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Good Drama Movies 1985-90: Time for Something Wild

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Ren Zelen itcherA popular perception is that the 1980s were swamped with popcorn pictures – lightweight movies made for children and teenagers. I’m taking a look at the dramatic films of the late eighties – some were great, some were awful, some were underrated, and some, as it turns out, held a few surprises! ~ Ren Zelen

Celebrated Frivolity and Pushing the Boundaries

The eighties are perceived as a shallow and overwhelmingly materialistic decade that saw entertainment become a ‘product’ released by major corporations and sold in the same way as clothes or toys. But it was a decade in which everyone loved the movies/films/cinema/talkies. Audiences weren’t yet aware of behind-the-scenes trickery as they now are with “making of” documentaries or DVD special features, so they were still enthralled by the magic movies could create.

The best movies of the 1980’s either celebrated frivolity and gave us great entertainment, or rejected those norms and pushed the boundaries towards broader innovations. Dramas were especially bold in this regard and I’m taking another look at some of the most daring representations of the time. 


Bold Drama Movie Recommendations

‘Kiss of the Spider Woman’ (Hector Babenco, 1985)

Way ahead of its time regarding gender issues, this movie deals with two cell mates in a South American prison. Luis (William Hurt), a trans individual, is found guilty of immoral behaviour and Valentin (Raúl Juliá), a journalist who has been working for a leftist anti-government revolutionary group, is frequently tortured in order to extract information about those with whom he has been working.

Luis insists that he has no political affiliations, and to escape their bleak reality he flamboyantly recounts story-lines from his favourite romantic movies. The movie he is currently acting out is a WWII Nazi propaganda film and although Valentin doesn’t approve of a story produced by a repressive regime, he gets caught up in Luis’s enactment. It is a testament to the power of story-telling.

The cell mates form an unlikely friendship based on mutual support, and Luis admits that he has fallen in love with Valentin. What Valentin does not know is that Luis has been promised the reward of early parole by the secret police if he befriends Valentin and gets information about the leftist group with which Valentin is involved. The question arises as to whose side Luis is actually on – or does he have an agenda of his own?  

‘Agnes of God’ (Norman Jewison, 1985)

When Agnes, (Meg Tilly) a naive, young novice, gives birth to a baby which is later found strangled, a court psychiatrist (Jane Fonda) is despatched to the convent to discover whether the girl (who claims to remember neither the conception nor pregnancy) is mentally fit to stand trial. The convent is isolated and the nuns lead a sequestered life. There appear to be no men who could have fathered the baby.

Fonda’s psychiatrist, Dr. Martha Livingston, a chain-smoking lapsed Catholic, is determined to find a rational answer within the girl’s subconscious. She is swayed by the otherwise worldly Mother Superior (Anne Bancroft) who appears willing to believe that a miracle might have taken place and that the young Sister Agnes has the ecstatic vision usually reserved for saints.

Based on a play by John Pielmeier and splendidly shot by Sven Nykvist, ‘Agnes of God’ is an intriguing puzzle which doesn’t present any definitive answers, but poses some intriguing questions about morality, scepticism, spirituality and belief.

‘After Hours’ (Martin Scorsese, 1985)

‘After Hours’ is a Martin Scorsese gem that people sometimes miss; it takes place in a Manhattan cafe, where word processor Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) meets and talks with Marcy (Rosanna Arquette).

Later that night, Paul takes a cab to Marcy’s downtown apartment. When his $20 bill accidentally flies out of the cab window, it is an omen as to how this ill-fated night is going to unfurl. Now, he cannot pay the cab driver and finds himself in a series of increasingly awkward, surreal and life-threatening situations with an eccentric cast of characters. Paul spends the rest of the night getting in and out of scrapes and trying to return to his home uptown.

This absurd story of a man trying to get out of the bad part of town during a nightmarish New York evening is apparently a metaphor for Scorsese’s attempts to get his pet project (‘The Last Temptation of Christ’) made. Obstacle after obstacle prevented Scorsese from making his film and, after great irritation and many false starts, Scorsese found an alternative ‘insane’ script which became ‘After Hours’, and put his frustration into the character of Paul Hackett.

