Category Archives: 1980s

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)

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*. 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.

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*. 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.

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*. 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.

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*. 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).

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*. 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.

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*. 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.

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*. 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.

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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?

Jaws: The Revenge (1987)

*. Jaws: The Revenge (officially there is no numeral in the title, though it’s popularly known as Jaws 4) is a bad movie. Indeed it’s status as a bad movie is notorious, so much so that it is regularly included in lists of the worst movies ever or best-worst movies. How well does its reputation, meaning this reputation for badness, hold up?
*. I’d start out by saying that it had some things going for it. In the first place, while Jaws 3-D had been a terrible movie it had also done well at the box office and the franchise was by no means dead yet. Also quite remarkable, in a good way, is the casting of Lorraine Gary’s Ellen Brody as the hero of the film. I think everyone sitting in the theatre in 1987 would have assumed that Sean Brody was going to inherit the family mantle of shark-killer, and it’s a genuine surprise when he gets gobbled up in the film’s first kill, leaving us with a middle-aged mom as the next Brody up. She’ll have a lot of help, to be sure, but she’s the Mama Bear.
*. That’s about all the credit I can give Jaws: The Revenge though. Gary, who was at least serviceable in her previous appearances in Jaws and Jaws 2 is inexplicably awful here. In the original Peter Benchley novel she had a steamy affair with Hooper but that was cut for the film. Then she was supposed to be courted by the real estate sleazeball in Jaws 2, and that was also cut. But here she’d read the script and was delighted at being romanced by Michael Caine, which was one of the reasons she signed on. And this time she finally gets her groove on.
*. Roy Scheider said that Satan himself couldn’t have got him to appear in this one (he’d been dragged much against his will into Jaws 2). What’s more surprising is that even Dennis Quaid refused to be involved, reprising his role as Mike Brody from Jaws 3-D. His part would be taken by a hirsute Lance Guest, who would in turn be buddied with Mario Van Peebles, affecting a lamentable island accent.
*. Then there’s Michael Caine dropping in to play the beachcomber-pilot-gigolo Hoagie. His pronouncements on the film are now famous. “I have never seen it, but by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific.” “Won an Oscar [for Hannah and Her Sisters], built a house, and had a great holiday. Not bad for a flop movie.” So just here to pick up a paycheque, and still he’s the only bright spot on the ocean.
*. To be a great bad movie, however, more is necessary than just incompetence. This is provided here by the weird premise, which suggests that Ellen now has some sort of psychic connection with the shark. Something that, of course, makes no sense because it’s obviously not the same shark as in any of the previous films. I’m not even sure if it’s supposed to be the same shark that kills Sean in the beginning that has followed Ellen to the Bahamas. Maybe all the sharks in the ocean have it in for the Brody clan?
*. I jest, but the story is even more bizarre than this. According to early drafts of the screenplay, from which the novelization was later derived, the shark is guided by a voodoo curse laid on the Brody family by a witch doctor named Papa Jacques. The “revenge” in the title then is not Ellen’s or the shark’s but the revenge of Papa Jacques. But since the witch doctor was left out of the movie we’re not left with any explanation as to what is going on. Which, come to think of it, might be better.
*. The rest of the movie is just crap. As has often been pointed out, Ellen has flashbacks to events she never witnessed, which is much sillier than the unfairly maligned flashbacks that the dog has in The Hills Have Eyes Part II. The shark this time out actually looks even more fake than any of the previous outings. It’s huge, rubbery pink lips reminded me of the Great White in John Singleton Copley’s painting Watson and the Shark. Despite being enormous it has no trouble squeezing into shipwrecks that don’t look to be as big as it is, from stem to stern. The point-of-view shots also indicate that it spends most of its time swimming with its head lifted out of the water. As for how it dies at the end, I couldn’t tell you. Something to do with a radio-controlled explosive? I’m sure they just wanted to blow the damn thing up and all go home.
*. So it’s a bad movie. A good bad movie? Well, most of it is actually pretty dull. While it’s very stupid, it’s rarely laugh-out-loud stupid. I watched it this time just to complete my coverage of the franchise. I never want to see it again. It’s not that good-bad.

