The Summer Blockbuster: 1975 – 1985

It began with a great white shark.

It wasn’t until the mid-70s that the concept of summer being a time to release big budget, special effects driven pictures came into the zeitgeist. Looking at the current wave of summer movies, its easy to see that science fiction and fantasy dominate, but back in the 1950s and 1960s the majority of these genre films were low budget and full of poor acting. The novel Jaws by Peter Benchley was purchased by Universal in 1973 and went through two directors before the studio settled on the relatively green Steven Spielberg. Universal’s first choice had been John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven) and then Dick Richards, who was fired after continually referring the shark as “the whale”.


To Universal, Jaws was going to be a successful film, but they never expected to be as huge a hit as it became. On June 20th, 1975 the picture was released nationwide, meaning it opened in Los Angeles and New York as well as smaller venues across the country. In the past, a film would open in a larger market and slowly spread across the country. Many film historians see this business move as the one that ensured Jaws‘ success. Up to this point the late 1960s and early 1970s had been dominated by artist driven pictures, and the studios had given up the reigns to young and headstrong young directors with a vision. Directors like Bob Rafelson (Five Easy Pieces) and Hal Ashby (Harold and Maude) had been the kind of filmmakers producing studio pictures, something very unlikely even today. In many ways, by using Spielberg, a contemporary of these young directors, but saddling him with a very studio controlled and non-character driven film, the studios were attempting to reassert their control. But the success of Jaws was nothing compared to Star Wars‘ release two years later.

There’s not much to say about Star Wars that isn’t well-known already. George Lucas, after establishing himself with American Graffiti and THX-1138, released his science fiction epic using the tropes of the serialized films of his childhood. Unlike Jaws, Lucas didn’t have a plethora of studio support behind his film and clashed with his crew, who were veterans of the film industry while Lucas was seen as an upstart. After missing its Christmas 1976 release, 20th Century Fox moved it to May 1977. Early director’s cuts were screened for Lucas’ friends, including Brian de Palma and Steven Spielberg and their reactions were disappointing. Every thing seemed to be pointing at Star Wars being a colossal failure. Lucas finally screened the picture to 20th Century Fox executives and was shocked. They loved it. One executive admitted to crying during the film at how beautiful it was, and Lucas was completely blown away from getting studio approval on a film for the first time in his career.

However, instead of becoming a studio lackey, Lucas began to build his own quiet corner of the film industry and cleverly established production facilities for sound and other technical aspects of film to create a financial safety net.  Filming for The Empire Strikes Back began in 1979, with Lucas letting Lawrence Kasdan direct while Lucas supervised as producer. While the budget for Star Wars has been $11 million ($3 million over budget), Empire had a pool of $18.5 which, after a studio fire, became $22 million. Lucas always seemed to be struggling with the limitations of the contemporary technology to realize his vision. It can be seen in the concept art of Ralph McQuarrie, that Lucas wanted to make something so expansive and ground breaking. It wouldn’t be till 1999’s The Phantom Menace that he got his wish, while audiences felt the heart of the series was lost amidst masturbatory world building.

For most of the 1970s and 80s, Spielberg and Lucas dominated the summer movie. Spielberg went on to give us Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. He then teamed with Lucas to create the Indiana Jones franchise, a film series that seemed to up the ante in terms of character based blockbusters. Harrison Ford has said in interviews that he is always much more eager to play Indiana Jones again, than Han Solo. With Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Hollywood underwent a change that would shape the industry for decades to come. The level of violence in Temple challenged the MPAA’s standards and Spielberg desperately didn’t want the film to be slapped with the death sentence of an R rating. These Spielberg/Lucas films depended greatly on the viewer-ship of young audiences, particularly for the merchandising tie-ins. As a compromise, the MPAA invented the rating of PG-13.

One year after Temple, Spielberg released the Robert Zemeckis-directed Back to the Future, a film that combined special effects driven sci fi with the teen comedy. The film proved that you didn’t have to have Spielberg or Lucas directing a film to make it a huge success. Both Zemeckis and screenwriter Bob Gale were terrified that the film had not lived up to their vision and figured it would bomb. Audiences went crazy for it however, and critic Roger Ebert pointed out that at its core it shared a lot of thematic similarities with the beloved It’s A Wonderful Life. As we entered into the mid-80s, Lucas began to fade from the scene as a director and Spielberg would continue to top the grossing-lists. However, there were now a group of directors moving in to prove their own ability to pull audiences in.

Next: 1986 – 1995: Gump, Disney, and Ahnold.

