clearly: “Much of mankind is divided into two categories, the enablers and the enabled. Both groups accept the same mythology, in which the enablers are self-sacrificing martyrs and the enabled are egomaniacs. But the roles are sometimes reversed; the stars are shaken by insecurities that are subtly encouraged by enablers who, in their heart of hearts, see themselves as the real stars. It’s human nature.” So Norman is upset that he doesn’t get so much as a mention in the dedication of Sir’s memoirs. But is his anger heartfelt? There is a masochism that drives the codependent personality. They want to be used, and Norman is. His only reward is to be taken for granted.
*. I think that downbeat message fits with the anticlimactic ending here. I’ll confess that when I first saw it I was surprised when the credits rolled. Was that it? But I think that abruptness makes the point. With Sir gone, that’s really all there is. Norman doesn’t have a story of his own. What will he do now? Is there anyone left who cares?