CADDYSHACK

By Marc S. Sanders

Do you think in 10 years or even 50 years from now, people will remember that Harold Ramis was one of the funniest writers in film history? Animal House, Stripes, Scrooged, Groundhog Day (I hate it, but I won’t deny its legacy every February 2nd), and Ghostbusters. One film that cemented the stage for his success in the 1980s is arguably Caddyshack, which focuses on the snobs vs slobs at a high-end golf country club known as…ahem…Bushwood. It’s okay to laugh. Your mother is not in the room.

Caddyshack is more or less a vehicle for the comedic talents of Saturday Night Live players to put out their best material seemingly made up on the fly. Bill Murray is the demented grounds keeper tasked with getting rid of a damaging gopher. Chevy Chase seems to be the charmer with a delivery of wit in every word he says. He’s more or less good looking here but just as deliberately stupid as everyone else. Rodney Dangerfield goes beyond his stand-up routines, or maybe he doesn’t. He’s just shoved into the film and let loose to anger and harass the head snob, Ted Knight. Knight is unquestionably the best of the bunch here. He’s got such great timing with his outbursts and delivery. I even love how he pronounces the car maker Audi. It’s more like “ottie.”

Ramis has a thin storyline about one caddy (Michael O’Keefe) trying to win a college scholarship. Meh. So what! Caddyshack works best when it’s just playing for skits and raw laughs. There’s gross out comedy like doodie in the swimming pool, compliments of a Baby Ruth candy bar, and vomiting in cars. Dangerfield’s one liners are fast and loose. The judge’s daughter is a sly minx for the dweeby male cast to ogle, and the gopher footage with Murray is straight out of Looney Toons. I do love the irony of the Catholic priest going out to play 9 holes in the middle of an electrical storm; a prophet who will spit in the face of God. “OH RAT FARTS!!!!”

Caddyshack is not my favorite of Ramis’ films, but it’s become a touchstone in comedy quotes and repeat viewings. It’s stupid and coarse and silly and belongs nowhere in the Parthenon of great filmmaking efforts but it’s a favorite of almost anyone’s for how brash it truly is. It’s an R rated interpretation of The Three Stooges. If not for nothing, I’m sure that somewhere there is an esteemed judge of the cloth who was proud to sentence young men to the gas chamber as a means of “owing it to them.”

Harold Ramis with co-writer Brian Doyle Murray (Bill’s brother) conceived of Caddyshack as a push back against that system of order. Well done, men. Tee up!

AIRPLANE!

By Marc S. Sanders

Having finally shown my 12-year-old daughter one of the greatest comedies of all time, the disaster film spoof, Airplane!, lo and behold, what do I realize? I uncover gags that I had never noticed in the zillions of times I had seen the movie before. Did any of you notice the ice cream cone amid all of the reporters’ microphones, or that Captain Ouever (a very straight-maybe not so straight-Peter Graves) flipping through a men’s magazine called “Men’s Sperm Monthly” from the “Whacker Material” section of an airport magazine rack?

That’s the beauty of this film. You see something new every single time. EVERY SINGLE TIME!!!! I swear Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams and David Zucker are secretly editing my DVD copy and inserting new gags into the film. Nothing comes close to matching the slapsticky, spoof magic of Airplane! Countless films were skewered to ridiculous levels of far-reaching hilarity ranging from Airport, (of course) to From Here To Eternity and Saturday Night Fever. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is the film’s first casualty.

The picture is stitched together with former fighter pilot Ted Stryker (Robert Hays) pining to rekindle his romance with airline stewardess Elaine Dickinson (Julie Hagerty). Ted buys a literal “smoking” ticket on Elaine’s next flight to mend things with her (my god, I’m hearing the deliberately sappy string music in my head as I write this), but unfortunately many of the passengers and the pilots ate fish for dinner and now the plane is destined for doom. (Cue the “doom music.”)

The beauty of the film is that no one aims to announce the joke. Every cast member, including Leslie Nielsen, Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges and Kareem Abdul Jabbar, plus Otto The Automatic Pilot plays it straight, never announcing the joke and sending the punchline into the rafters. If you’re serious while looking ridiculous to everyone else…well then that’s funny. Surely, a film like Airplane! can’t be serious, only don’t call me Shirley.

Airplane! still holds up after forty years. It had such a way about it that had never been done before. Disaster films were in abundance by the end of the ‘70s. Disco music was becoming cheesy to the greater populace. Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker had to respond to these trappings. Airplane! upended everything done before.

Heck you could be bed ridden in a big building with patients and die laughing at Airplane! but that’s not important right now.

