GLORY OF THE 80s: A Life Less Ordinary

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Time once again for GLORY OF THE 80s! Every week, I look back at the films people were rushing to see during the corresponding week, 35 years ago.

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.


This week, Sissy Spacek plays one of country music’s greatest treasures. Robert Foxworth and Paula Prentiss play cops in a romantic comedy that despite that description, manages to avoid clichés. And finally, Elliot Gould and Cybil Shepard dodge kidnappers and Nazis in a remake of a Hitchcock classic.

All these released on or around March 8, 1980. Here we go!

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THE BLACK MARBLE – Sgt. Natalie Zimmerman (Paula Prentiss) can’t believe her luck. She is a brassy (and sort of bitchy) police detective with nearly twenty years on the force. So, she feels it’s completely unfair that she is to be partnered with Sgt. Valnikov (Robert Foxworth), a troubled cop with a wandering mind and a recent drinking problem. The two are put on the case of a missing prize show dog. The dog was kidnapped by Philo Skinner (Harry Dean Stanton), a dog groomer addicted to the bottle and to the numbers with no concept of how to balance either. In the game of life, all these people feel as though they have picked the black marble.

THE BLACK MARBLE is a dramatic comedy, with an emphasis on the former. It’s a character study that devotes a great deal to the Valnikov character and what troubles him so. The son of Russian immigrants, he stays true to his roots and his tenderness doesn’t fit in well with his cynical co-workers. Though he will always be well known for his role on FALCON CREST, Foxworth is a great, unheralded actor. Many years ago, I had the opportunity to see him in a production of OTHELLO, in which he starred opposite the late Paul Winfield. Foxworth’s Iago was incredible, ambition and manipulation made flesh in a way I had never seen before. Why do I bring up that other performance now? No reason, except to call attention to one of the best live performances of Shakespeare I’ve ever seen and also to say that as ruthless and cruel as Foxworth’s Iago was, his Valnikov is equally kind and understanding. It’s a surprisingly complex character, as is everyone in this film. Natalie relies on structure, often mistaking it for happiness. Skinner is a mess of a man who blames a cruel world for his misfortunes and his actions, when both are clearly his own fault. And yet, all of them see the dark pit that awaits them if they don’t change their ways.

The focus on characters is mainly due to the team-up of director Harold Becker and screenwriter Joseph Wambaugh, who adapts his own novel here. The two had teamed up the previous year on THE ONION FIELD, an incredible and dark true crime story that should be regarded as a classic. This film is lighter in tone, but still contains much of the pathos that made their previous collaboration work.

I was actually surprised how much I enjoyed THE BLACK MARBLE. I was avoiding the film, particularly due to my increased sensitivity over seeing dogs in jeopardy. And honestly, dogs don’t always have great luck in this film. Still, it’s an amusing and touching film that effected in some profound ways. I can’t see a film like this getting made today, at least not with the same financing or without major compromises. Days after my initial viewing, I still can’t get it out of my head.

Incidentally, Becker and Wambaugh aren’t the only ones reuniting from THE ONION FIELD. James Woods, so chilling as a sociopathic murderer in that film, shows up in a more comedic bit part as a fiddler.  Highly Recommended.

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COAL MINER’S DAUGHTER – Rags to riches stories don’t get much more extreme than Loretta Lynn’s. Born in a coal mining town, Loretta (Sissy Spacek) is on the cusp of adolescence as the film begins. Like so many others in town, her father (Levon Helm) works in the mines that will eventually kill him. It’s a time and place where a young girl could hope for nothing but to get married and have babies. And indeed that’s what Lynn gets a head start at when she weds the 21 year-old ex-moonshiner Doolittle (Tommy Lee Jones) at just 13 years of age (recent documents suggest she was actually 15 years old, but still…). Though not the norm, this was not unheard of in several, isolated communities in the early 20th century.

