Atlantic City (1981)

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Starring: Burt Lancaster, Susan Sarandon, Robert Joy (his film debut), Kate Reid, Hollis McLaren

Director: Louis Malle

Summary: An aging gangster’s love for a gambling house waitress puts him in the middle of a heist gone bad

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Lancaster), Actress (Sarandon), Original Screenplay

It’s a movie that hinges tremendously on its co-stars performances and chemistry, and in this it mostly succeeds. I liked Sarandon (surprisingly, in her only BP nominated film) a lot and she really did a great job as a working woman who can’t seem to catch a break either professionally or in her personal life; her and Lancaster both manage to stay likeable despite a couple of extremely awkward scenes I’ll get to later, which is a testament to their abilities. As a story between these two characters (especially Lancaster who is fairly well-layered), it works well.

As for what I didn’t like: 1) I’ve never seen a creepier way to introduce us to our main characters when it wasn’t meant to be, and Sarandon’s reaction to the reveal about this later is ridiculous to say the least. The ending was certainly not what I was expecting at all, and I have mixed feelings about it, although I will give them credit for surprising me.

Random note: One of the characters mentions that she has always wanted to be able to buy clear plastic high heels with goldfish swimming in them. I never thought this movie would make me instantly think of Disco Stu at any point (https://pbs.twimg.com/media/B873ZRbCMAAmIWI.png)

Overall: A pretty good movie about two very different characters whose lives kind of crash into each other, although some of the script elements I could have one without.

Rating: C+

*Chariots of Fire (1981)*

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Starring: Ian Charleson, Ben Cross, Nicholas Farrell (his first feature film), Nigel Havers, Ian Holm, John Gielgud

Director: Hugh Hudson

Summary: Committed long-distance runners strive for the 1924 Olympics

Other Nominations: Director, Supporting Actor (Holm), Original Screenplay*, Original Score*, Costume Design*, Film Editing

It’s fine I guess and it’s certainly well-made from an audio and visual standpoint, but there’s nothing remotely special, distinctive or interesting about it (except maybe the theme). There are two main conflicts that drive the film: Abrahams (Cross) vs. anti-Semitism and Liddell’s (Charleson) battle between compromising his faith and having a chance at Olympics gold. However, it never felt like it dug deep enough or brought anything new to the table when it comes to those well-worn subjects (racism and compromising one’s faith) to carry the movie, and the performances were nowhere near good enough to make up for it. I also thought they did a poor job presenting the big final races for the two main characters-comparing it to some of its contemporaries-the final bout in Rocky or the last laps in Breaking Away, the editing choice really take away from the impact. On a related note, it’s funny seeing Brad Davis and Dennis Christopher reduced to very minor roles when they had just recently starred in Best Picture nominees (Davis in 1978’s Midnight Express, Christopher in 1979’s Breaking Away).

Overall: While there’s nothing especially poor about it (except how the final races look), there’s also not much compelling about it either, with the performances being just okay and the story not standing out to me all that much.

Rating: C-

On Golden Pond (1981)

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Starring: Henry Fonda (his final film), Katharine Hepburn, Doug McKeon, Jane Fonda, Dabney Coleman

Director: Mark Rydell

Summary: During a summer holiday, an elderly couple comes to grips with aging and their troubled relationship with their adult daughter

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Fonda)*, Actress (Hepburn)*, Supporting Actress (Fonda), Adapted Screenplay*, Sound, Original Score, Cinematography, Film Editing

This is a movie for moms and grandmas-it’s lightly comedic, lots of heart-string pulling, is about aging and father-daughter issues, it’s in no way near my wheelhouse; with that said, I still thought it was a solid movie. The obvious attraction is seeing two titans of the Golden Age of Hollywood get a last hurrah, and as that it works really well. Audiences then (and me now having seen a lot of both of them) have a tremendous history with both actors and with Jane Fonda playing the daughter, you basically think of this as the Fondas and Hepburn and forget what the characters names even are. They’re still very good and feel like a real life-long married couple in their twilight years with Hepburn still doing well and Fonda’s character having physical and mental health problems that are presented effectively (this dynamic reflected real life-Hepburn lived until 2003 (age 96), while Fonda died just a year later in 1982 at age 77). The movie also looks great with lots of pretty shots of the sun beating on Golden Pond at sunrise and sunset.