NOTE: Ever notice the propeller sound of the multi engine plane or have you truly figured out where some of the film’s all time classic lines come from? If not, then find the disaster flick Zero Hour! You’ll be amazed at the inspiration that film gifted to “Airplane!”

Zero Hour! is sometimes shown on Turner Classics. Be sure to check it out.

THE SHINING

By Marc S. Sanders

Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining has become a legendary film that set the standard for haunted house films. It’s a spooky story with a musical soundtrack never destined to be played at weddings or bar mitzvahs.

The whole movie is unsettling, beginning with a long winding road drive through the Colorado mountains as the title and credits unconventionally roll up the screen, one at a time. Kubrick was never typical. Here he was frighteningly weird.

The film, based of Stephen King’s bestseller, consists of four characters. Three of them are novelist Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and their son Danny. He’s one effed up kid with a mop top haircut. I think I’d be disturbed if I uncovered what Danny grew up to be hereafter.

The fourth character is the main attraction, the isolated Overlook Hotel; left empty during the harsh winter months to take advantage on reviving its morbid history of harsh violence by means of ghosts, bleeding elevators and hacked up innocent looking, pig-tailed, young girls. Don’t ask me to explain the guy with the gold lion mask about to go down on a happy partygoer. No. I also can’t explain what exactly happened in Room 237. Perhaps King’s book covers all of this. Kubrick opts not to and focuses on the naivety of Wendy while Danny and his imaginary friend Tony talk to the consciousness of the hotel only to understand it is gleefully influencing Jack into an obsession of murderous incentive, eventually leading him to charge his ax through some doors.

I once visited the Louvre in Paris. I couldn’t fully enjoy or appreciate it. It was too big and too overwhelming. I didn’t know where to start or where to end. I had a panic attack, but I didn’t know it at the time, and I was eager to leave. Kubrick works on that anxiety during the long exposition of the film. Effectively disturbing tracking shots are provided that shoot deep hallways, vast ballrooms, large furniture pieces, and loud colors of reds, browns, yellows and whites along with emerald, green in the bathroom of room 237. The pastel blues of the young girl’s dresses and pigtail ribbons are also deliberately garish. Colors are normally cheerful for me. Here, they are unwelcome and intrusive and when I say loud, I mean to say the colors scream at you,

You just want to get away with Danny on his Big Wheel that he pedals around the property, softly on the carpet and thunderously loud on the tile and wood.

The character of the setting continues its disturbing details by means of a maze. Kubrick offers a great transition when Wendy and Danny enter the maze while Jack overlooks (pun intended) on a small-scale model. The hotel’s haunts have its prey in sight by means of its possession of Jack. Kubrick clearly shows that with his camera work. There are wide shots both overhead and facing Jack, and narrow, trapped captions of Danny and Wendy lost in the labyrinth.

I won’t say The Shining is a favorite of mine. I think this is only the second time I’ve seen it. I’ll watch horror movies, but they often bother me; leaving me distraught and stressed, unrelaxed. Occasionally, while Kubrick is vague with his imagery, Nicholson is blatantly obvious in his urge to terrify; maybe a little too blatant. He is in direct competition with John Belushi in the facial expression department. He’s disturbing even before the hotel’s influence is available to take hold, and so I didn’t necessarily get a good character arc from him. Same with Duvall or the boy. This family is downright weird all on their own from the moment you meet them until the film’s cold, wintery end arrives. Kubrick gets you curious about what this hotel is capable of. Then he shows you. Then the end literally tires the story out.

The Shining is best when you have an urge for fear and frights. A house of horrors tale where a cat or bird will not suddenly fly into focus for a cheap jump-scare. Rather your vision and hearing will still feel shocked, leaving butterflies in the stomach, and shortness of breath. Repeat viewings will leave you awake at bedtime, and worried and agitated. There’s so much to explore, but do we really want to know what’s in that room, or down that hall or around that corner, or even how that photograph of a July 4 celebration from the 1920s ever came to be?

FLASH GORDON

By Marc S. Sanders

How can anyone not like Mike Hodges’ camp celebration of a savior hero vs a destructive villain?

Flash Gordon was penned by Lorenzo Semple Jr, writer on the 1960s Batman TV show. His first draft is the one and only draft which producer Dino DeLaurentis approved for shooting. A glossy, flashy and fetishistic approach was adopted for the film, and it became timelessly memorable.

What thrills me about the film is its appreciation for the original, pioneering comic strips on which the film is based. Max Von Sydow’s Ming The Merciless is pulled right from the newspapers in his gloss pinks, reds, golds and blacks costume wear. The inflection of his voice is otherworldly from the start (“Klytus, I’m booooored. What do you have for me to play with today?”)