‘After Hours’ is one of the strangest and most surreal experiences put on film. Although Scorsese eventually made ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’, whether or not Paul Hackett ever made it home still remains a mystery.

‘Something Wild’ (Jonathan Demme, 1986)

Free-spirited Lulu (Melanie Griffith) sets her sights on uptight banker Charles Driggs (Jeff Daniels). She intends to loosen him up and have a bit of fun. Their relationship starts off simply with a tryst and some bizarre adventures, but then Lulu decides she wants Charles to pose as her husband at a high school reunion.

However, things are not as they seem. Brunette Lulu is the alter-ego of blonde Audrey Hankel and events take a decidedly dark turn at the school reunion when they are confronted by her actual husband, Ray (Ray Liotta). Understandably, Ray isn’t content to let Charles and Lulu alone, and the story then leads them all down an increasingly weird and dangerous path.

The aptly titled, ‘Something Wild’ gives us everything the eighties were famous for: laughs, sex, craziness, consequences, secret lives, violence, drugs, nasty things in small towns and great pop music to score every bit of it!

This Jonathan Demme movie is a little masterpiece which didn’t go unnoticed at the time of its release. Critics loved it; it got Golden Globe nominations and its stars went on to bigger films (it was the film to present the first, full-on crazy, Ray Liotta performance!)  

Full of unexpected twists, it’s a piece of unusual, thrilling, brilliant and unique movie entertainment – truly a little treasure.

‘Nine 1/2 Weeks’ (Adrian Lyne, 1986)

If you were keen to see ‘50 Shades of Grey’, you’ll be delighted to see this movie. The dramatically superior forerunner dealing with psychosexual power games stars Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke at the top of their game and fame (made early enough to have Mickey looking like a normal guy.)

A woman gets involved in an impersonal affair with a man. She barely knows about his life as she’s only interested in the sex games they play. But as she begins to discover more about him, the relationship becomes increasingly dark and complicated.

Director Adrian Lyne said at the time, “Rather than saying here are two strange people doing perverted stuff in a posh New York apartment, I wanted it to be a movie couples might see and argue about.” While this seems a reasonable ambition, it was widely reported that director Lyne and co-star Rourke put leading lady Kim Basinger through hell to achieve authentic reactions while filming the sadomasochistic relationship portrayed within the movie.

Though starring in the inferior production, Dakota Johnson should at least be grateful she had a female director considering her wellbeing while filming ‘50 Shades of Grey’.

‘River’s Edge’ (Tim Hunter, 1987)

Teenage burnout Samson (Daniel Roebuck), has murdered his girlfriend and left her naked body lying on the bank of a river just outside their small California town. Not only does he not feel the need to cover up his crime, he actually brings his friends to ogle her dead body.

Amphetamine addict Layne (Crispin Glover), tries to force the teens to keep silent to protect their classmate, but conscience is gnawing at the others – particularly Matt (Keanu Reeves) and Clarissa (Ione Skye Leitch), who struggle with the moral weight of informing the authorities.

A young Keanu Reeves, Ione Skye, Crispin Glover and Dennis Hopper headline the impressive fresh-faced cast in Tim Hunter’s highly disturbing film about pathologically apathetic youth.

Shockingly based on a true story, ‘The River’s Edge’ would probably be remembered more prominently had David Lynch and Mark Frost’s outstanding ‘Twin Peaks’ not overshadowed it using similar themes a few years later. Powerful and deeply shocking, ‘The River’s Edge’ is a film worth revisiting.

‘Broadcast News’ (James L. Brooks, 1987)

At the centre of the movie is Jane Craig (Holly Hunter), a news writer-producer for the Washington bureau of a TV network. She is smart and fast and has principles concerning TV news – one being that a story should be covered by the person best-qualified to cover it.

