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80s

Lawrence Kasdan sought to revive the western, and thank God his vision of it failed.  We can thank better filmmakers for rejecting settling for sweeping camera shots, Aaron Coplandesque scores, and stories where all the heroes are Clean Gene goody-goodies spouting banal, wistful tripe.

It has a few inspired moments, such as Scott Glen’s opening shootout rising above White Rock, New Mexico and the final Kevin Kline/Brian Dennehy gunfight in the middle of the windy town.  Kevin Costner also showed real personality as Glen’s wild younger brother.

Other than that, it’s pretty awful, made even more silly by the gritty realism that followed in Unforgiven and HBO’s Deadwood.  Nobody misses when they shoot, even with a pistol from hundreds of yards away.  The town of Silverado also has the best and quickest dry cleaners around, because everyone looks so damn fine in their cowboy get-ups.

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Ladies and gents, The Village People!”

The language and attitudes are as new as the fashion.  Danny Glover is enlisted as the proud, honorable messenger of racial tolerance; Roseanna Arquette is the feminist landowner; and Kline is a gunslinger with a sweet disposition towards animals and women (Kline’s casting is peculiar; he seems too nice to be the town barber much less a desperado).  It’s all very precious, and for each of our enlightened characters, there are ten chaw-spitting, sneering henchmen to assure us of their goodness.  Bad picture, getting worse every day.

I just saw this on the AFI big screen with Will and my nephew in from Spain, Julian.  A great holiday classic.

John McClain (Bruce Willis), a NYC cop who is flying to LA to spend some time with his kids over Christmas, drops by his estranged wife’s (Bonnie Bedelia) holiday party in the gleaming high-rise, Nakatomi Plaza.  Unfortunately, he arrives just when the party is crashed by a terrorist gang led by the slick and debonair Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman).  The terrorists had the perfect plan, but they did not foresee a rogue cop picking them off one by one.

When I first saw Die Hard, I was impressed such an efficient, commercial, cop-against-the world shoot ’em up could be so deft and clever.  Most contemporary blockbuster cop pictures were devoid of humor; featured laughable, deadly serious male leads spouting leaden dialogue and women relegated to looking 80s video hot; invariably starred Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger or Steven Seagal; and sucked.  The only outliers were vehicles for established comedians (Beverly Hills Cop) or buddy pics (48 Hours and Lethal Weapon).

Willis, in his first big role, is winning.  When the terrorists strike, he is in his wife’s private office bathroom, shoeless and clad in pants and a wifebeater.  He’s vulnerable, put-upon and even giddy, and his charm is infectious.  He’s the perfect guide.

He’s assisted by an intricate, charming villain.  Rickman eschews stock heavy,  opting for an amused persona that hides a deeper ruthlessness :

 

The film also features numerous secondary characters who resonate even with limited screen time.  Reginald VelJohnson is the patrolman first on the scene and McClain’s link via walkie-talkie to the activities on the ground, with a tragic backstory of his own; Alexander Gudonov is the number 2 for the terrorists, infuriated because McCalin has killed his brother; Bedelia becomes the de facto leader of the hostages and has a few nifty exchanges with Rickman; and William Atherton (the haughty EPA investigator in Ghostbusters) is a convincing slimy television reporter.  Most notable is Hart Bochner, the coke-snorting LA cool cat who works for Bedelia.  I always thought Bochner would be a big star and the scene where he tries to “negotiate” McClain’s surrender damn near steals the picture.

Finally, Jeb Stuart’s writing is fresh, cynical and all the more surprising given this was his first picture.  Stuart writes for all characters, providing great repartee, such as this back-and-forth between two FBI men who are brought in late to take over operations:

Martin Scorsese’s surreal nightmare of one man’s (Griffin Dunne) ill-advised late-night trip into lower Manhattan is painfully funny and, at times, genuinely unsettling. Dunne is beset by a quintent of quirky, if not outright dangerous females (Roseanna Arquette, Linda Fiorentino, Teri Garr, Catherine O’Hara and Verna Bloom), a fact that will one day be Exhibit X in his anticipated trial for misogyny.  His torture is lovingly photographed by Michael Ballhaus, giving SoHo’s grimy exterior a dream-like quality (and there is no greater horror than being hunted by a mob that has commandeered a Mister Softee truck).