Sam Jones is a level down in the relatable hero of Christopher Reeve, but he’s enjoying every minute of his hero character schtick. He’s perfect for Semple’s playful writing and he looks like a champion.

Timothy Dalton and Brian Blessed are great side characters on opposite ends; one distinguished, the other gluttonous and proud.

The best flavor of the film is its soundtrack. Thank you Queen!!! Their musical touch is an early inspiration to some modern Marvel films like Guardians of the Galaxy, and Thor: Ragnarök, clearly showing direct influence from Flash Gordon. Freddy Mercury, Brian May and company relish in heavy pounding drums and special effect sounding guitars to deliver a cheerleading rock anthem. “Flash…aaaah!!! He’s a miracle!”

Dino DeLaurentis saw opportunity following the success of science fiction with Star Wars. He produced Flash Gordon with his own style, not as a copycat. The film became a fantasy with characters bleeding rainbow colors, pet midgets, cat fighting concubines, great hall football fighting with aluminum watermelons, weird lizard creatures, hawkmen, half egg-shaped planets, and even a thrilling fight to the death on a tilting platform with protruding spikes, the best scene amid all the camp craziness.

It’s all great. Flash Gordon is the savior of the universe. “He’s a miracle!!!!”

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK

By Marc S. Sanders

My absolute favorite film of all time is the Star Wars sequel The Empire Strikes Back.

It is a film that brilliantly reinvents the outstanding product that George Lucas introduced to the world three years prior. The dialogue is sharper for every single character from Han Solo (Harrison Ford giving a breakneck, adventurous performance) to C3PO (Anthony Daniels, masterfully giving the perfect and necessary inflections to a golden droid with a sole expression of worry, but still quite intelligent) to the man in black, Darth Vader (with David Prowse’s hulking physicality playing much more aggressively, and James Earl Jones’ voice giving a more sophisticated nuance to the character’s coldness). Lawrence Kasdan, the screenwriter, uncovered new ways to apply story to these characters above the incredible special effects of miniature models and matte paintings, as well as set design. Just look at the underground tunnels of the Hoth rebel base for convincing set pieces. Director Irvin Kershner knew how to apply the beats. A director and screenwriter make a perfect duet of cinematic filmmaking.

For one thing, settings were unlimited. While the first film showed a great contrast of sandy, sun-drenched desert and lack of development against the industrialized steel of a massive space station, Empire opts to introduce new, previously unseen environments for the characters to play in. A planet made of snow? Yup! There’s that. A planet mired in mud and swamps? Yup there’s that as well. A planet with a city in the clouds? Yup, got that too!

As the film opens, the Rebellion, heroically led by Jedi in Training Luke Skywalker (a terrifically believable Mark Hamill) is in hiding from the evil Empire on the desolate snow planet Hoth (filmed in Norway, accompanied by realistic matte paints in post production). The first battle sequence moves with a kinetic pace as the band of heroes are defeated and forced to retreat when the Empire’s giant four legged walkers (inspired by the monster films of King Kong and Godzilla) locates them.

From there, the film really lives up to its title as the heroes never win the advantage over the domineering bad guys. Han Solo with Chewbacca desperately escorts Princess Leia (a fiercely sarcastic Carrie Fisher to play against Harrison Ford) out of danger, only to find worse encounters to come as Vader remains hot on their trail. There’s a spectacular sequence that includes John Williams beloved score involving the Millennium Falcon in a crowded asteroid field. Meanwhile, at the request of Obi Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness, in spirit), Luke visits the swampy planet of Dagobah to be trained by a mysterious Jedi Master named Yoda.

Assuming you can avoid focusing on all that you may already know of the film, including events that lead to discoveries in Empire, you have a film that never stops surprising you. Sure, by now we all know who Yoda is and what he looks like. What I remain curious about is Luke’s own image of what Yoda could be before it’s revealed midway through the film. Isn’t it a brilliant surprise and sleight of hand that Lucas, Kasdan and puppet master Jim Henson, with the voice of Frank Oz, to offer up the most unlikely person to be this great warrior or Jedi Master? It’s refreshing and it remains that way to me, no matter how many times I’ve seen the film. No matter how small or odd looking any of us could be in the eyes of someone else, our true strength and wisdom and bravery will show itself in unexpected ways. Yoda must be the most unlikely hero ever to grace a film. It’s smart storytelling when two entire scenes in Luke’s story arc come before the curtain is lifted on who Yoda actually is. Later, we are treated to a demonstration of the small creature’s strength and skills. It’s done beautifully with the absence of a lightsaber or any kind of attention-grabbing fight scene. The moment Yoda lifts Luke’s ship out of a swamp still raises the hair on the back of my neck. This scene shows that the mysterious “force” is more than simply sword fighting. There’s something more intrinsic in the willingness to believe in this element of fantasy. For us, I think it reminds us to believe in unlimited possibilities. I’m comfortable with that philosophy.

