Category: 1983


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Without wanting to be “that” guy, it’s easy to tell the real Stephen King fans from the casual readers. Though the man has nearly turned horror into his raison d’etre, his most loyal readers know that many of his most accomplished works fall outside of the typical purview of supernatural horror fiction, and some even abandon horror entirely to be modern fantasy epics (The Dark Tower novels) or simple tales of hope and redemption (Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption). Long-time readers of this blog know that I consider his political allegory Under the Dome to be one of the best modern novels I’ve read in recent years. And while The Dead Zone may not rest at the top of my list of King’s works, it was one of the first novels to really explore the man’s range as an author.

As much as I love the 1979 novel, Mr. King’s sprawling and occasionally unfocused tale doesn’t seem like the ideal candidate for a faithful film adaptation. The main villain isn’t really introduced until towards the end of the book, and much of the film’s conflict is internal and psychological. But, to David Cronenberg’s credit, he made one of the most faithful King adaptations I can think of (most Stephen King movies have sadly little to do with their source book). 1983’s The Dead Zone has its share of problems in coming to the big screen, but it helped introduce a whole generation to the possibilities of Mr. King outside of typical horror fare.

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When affable high middle school English teacher Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) drops off his girlfriend after at a night at the fair, his life as he knows is it is destroyed when his car is totaled by an 18-wheeler on a rainy night. Johnny wakes up fives years later from a deep coma, and his whole world has moved on without him. His girlfriend has gotten married and even has children, and his mother dies of a heart attack not long after he wakes up. However, Johnny has bigger problems than just acclimating to being out of the world for five years. When he wakes up, he now has the power to see into a person’s future and past simply by touching them.

Johnny’s powers awaken when he brushes arms with a nurse in the long-term care facility where he’s staying after he wakes up. He sees the nurse’s daughter burning in a fire-consumed house, and it is only by the stroke of Johnny’s premonition that he is able to save the girl. It isn’t long before word of Johnny’s powers reach the public, and he’s brought in to help solve a serial murder case in the classic King town of Castle Rock. After Johnny’s powers expose him directly to the horrors of man during that investigation, he wants to retire until a chance meeting with rising politician Greg Stillson (The Departed‘s Martin Sheen) brings him visions of the apocalypse.

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While The Dead Zone isn’t really a horror book/film, David Cronenberg expertly taps into the dread and horrific violence at the center of the tale. And his direction fuels the unsettling, psychologically unstable world that Johnny must now navigate. In the scene where Johnny and Sheriff Walt Bannerman (Alien‘s Tom Skeritt) finally confront the Castle Rock Killer, Cronenberg (whose background was in sci-fi/horror squickfests) employs every tool at his disposal to heighten the tension and disgust for a man who’s murdered so many girls. And during the premonition sequences, Cronenberg lends the proceedings just the right amount of surrealism to sell the supernatural aspect of what Johnny is experiencing.

A quick search of Christopher Walken in my blog’s search bar shows that if this isn’t straight out the first Christopher Walken movie I’ve reviewed, it’s at least the first one where he’s had a substantive role. And that’s crazy to me since I’ve reviewed over 360 films. Walken gives one of my favorite film performances of all time in The Deer Hunter and while Johnny isn’t as demanding as the shell-shocked Vietnam veteran, it’s still a psychologically complex role and Walken has to show so much of the internal conflict present in King’s novel that had to be left unsaid in the film (for time’s sake). Walken’s Johnny is a frazzled and weary man, but he’s also one that is kind and tough and fiercely protective of the things he cares about. Martin Sheen also bursts off the screen as the sociopathic Greg Stillson.

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Clearly, in a film that’s just over an hour and a half long, much of the characterization of King’s novel is lost, and the scenes involving the Castle Rock killer (as excellent as the denouement may be) seems rushed and almost distracting from the movie’s main themes, but more than most King films, Cronenberg manages to keep enough in to make the film function both as a movie in its own right but also a faithful King adaptation. Even as a novel, The Dead Zone lacks the epic ambition of The Stand or It, but for fans of supernatural thrillers and a movie with a genuinely shocking final act, The Dead Zone is an artifact of 1980s filmmaking that has aged well to this day.