Her marriage to Doolittle is a volatile one as he works to support the family while she tries in vain to make a good home. He drinks too much and gets angry, but he does have one great idea. Loretta has an incredible voice, so he encourages her to sing, first at the local honkey tonks and then onto wherever fortune may lead them. He watches in amazement and then great trepidation as she becomes the biggest country music star in the world. Throughout her career, she makes and loses friends and spars with Doolittle and her life in the spotlight.

COAL MINER’S DAUGHTER is not just for people who enjoy country music. It’s an arresting biopic of a woman who possesses a resilience even she never imagined. Spacek is perfect as Loretta Lynn, replicating her look, her voice and most importantly, her soul. She’s terrific and completely deserving of that Academy Award. Jones is incredible as her flawed but not unsympathetic husband. The film is a winner, a complex portrait of ordinary people living extraordinary lives.  Highly Recommended.

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THE LADY VANISHES (1979) – Bavaria, 1939. With all of Europe on the brink of war, a group of people board the train to England. A thrice-divorced heiress (Cybil Shepard) makes friends with a nice little old lady (Angela Lansbury) who makes her forget her troubles for a bit. But when she wakes up, the lady is nowhere to be found and everybody swears they have never seen her. With the help of a wise-cracking magazine writer (Elliot Gould), she searches the train for her missing friend as the conspiracy gets more mysterious.

THE LADY VANISHES was one of the immensely successful films Alfred Hitchcock made in Britain before coming over to Hollywood. The film has been remade numerous times, sometimes unofficially such as in 2005’s pathetic FLIGHTPLAN. Hitchcock has always been ripe for the remake treatment. In fact, this is just one of two Hitchcock remakes hitting American shores in 1980, as THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS would be released a couple months later.

In this version, the changes are kept to a minimum. The pace is quickened and the nationality of the two leads changed. But that’s just the thing. If you are going to remake Hitchcock, you had better do something new and different with it. Throw caution to the wind. It’s the type of situation where being overly reverential to the source material is a mistake, because you will always be found wanting in comparison to the original. This is a lesson learned the hard way by everyone involved in the shot-for-shot remake of PSYCHO back in 1998 and THE LADY VANISHES suffers the same fate.

The film has its bright spots. When either Gould or Shepard is given a monologue, it doesn’t work but when they banter between one another, I can’t deny some strong chemistry. But the whole film is told without a modicum of style. Everything is garishly lit then shot by Anthony Page in matter of fact, workmanlike order.

Let’s face it, the original LADY VANISHES may have been a good movie, but it was not a good Hitchcock movie. Even THIS MEANS WAR admitted it was middle-of-the-road for the director, and no one even remembers that film. So, they took an average Hitchcock film and gave it a very average remake. If they didn’t expect big things, that would be understandable. But this was the last film released by Hammer, a company that had been a British institution for thirty years due mainly to its horror and fantasy projects. The 1970s were a rough time for the studio. Certain projects, like VAMPIRELLA or the CAPTAIN KRONOS sequels never came to be. Early suggestions that they draft new talents such as Tobe Hooper and Dario Argento were rebuffed. And their last gasp was this. A bigger budgeted remake, played completely safe, that no one really asked for.

THE LADY VANISHES isn’t a bad movie, simply because the source material still works. But it does seem like a pointless movie. It’s like watching a community theater production of a much better work. It does some things right, but repeats the same steps and only half as well. Why was I watching this movie, and more importantly why did they make it?  Disappointing.


That’s it for this week, but I still need your help! If you have any newspaper ads, clippings or information about 1980’s release dates in some area of the country, please send me an email at moviocrity@gmail.com. I will try to incorporate them in the series. Remember, we only have data on a couple of areas of the United States but are always looking to get as clear a picture as possible. You can help!

COMING SOON!

  • Aliens and demons and birdies, oh my!
  • Herve Villacheze and Susan Tyrell rule a kingdom of oddities!
  • Bud Cort experiments with education, Communism and life on the edge of the world!

ALL OF THIS AND MORE, NEXT TIME IN GLORY OF THE 80S!

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