Ladies and Gentlemen…. the GLORY OF THE 80’s!

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Roll out the red carpet and shoot off those fireworks. We finally have a name for the 1980s project. And that name is (drumroll please)…. GLORY OF THE 80’S! What can I say? I always liked Tori Amos, so continuing this column whilst giving a nod to a song from one of my favorite eccentric redheads was too much to resist.

Each week, I will report on and review the films that were released during the corresponding week 35 years prior. This means that I will need your help. I am currently going off the New York City and Minneapolis-St. Paul listings to determine what gets covered when. But remember, films weren’t released everywhere at once. So, if you have any release date information from other regions of the United States, please send all information to moviocrity@gmail.com and I will try to integrate it into the column.

And with this third week, we really kick things off. This week features our first official release of the 1980’s, as opposed to the leftovers from the 70’s we’ve been getting so far. This week, you will also see the first postings from Jesse Hoheisel’s 1970’s column, over at his site. The two series were always meant to complement each other, meaning you will get pieces of each decade every week.

RATING SYSTEM AND CRITERIA

  • What was the film trying to accomplish and how well did it meet those goals? 
  • In addition to (or sometimes despite) that, how does the film hold up on sheer entertainment value?

The Best – Reserved for the absolute cream of the crop.
Highly Recommended – Very good. Far better than your typical film and one that I will remember for some time.
Recommended – Just what it says. This is a good film and earns a recommendation. Don’t think that because it’s not one of the top two categories that these films aren’t worth your time. The “recommended” tag is a winner and nothing to sneer at.
Barely Recommended – The middle of the road. Those films where I didn’t feel it was a complete waste of time, but it didn’t set my world on fire either. Not bad, but leaves me feeling bored and/or apathetic.
Disappointing – Close but no cigar. Does a few things right but is ultimately a whole lot of wasted potential. Not recommended.
Awful – A bad movie. Pure and simple. Not worth your time.
The Worst – The Britta Perry of ratings, though not as entertaining. The bottom of the barrel.

So, what’s up for this week? Well, as I mentioned, we get our first official release of the decade. We’ll also look at a critically acclaimed documentary that got a lot of play on cable back in the day. And also, a good old fashioned martial arts flick, the kind that made its way across theaters before being repeated on USA Network’s KUNG FU THEATRE every weekend.

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THE AWAKEN PUNCH (a.k.a. SHI PO TIAN JIAN, FURY OF THE BLACK BELT, THE REAL DRAGON, VILLAGE ON FIRE) (1973) – This film opens up like so many other kung fu films. A bunch of brutes are extorting local merchants for protection money when a young fighter (Henry Yu Yung) steps in to save the day. He cleans their clocks and reluctantly accepts payment for helping out. Just when you think the film is going to be about him defending the town, it turns into another tried and true archetype altogether.

The fighter is called home, where his father is dying. Dad tells his son he has to take over the family farm and forget his reckless ways. The son is forced to make a deathbed promise that he will never fight again. Bad idea, pops. There is already a local crime syndicate (not the guys from the beginning of the film, mind you) who wants the farm so they can own all the local land. By refusing to sell, the son invites the wrath of the local toughs, all of which are skilled martial artists, naturally.

Look, I know family is important, and in these films sacred oaths are… well, sacred. But if you are watching the rest of your family getting beaten, raped and murdered, I think the “no fighting” rule can be suspended. Even the greatest pacifists would look at our hero’s behavior in this film as nothing short of gross negligence.

THE AWAKEN PUNCH was released several times to drive-ins and grindhouses across the country. On this particular occasion, it was re-released as THE REAL DRAGON and the star was hilariously renamed Sonny Bruce. This means that the film isn’t only a piece of tangential Brucesploitation, it tries to ride Chiba’s coattails as well.

As for the film itself, it’s a very average kung fu flick. Ordinarily, I enjoy these films a great deal. But while there isn’t anything unusually terrible about THE AWAKEN PUNCH, there’s nothing that really distinguishes it either. The fighting, while occasionally acrobatic, is standard for the genre, though still an improvement on many American imitators from the period. The most entertaining thing about the film is picking out all the pieces of music ripped off for the cobbled together soundtrack. This was a practice in some Hong Kong and Taiwanese films of the day, and the more fly-by-night the production, the more brazen the theft was likely to be. Rather than have a soundtrack of its own, THE AWAKEN PUNCH lifts selections from THE GODFATHER, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST and the James Bond series, all without permission. A chase sequence even features a musical rendition of Van Morrison’s “Wild Night!”

And in the end, you have a moral as well, one that rings false to viewers on this side of the pond. Really, the lesson I took from THE AWAKEN PUNCH is that you should try to listen to your parents because they want what’s best for their family. But sometimes, just sometimes, they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.  Barely Recommended.