Final Score: B+

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If you don’t like Billy Joel, the only reasonable explanation is false hipster snobbery. He’s one of the greatest American songwriters of all time. At his prime, I’m not sure if anybody out there was better. This particular track, “Tell Her About It,” comes off his seminal classic record, An Innocent Man. I’m not sure why this song is resonating with me right now but I found myself singing it on my car ride home from work today. It’s always been one of my favorite Billy Joel tunes, and for some reason, I’m just really feeling it right now. My original plan had been to use a song from the new Fiction Family record but Billy Joel wins right now. Sing me a song piano man.

 

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After two movies in as many weeks, it might be too early to say that Brian De Palma is a hack of a director, but that’s where my heart is beginning to lean. In my film studies class, just one week after watching the 1932 Scarface, we watched the De Palma helmed remake (which was itself only a week or so after I happened to watch De Palma’s later film The Untouchables). Regular readers know how much I disliked the Howard Hawks Scarface, and as my gut memory was telling me, Brian De Palma’s version isn’t much better. A gory and expletive filled ride into the cocaine crime glory days of the 1980s, 1983’s Scarface is as hollow as Tony Montana’s heart.

Take Tony Camonte, make him Cuban, and have his business be cocaine instead of booze, and you get an idea of the kind of man that Tony Montana (Al Pacino) is. Fresh off the boat from Cuba, Montana is a career criminal that has his eyes set on capturing his slice of the American dream, even if it means killing scores of men to get to the top. With his best friend Manny (Steven Bauer), Tony works his way up the cocaine business, first under the tutelage of Frank Lopez (Big‘s Robert Loggia).  Tony’s take-no-shit attitude and almost psychopathic fury make him a natural player in the cut-throat world of the booming cocaine explosion.

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But it’s the same qualities that make Tony such a natural as an enforcer and paid tough that prove to be what propels him to the top of the business and then cause his ignominious downfall. Tony quickly falls for Frank Lopez’s beautiful wife Elvira (The Age of Innocence‘s Michelle Pfeiffer), and when he sees the chance to stake out on his own with the help of a true Bolivian drug lord, Tony plants the seeds of a massive drug empire that Frank Lopez could barely imagine. But his insane jealousy surrounding his sister Gina (The Color of Moneys Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) and his own perverse code of ethics prove to be his undoing.

I’m a big Al Pacino. Along with Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson, he’s easily one of the greatest actors of his generation. And it pains me to say that Scarface is one of the worst performances of his entire career. Maybe it’s the god-awful Cuban accent (which sounds so unnatural coming from his mouth) or the way that Pacino’s usual explosive intensity seems so artificial. Nothing about Tony Montana, from the performance to the writing, feels natural or realistic. There are small moments here and there where Pacino is able to remind you why he’s one of the greatest actors of all time, but he spends too much of Scarface chewing up the scenery without revealing any of Tony’s depth.

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And the supporting performances are equally atrocious. Robert Loggia has proven himself time and time again to be one of Hollywood’s most capable intimidators (just watch Lost Highway if you need proof of that), but his Frank Lopez seems to be a soft balloon and not always in the intentional sense. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio wowed so much in The Color of Money which makes Gina’s vacuity in this film that much more disappointing. Steven Bauer finds the cocksure swagger that makes Manny such a ladies man, but much like Pacino, he ultimately reduces the character to a tired racial stereotype.

The film’s best aspect is the killer score and a sense for the fashion and visual dynamics of the early 1980s which it managed to both represent as well as ultimately shape because of the film’s huge influence on how the 1980s are perceived. The period songs that are used in the soundtrack are in fact so great that Grand Theft Auto 3 had a 1980s station that played nothing but songs from this movie’s soundtrack and Giorgio Moroder’s score was a beautiful evocation of the sun-soaked Miami that became Tony’s cocaine playground. Throw in the bright colors and pastels of the film’s costumes and sets, and the movie just feels like an archetype of the 1980s.

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Much like The Untouchables, Brian De Palma just over-directs virtually every sequence of the film with unnecessary frills and flourishes that don’t enhance the viewer’s interaction with Scarface but rather remind you that you’re watching a nearly three-hour bloated bit of cinematic artifice. Although I distinctly remember enjoying De Palma’s adaptation of Carrie, both Scarface and The Untouchables paint De Palma as a man who is unwilling to put even the most basic of trust in to his script and his storytelling and that he must instead beat the audience over the head with over-the-top visual stimulus.