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Jolly Good Thursdays – I Capture the Castle



I Capture the Castle (2003, dir. Tim Fywell)
Starring Romola Garai, Rose Byrne, Henry Thomas, Marc Blucas, Bill Nighy

This is not the sort of story you would expect from Dodie Smith, the same author behind 101 Dalmatians. Instead of a tale aimed towards the younger set, this is a coming of age story set in the mid-1930s. Themes of wealth and love and how the two are intertwined make up the spine of the picture and, what might have been a trite film, is aided by great performances to become something quite a bit better than that. The picture manages to be both an escapist romance and a grounding story of how much love can hurt.

The film opens with the Mortmains’ arrival at an old castle where their author patriarch has relocated them. The events are narrated by middle child Cassandra (Garai), who is overshadowed by their father’s second wife Topaz and Cassandra’s older sister, Rose (Byrne). The castle, which was a magical place when they first came to live there, has become a dank and moldy tomb for the family. Things begin to change when the owners of the castle, American brothers Simon and Neil Cotton arrive to decide what they are going to do with the estate. Rose sees this as her opportunity to marry into money and tries to woo Simon, the elder brother. However, Cassandra is also smitten with Simon and Neil has feelings for Rose.

The Mortmain family is incredibly eccentric and director Fywell is tasked with finding humor in their quirks as well as showing they have consequences. This is particularly highlighted through Mr. Mortmain, a successful author when his family was young, but who has failed to be able to write anything of value since. At first his hang ups and odd behavior come across light, but as the film progresses we see the detrimental effect that have on his entire family. Cassandra is also forced to face the fact that her father’s mental state may be beyond help. That’s quite a heavy weight for our plucky 16 year old protagonist to handle. In a similar fashion, Rose’s vapidity and desperation to find a man are played for laughs at the start, but when she enters into a relationship with a man she doesn’t actually love we can see how a harmless quirk becomes destructive to many people.

The film is not a major cinematic achievement by any means, but it is a very solid and well paced story about eccentric people having to deal with how their behavior effects others. The story is a very mature one, that lets the characters lose themselves in the giddiness of a first love, but also grounds them by not having everything tied up in a neat package. There is hurt and not much closure for our protagonists. In many ways this is a more adult Nicolas Sparks tale, that refrains from maudlin sentiment and allows its characters to have real flaws.

Newbie Wednesday – Daybreakers



Daybreakers (2009, dir. The Spierig Brothers)
Starring Ethan Hawke, Sam Neill, Willem Dafoe

Vampires are on the brain of many a Hollywood screenwriter these days. From the Twilight franchise to CW teen drama The Vampire Diaries, the sanguine are a hot commodity. The vampire is one of those monsters that seems to have a couple different interpretations. You have the elegant sex object popularized by Dracula and the Anne Rice novels, you have the eerily inhuman humanoid seen in the classic Nosferatu, and then occasional we see a completely bestial form. What’s interesting about Daybreakers is that it touches on each of these forms; and while the film is high concept, does it live up to the ideas it presents?

In a world where humans were overtaken by vampirism about a decade earlier, humans are becoming extinct and without a steady blood supply, the vampires are experiencing a secondary mutation. The blood deprived vampires end up feeding on each other, poisoning their systems and becoming more animal than human. Edward Dalton (Hawke) is a corporate hematologist seeking to synthesize a blood substitute and tests are less than successful. He’s overseen by his intimidating boss (Neill) and army grunt brother. Eventually, Dalton crosses paths with the human resistance movement and their leader, Elvis (Dafoe). Elvis was once a vampire but through a random circumstance he reverted back to human. Dalton sets out to figure out why and see if he can cure humanity once and for all.

The film is chock full of amazing ideas. Life is lived at night or in a series of interconnected tunnels beneath the city where there are copious little cafes or newspaper stands. Life is fairly similar to our own, except for the whole needing to feed on blood part. It was also refreshing that there would be select vampires who retained empathy that outweighed their biological needs to feed. There’s even a senator featured on a news program whose big issue is humanity rights and wants to remove humans from being used a cattle. The cinematography is also very clean and sharp. The directors definitely know how to set up a stylistic shot and their previous special effects works comes through.

On the flip side, the actual story of the film is complete and total mess. The transformation of Dafoe’s character never gets a comprehensible explanation and seems to be boiled down to wrapping yourself in a wet blanket and being exposed to sunlight, literally. This is the elusive cure for vampirism. The twists and turns the plots takes are either incredibly forced with no real reason behind them or simply an excuse to show people being torn limb from limb. Its apparent early on that the actors in this film are better than the material they are working with, and they most definitely don’t raise it beyond its mediocrity.

