BOP 50 of the '80s: Selections 30-26
After a string of less-than-successful - at the box office, anyway - films, Tom Hanks reminded everyone of the promise shown in Splash when he took on the starring role in Penny Marshall's gentle film about childhood wishes and adult dreams. As the 12-year-old in a 30-year-old's body, Hanks displayed the emotional range and depth that would soon become such hallmarks of his film career. From Josh's first night in the scary Big Apple to his first encounter with a woman to his longing to return to his home and true age, Hanks never missteps, showing us the joy, pain, and loneliness of not quite fitting in with those around us, and how bittersweet a dream-come-true can oftentimes be. Surrounded by a supporting cast that included Robert Loggia, Elizabeth Perkins and Jon Lovitz, Hanks brought both laughter and tears to the audience, embodying the little boy that lives inside all men, and the man all women hope to someday find. Big not only earned Hanks the first of his five Oscar nominations, but heralded what was to come from an actor now considered amongst the best, if not the best, of his generation. His performance anchored a film and role that could easily have strayed into bathos in less capable hands, making Big a classic that continues to delight and touch audiences. (Stephanie Star Smith/BOP)
29) A Fish Called Wanda
The little British film with the unwieldy title that became a huge hit in America was the brainchild of former Python John Cleese. It is also a perfect example of that mysterious alchemy that makes a film into a hit, because on paper, Wanda didn't look like much. But the whole turned out to be so very much greater than the sum of its parts that the film blossomed onscreen. Wanda also proved that, as has often been observed, the best comedy comes from characters, not one-liners; once the foundation has been laid, the most outrageous events can seem perfectly logical, and the laughter that arises is all the more fulfilling for not having been obtained with cheap gimmicks. The blend of inside jokes, farce, romantic comedy and those bittersweet moments that are so difficult to pull off but enrich a film so much when they are done right, makes for such a satisfying and memorable 100-plus minutes that not only delight on first viewing, but invite many repeat viewings. It's the rare comedy that remains as funny, if not funnier, the tenth time you see it as it was on the first, but Wanda easily attains that rarified height. The lightning-in-a-bottle truism was brought into even sharper relief when the same group reunited for the not-a-sequel-to-Wanda Fierce Creatures, which although funny, was not nearly as brilliant as its predecessor. A Fish Called Wanda stands as a testament to what can be accomplished when a filmmaker doesn't worry about British versus American humor, or dumbing a picture down for an audience, or blending black humor with romantic comedy, but simply writes a good film and assembles good actors and then lets all involved shine in their own inimitable ways. (Stephanie Star Smith/BOP)
A Fish Called Wanda answers the age-old question of what defines funny - and the answer is placing John Cleese on the unhappy side of a balcony precipice while precariously positioned upside down hanging by his feet.
The rest of the movie isn't too bad, either.
Kevin Kline, given a rare opportunity to play broad comedy, offers one of the finest performances of his career. He shows a willingness to make Otto seem to grow dumber by the second. All the while, Kline portrays the character as somehow maintaining the force of conviction that he is but moments away from intellectual enlightenment. He earned Oscar glory for this delightfully incongruous outing and rightfully so. It's my favorite of the decade. (David Mumpower/BOP)
One thing that seems to particularly stand out about the films of the '80s is their quotability, and A Fish Called Wanda is a shining example. John Cleese's sparkling screenplay is really nothing short of brilliant, even incorporating the "beauty" of the Russian language into its ingenious humor. Still, none of the cleverly rendered lines could even be carried off without a stellar cast, and it's no accident that Kevin Kline won an Academy Award for his role as the boorish Otto. Along with Kline, Cleese, Michael Palin and Jamie Lee Curtis were all perfectly cast for their variegated characters. But it might be Maria Aitken's never-skipping-a-beat reply to Otto that is the film's standout moment: "My father was in the Secret Service, Mr. Manfredjinsinjin, and I know perfectly well that you don't keep the general public informed when you are 'debriefing KGB defectors in a safe house.’" (Kim Hollis/BOP)
A Fish Called Wanda is representative of the sort of film that is becoming more and more of a rarity these days - an adult (and that’s adult as in made for an adult audience, not as in porn) comedy that is genuinely funny. More and more, “comedy” as a genre seems to be polarizing into teen gross-out films and lower key adult comedies that tend more towards the funny peculiar than the funny ha-ha. Few people seem to even bother trying to find the delicate balance between the low and highbrow anymore, instead just going for one or the other. A Fish Called Wanda gives brings the funny - in stereo.