De Palma’s Scarface is at times a nearly scene-for-scene remake of the original. Oliver Stone wrote the script for the film (I can only imagine how much better this film would have been had he directed it) and so it will occasionally contain a bit of the political commentary that Stone later became known for, but De Palma sucked the life out of any intelligence the script might have originally had by shooting it with such a blunt and merciless style that is devoid of either cinematic poetry or cinematic truth. The movie tends to be shockingly violent and crude almost only for the sake of being shockingly violent and crude without any message to back it up.

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All of those major complaints aside, Scarface is still visceral and stimulating enough to keep you engaged for its nearly three hour long running time. Had a more capable director been at the helm and had the excess fat been cut, this could have been a great film. As it is, Scarface is a fun reminder of the excess of the 1980s and perhaps the shallow soullessness that defined a decade when Ronald Reagan was president and cocaine was king. This is not a film that deserves to rank aside the all-time great crime classics, but if you don’t find yourself roused by its explosive finish, you should probably get your adrenal gland checked.

Final Score: B-

 

I think I’ve posited this belief on here several times (first with my review of Stop Making Sense, one of the greatest concert films ever made, as well as when “Psycho Killer” was one of my first Songs of the Day), but I firmly believe that Talking Heads are one of the most under-appreciated bands of all time. They get all sorts of deserved love from the indie music community (and people who were listening to the burgeoning notion of college rock in the actual 70s and 80s), but outside of “Burning Down the House,” the average American doesn’t know their stuff. It’s a shame cause David Byrne and crew were some of the top performers of their day, and they were making exciting, genre-blurring music that is still undeniable fun today. They’re my Song of the Day again today (usually today would be a day for new music since I did an older song yesterday) because I just watched (and thoroughly enjoyed) Lars and the Real Girl and during a particularly memorable (and awkward) scene, they played “This Must Be the place (Naive Melody)” and I loved it. I’m really sad that I’ll never see Talking Heads live. They’re up there with XTC on my top groups from the 80s that I’ll just never get to see.

I got a phone call about an hour ago right as I was starting this post. I’ve been on the phone since then. I just got off of it. It was a good call, and now I’m in a very excellent mood. I won’t really go into much more other than to say I have my first paying gig that utilizes my writing skills. So, that’s awesome. I had picked my Song of the Day before I got the call because it matched my attempts to continue using older music for this blog. However, the jangling, up-tempo indie pop of “This Charming Man” by The Smiths. And yes, I realize this song is about a gay guy having to come to terms with the fact that he’s gay. It’s still a fun song, and it’s gorgeous, and I’m in a fantastic mood, and it makes my mood even better. God bless Morrissey. I have to do some work for my new gig so I’ll keep this short and just leave you with Morrissey’s stellar lyrics and vulnerable voice alongside Johnny Marr’s perfect guitar line.

On a list of things people don’t actually say very often, “I’m a huge Men at Work (the 80s band now the new TBS show) fan” is probably pretty high on the rare side of that equation. Regardless, I totally am. My dad bought me their greatest hits album in middle school after I had heard “Down Under” in music class, and I realized that wasn’t even one of their best songs (though I still love it). Seriously, download Contraband, their greatest hits album, and you will be astounded by how awesome these dudes sound (especially compared to a lot of their 80s peers). They’ve got a jazz meets reggae meets new wave thing going on that is very awesome. Enough raving about Men At Work though. I had the chance to see Colin Hay (front row!) at this year’s Bonnaroo. He’s the lead singer of Men At Work in addition to having a decent solo career. Right before I left for Bonnaroo, I happened to watch the episode of Scrubs (my sister is currently watching the entire series on Netflix) where Colin Hay sings “Overkill” and I was just dying to see if Colin Hay would perform it at Bonnaroo. He opened the set with it and he actually made my list of the top 10 acts I caught this year (you can read that list here). So, I’m going with the stripped down, acoustic version of “Overkill” that Colin Hay performs when he does his solo act. It’s a lot of fun.

 

Spotify is going to be a little complicated for this one. They don’t have the solo Colin Hay version of the song so in June’s playlist, it will be the Men at Work version of the song. Also, if you want ot hear the 2012 Playlist (as opposed to June’s), you can find that here.