Asian Cinema Month – My Neighbor Totoro

My Neighbor Totoro (1988, dir. Hayao Miyazaki)

Hayao Miyazaki, Japan’s answer to Walt Disney, is mainly concerned with the rural and natural settings of Japan, rather than bustling metropolises. He can go very dark with this message (Princess Mononoke) or light (Ponyo), but he always returns to the ideas of children in an environment populated with copious vegetation and mystic animals. Once again, the children of the story need the help of a being from the forest to overcome the troubles of their lives and its all told in the type of lush animation you expect from Miyazaki.

Satsuki and Mei have just moved to a country house with their father to be close to the hospital their mother is staying in. The first day in the new home they are enthusiastic to explore, and encounter soot spirits, ashy ghosts that skitter away into holes in the wall when light enters. Little Mei explores further while her older sister is at school and follows a couple of magical rabbit-like creatures into the forest where she meets a gigantic sleeping furry beast. The creature identifies himself with a series of yawns which Mei hears as “Totoro”, the name she assigns him. The two girls eventually deal with a crisis moment involving their mother’s health and Totoro comes to the rescue to help diffuse the pain they feel with some lighthearted fun.

What I liked about the film was its rejection of the American fantasy formula. The drama here is kept very minimal and in the background. An adult audience is going to understand the mother’s condition as being a dark point in the picture, but it is presented in such a way that it won’t upset younger viewers. Miyazaki is able to tell stories for children, and adults not yet swallowed up by cynicism, in a way better than Disney ever has. The Disney films never feel like a real world, merely a construct and complete fantasy. Miyazaki infuses his worlds with details that make it feel like a place that could really be out there. They are the type of simple fantasies a child would truly dream up.

There is no need for princesses in Totoro. These are real little girls, captivated with simple things and vulnerable when it comes to the idea they might lose a parent. The creatures are never frightening and the children rush into the unknown without a sense of fear. It’s incredibly refreshing to see this kind of animated film, a style we see little of in the States.

DocuMondays – loudQUIETloud


loudQUIETloud (2006, dir. Steven Cantor, Matthew Galkin)
Featuring The Pixies (Charles Thompson, Kim Deal, David Lovering, Joey Santiago)

Kelly Deal, sister of Pixies’ bassist Kim Deal, sums up the nature of the band in very simple terms. She tells her sister, “You are four of the worst communicators I have ever seen!” And she is most definitely correct in this summation of the group. Throughout their 2004 Pixies Sell Out tour, the bandmates communicate with each other the barest minimum, retreating into their individual solo projects when not on stage in front of fans. What the documentary confirms is that there is no new Pixies material coming any time soon, and that the band simply got back together because, like most of us, they have bills to pay.

The Pixies were formed in the late 80s and fell apart in the early 90s, particularly from in-fighting between Charles Thompson and Kim Deal. As the film opens, Deal has recently come off a rehab stint for alcoholism and is accompanied by Kelly on the tour. They travel in a separate buses from the guys in the band because Kim must stay away from alcohol. Drummer David Lovering is also dealing with issues of substance abuse, though he hasn’t come to that realization. The rest of the band is visibly uncomfortable in his presence and eventually confront him about his constant cocktail of booze and Valium. The film is a meditation on what happens when a group of people who produce great art end up absolutely hating each other.

The most telling aspect of the picture is Kim Deal and her sister in this separate bus, following the guys. Even on the guys’ bus, Charles is caught up in negotiation a switch to a new recording label, Joey is working on the soundtrack for his documentary film, and David is unnatural chipper from the drugs in his system. These were the twentysomethings of the 1990s, now in their late thirties and completely self absorbed. Kim plucks away on demos for the new Breeders album, writing songs for it, never once thinking about new songs for the Pixies. At one point a reporter from Rolling Stone interviews Charles and asks about new material. Charles says he’s been keeping his solo demos around and letting the band hear them to hint about getting some new stuff together, but from seeing the rest of the film he seems disinterested, and often times annoyed to work with these people.

It’s interesting to see the enthusiasm of the high school and college aged fans who became aware of the Pixies years after the band fell apart. In their eyes the Pixies are a single unit and unreal. One girl brings a sign reading “Kim Deal is God”. She manages to slip Kim a copy of Brave New Girl, a novel whose protagonist is an obsessive fan of the Pixies. The camera is on Kim later in her bus as she thumbs through the book. Her reaction is one of distress, she quickly puts the book down and lights a cigarette. These people are simply that, people. Nothing more. They are in the middle of divorces, struggling with addictions, and trying to get by.