Dunne is very good and much like Steve Carell, except he’s not burdened at all by the imprint of a long-running character, and where Carell is childlike and vulnerable, Dunne is sympathetic, but sexually opportunistic.

Bonus: if anyone asks you, “What movie casts the parents from Home Alone, one of whom went to filmvetter’s high school?”, now you know.

When Rain Man came out, I enjoyed it, but soon came to sour on the film for its easy emotional manipulation and an affected star turn by Dustin Hoffman. I didn’t credit Hoffman the prescience of Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder (“never go full retard”) and found Hoffman’s portrayal of an autistic adult unsubtle and obvious. Perhaps had I waited until Al Pacino’s blind rampage in Scent of a Woman, I would have been more forgiving.

Pauline Kael called it “a piece of wet kitsch” and I can’t say I could have disagreed. Rain Man has always maintained a spot in the pantheon of overpraised domestic drama Oscar winners that, I assumed, would age very ungracefully (see Forrest Gump, American Beauty, Crash).

Rain Man has hit the schedule on my pay movie channels, and yes, it is emotionally manipulative and yes, it does sport some of the more annoying hallmarks of the 80s (a Hans Zimmer synthesized score that would put him on the map, a few too many montage scenes, a gorgeous and pointless female lead, Valeria Golino, who came and went). But Hoffman’s performance as a hidden older brother to Tom Cruise (Cruise learns of him upon their wealthy father’s death and “kidnaps” him to have an edge in getting his share of the will) is very strong. What unfortunately became represented by cute catchphrases (“I’m an excellent driver”, “10 minutes to Wapner”) is actually a canny, deep portrayal of a tortured soul, and director Barry Levinson never really lets you forget the dangers that lie therein. Much like Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook, Hoffman is endearing until he is terrifying, and at exactly the moment Spielberg would have inserted treacle, Levinson has Hoffman explode again.

Tom Cruise is even better in his role as Hoffman’s wheeler-dealer, LA smooth brother, Ray. His frustration with Hoffman is communal. His entire performance is a study in anger at Hoffman, not for being denied his loving company or for being shut out by his father, but because Hoffman is an annoying lunatic. “I know you’re in there somewhere,” he screams, and while he undergoes change in his time with the afflicted Hoffman, he does not become redeemed so much as educated.

The film is also very, very funny, perhaps too much so for our times. I can imagine grievance groups objecting to the use of an autistic adult for chuckles, but the screenwriters’ (Barry Morrow and Ronald Bass, the former of whom, like Golino, pretty much disappeared after this film) don’t pull many punches and the exchanges between Hoffman and Cruise are often brutally comic:

 

Writer/director Bill Forsyth was born in Glasgow so he was well-positioned to create this love letter to Scotland. Big oil executive Peter Riegert, who lives a precise, antiseptic and singular life in Houston (he prefers to do deals at arm’s length – “I’m a telefax man”) is sent to a small fishing community in Scotland to buy up the land for a new refinery site. Before his journey, the company’s quirky owner and amateur astronomer, Burt Lancaster, enlists Riegert to canvass the skies in search of a comet. Riegert finds a quaint, simpler life that slowly transforms him from uptight businessman to wistful boy, entranced by the scenery, pace and wonder of the coast.  The charm of the film is embodied in the village, in the film’s quieter moments, and as it infatuates Riegert, so too the audience.

