Witness (1985)

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We’re all happy that you’re going to live, John Book.  After witnessing a brutal murder, young Amish boy Samuel (Lukas Haas) and his mother Rachel (Kelly McGillis) seek protection from police officer John Book (Harrison Ford). When Book uncovers evidence of police corruption involving narcotics lieutenant James McFee (Danny Glover), Book must take Rachel and Samuel, and flee to the Amish countryside where Rachel grew up. There, immersed in Amish culture and tradition, Book and Rachel begin a cautious romance while he tries to fit in and the enemy closes in …  I just don’t like the idea of my son spending all this time with a man who carries a gun and goes around whacking people! Great films tend to create a narrative fulcrum based on juxtaposition and opposites:  here we have simplicity and purity versus corruption and violence, delicacy versus roughness, city versus country, child versus man. Written by Pamela Wallace and Earl Wallace and William Kelley, this was director Peter Weir’s entree to the American mainstream after a decade of extraordinary work in his native Australia. It also marked Harrison Ford’s acceptance into the acting world proper after a decade as action superstar courtesy of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. His relationships with Rachel and Samuel and his willingness to look silly – that sheepish grin when he’s in Amish clothing! – signalled a new level of sensitive and complex personification.  With a barn-building sequence out of the Dutch masters,  a romantic dance scene that is one of the sexiest ever made, and a conclusion that ratchets like a vise-like grip closing on the protagonists with an astonishing climax in a grain silo out of silent horror cinema, this is made by a master craftsman at his most cinematic and beautiful. Maurice Jarre’s score is legendary. An American classic. No. Try not. Do or do not

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Raising Arizona (1987)

Raising Arizona

Ed felt that having a critter was the next logical step.  When incompetent convenience store robber  H.I. ‘Hi’ McDonough (Nicolas Cage) marries policewoman Edwina ‘Ed’ (Holly Hunter) after she takes his mugshots, they discover that she is infertile. In order to appease Ed’s obsessive desire for a child,  Hi steals one of a set of quintuplets born to Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson), mega rich owner of a chain of furniture stores. Mayhem ensues when his former cellmates, brothers Gale and Evelle Snoats (John Goodman and  William Forsythe) break out and turn up on their doorstep and the child’s rich father sends a rabbit-shooting bounty hunter biker – the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse – after the kidnappers…  Everything’s chAAAnged! With hysterical overacting turns, a set piece chase to rival the best of them – all over a packet of diapers – an incredible prison break, and a winning set of adorable blond babies, this sophomore outing by the Coen Brothers divided critics after their dark-hearted debut, Blood Simple. It fizzes with photographic flourishes, nonsensical action and witty lines, with hyper-exaggerated enunciation (take a bow, Ms Hunter!) and dog-tired impersonation (by Cage) of a desperate father belatedly realising when there’s a new baby in the house that life will truly never be the same again. The meal-time pelting by his in-laws’ children crystallises his hapless sorrow.  With bravura cinematography by Barry Sonnenfeld, a yodel-along score by Carter Burwell and sparky performances by the entire cast, this is highly charged, effervescent and exuberant, practically exhorting the audience to dislike it as it races over the top and into the fantastical abyss in order to emerge with glee. Y’all without sin can cast the first stone

Drugstore Cowboy (1989)

Drugstore Cowboy

You don’t fuck me and I always have to drive. In Portland, Oregon 1971, Bob Hughes (Matt Dillon) is the leader of a family of drug addicts consisting of his wife, Dianne (Kelly Lynch), and another couple, goofy Rick (James Le Gros) and Nadine (Heather Graham), a troublesome teenage drifter who can’t take Bob and his fear of hexes seriously. They feed their habit by robbing drug stores and pharmacies as they travel across the country. They vex tenacious cop Gentry (James Remar) and frame a neighbour for a bust. After one of them dies and the others have to stay in their motel room with the corpse because there’s a Sheriffs’ convention, Bob decides he has to clean up and go straight. Parting ways with his junkie past is tough, especially when he is stalked by an old acquaintance, Fr. Murphy (William Burroughs), who just wants to score … Director Gus Van Sant, legendary writer William Burroughs and Daniel Yost adapted James Fogle’s unpublished memoir of his junkie past. It’s a remarkably balanced movie about modern day outlaws, with the confidence to avoid moralising and just relate a story about criminals whose way of life revolves around the next fix. Their escapades are humorous and enervating, Bob’s highs are animated and amusing, the tragedy is inextricably linked to the comic ennui and unintentional deaths that this lifestyle entails. It has a remarkable texture, a combination of realistic documentary-style touches with colourful effects to suggest the visuals experienced in drug use. Told with daring and wit, irony writ large in the situation, the performances by Dillon and Lynch are outstanding. One of the best films of its era.