With all that said, this is a really overly-sentimental movie for the most part that feels like a really well-acted, super-sincere “Hallmark Hall of Fame” kind of movie. The score really doesn’t help and just accentuates this fundamentally unappealing aspect of the movie to me. I enjoyed it for what it was, but there’s a lot of scenes that felt contrived to get a specific “feel bad for grandpa” reaction out of the audience, which is the easiest thing to do in the world (especially with Henry Fonda) and felt cheesy.

Overall: Good performances from two Hollywood legends are the reason to watch, although it’s more a movie for your mom than it is for you probably.

Rating: B-

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

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Starring: Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Paul Freeman, John Rhys-Davies, Ronald Lacey, Denholm Elliott, Alfred Molina (his first credited role)

Director: Steven Spielberg

Summary: Archaeologist and adventurer Indiana Jones is hired by the U.S. government to find the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis

Other Nominations: Director, Sound*, Original Score, Art Direction*, Cinematography, Film Editing*, Visual Effects*

How rare is it the Oscars nominate a movie that is just pure entertainment? Way too infrequently in my view, but this is one of the handful of times a movie like this way so good and had the names backing it that it overcame its genre and became a nominee. The whole cast is top-notch, but it’s Harrison Ford of course who makes it special-he’s perfect as this rugged and smart adventurer who’s basically the peak of manliness-women want him, men want to be him. Yet, Ford still looks enough like a normal guy that he remains human and vulnerable-how many others could have done it as well? (no, Tom Selleck wouldn’t have been half as good).

Everything else works too. The score is one of John Williams’ best and should have won the Oscar over Chariots of Fire; the effects are still extremely entertaining and more memorable than anything in a similar vein that has come out in the last 20 years; and finally, the script is terrific. The movie is perfect at introducing our main characters: the semi-cold open immediately hooks us and introduces us to Jones and what he does, along with our villain and what he’s about, and the “drinking under the table scene” does a great job of telling us about Marion Ravenwood in a fun way and sets up a good scene later in the film. It also feels very to the point without much fat, and the stakes are clear yet our super-powerful macguffin is still mysterious and we’re interested in what it actually does if the Nazis get their hands on it. While I like The Last Crusade and Temple of Doom, the original is still my favorite because it had the added job of introducing everybody to the character and the world he lives in, along with making the audience interested in a type of movie that had gone out of fashion decades ago and does it as well as any movie has. I would personally rank them: Raiders>Last Crusade>Fate of Atlantis (look it up)>Temple>>>>>>>>Crystal Skull.

Overall: One of the best action-adventure movies ever made, back when Spielberg/Lucas/Lawrence Kasdan could do no wrong and Harrison Ford was the biggest star in the world.

Rating: A

Reds (1981)

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Starring: Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton, Jerzy Kosinski (his first acting role), Jack Nicholson, Paul Sorvino, Maureen Stapleton, Edward Herrmann, George Plimpton, Gene Hackman

Director: Warren Beatty

Summary: American activist John Reed travels to Russia to witness the revolution and its aftermath

Other Nominations: Director*, Actor (Beatty), Actress (Keaton), Supporting Actor (Nicholson), Supporting Actress (Stapleton)*, Original Screenplay, Sound, Art Direction, Cinematography*, Costume Design, Film Editing

The movie gets bogged down for too long in Reed (Beatty)’s personal life and his rocky relationship with Louise Bryant (Keaton)-it takes 85 minutes before Reed even reaches Russia; once he does and the revolution occurs however, post-intermission (in this too-long 194 minute movie) the movie is fantastic, all tying in with Reed’s rapid self-destruction and sad end, and why he became disillusioned with the Russian Revolution he had place so much faith in.. It captures a huge problem with the socialist revolution and human nature in general: everybody is united in order to get the revolution to succeed, but immediately afterwards, everybody disagrees on what the future of the country and the movement in general should look like-basically, overthrowing a government is easier than running one. A huge impediment to a movement for change are the sub-factions within: everybody has different ideas on how to achieve a goal even if ultimate goal is generally the same (actually, it’s both a bug and a feature, but the problem is when factions start splitting off from the main group over the differences). It’s pretty remarkable how American Revolution actually created a lasting democracy, considering how massively varied ideas about what the country should look like were; the Russians were not so lucky.