Jaws 3-D (1983)

*. That’s right. It was originally released as Jaws 3-D. Not Jaws 3 or Jaws III. Which puts this movie right up there with Amityville 3-D. Because 3-D was cool in 1983, don’t you know. At least Friday the 13th Part III kept its dignity. Not something I ever expected to hear myself say.
*. 3-D was (and is) a useless stunt that has almost no application in this movie (co-writer Richard Matheson: “it had no effect whatsoever. It was a waste of time”). It also does nothing to save Jaws 3-D from being a disaster of a shark flick from start to finish. Indeed, the big 3-D scenes are just laughable now, climaxing in the shark sloooooowly smashing its way into the control room (a scene that would be revisited, slightly more effectively, in Deep Blue Sea). David Brown and Richard Zanuck, producers of Jaws and Jaws 2, had thought that the only way to go with a third film was to make a spoof or parody. The studio thought otherwise, and got something worse.

*. It seems as though everyone involved tried to disown any involvement in it after the fact. I like Dennis Quaid’s defence the best. He plays Mike Brody (son of Amity police chief Martin Brody) and claims he was high on cocaine in “every frame” of the picture.

*. There was some continuity. Joe Alves, who’d been the production designer on the first two films, makes his directorial debut. Carl Gottlieb was back as a credited screenwriter, though apparently the script was the work of many hands.
*. The usual sequel inflation has taken place. This shark is now huge, a veritable whale said to be at least 35 feet and capable of swallowing grown men whole. It’s also the most lethargic shark in the series yet, making Bruce seem hyperactive in comparison. There are whole scenes where it just seems to sit in the water, scarcely moving.
*. One of the big differences between this and the previous films is that it’s got a lot more underwater action. This is not a plus. Scuba movies are usually pretty dull because people move really slowly underwater and we can’t see their faces. I thought this was one of the big strikes against Thunderball, and this movie is no Thunderball.
*. The idea here wasn’t terrible. Basically Brody’s sons have grown up, with Mike running SeaWorld, an aquatic park in Florida that the giant shark invades. The cast are a grab-bag of ill-matched toys. Louis Gossett Jr. is the park owner. Simon MacCorkindale plays some British big-game hunter who wants to take on the shark. And, well, at least they try. Though they might have saved themselves some pain and asked Dennis for a bit of blow to get them through the experience.
*. Remarkably it not only didn’t kill the franchise but actually did well at the box office. And that is the only positive thing that can be said for it (if you want to consider that a positive). This is a huge step down in quality even from Jaws 2, and a truly terrible movie. Though many believe that even worse was to come. Next up: Jaws: The Revenge.

The Hills Have Eyes Part II (1985)

*. This movie is almost universally reviled, though it does have a few champions. I’m not going to defend it here but just address a couple of the points that come up most often in what’s been said about it.
*. In the first place, it’s often remarked how surprising it is that Wes Craven turned out this turkey around the same time as he was making A Nightmare on Elm Street. The chronology is significant. Craven wrote and shot this movie before Elm Street but then the project was stuck in limbo because of budget issues. Then, after Elm Street went on to become a hit the studio asked him to go back and finish it. Unfortunately they didn’t want Craven to shoot any more footage, so he had to pad things out to 90 minutes by including flashbacks to the events of The Hills Have Eyes.
*. Not a great way to make a movie. And indeed Craven thought it was garbage. As I think everyone else did too, including Michael Berryman, who returns as Pluto. I don’t think it even had a theatrical release. Still, it’s hard to figure why this was such a dud when Elm Street was so fresh and creative. My guess is that Craven never wanted anything to do with it and was only taking the job to make money. It shows. Hack work can still be really good, but you can tell when a director doesn’t have his heart in a project, and since Craven was writing the script too the movie was doubly snake-bit.
*. The other point that’s usually trotted out about, and against, this movie is that the dog from the first movie, a German Shepherd named Beast, experiences one of the flashbacks. People hoot at this, and I think Craven may have thought of it as a joke, but I’m not sure what’s so crazy about it. Dogs are intelligent animals. Indeed, I thought Beast the smartest “character” in the original film (as he is again here). Dogs have memories. They can remember people for years. They can also dream in some fashion, as anyone who has watched a sleeping dog twitch its paws in its sleep can testify. So why is it so crazy that the dog here has a flashback? Beast remembers when he attacked Pluto in the first movie, which seems a likely thing for him to remember when he catches that character’s scent here. I don’t find this far-fetched at all. I was more mystified by how Pluto learned to ride a dirt bike so well.
*. I’ve often read reviews of The Hills Have Eyes that mention its sense of humour. I’ve tried to see this in it but have never come up with much. This movie, on the other hand, has more obvious comic flourishes, providing further evidence both of the way Craven was moving (toward Elm Street and Scream) and that he didn’t take this movie seriously. It even begins with some voiceover narration saying “The following film is based on fact.” Meaning it’s based on the fact that there was a previous movie called The Hills Have Eyes. None of which was based on fact.
*. The plot is a real mess. Bobby from the first film is introduced talking about his experiences in the desert to a psychiatrist. Then we find out that he’s invented a new kind of fuel to supercharge motorbikes. And is linked with Ruby, now living a normal life under the name of Rachel. Then the motorbike crew (which includes a Black couple looking for a disco in the desert and a blind girl in love with one of the bikers) hop on a bus and head out to the same desert as the first film, only without Bobby, leaving one to wonder why they even bothered to re-introduce his character in the first place. In any event, they take a shortcut because they missed Daylight Saving Time. Don’t you hate it when that happens? Ruby/Rachel warns them but before long they’re in crazy country being picked off by Pluto and Jupiter’s big brother, a guy named the Reaper.
*. I think that’s all about right. But to be honest, I wasn’t paying much attention. In most ways it’s a retread of the first film, which is something Craven doesn’t even try to hide. He even has the bad guy fall into a nearly identical trap at the end, despite his protestation that “Reaper don’t get fooled like Papa Jupe! Oh no!” Oh no? Oh yes.
*. If it’s similar in outline to the first film it has none of the same edge. No threatened baby. No cannibalism. No mock crucifixion. Just a bunch of nonsense that, as I say, I had a hard time staying interested in. Plus the lighting is execrable and it’s hard to see what’s going on.
*. “Depressingly shoddy” was the verdict of Kim Newman. I’d just call it ugly, dark, and dull. Not a movie to hate, or to laugh at, but just to avoid.