Cujo (1983)

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There’s no such thing as a real monster. Only in stories. On the outskirts of Castle Rock, Maine, sweet family dog, the St. Bernard known as Cujo (Moe) is bitten by a bat when he’s out rabbiting.  He starts behaving oddly and becomes very aggressive in front of his owner, little Brett Camber (Billy Jacoby). As Cujo morphs into a dangerous beast, he goes on a rampage at the Camber family home and kills abusive mechanic dad Joe (Ed Lauter) after Brett and his mom Charity (Kaiulani Lee) make a run for it. Meanwhile, stay-at-home mom Donna Trenton (Dee Wallace) has been carrying on with the town stud, her ex-high school boyfriend Steve (Christopher Stone) while her husband Vic (Daniel Hugh-Kelly) is working on advertising campaigns in the city. She swears to him that the adulterous relationship is over. When her car needs repairs she and young asthmatic son Tad (Danny Pintauro) get caught in Cujo’s crosshairs at the Camber garage where Cujo has now killed a visitor, Gary Pervier (Mills Watson). Stuck in their tiny car with a dead battery Donna and Tad have a frightening showdown with the crazed animal hoping he will be distracted every time the telephone rings but he’s tasted blood and wants fresh meat … Adapted by Don Carlos Dunaway and Barbara Turner (writing as Lauren Currier) from Stephen King’s novel, this is a rare horror – one that has to do entirely with the everyday and is completely plausible. As someone who was mauled by a dog when I was three years old and am still scarred physically and mentally from that incident, I find this film all too relatable. Sympathy for Donna and Tad is established in the carefully staged domestic scenes:  the distance from the light switch to his bed makes us empathise with this small boy and his fear of night monsters;  while Donna is a good woman bored in a big house all day long. And when she finally rejects Steve and she’s gone on her errand, he does what a scorned woman might – he takes a knife and tears up all the pillows so that the house is filled with downy feathers. We’re on her side. By the time the day’s pressures have built up, Donna and Tad’s imprisonment in the car when the battery runs down is positively sweat-inducing. As they suffer the effects of dehydration and the child becomes ill, the dog bounces off the car, bloodied from his kills. And when he finally gets a chunk of Donna, it’s truly terrifying. Her dismay when she sees the dog tackle the body of the policeman he’s savaged is completely convincing. Wallace is a marvel as the woman in jeopardy and this is fantastically efficient genre storytelling. Me? Been there, done that. I particularly enjoyed the cop’s death. So sue me. Directed by Lewis Teague.

Out of Africa (1985)