Masks are a theme I’ve always embraced in the Star Wars films. It’s not discussed enough actually. It’s ironic to me. Characters like C3PO or Darth Vader or Chewbacca and Boba Fett have these blank facial images to them. However, with the economics of Kasdan’s dialogue they say so much with brief statements of anger, despair (including a howl from Chewbacca) or worry. The expression physically never changes on C3PO’s face and yet I see different moods in the character thanks to the miming techniques of Anthony Daniels, the actor. A nod of the head will say something. With the practically silent Boba Fett agreeing to a contract with Vader, you see how methodical this bounty hunter dressed in dented armor really is. The character hardly gets any action scenes, yet you know how threatening he is. Every dent and scratch of his green armor tells a story. An aggressive walk shows a fear inducing Vader, one who is intolerant of any shortcomings. Sometimes Vader is simply matter of fact. If a minion fails in their assignment, he’ll force choke them and just walk away. As he duels with Luke, he simply puts his saber down when Luke is struggling with a massive wind current. We know that Darth Vader is cunning. So he hardly ever pushes himself further than necessary. We understand all of these characters’ emotions and motivations, and yet they are covered by masks.

The big surprise at the end of the film is the main crux that’s sustained the success of this sequel. It’s an absolute surprise out of nowhere but it seems to belong, as it is consistent with my belief in the mask motif throughout the whole film. There’s a veil draped over many developments of the film.

Allow me to digress. I’ve already discussed Yoda. Also consider other elements of the film though. Han decides to hide his ship from the Empire in the deep cavern of a large asteroid. Later, we learn it’s no cave. We also meet a charming new character named Lando Calrissean (Billy Dee Williams, who’s also great). He might not be what he seems as well. Since the first film came out, we’ve never had a full grasp of what or who Darth Vader is. He murdered Luke’s father and he’s someone or something in black. So, he must be the villain. That’s all we know, however. Yet, we eventually discover there’s something more. Because this is fantasy and science fiction with no roots in Earth based science, Lucas and Kasdan are well aware that they can color outside the lines and make up their own rules to this unfamiliar galaxy we are immersed in. Why not, actually? There are simply no boundaries.

A favorite scene of mine is when the Millennium Falcon makes a daring escape from that cave. It turns out to be the stomach of a giant slug…living in a rock…that floats in space! That’s the beauty of the original trilogy of Star Wars films, nearly anything could be put on the table, and it would be easy to accept and believe. In The Empire Strikes Back, almost every scene is layered and then further layered in imagination. Other storytellers would stop at just making this setting a cave and nothing else. It just might be shocking though. Put it this way, I’ll never forget taking my dad to see the special edition of this film in 1997. When the space slug revealed itself, dad burst out laughing. He didn’t see it coming. Kasdan hooks his audience with the furthest thing from your mind. When we got to the surprise ending, dad turned to me and actually asked me if he heard what he actually heard. When I showed the film to my daughter at age 6, her jaw dropped. How could a being dressed in complete black have any more depth to himself when I can’t even see what he looks like? The storyline of this film in particular is not aimed at any one demographic. Anyone could absorb the merits of surprise stuffed into this piece.

Empire is also admired for its firm stance to wrap up the film with an unhappy ending and cliffhanger. No other film has ever accomplished that so well. Much uncertainty is left to our imaginations. Will a character turn out to be dead? Is Vader’s revelation true, and if so then how does that explain the exposition delivered from Obi Wan? What does this “Jabba The Hutt” I keep hearing about actually look like? Was I looking at Vader’s brain or a human head underneath his helmet? What is Luke’s destiny? He didn’t do so well here. Could that lead to a worse fate? That scene for Luke in the Dagobah cave seemed quite foreboding, after all. Yoda implies “there is another.” Who could he be talking about, and what does that even mean? What about the conflict between the Rebellion and the Empire?

In the year 1980, the internet was not available as a means to spoil certain surprises and dismiss our own theories. We simply had the storytelling to work with. We had to wait three long years, speculating and discussing among our friends and family. It’s what maintained the strength of George Lucas’ space saga. The idea that we could play in the sandbox over a six-year period made these films more than just movies. They were events and they symbolized turning points in our lives. Personally, I discovered the magic of imagination. When I’m the writer the only rules I need to abide by are my own. That is most especially true with The Empire Strikes Back.

