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.
In 1980, Mel Brooks started his own production company, Brooksfilm. Under this umbrella, he would produce pictures like The Elephant Man, The Fly, and many of his own films like Spaceballs and Robin Hood: Men in Tights. The very first movie released from Brooksfilm would be Fatso, the directorial debut of Brooks’s wife, Anne Bancroft. Despite her very Anglo sounding name, Bancroft was really Anna Maria Louisa Italiano, and so her film is reflective of her very traditional Italian upbringing in New York City. Accurately, we see the toxic effect of a culture so centered around consumption using food to soothe anxiety and stress, while never tackling the underlying issues. The result is an incredibly mixed bag of tonal inconsistency and a lack of a clear point of view on the characters and themes.
The Empire Strikes Back (1980) Written by Lawrence Kasdan & Leigh Brackett Directed by Irvin Kershner
The Star Wars movies are always viewed collectively as trilogies, but I thought it would be interesting to examine one in isolation, as the product of a year in a landscape of other movies. Empire Strikes Back was released at the start of summer that also included The Blues Brothers, Airplane!, Caddyshack, Friday the 13th, and The Shining to name a few. It’s no surprise that the second Star Wars film dominated the box office and was the number one hit domestically and internationally. I’d be willing to bet people saw Empire that hadn’t seen the first picture as that is something that happens today with all sorts of film franchises. I have to wonder what a person like that thought as they were watching. I think the film does such an excellent job communicating who its characters are that even if you don’t get every detail, you understand from an archetypal perspective what is going on.
Ordinary People (1980) Written by Alvin Sargent Directed by Robert Redford
American culture still has problems talking about mental health, but it was considerably more complicated when Ordinary People came out. This was also the directorial debut of actor Robert Redford, who founded the Sundance Institute, a non-profit dedicated to helping independent filmmakers create their work. Redford always stood out as an actor who physically appeared as the atypical Hollywood glamor star but who chose work that didn’t always focus on his looks. Throughout the 1970s, he picked smartly written work closely tied to his political and philosophical views. With his first gig as a director, he managed to make a film that would never be a crowd-pleaser but focused on essential issues that movies often sidestepped.
The Changeling (1980) Written by William Gray & Diana Maddox Directed by Peter Medak
Does tragedy make a person more open to other planes of existence? If we come close to death or experience, profound loss, are we then able to brief make out the shades of another world that exists within our own? The Changeling explores these ideas in a tightly crafted and well made haunted house picture. Long before the days of Blumhouse, this was a movie that trafficked in many of the same tropes and themes but didn’t need to lean into empty jumpscares or tired formulas to keep audiences interested. That isn’t to say this is a perfect film, but it is made by people who understand what is genuinely horrific about existence.
Somewhere in Time (1980) Written by Richard Matheson Directed by Jeannot Szwarc
I approached this film with moderate expectations but found myself enjoying it quite a bit. Somewhere in Time is a melodrama dripping with maudlin sentimentality. But it’s a well crafted one, so those excesses and silly bits can easily be ignored or enjoyed. The film is based on the novel Bid Time Return, also written by Richard Matheson. Between this film and my Twilight Zone series, I have enjoyed Matheson’s work this year. I’d only previously read I Am Legend, but I think I may need to do a deeper dive into his work. Somewhere in Time feels like a Matheson episode of Twilight Zone, which is stretched out a little longer and gives us a relatively decent tragic love story.
The Fog (1980) Written by John Carpenter & Debra Hill Directed by John Carpenter
John Carpenter is a well-known master of horror & the fantastic and in the early 1980s he was doing the best work of his career. By 1980 he’d directed Dark Dark, Assault of Precinct 13, and the film that propelled him to greater heights, Halloween. Two years later, he would make one movie a year for five consecutive years. It began with The Fog. The idea for The Fog came over several years dating back to the early 1970s as Carpenter recalled a British horror film he saw from a child about monsters in the clouds. While visiting Stonehenge while filming in the UK, he noticed the eerieness of a fog that crept over the site. After hearing about a tragic shipwreck off the northern California coast, Carpenter sat down with then-girlfriend Debra Hill and worked out the screenplay.
Airplane! (1980) Written & Directed by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, & Jerry Zucker
This is one of those films that had a profound influence on me as a kid, though I only knew it by the edited for television version I recorded on the family VCR. Airplane! is the origins of the modern spoof or parody film where a genre is taken and skewered with a non-stop barrage of jokes. Mel Brooks definitely helped pave the way with pictures like Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles, but even those movies still had a coherent plot arc. Airplane! doesn’t care about the plot and sees it only as a delivery device for hilarious comedy. This movie still holds up today because it doesn’t couch its jokes in the contemporary pop culture of its time.
Nine to Five (1980) Written by Colin Higgins and Patricia Resnick Directed by Colin Higgins
Nine to Five came to Jane Fonda after talking to an old friend who was part of a women’s office workers association called “9to5”. This organization is dedicated to improving the working conditions and ensuring the rights of working women in the United States. They have partnered with local unions to help collective bargaining efforts, establishing themselves by doing this in Boston in the mid-1970s. 9to5 continues their work to this day, expanding their reach nationally and rallying on issues from the pay gap, childcare, sexual harassment, and more. Fonda initially thought of the picture as a drama but decided that it would be too preachy and on the nose, so she opted for a classic Hollywood style farce.
Popeye (1980) Written by Jules Feiffer, Songs by Harry Nilsson Directed by Robert Altman
The making of Popeye began with a bidding war for the film rights to the Broadway stage adaptation of Little Orphan Annie. When producer Robert Evans found out Paramount had lost the bid to Columbia Pictures, he held an executive meeting about what comic properties they owned that could replace Annie. One person chimed in “Popeye,” and so it was decided they would make a movie musical based on the spinach-eating sailor man. The original concept was to cast Dustin Hoffman as Popeye and Lily Tomlin as Olive Oyl, but that fell through. At one point, even Gilda Radner was considered for Olive. However, when things finally settled and production began, we ended up with a picture that Paramount wasn’t too happy with, but that has become a cult classic.