 Here’s a weird bit of contradiction that makes me the strange little Don Saas that I am. My tastes whether it’s books or movies or music generally run in the artsy direction, and I would prefer to watch a Darren Aranofsky film to a Michael Bay or James Cameron pic any day. I like Animal Collective and Radiohead, and I love James Joyce and Thomas Pynchon. So, part of me is terribly ashamed that one of my favorite authors of all time is Stephen King. There’s just something about his books and his twisted imagination that I find really interesting. Film adaptations of his books, on the other hand, are a terribly hit and miss affair that range from the awesome (The Shawshank Redemption, The Shining, The Mist) to god-awful terrible (Thinner, Needful Things). I just finished re-watching 1983’s Christine and it is easily the worst movie I’ve reviewed for this blog so far.

The basic story of Christine is more exciting than the film itself. Nerdy Arnie Cunningham buys a beat up 1958 Plymouth Fury named Christine and restores it to its beautiful pristine glory. It’s a great looking car. However, the car is evil or possessed or something (you never really find out). As Arnie becomes closer with his car, his personality slowly starts to transform to something much darker and ominous, and soon Christine goes on a killing spree killing everyone that gets between her and Arnie. It’s up to Arnie’s best friend and his girlfriend to try and save him and stop Christine.

This movie is just awful. It’s not scary. It’s not interesting. The acting is terrible. It lacks any bit of subtlety or imagination. It was only an hour and a half long but I kept checking to see how much time was left and for it to be over. Stephen King’s novels are always as much about his characters and the theme of the book as they are about horror, and this film failed to capture King’s signature voice. I can’t recommend this to anyone and I regret the hour and a half of my life that I lost watching this.

 Final Score: D

Well, we’ve gotten to the second film for this blog that won Best Picture at the Academy awards, the first being my review for No Country For Old Men. This time around we have 1983’s Best Picture, the tear-jerker family drama Terms of Endearment, which also picked up awards for direction, screenplay, and acting Oscars for Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson. Where I often have conflicted feelings towards No Country For Old Men as to whether it was truly a great film and worthy of that place in cinema history, I definitely know that I don’t think Terms of Endearment is the kind of film that I would name as the best picture of the year (unless the year was just really awful), but it wasn’t a bad movie either. It just wasn’t great, although the performances from Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson were absolutely fantastic and saved the film from utter mediocrity.

The movie is about a mother and a daughter, Aurora (the mother played to absolute perfection by Shirley MacLaine) and Emma (Debra Winger) Greenway. Aurora is a generally nasty, neurotic, and over-bearing woman, and her daughter is much more care-free and full of life. Emma marries Flap Horton (a very young Jeff Daniels). Jack Nicholson enters the fray as the lecherous, drunk, lout of a neighbor who was also a former astronaut by the name of Garrett Breedlove who starts to thaw the ice queen that is Aurora. The movie is almost 30 years old now so I don’t think I’m giving too much away by saying that eventually Emma is diagnosed with cancer, and that is the heart of the last act of the film which is just absolutely heart-breaking. I was bawling my eyes out, but it’s not necessarily that difficult to make me cry.

The film’s story is nothing to write home about and it’s something that you’ve seen a million times. However, the writing is, during some scenes, actually pretty excellent. The movie can be riotously funny, especially when it focuses on the relationship between Aurora and Garrett. They both deserved every single accolade and award that they won for this film. Jack Nicholson is still at the top of his game and Shirley MacLaine gives the performance of her career. However, when the moment calls for incredible dramatic acting, Shirley MacLaine is able to deliver there as well. Probably the most famous scene of the film is her yelling to “give my daughter her shots”. She stands right now as having given the best female performance that I’ve reviewed for this blog so far. She was (in Aurora’s words) “fan-fucking-tastic”. I can’t say the same thing for Debra Winger. Every second she was on screen, prior to when she got sick, I just wanted to turn the movie off. Her story and plot was not interesting and her performance was not up to par with the rest of the cast. However, she did manage to do better when she was dying. The last scene with her and her children had me an emotional wreck.

Well, if you’re a woman, you’ll probably enjoy this movie more than I did. I hope that I didn’t come off as sexist, but this is a film about two women and their troubled relationships with men. Perhaps, I had some difficulty relating to the predicaments because of what chromosomes I have. But, this movie was ok. I was expecting it to be much worse and much more maudlin, and there was actually a lot more life to the film than what I was expecting. Obviously, if you’re a real movie buff, you need to watch it since it won Best Picture, but that’s really the only main reason I would give to watching it.

Final Score: B