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I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills. After a failed love affair in Denmark the aristocrat Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep) sets out for the white highlands of Kenya where she marries her lover’s brother Bror (Klaus Maria Brandauer).  She is intent on dairy farming, Bror instead spends their money on a coffee plantation. After discovering Bror is unfaithful when she contracts syphilis, Karen develops feelings for British hunter Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford) but he prefers a simple lifestyle compared to her upper class affectations. She separates from Bror and sets about remaking her home to his taste. The two continue their relationship until a series of events force Karen to choose between her love life and her personal growth as an individual … Like a lot of people, I imagine, I first heard of Isak Dinesen (or Karen Blixen) courtesy of The Catcher in the Rye. If it was good enough for Holden Caulfield, I figured, I’ve got to check it out. And that was my introduction to a great writer whose life is immortalised here in the form of La Streep while the less than glamorous Finch Hatton is personified by Redford. History is rewritten right there! But their chemistry is so right. Streep is wonderful as the woman who finally finds herself, Redford is great as a hunter who simultaneously deplores environmental destruction – these are fantastic star performances.  So the school, the farm, that’s what I am now Director Sydney Pollack later regretted that he didn’t shoot this in widescreen and you can see why. This is a film of big emotions in a breathtaking landscape that dwarfs the concerns of the little people, aristos or not. There are fabulous, memorable scenes:  when Denys shampoos Karen’s hair; when they play Mozart on the gramophone to monkeys and Denys remarks that it’s their first exposure to humans; when he takes her flying; when she begs for land for the Kikuyu. And when she leaves.  If you like me at all, don’t ask me to do this Altering the focus of Dinesen’s writing somewhat to the personalities rather than the issues that actually drove Dinesen and the contradictions within Finch Hatton, it’s a glorious, epic and tragic romance sensitively performed, with a meticulous score by John Barry. Kurt Luedtke’s screenplay was adapted from three sources:  Dinesen’s Out of Africa;  Judith Thurman’s biography Isak Dinesen:  The Life of a Story Teller;  and Silence Will Speak by Errol Trzebinski. He prayeth well that loveth well both man and bird and beast

 

The Verdict (1982)

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Sometimes people can surprise you.  Sometimes people have a great capacity to hear the truth.  Frank Galvin (Paul Newman) is a lawyer. Or he was. He’s a washed up alcoholic ambulance chaser who’s reduced to scouring the obits for clientele. When former partner Mickey Morrissey (Jack Warden) puts a straightforward medical negligence case his way, he’s inclined to take the settlement from the Archdiocese of Boston whose hospital doctors anaesthetised a pregnant woman into a coma four years earlier. Her sister and brother-in-law have been devastated. Then he makes the mistake of visiting her and his humanity is reawakened … David Mamet adapted the novel by Barry Reed and it’s as much a character study as a legal thriller but it’s all that too. However it has a rare quality – elegance and even eloquence, all the while hitting the generic markers. Polanski says films are made up of moments and we have a raft of them here. The moment when Galvin’s Polaroid of his client is developing in front of her comatose vegetative body is haunting:  it’s when he rediscovers his own dignity while bearing witness to her lack of it entirely. When the biased judge (Milo O’Shea) tries to dissuade him from taking the case, clearly on the side of Ed Concannon (James Mason), the attorney for the Catholic Church of whom Mickey declares, He’s a good man?  He’s the Prince of fucking Darkness! And we know this of course because we’ve all seen Salem’s Lot. When Concannon removes his coat from the judge’s armoire we have the proof that the judiciary is corrupt. It’s subtle but keen social signalling, he’s a bagman for the boys down town, as Frank realises. Frank is tempted by a wonderfully hooded divorced woman Laura (Charlotte Rampling) who just happens to turn up in his favourite Boston watering hole. We sense she’s no good but she’s an alcoholic too and her codependency draws us in. And seventy minutes into this well-structured exposition she triggers Frank’s turnaround: I can’t invest in failure any more. Frank is loaded up on bad witnesses but one is missing and it’s his last minute journey that turns into a dark night of the soul as well as a time of enlightenment.  Mamet’s then wife Lindsay Crouse is brilliant as a nurse scorned.  Frank’s exhausted closing to the jury is riveting. We become tired of hearing more lies. We become dead. But director Sidney Lumet uses silence as brilliantly as dialogue. Look at the way he shoots the NYC street scene between Mickey and Frank when Mickey has something terrible to tell him. Masterful. Frank’s hungover mornings on the couch, his afternoons on arcade games, his evenings alone with the bottle, are as significant to this narrative as his defeatist courtroom attitude.  This is one of Newman’s greatest performances – he allows that absurdly handsome face to look tired, the rightful appearance for an old soak – but it’s also a great portrait of the Catholic Church as a corrupt corporation and a reminder to never give up on those who do not have a voice. A wonderful film about adults coping in a mire of payoffs and professional malpractice and personal failure.