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GIZMO! (1977) – GIZMO! is a documentary made up mostly of old black and white footage, featuring people doing improbable, impossible and often foolhardy things. It is a salute to inventors who constantly tried to make life easier by developing new tools they hoped would take the world by storm. The film doesn’t just look to material things however. It’s also about those who test human endurance. Hence, you see human cannonballs and people who can make strange sounds or contort their bodies. Perhaps the greatest highlight was seeing a woman walk a tightrope between New York City skyscrapers. She gets to her destination safely, exclaiming At last, I’ve found a safe way across Times Square. I’m saying ‘hello’ to Broadway!” She is then arrested in a sequence that may have been staged for cameras. Another possibility is that it was not staged, but merely dubbed by actors who added dialogue, as accurately as they could manage, over the many silent newsreels.

GIZMO! made its way to theaters for a few years before playing on cable throughout much of the early 1980s. That’s where I saw it, way back when I was a kid. Premium cable used to play GIZMO! incessantly, because it was a documentary whose G-rating meant it could fill up the daytime schedule (At that time, many stations wouldn’t play R-rated fare before 8:00 PM). I enjoyed it a lot as a kid, but then it took a lot less to hold my attention back then.  

In truth, a little bit of GIZMO! goes a long way. It’s interesting to see the silly yet occasionally visionary inventions people come up with, and it’s occasionally amusing to see people do silly things for the camera long before the days of JACKASS or David Letterman’s Stupid Human Tricks. But even at less than 80 minutes, GIZMO! seems to wear on and on. The frequent montages set to folk music take up around half the running time and are the most punishing moments in the film.

Still, I admire the film’s message. Unlike the cruel barbs slung across the internet in this digital age, every bit of mockery in GIZMO! is tempered with a sense of respect and even awe. Shake your head at these people, even laugh at them. But never doubt the courage of their convictions. Barely Recommended.

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WINDOWS – Emily (Talia Shire) is a woman who is about to go through her first divorce and is uncertain about her future. In the second scene of the film, she is brutally raped by a stranger in her own apartment. This naturally rattles Emily as she tries to deal with the psychological scars the assault has left. Her friend Andrea (Elizabeth Ashley) gets her a nice apartment so she can start over. It’s also the place where Andrea can spy on Emily from afar. In fact, she planned everything, including the rape and the inevitable PTSD so she could get Emily all to herself. That is because Andrea is secretly a –DUM! DUM! DUUUUM! – predatory lesbian!

WINDOWS was the first film of the 1980’s and man, is it ever a stinker. Talia Shire is featured in the last starring role of her career, and there’s a reason this film has that distinction. Her character goes through a terrible shock and spends much of the film rattled. But Shire’s performance stretches credulity to the breaking point. Her timid body language and unconvincing stutter are unintentionally funny. And honestly, we shouldn’t find anything about being a rape survivor funny. Still, I spent most of my time rolling my eyes and chuckling at this ridiculous display. And just as “I’m going to turn you gay,” is not something that exists in the real world, “I’m going to fuck you till you stutter” seems like a stretch as well.

That’s an offensive joke, sure, but this is an offensive movie. It’s the kind of film that says that lesbians are coarse, obsessive, psychologically damaged people who are out to corrupt and enslave good Christian straight girls everywhere. Ashley’s performance is so over the top that it counterbalances Shire’s timidity into a seesaw of overwrought acting choices, no matter where you turn. Remarkably, this film was released a few weeks before the more well-known film, CRUISING. And while that film drew a number of protests, WINDOWS is far more inflammatory, explicitly equating homosexuality with violent mental illness and purposely leaving no room for any other interpretation.

But lest you think this might be a guilty pleasure to watch with other wrongheaded, reactionary films of the era, keep in mind that WINDOWS is also terribly boring. The film is the sole directing effort from the late cinematographer, Gordon Willis. Throughout the film, Willis is unwilling or unable to charge the paddles and shock this film to life. Every scene just sits there. If Shire and Ashley chew the bland scenery with abandon, it’s a major change from the supporting cast. Every other character of the film fumbles their way through the film awkwardly, as if they just happened into existence moments before the scene began.

How unfortunate that the 1980’s began on such a sour note. There’s no escaping it, WINDOWS is a terrible, terrible film.  The Worst.

COMING NEXT WEEK!

  • An ex-cop searches an urban jungle for his kidnapped daughter!
  • A woman tries to survive in post-war Germany!
  • A family battles the elements in an unforgiving wilderness!
  • A musical genius plays one of the greatest tours of his career!

ALL NEXT WEEK IN GLORY OF THE 80’S!

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