The performances are also good for the most part. I’m not really a fan of Beatty, but his work in the second half of the film is among his best. Keaton is solid, Nicholson has a couple of great scenes as Eugene O’Neil, and while I’m surprised Maureen Stapleton won the Oscar, she’s good as well. The other notable aspect is how they use documentary elements-intercut with the film are interviews with people who knew Reed or grew up in the era the film takes place in. This surprisingly works, as it gives extra context to those who didn’t experience what America was like during the first red scare and rise of socialism in the U.S., along with some more personal insights about Reed.

Overall: The first half of the film is way too long and isn’t that interesting of a look at Reed’s personal life and his history as a socialist advocate/journalist, but the second half is an excellent look at why the Russian Revolution didn’t work, and Reed’s own downfall.

Rating: B+

1981 in Review

Other Notable Films from 1981

Das Boot: Not released in the U.S. in 1982 (where it would get 6 Oscar nominations but no BP), this is one of the great war movies, and does an especially good job of building both tension and claustrophobia in the tiny confines of a WWII German submarine. There are a seemingly endless number of version of the film, with the 1997 Director’s Cut (at 208 minutes) probably being the best version.

Ragtime: This film about race, violence and sexuality in the early 20th century received 8 Oscar nominations but was not nominated for Best Picture; this makes Raiders of the Lost Ark’s nomination even more amazing (and awesome). It featured the last performances for James Cagney and Pat O’Brien, and one of the first for Samuel L. Jackson, Jeff Daniels and many others.

An American Werewolf in London: Directed by John Landis during the height of his talents, this is one of the best horror-comedies of all time. Everyone remembers the wolf transformation scene, along with the excellent makeup effects in general, but there’s way more to the film than just its visuals-much like the last two Evil Dead movies, it’s mostly a horror movie, but the comedic elements hit their mark and are done in perfect balance.

The Evil Dead: Made on the cheap for about $400,000, the original feels very different than the sequels, which were much more in the horror-comedy vein. Even with the lack of experience of everyone involved, you can tell that Sam Raimi (the original Spider-Man trilogy, A Simple Plan, Darkman) was going to be a major future talent, and that Bruce Campbell was always going to be fun to watch.

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior: Until Fury Road, this was everybody’s favorite entry in the series. I think Fury Road is easily better, but the influence of this film was tremendous on the rest of the decade, from the mohawk, spike-shoulder-pad main biker, to the post-apocalypse desert wasteland scenario, tons of films and even pro wrestling (with the legendary tag team The Road Warriors) copied it.

1981 Nominees in Review

Raiders of the Lost Ark: A

Reds: B+

On Golden Pond: B-

Atlantic City: C+

Chariots of Fire: C- (Won Best Picture)

First time in a while that the worst movie won Best Picture, but man Chariots of Fire did nothing for me. Obviously Raiders of the Lost Ark wasn’t going to win, but Reds would have been a way better choice as that movie actually has some really good insight and I was surprised that it pulled no punches on its subject or the Russian Revolution. The other two films had their moments and I liked the performances, but I don’t have a lot of interest in re-watching them down the road.

For 1982: The movie that beat Star Wars for highest-grossing film ever and held it until another Spielberg film beat it 11 years later; Richard Attenborough somehow followed up his “Anthony Hopkins is an insane, murderous ventriloquist” movie (1978’s Magic) with this movie that got 11 nominations and 8 wins including Best Picture; Costa-Gavras’ second Best Picture nominee (after 1969’s Z) which like that film, is also based on real-life events relating to the military takeover of a democratic country; the film that hit #2 on AFI’s 100 laughs list (really?); and Sidney Lumet reunites with two of his cast members (Jack Warden and Edwards Binns) from 12 Angry Men for another critically-acclaimed courtroom drama.