While younger readers might find the movie fairly tame by current standards, it has to be remembered that this was pre-Something About Mary (another film that goes for both the high and low, but also marks the beginning of the polarization mentioned earlier) and the swearing, mocking of handicaps, manslaughter of dogs, devouring of live fish, comedic violence and sex combined all served to raise a few eyebrows in its day. While by no stretch of the imagination a “gross-out” comedy, it did cause a few complaints here and there and its fair share of outrage. However, it was nonetheless a huge commercial and critical success, riding on the backs of brilliant comedic turns from established actors, especially Kline and Palin in their supporting roles. Despite the vulgarity and cruelty to animals - or perhaps partly because of it - A Fish Called Wanda was a genuinely hilarious, character driven comedy. The vulgarity in particular is of note as, for me, it has stood the test of time and still contains several of the most effective use swear words in a comedy.
Another rare achievement was the successful exploitation of the innate humour (yes, that’s how it should be spelt) of the transatlantic rivalry and cultural stereotyping of the Americans and the British. The uptight repressed Brits are pitted against their violent, uncouth and stupid counterparts in a confrontation that manages to capture the extremes of these stereotypical portrayals without resorting to all the usual clichés. Kevin Kline won a well-deserved academy award for his role as Otto, the dim-witted psychopath.
Refreshingly, A Fish Called Wanda remains as a splendid individual film and despite its success, wasn’t milked for a sequel or franchise. There was, however, a poorly-received follow-up project that reunited the same cast, but the less said about Fierce Creatures the better. (Ash Wakeman/BOP)
Terry Gilliam's Brazil is not only a great film, it is also one of the biggest battles between talent and studio in movie history. In a world controlled through the government, Brazil, in the mind of Terry Gilliam, is about one man freeing himself from the system. In the mind of domestic distributor Universal, Brazil was a love story, and how love conquers all. The battle over Brazil started when Gilliam turned in a 142-minute cut of his film, although his contract stated that the film had to come in at under 125 minutes. It was then that Universal head Sid Sheinberg bought the film back from producer Arnon Milchan, and had a team of editors rework the film as a love story, changing the ending and much of the film. Sid thought it would sell better to North American audiences with a happy ending. Through a series of 'guerilla screenings', the Terry Gilliam version of Brazil won the LA Film Critics Best Picture award in 1985, and an Oscar nomination for the screenplay by Gilliam, Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown. In a way, Terry Gilliam became much like Sam Lowry in the film, fighting the bureaucracy so that the truth could be told. The Truth is the 142-minute version of Brazil, a film that all movie-lovers should see. (John Hamann/BOP)
I remember seeing Brazil during its initial release. As a high school senior aspiring to appear cosmopolitan at a typically suburban high school, Brazil seemed like the perfect badge of honor...arty, but it didn't require a trip into New York City...strange, but hey, there's Robert DeNiro. How strange could it be? I left feeling really, really confused by the plot and unsure whether I liked it or not. But, more importantly, there were aspects of the movie that stuck with me, most especially certain moments, like the arrest of the wrong man or the plastic surgeries gone awry. I didn't know then the back story of Brazil. How Terry Gilliam, its director, fought the studio for control over the final cut and the protests of the film critics, who saw the original cut and gave Gilliam year-end awards, whether deserved or as a message. I had read 1984 by that point, but didn't have the cinematic background of being familiar with Metropolis, Dr. Strangelove or other social satires, to know just how to react to Brazil. I've seen Brazil a number of times since then and can now appreciate its look, tone and message.