There are so many good things about this picture it’s hard to catalogue them all. Riegert manages to be deadpan yet earnest, never once lapsing into sarcasm or condescension, and Forsyth writes him in a manner that never requires an explanation of or ode to his disquiet. The villagers are not schmaltzy local yokels, with a song in their heart and a lesson to impart.  Rather, they are a slightly cynical bunch who received intel on the purchase and they – like anyone – lust for the big payoff.  As Forsyth has acknowledged, “I don’t want you to think there was some deliberate message. You talk about the plot, but was there one? I mean, people can look back and say, oh, this was all an early one about the environment or whatever, but it didn’t happen that way, or if it did it was accidental. I’m not political, either in film or personally, and I don’t really do plot, and certainly don’t aim to broadcast a ‘message’. I suppose I like to tell stories. And if I’m writing a film, and don’t really have a plot, then you have to fill the screen with something, so I try to do so with characters, incidents.”

The picture features an impossibly young Peter Capaldi (In the Loop, World War Z), hilarious as Riegert’s liaison.  His high dudgeon when the town’s cook serves him an injured rabbit he has saved from a road injury is priceless.  Mark Knopfler also contributes a restrained, moody score that melds his guitar licks with a little-80s Vangelis synthesizer.

Apparently, Forsyth only got a few bites at the apple in Hollywood, the last one being a poorly reviewed Robin Williams vehicle, Being Human.  It’s a shame.  Forsyth was interviewed by The Guardian in 2008, which correctly called Local Hero “one of the quiet must-see little masterpieces of British cinema.” 

During AFI’s recent LA Modern series, we were hoping to see William Friedken’s picture on the big screen, but schedules wouldn’t permit, so we settled for a Netflix rental.  Friedken’s modern crime noir tracks Secret Service agents William Peterson and John Pankow as they hurtle through a maelstrom in an effort to bag master counterfeiter and killer Willem Dafoe. Their zeal seals their doom.

It’s a competent thriller, but there are not insignificant problems.  Peterson’s adrenaline junkie character is too one-dimensional, and the screenplay (written by a former Secret Service agent and Friedken) can be awkward in its reliance on hyper machismo, tough guy patter (“you want bread?  Fuck a baker!”) or even hackneyed (“I’m getting too old for this shit”). And if you were a Wang Chung fan, this is your movie, but the synthesized 80s score was hit-or-miss at the time and doesn’t travel so well 30 years later.

But the second half of the movie overcomes a lot of the weaknesses of the first, as Peterson and Pankow are revealed to be screw-ups in the ultimate clusterfuck. As they dig deeper, Pankow enlists the aid of Dafoe’s own lawyer, a confident but slightly oily Dean Stockwell, and it is a revelation to see the portrayal of a cop who is probably took weak for the job. Meanwhile, Dafoe proves less efficient than his stylish demeanor suggests and his errors eventually become too much to bear. Dispensing with super cops and criminal masterminds results in a much more satisfying picture.

Friedken also includes a boffo car chase after a heist gone bad in homage to his own The French Connection, and all of his action scenes are non-stylized and immediate (my son observed that the flick has to hold the record for guys shot in the face at 3). Notably, and in keeping with its inclusion in the AFI series, the locations are almost exclusively sun-bleached and bleak industrial LA, a rarity.

Martin Scorsese’s film is visually captivating and anchored by Robert De Niro’s mythic performance as the tortured pugilist Jake LaMotta. The feel of 40s and 50s New York is made more authentic by Scorsese’s use of black-and-white, and as boxing movies go, there is none better at conveying the bloody brutality of the sport. All these gifts, however, come with the stench of a major character who is, through and through, a dim, vicious brute. A recent film with a similar infirmity is Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, which had myriad other problems, but which also asked the audience to invest in Joaquin Phoenix, a jet fuel slurping, brainless, dypso thug who comes under the sway of a charismatic. Who cares? Similarly, in an otherwise brilliant film, Scorsese asks us to engage with an animal, a one-note beast. After the fourth scene of LaMotta becoming violent and/or obsessively compulsive over the fidelity of his blond bombshell of a wife (Cathy Moriarty), the yawns become harder to stifle. It’s a testament to the charms of the picture that you happily stick with it.