Popeye (directed by Robert Altman)
From my review: Popeye the film was not based on the cartoons rather the comic strip by E.C. Segar, which is where the character originated. The comic strip had a vast supporting cast beyond the five primary roles of the cartoon. Director Altman fills out Sweethaven with these strange and silly faces. There is Wimpy, of course, but also his nemesis Geezil. Rough House the local cook is present, the entire Oyl family (Cole, Nana, & Castor), the clumsy Harold Hamgravy, local boxer Oxblood Oxheart, and many more. Unsuspecting audiences were naturally overwhelmed with the sprawling cast and director Altman’s penchant for layered conversations and dialogue.
I personally love this film. I think its unusual nature fits the character of Popeye so well, and I am a fan of the E.C. Segar comic strips. As strange as its presentation is, the movie is actually very standard for superhero origin stories. We do not get Popeye fully formed at the start of the film, but instead, we see him meet the people that will shape him, and it’s not until the third act that he eats spinach and becomes superhumanly strong. With Superman the Movie coming out two years prior, you could already see similar films beginning to follow the same structure. If you were a longtime fan of Popeye, then you picked up on all the easter eggs and trivia, but if you were new to the character, you wouldn’t be lost understanding who he was.
Airplane! (directed by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, & Jerry Zucker)
From my review: The humor of Airplane! is never trying to be sophisticated or overly intelligent. There are some sex jokes and slapstick, but my personal favorite is all the language play throughout the picture. There’s the famous “Don’t call me Shirley” line from Leslie Neilsen. I really enjoy the cockpit crew’s names of Over, Roger, and Victor, which become the centerpiece of a brief Who’s On First style bit. There’s also the decision to emphasize that Roger is played by NBA all-star, Kareem Abdul-Jabar, when a young boy visits the cockpit and keeps pointing out this fact.
Airplane! was a direct parody of the over the top, overly-cast disaster films of the 1970s. Even so, the filmmakers don’t get hung up on making jokes about obscure details in those movies and play the humor as broad as possible. There’s a brief reference to Saturday Night Fever that still works because it is still lampooned in popular media. Other than the clothing and some minor references, the jokes here are timeless. The passenger list serves as a catch-all of character types, which behave outside of our expectations. I love the succession of seatmates Striker has who kill themselves when forced to suffer through his flashbacks on what led to this moment.
The Blues Brothers (directed by John Landis)
From my review: The Blues Brothers was such a fun movie to watch. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I sat down to watch it for the first time, but I was delighted with the lack of cynicism or ironic winking. I think comedies of our present era contain a mix of broad slapstick and cruel, cynical philosophy. The Blues Brothers is just a celebration of how much the people making this movie love the music and musicians. There are cameos by Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and Cab Calloway, and the sense is that Akroyd, Belushi, and company are just so happy to be in the presence of these artists. The music is at the forefront in the picture, and everyone has high energy and is performing their asses off.
I was also impressed with the production value of this first SNL feature film. I was expecting something a little more slapped together and cost-cutting, but what we got was a large scale production. The grand finale with the Blues running for everyone they have crossed throughout the movie plus more was spectacular. I particularly enjoyed the way the police and the Nazis were lampooned throughout the picture. That type of humor almost wouldn’t fly today with studios not wanting to make their movies “political” when in 1980 these were things audiences agreed on.
Dressed to Kill (directed by Brian DePalma)
From the very beginning of this picture, DePalma seeks to misdirect and disorient the audience. Kate (Angie Dickinson) is a sexually frustrated housewife in her fifties, who follows a strange man back to his apartment where they have sex. Upon leaving, she’s is attacked and killed inside the elevator by a woman she’s never met. Liz (Karen Allen) is an escort who happens to be leaving the same building and witnesses the murder, which sets her off on a journey to uncover what really happened. The movie is incredibly derivative of Hitchcock’s best work, particularly Psycho, but DePalma knows how to crib from the best.
I previously reviewed Dressed to Kill when I did a series on DePalma back in the late 2000s. However, I didn’t merely want to link to that review because I have grown as a person since and know that to talk about this movie, you have to address the blatant gross transphobia woven throughout. It’s not an exaggeration to say that DePalma can be a crude, sleaze in his work, and often includes elements presented without sensitivity or thought given. He’s very interested in pushing boundaries but not always in a healthy way and some times punching down. The killer in this movie plays into that harmful and tired trope of the “psycho transperson.” While I love the dark stylishness and aesthetic choices throughout Dressed to Kill, it is very mixed in addressing sex and gender. This is one that goes on my list of favorites I wrestle with constantly
The Empire Strikes Back (directed by Irvin Kershner)
From my review: I think many viewers will agree that Empire is the best of the original trilogy and arguably the whole series. But why is that? Well, first, the characters are so clearly written and allowed to have emotions and conflict. The dynamics between Han and Leia are fantastic. You get why they become a couple but also why it all falls apart before The Force Awakens. They are utterly horrible for each other, too stubborn to ever compromise, but that passion draws them to one another. Kylo Ren later becomes such a great combination of the two, the tragic product of their union.