Gilliam has created a world that simply portrays the morass of bureaucracy. Literally a fly in the bureaucratic works starts a chain of events that leads to the arrest of one Mr. Buttle, a non-descript citizen of the state. The intended arrestee, Mr. Tuttle, is a fighter in the war against the stifling government. The protagonist of the film, Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) gets dragged into this mess due to his position in the government and his longing for the girl of his fantasies, who may have some connection to the elusive Tuttle. Along with his stark visions of bureaucracy, Gilliam creates a world where the general populace is deluded by the perfect world created in advertising, another spot-on criticism of the world today. Rent the Criterion Edition, which includes the various cuts of the film and a documentary that tells the story of Gilliam's fight with the studio. (Stephanie DeGateo/BOP)
27) Trading Places
One of the first movie quotes I ever picked up was from my father, though I didn't know it at the time. "Merry New Year!" he was fond of saying during the holidays. I started saying this as well, confusing a lot of my friends. It would be years later before I would finally see the source material of this quote and many others that my father occasionally said (yes, he's a strange man).
Trading Places, starring Dan Aykroyd (most famous for being one half of the Blues Brothers) and a very-near megastardom Eddie Murphy, is one of the few comedies from the early '80s that still holds up today, largely thanks to the perfectly played role-reversal and great supporting performances by Don Ameche, Ralph Bellamy and Jamie Lee Curtis (who, uh, clearly didn't need any support herself).
"Thank you for correcting my English which stinks."
While I can't find anyone who can explain to me exactly how the final "climactic" scene at the commodities exchange works, the hilarious chaos of it all is the perfect capper to a delightful comedy and one of the more quotable films of the '80s. (Tim Briody/BOP)
26) The Goonies
Oftentimes, I think that in order to truly appreciate The Goonies, you have to have experienced it for the first time as a teenager living in the 1980s. The film has a quirky charm and does an outstanding job of capturing exactly what it was like to be a singularly unique teenager seeking adventure and intrigue. And hey, if you happen to save your neighborhood along the way, so much the better.
The film's great strength is in its characters. A youthful Sean Astin has the central role as the asthmatic dreamer Mikey, and he shares his quest with Corey Feldman as Mouth, whose name pretty much illustrates the character's dominant trait. Josh Brolin is Mikey's protective/resentful older brother Brand, Kerri Green is the girl-next-door Andy and Martha Plimpton is the sarcastic Stef. And really, who can forget Jonathan Ke Quan - who was also the annoying kid sidekick in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom - as the brilliant young Data, an inventor kid who always manages to have just the right item on hand. Joe Pantoliano is even on hand as one members of the villainous Fratelli family.
For me, though, the film's real magic lies in the sweet friendship that develops between Chunk (Jeff Cohen) and Sloth (former professional football player John Matuszak, who was soon to be one of the early victims of steroid-related fatal illness). The two misunderstood misfits find in each other a friendship and brotherhood that is genuinely touching.
Beyond all that, of course, is the fast-paced adventure that plays out almost like a modern-day video game. The kids journey from room to room, solving puzzles and outrunning bad guys, to eventually unravel a mystery and find a happy ending. It's a raucous, joyous, upbeat celebration of youth that holds a special place in my heart. (Kim Hollis/BOP)
Who knew a film could be this much fun?
The Goonies was that matinee type film I waited for all my young life. Pure adventure - a found treasure map, comic bad guys that had the wickedest mother ever, pirates, traps and treasures - everything an '80s kid ever wanted in a film. It was packaged nicely - directed by Superman's Richard Donner, and produced by Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall. The story was from Spielberg, and the screenplay written by future Home Alone and Harry Potter director Chris Columbus. The Goonies was that typical Spielberg film - pure fun and adventure a la Indiana Jones, but aimed at a younger audience. Noted performances came from Sean Astin, Corey Feldman, Anne Ramsey and Joe Pantoliano. The Goonies was a huge hit for Amblin Entertainment and Warner Bros in June 1985; the film grossed $61.4 million in 1985 dollars, and is still a much-loved kid film on small screens all over the world. (John Hamann/BOP)
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