She is close friends with Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks), an insightful and intelligent reporter, but one that goes to pieces in front of a camera. During a trip, she meets Tom Grunick (William Hurt), a sports-caster who admits he has little education and doesn’t know much about current events, but he has been hired for the Washington bureau because he looks good on television.

Jane is unimpressed but has to admit he’s attractive. Tom quickly gains the attention of the network executives, while the Aaron messes up a chance to anchor the news. Jane is torn between the two men: Aaron says he loves her and is the better reporter, but Tom handsome and sexy and a natural on TV.

‘Broadcast News’ has a lot of interesting things to say about television, but what it also does is examine a certain kind of emotionally distant personality. It is knowledgeable about the TV news-gathering process, but it has insights into how some people use high-pressure jobs as a way of avoiding any kind of introspection.

Jack Nicholson has an unbilled supporting role in the movie as the network’s irascible senior anchorman who asks the question – Isn’t the news business just another kind of show business?

‘The Accused’ (Jonathan Kaplan, 1988)

‘The Accused’ is a courtroom drama based on true events. Out drinking one night after a fight with her boyfriend, Sarah Tobias (Jodie Foster) is brutally gang- raped by three men in a bar. Adding to the trauma, many bystanders merely watch and cheer. District Attorney Kathryn Murphy (Kelly McGillis) takes the case, but the rapists nevertheless receive mild sentences.

A distraught Sarah decides to seek punishment for the men who witnessed and encouraged the rape. To get justice, Sarah must take the stand and relive the night of her ordeal. Not only is the audience forced to watch, but must also become one of those who were watching and failed to do anything to help.

The movie is a distressing reminder of the dangers of passively absorbing on-screen violence, and (like ‘The River’s Edge’ above) a sobering indictment of social apathy and desensitization regarding acts of violence.

‘Midnight Run’ (Martin Brest, 1988)

The excellent ‘Midnight Run’ has always had a raw deal because, while it is certainly known and respected, it has never truly been regarded as the classic it actually is. Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin as Jack Walsh and Johnathan Mardukas are the best odd couple since Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.

Grodin is an eccentric, manipulative con-man with a heart of gold and De Niro is a tired, bitter bounty hunter with a decent streak he’s trying to supress. When Walsh is forced to track down Mardukas and take him on a cross country road trip, and Grodin and De Niro begin to develop their  relationship, complete with all kinds of quirks, ‘Midnight Run’ truly becomes one of the most entertaining and unusual action road-trip movies in the genre.

The contrast of these two very different actors succeeds in making one believe the two characters at the centre of the ensuing mayhem  could actually find a way of relating to and caring about one another.

If you’re interested in seeing an action movie with an amusing and unorthodox bromance, and a most unusual paring of actors, ‘Midnight Run’ will provide some marvellous entertainment. It deserves much more than its cult status.

‘The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover’ (Peter Greenaway, 1989)

When churlish mobster Albert Spica (Michael Gambon) acquires an upmarket French restaurant in London, he dines there nightly, scaring off the high-class clientele with his grossness and bad manners. His lovely wife, Georgina (Helen Mirren), has also long been mistreated and abused by him.

Georgina, increasingly repulsed by her brutish husband, begins an affair with another restaurant guest, bookish Michael (Alan Howard). Despite their efforts to keep their liaisons a secret, Spica finds out about their trysts, and plans a terrible and grotesque revenge.

With passionate sex scenes and some extraordinary cinematography, this movie also stirs up many questions and ideas. The film was threatened with an X-rating in America and created a furore in the UK because it was interpreted as a political parable critical of the Thatcher era. This drama may not be to everyone’s ‘taste’, but ‘The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover’ is certainly an outrageous and audacious piece of cinema.


80s Dream Machines

Despite its legacy of frothy fantasy, the 1980s saw many dramatic films with political, dark, sexual, and mature themes. David Lynch, Oliver Stone, Tim Burton and Spike Lee all forged directorial careers, while Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman and Brian De Palma continued as 1970’s survivors.

As James Lileks said “If you think the ’80s were dumber than the ’70s, either you weren’t there or you weren’t paying attention.”

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