I had forgotten about what Yoda was like in this first appearance. He is extremely pessimistic about Luke’s ability to become a Jedi and doesn’t let up once he reveals who he is. Before that, I interpret his mischievousness as both a test and sign that he sees Luke as a waste of time. When Yoda speaks to the disembodied Kenobi, he is always expressing confidence that this effort will fail. I have to say, I am not too clear on Kenobi’s motivations in this picture. Why is he so insistent that Luke be trained? To kill Vader? To prevent Luke from following his father’s path? As I look at Empire as a standalone movie, I want to see if these things can be understood within the two hours and seven-minute runtime.
Ordinary People (directed by Robert Redford)
From my review: Ordinary People doesn’t pull punches when it comes to the emotional fallout of Buck’s death and Conrad’s suicide attempt. The picture offers a realistic bittersweet ending; there is a sense that life will get better for Conrad, but not everyone involved is willing to directly confront themselves and work through the trauma. There’s a supporting character, Karen, who Conrad met in the hospital who is only in the picture briefly but whose presence and life profoundly affects the young man. We follow through him through highs and lows, and Redford communicates clearly that mental health is an ongoing process that people aren’t ever permanently healed, but they can live life better.
Much of the conversations center around the idea of “control,” specifically emotions. Conrad is scared to feel his feelings and his psych encourages him to really explode in the safety of the office, to be mad at his brother and his mom. Beth has trained herself to never show any emotion she’s labeled as “negative.” She never talks about Buck, she never acknowledges his death or her son’s suicide attempt. Beth grew up in upper-middle-class comfort, and we can imply she had this WASP-y, patrician mindset taught to her over those years. I would assume Calvin did too, but he developed empathy along the way and found comfort in talking about his feelings. The clashes and dysfunction between these people underline the deep unhappiness that infects so many people in the United States from then to now.
The Shining (directed by Stanley Kubrick)
From my review: Throughout The Shining, there are passing comments made about dark events in American history. While driving to the Overlook, Wendy mentions the Donner Party, which leads to Jack explaining to Danny how they cannibalized each other to survive the winter. During a tour of the hotel, the manager mentions that it was built on a Native American burial ground and that graves had to be disturbed during construction. The interior of the building is adorned with Native American art, both traditional in style and colonists’ interpretations. The Overlook is haunted by the brutal killings by a father of his wife and children. At the same time, the place is meant to be a means to escape the outside world.
Watching all of Kubrick’s films in order led me to see The Shining in a new way. There is a throughline of pessimism in all his work about humanity, societal institutions, and (in Barry Lyndon) the very nature of fate. In all these instances, people are both capable of free will but seemingly restrained by forces beyond their control. When the elevators open as Wendy Torrance tears through the Overlook, I believe Kubrick is revealing his thesis statement. We all live on a mountain of corpses and atrocities that we find ways to ignore every day of our lives. Kubrick does not allow Jack off the hook by placing the blame on the weight of history behind him.
The Elephant Man (directed by David Lynch)
From my review: The Elephant Man was made on the heels of Lynch’s debut feature Eraserhead. Like Mel Brooks, the Elephant Man’s producer stated about this first film “It’s an adolescent’s nightmare about taking responsibility.” Brooks is right on the nose, and I would argue that the follow-up feature is the story of the grotesque as the most human and the normal as the greatest horror. This theme would come to permeate the entirety of Lynch’s work, but here it is maturation. In Eraserhead, the horror of the ordinary is to become a husband and father, and this is an absolutely understandable fear from a young man. However, it is a horror that doesn’t resonate nearly as deep as how the common man is portrayed in The Elephant Man. Half a decade later, Lynch would refine this idea in Blue Velvet and ever since it has been a theme he returns to time and time again.
While set in Victorian England and featuring none of whom would become Lynch’s regulars, there are still elements of his direction present. The surreal opening nightmare, wordlessly telling the myth behind Merrick’s deformity is standard Lynch. Smoke represents the spiritual moving into our sphere of reality. A woman’s screams are distorted to the point of becoming animalistic roars. Lynch forces his audience to linger with and process the horrid pain of another human being. Throughout the film, we move through a nighttime industrial landscape of grim and churning machines. The film concludes with a low electronic hum as we drift forward in a sea of stars. This is undeniably a David Lynch film, yet still unlike the vast majority of his work.