The Breakfast Club (1985)

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You see a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal.  Five teenagers enduring Saturday detention in a Chicago high school bond over their enmity of their supervisor (Paul Gleason). Yawn. Except this was probably the most audacious film of its year, courtesy of auteur John Hughes who got teens like nobody did. Brian Johnson (Anthony Michael Hall) is the nerd from the academic clubs,  Andrew Clark (Emilio Estevez) is the champion wrestler bullied by his folks, Allison Reynolds (Ally Sheedy) is the strange outcast, Claire Standish (Molly Ringwald) is daddy’s little girl who bunked off to go to the mall, while John Bender (Judd Nelson) is the tough guy whose father beats him.  They are all from completely opposing school cliques with nothing in common and they hate each other and everything they believe each other stands for. Then they realise that they all have major issues at home and that they could have some fun even if they never speak to each other after the bell rings … Party like it’s 1984. You know you want to.

Country (1984)

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We’re not dealing in real estate. We’re trying to farm.  Jewell (Jessica Lange) and Gil Ivy (Sam Shepard) run a farm in Iowa that has been in her family for generations. They make enough to just about get by until two devastating events threaten to take their land away. First, a tornado tears through the farming community and devastates the area, then the Farmers Home Administration calls in loans owed by most of the area’s farmers, which most are in no position to repay. The stress buckles Gil and he resorts to getting loaded every night leaving Jewell to do the math and figure out a way to save their way of life… William Wittliff’s screenplay is a properly political piece of work, focussing on the specifics of a family’s response to economic disaster in the era of Reaganomics – to the point that the President decried it which means it hit home.  Gil isn’t exactly a wastrel but his father in law (Wilford Brimley) leaves us in no doubt that he believes he has thrown away an opportunity to make a financial surplus on the best land in the county. Was his drinking to blame for the threatened foreclosure? Terrific performances in this detailed portrait of family life with a standout lowkey characterisation by Levi Knebel as teenaged son Carlisle. There’s an opportunity to see famed drama coach Sandra Seacat play neighbour Louise Brewer whose husband hides sheep from the banks on the Ivy land. The auction scene makes you weep. Heartfelt, powerful stuff. Produced by Wittliff and Lange and directed by Richard Peerce.

Caddyshack (1980)

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It’s in the hole!  Teenager Danny Noonan (Michael O’Keefe) works as a caddy at the snob-infested Bushwood Country Club to raise money for his college education. In an attempt to gain votes for a college scholarship reserved for caddies, Noonan volunteers to caddy for a prominent and influential club member (Ted Knight). He struggles to prepare for the high pressure Caddy Day golf tournament while absorbing New Age advice from wealthy golf guru Ty Webb (Chevy Chase) and greenkeeper Carl (Bill Murray) deals with a pesky gopher who insists on popping up at the most inopportune moments … From one-liners, crude triadic exchanges, skits, long payoffs and slapstick sequences of inspired genius, this is practically the Sophocles of Eighties comedy. In a weekend of sport – Wentworth! The Monaco Grand Prix! The Indy 500! Champions League Final! The Paris Open’s first day! – take a break from all the high-falutin’ gentlemanly point-scoring and watch one of the funniest low brow films ever made! Written by Douglas Kenney, Brian Doyle-Murray and director Harold Ramis. These performers were all at the height of their considerable comic powers and it’s a scream. OMG I love it!

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St Elmo’s Fire (1985)

St Elmos Fire

How can I be so tired at twenty-two? I just don’t know who to be any more.  Seven recent Georgetown graduates hang out at St Elmo’s Bar.  Alec (Judd Nelson) is a political wannabe dating architect Leslie (Ally Sheedy); along with Washington Post writer Kevin (Andrew McCarthy), banker and party girl Jules (Demi Moore) and law student/waiter Kirby (Emilio Estevez) they’re waiting to find out how their friends welfare clerk Wendy (Mare Winningham) and former frat boy and reluctant new dad, sax player Billy (Rob Lowe) are following a car accident.  Kirby takes a fancy to ER doctor Dale (Andie McDowell) whom he’s liked since college… The quarter-life crisis wasn’t even a thing when this was made and the critics slaughtered it but for me I guess it pretty much looked like what would happen to me eventually! Half of The Breakfast Club love, live, have sex, split up and get high and come down again to a horrifying David Foster soundtrack that just screams mid-Eighties. I love it. So sue me. Written by Carl Kurlander and director Joel Schumacher.