ORDINARY PEOPLE

By Marc S. Sanders

Psychiatry is regarded as a stigma within the world of Ordinary People.

Robert Redford’s Oscar winning directorial debut centers on a troubled high school student named Conrad (Timothy Hutton in an Oscar winning role) who finally gets the gumption to see Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch) following a suicide attempt brought on by the guilt he carries when he could not rescue his older brother, Buck, in a stormy boating accident. His parents, Beth and Calvin (Mary Tyler Moore and Donald Sutherland), accept this action with differing viewpoints.

For Beth it’s shameful and unnecessary to see a doctor. Her stance is made all the more clear when her own mother frowns upon this, especially with this doctor being a Jew. On the other hand, Calvin looks at it as an opportunity for a breakthrough. This doctor could really be good for Conrad. Beth is embarrassed when Calvin has a few drinks at a neighborhood dinner party and shares these developments with some friends.

For a WASP community, seeing a psychiatrist is not regarded well. It shows that Beth’s image of a perfect lifestyle is tainted. Any problems they have should be resolved in the home. What never occurs to Beth, however, is the resentment she fails to hide for her second son. There’s nothing breaking through Beth’s exterior to allow her true feelings to come out. By contrast, Conrad gradually lets his inner struggle loose and the film shows that it helps, as challenging as it could be.

In 1980, the prior year’s Best Picture winner was Kramer vs Kramer. Three years later it would be Terms Of Endearment. Hollywood was recognizing an audience’s interest in the domestic life. The Vietnam War was now in the past. Reagan economics were taking over and middle-class America seemed to be doing well. Redford’s adaptation of Judith Guest’s novel with a screenplay by Alvin Sargeant showed what was happening behind closed doors. Dramatic moments occur and they can offer a terrible shock in the moment but as days move on, so does everyone around you. You make efforts to do so as well, but you’re still weighed down by that one moment of loss.

Redford directs Hutton with quiet moments of anguish. Quick cut flashbacks offer a glimpse of what’s running through Conrad’s mind. Fortunately, it doesn’t run too long and upstage Hutton’s performance. Timothy Hutton is astonishing with his twitches and stutters and struggle to simply sit still. His blank stare of his blue eyes covey his deep depression. When a girl classmate takes notice of him, you feel the remedy of his sessions starting to make a difference. Where his mother refuses to recognize his need for love, someone else does and you feel better about yourself as well.

There’s always a reason to live. Dr. Berger reminds Conrad of that. Judd Hirsch is right for his role against the waspy wealth of Conrad’s upbringing. He encourages a “not giving a shit” attitude to how people perceive Conrad. We all want a mother’s love, but it doesn’t always work out that way. We want to be accepted at school. That might not work out either. With his sloven stature and chain-smoking manner, Hirsch is very convincing in reminding Conrad to say it’s okay to tell someone to fuck off, and most importantly to stop punishing himself for saying it.

Mary Tyler Moore and Donald Sutherland work incredibly well at conflicting with each other while also convincing us that before this terrible accident they likely complimented one another perfectly. Yet, as the film explains, life gets messy. The question is how best to respond when the mess appears and stays with you. Conrad finds the benefits in seeing a therapist like Dr. Berger. Beth will hear nothing of the idea. A magnificent scene done with one tracking camera comes out of nowhere while Beth and Calvin are playing golf with relatives. A slight mention of their son by Calvin gradually explodes into what really sets Calvin and Beth apart from one another. All of their sub conscious thoughts explode on a crowded golf course in front of the community they’ve absorbed their history and marriage within. Redford gets the best beats out of his actors because the shields that maintain their personas will only hold for so long. It’ll break down at a time when it’s never opportune or convenient. This scene occurs near the end of the film as we see Conrad’s recovery, while Beth and Calvin are still mired in both individual and shared heartache and resentment. It’s a crescendo moment that the film builds to for these characters.

Within film discussions, Ordinary People is often sadly regarded as the film that once again denied Martin Scorsese of a well-deserved Oscar (for arguably his greatest work Raging Bull). I don’t think that’s fair, however. Some might say Ordinary People may be dated. However, now that I’ve finally seen the film, I can’t deny it’s importance. Mental health has become more apparent through all kinds of different social classes. Yet we still hide ourselves, and are encouraged to shelter ourselves under a facade of happiness. That can’t always be true for any of us. We, as humans, all suffer. We all feel pain or embarrassment or sadness. If anything, a piece like Ordinary People reminds us that we are all typical, and must succumb to dealing with issues far beyond our mental capacity at one time or another.