Director in Focus: Brian DePalma – Body Double



Body Double (1984)
Starring Craig Wasson, Melanie Griffith, Gregg Henry, Deborah Shelton

This film wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Vertigo and Rear Window. Once again, de Palma returns to his filmmaking mentor, Alfred Hitchcock to inform his own work. However, coming off of the stylistically redefining Scarface, Body Double feels like a Cinemax softcore porn with a creative cinematographer’s flourish lain over the top. For all the moviemaking love put into this film there’s just something off about it the whole time that taints it from living up to de Palma’s previous Hitchcock homages.

Jake is an actor working on a B-horror film, Vampire’s Kiss. He experiences a moment of claustrophobia during a scene in a coffin and the director tells him to take the week off. Jake arrives home to find his girlfriend in bed with another man and ends up homeless. Things are not going so well. He meets a fellow actor, Sam who needs a replacement for a house sitting gig in the Hollywood Hills. Jake happily takes the job and Sam lets him know about the woman across the street who nightly stands naked right in front of the large windows. Jake begins watching her obsessively and begins to realize she is in danger as a menacing figure stalks her. There are lots of twists and turns, but if you are an observant film goer you will probably figure out the picture’s twist early on.

What hurts the film about as equally as the lackluster script are the uncharismatic actors. Craig Wasson is so incredibly bland his performance comes across as comically bad. His interactions with Gregg Henry, who plays Sam, feel incredibly odd and unnatural, and this never comes across as intentional. Beyond Jake, there isn’t much acting going on in the film. All of the other characters, particularly female characters are flat props used simply to create peril and have violence rained down upon them.

The picture definitely feels like a film only the 1980s could have produced. It is full of excess and gratuitous sex that is put in the film merely to satisfy de Palma’s proclivities as well as to make Hollywood execs happy. Jake is eventually pulled into the harsh world of pornography to track down a woman that has a connection to the mystery he has become involved in. This gives de Palma the opportunity to shows lots of naked ladies (something he enjoys doing a little too much). At the end this will feel like de Palma’s cheapest film, a sidetrack back to Hitchcock country and a strange work to bridge the gap between Scarface and his later entrance into Hollywood big budget movies.

Asian Cinema Month – Yi Yi



Yi Yi (2000, dir. Edward Yang)
Starring Nien-Jen Wu, Elaine Jin, Issei Ogata, Kelly Lee, Jonathan Chang, Hsi-Sheng Chen

The one thing all families have in common is that they are complex beyond belief and filled with emotional nuance. This millennial picture focused around a typical middle class family in Taipei is able to explore the fragmented lives of the individuals without resorting to clich├ęd dysfunction. The drama is kept moderate yet the film is never too slow to disengage the audience. If you are of the mind to enjoy explosive Michael Bay-esque movies than this may not be the best bet for you at the moment. If instead you want to patiently follow the rise and fall of a quiet family then you are in for something very fascinating.

The film opens on the wedding of NJ’s brother-in-law. NJ is the patriarch of the central family in the film and he is a very patient and loving father. His son, Yang wants McDonald’s rather than the food being served at the reception and NJ submits to the child. On their way back to the party, NJ runs into his college sweetheart at the same hotel for a business meeting. Something appears to be rekindled between the two. NJ’s mother-in-law ends up in a coma shortly after the wedding and his wife becomes emotionally broken. The burden of tending the household falls on their teenage daughter, Ting. Ting has become friends with the new neighbor’s daughter and is caught in a high school love triangle with the girl’s boyfriend. Yang is constantly picked on by an older girl at his school and become very reclusive and obsessed with taking photos of mundane things.

The hits the three hour mark and is as epic as it is subtle and contemplative. There’s no sweeping score or dramatic crescendos. It’s simply life being played out and framed as if the mundane is just as epic as mythical heroes’ journies. The structure of the film is that of an entire human existence. We open on a wedding, end on a funeral, and in between there is love, heartbreak, tragedy, murder, people sharing good times over a warm meal, people feeling alienated, attempted suicide. But the picture never feels over the top or campy. The tone is kept tempered so this feels like dipping your hand in vat of pure distilled humanity.

I was made to think of Hollywood attempts at family dramas and how I can never fully engage with those characters because the script is forced to follow a 90 minute template. Yes, three hours is a long time for a film of this nature, but it is absolutely essential. And even three hours isn’t long enough to know these characters. No one is overly dramatic despite the situations they are put in. NJ is tempted with getting back together with his lost love and the outcome is left ambiguous. NJ does business with a Japanese video game developer during the film, Ota, who is one of the most intriguing characters in the film. He feels very real, a businessman who didn’t get to where he was because he was ruthless, but because he recognized the need of every person to be inspired by something.

This has to be one of the most positive, yet real films about people I have ever seen. It will leave you asking a lot of questions about our families, about the distance we have from them, and how large the scope of our lives truly is.