Hopscotch (1980)

*. In his Criterion essay on Hopscotch Bruce Eder calls it “the only ‘feel-good’ realistic spy film ever made.” I’d quibble with this. For starters, I have a hard time seeing it as being in any way realistic. The basic premise is far-fetched and the way it plays out goes even further. While more down-to-earth than the zanier spy spoofs of the 1960s, it’s not that far removed, at least to my eye, from Charade and Arabesque.
*. For Eder’s “feel-good” I might also substitute genteel, mature, or cozy. As screenwriter Brian Garfield (adapting his own novel) put it, “I wrote it with a very specific aim in mind and that was to show that it’s possible to do an exciting story with lots of suspense and adventure in which nobody gets scratched let alone killed.” So sort of like a Disney spy movie for grown-ups. But grown-ups who are young at heart. Barrels of oil tipped out of the back of a truck, making the cars in pursuit slip and slide into a ditch? Good fun!
*. I haven’t read Garfield’s novel but apparently it is not comic. Nor was the less-than-cozy novel he’s best known for writing, Death Wish. So this really was a change of pace. Efficient but unglamorous field agent Miles Kendig (Walter Matthau) doesn’t even carry a gun, and wouldn’t use one if he did. He gets his kicks above the waistline, sunshine.
*. As for the maturity, what can we say about a spy movie where the spy in question wears argyle sweaters, listens to Mozart, and has prostate issues? And one where his main motivation is, according to Garfield, mere boredom.

*. It’s hard to be negative about a movie that, in the estimation of director Ronald Neame, “never pretended to be anything except a lighthearted comedy.” The presence of Matthau made me think of Charade, and the way Isobel (Glenda Jackson) uses the word “charade” a couple of times can’t have been a coincidence. But even Charade, which was a bit of fluff, was a darker movie than this.
*. Eder talks a bit about how against the grain this was for the time. Spy movies had been taken over by violent, cynical, and paranoia-laced thrillers in the manner of Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View (1974), Sidney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor (1975), and John Schlesinger’s Marathon Man (1976). I guess by the time the decade turned over to the ’80s we’d become more optimistic. Credit Reagan. And so, Eder again, Hopscotch was not “a simplistic anti-establishment movie — a close look at the plot reveals it as not so much against the concept of the CIA as against what the CIA was perceived as having become, in the hands of bureaucrats like Myerson (Ned Beatty).”
*. The way I would put it is that the CIA isn’t presented as evil so much as incompetent. They are bumbling bureaucrats and Keystone Cops. Sam Waterston seems a decent enough guy, but in being so he is totally out of place. Now the question of whether stupidity and incompetence may be a greater threat than corruption and conspiracy is still a live one, but I don’t think it’s one that Hopscotch addresses.
*. Not that I can complain about that. As Neame says, it’s a nothing more than a lighthearted comedy. Looking for any deeper message or meaning to it is pointless. It’s still enjoyable forty years later. But if I’m being honest, totally forgettable too. Roger Ebert: “Hopscotch is a shaggy-dog thriller that never really thrills us very much, but leaves a nice feeling when it’s over. . . . It’s a strange thing to say about a thriller, but Hopscotch is . . . pleasant.”