TENDER MERCIES (1983)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

DIRECTOR: Bruce Beresford
CAST: Robert Duvall, Tess Harper, Betty Buckley, Wilford Brimley, Ellen Barkin
MY RATING: 8/10
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 84% Fresh
Everyone’s a Critic Category: “A Movie that Won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay”

PLOT: A broken-down, middle-aged country singer gets a new wife, reaches out to his long-lost daughter, and tries to put his troubled life back together.


Tender Mercies does not feel like a movie that was released the same year as WarGames, Octopussy, and Return of the Jedi.  It has more in common with the spare, character-driven films of the early ‘70s like Five Easy Pieces [1970] and The Last Picture Show [1971].  It’s a movie where not much seems to happen, at least on the surface.  Underneath the barren landscapes and big skies, however, great truths about life and acceptance are on display.

Anchored by an Oscar-winning performance from Robert Duvall, Tender Mercies tells the story of Mac Sledge (Duvall), whom we see at the opening of the film collapsing in a drunken stupor on the losing end of a fight in a rinky-dink roadside motel in rural Texas.  The next morning, broke and abashed, he makes an arrangement with the widowed motel owner, Rosa Lee (Harper): he’ll do odd jobs at the motel for room, board, and $2 an hour.  Rosa Lee’s son 10-year-old son, Sonny, watches this situation unfold impassively and asks Mac some very direct questions: “Did you used to have money?”  “How’d you lose it?”  “You think my dad would’ve liked you?”

The filmmakers (directed by Bruce Beresford, Oscar-winning screenplay by Horton Foote, who also wrote the screenplay for To Kill a Mockingbird [1962]) make some interesting choices for everything that follows.  There is a gentle scene between Mac and Rosa Lee where he shyly asks her, “You ever think about gettin’ married again?”  She says she has.  “Would you ever think about marryin’ me?”  She says she will think about it.  And in the very next scene, it’s made clear that time has passed, they got married, and have been married for several months.  In another film, that kind of “condensed storytelling” would go into the negative column in my book, but not here.  Instead, it feels…right.  We don’t need to show any further details of their courtship, their wedding, Sonny’s feelings about it one way or the other, etcetera.  Those extra scenes would have delayed the narrative structure, showing us things we don’t need to see, but which we can easily deduce.

There’s another scene (I’ll try to tread lightly here) where Mac gives a heartfelt, but still masterfully underplayed, speech to Rosa Lee about how he was in a bad drunk driving wreck years before, and how God saw fit to bring her into his life, but to do so meant her husband had to die, and so on.  “See, I don’t trust happiness.  I never did, I never will.”

When he finished, and Rosa Lee stood there taking it in, in my head, I imagined her replying with something like, “Well, Mac, you don’t have to trust happiness, you just have to trust me”, or “yourself”, or some similarly corny platitude.  Instead, in what must have been superhuman restraint on the part of the screenwriter, Rosa Lee simply stands there, processes what she just heard…and walks offscreen, leaving Mac alone with his thoughts.

That was a big moment for me.  It seemed to me to be a gesture from the filmmakers that this is not a movie about processed dialogue and ancient story arcs and the kind of emotional beats you might expect from a film.  Instead, it felt like I was looking at real people, reacting realistically to real dialogue.  Rosa Lee could have drawn the scene out, but instead she seems to realize there is nothing she can say that will make things better for Mac.  She loves him, but she knows this is something he’ll need to work out for himself, and no amount of sermonizing will help him towards that goal.  It’s a small moment, and it doesn’t occur until late in the film, but it’s this moment that convinced me Tender Mercies had a lot to say in between the pauses and transitional shots of country roads and straight horizons.

There is a lot more to the story, but the film presents very little of it with the kind of forward momentum we’ve come to expect as moviegoers.  Instead, we are treated to new developments almost as if we are intruding on these people and their lives.  Even in a scene at a crowded Opry house where we see Mac’s previous wife, Dixie (Betty Buckley!), belting some good old-fashioned, Parton-esque country tunes, the shot choices and editing still feel almost like we’re voyeurs as we watch Mac listening to one of Dixie’s ballads, then leaving, not quite in disgust, but clearly uncomfortable.  It’s in the aftermath of this concert we get the first solid information on his estranged daughter (Barkin), who would be about 18 years old by now.  Dixie screams at Mac, “She doesn’t remember you!  All she remembers is a mean drunk!”  This scene was so well-realized that I started having flashbacks to some of the fights my own parents got into before their divorce.

I don’t mean to suggest the movie does not have an arc.  It absolutely does.  But Tender Mercies does such a good job of “burying the lead” that I didn’t fully get what the movie wanted to say until the very last scenes featuring two characters tossing a football back and forth.  Mac’s life seems to be back on track.  His music career seems about to be resurrected.  Mac might still have trust issues when it comes to happiness.  Perhaps all we can do is appreciate the small moments of happiness we have while we can.  If sadness or tragedy comes, let it come.  It will hurt for a time, but it will also make those small moments all the more precious.

If that sounds clichéd, well, maybe it is.  Tender Mercies does a much better job of delivering that message than I could ever do, proving once again: a movie is not about what it’s about, it’s HOW it’s about it.


QUESTION FROM EVERYONE’S A CRITIC

Unless you read the script, you can only judge a screenplay by the movie. Based on the movie, do you feel this script deserved the award for Best Screenplay? Explain.
Great question!  For the record, the other nominees that year were the screenplays for The Big Chill, Fanny and Alexander, Silkwood, and WarGames (that last one kinda surprised me).  I am a little surprised Tender Mercies edged out The Big Chill, a movie with far more prominence than this little Texas character study from an Australian director, but I would say Tender Mercies certainly deserved the award based on the movie by itself.  Much like Lost in Translation [2003], the screenplay relies more on silences and context to deliver its message rather than on showy dialogue or melodramatic plot developments (to be fair, there is one sort-of melodramatic plot twist in Tender Mercies, but it’s handled so well it doesn’t play that way).  Sure, Tarantino and Sorkin might deliver high-quality screenplays that are flashier and certainly wordier, but to craft such a high-quality film in such a minimalist style is admirable and deserves recognition.

EASY MONEY

By Marc S. Sanders

Monty Capuletti is played by Rodney Dangerfield in the comedy Easy Money. The name of the role is just there for script purposes really. This is basically just Rodney playing Rodney, and had he been in more scenes, this film would have been one of the all-time great comedies. It really would have been legendary. Unfortunately, it suffers from a side story that generates no laughs and bogs the picture down to a screeching halt.

Monty is a baby photographer, and I can’t think of a better or more appropriate occupation for Rodney Dangerfield to play for some easy, gut busting laughs. Let that sink in for a moment. Rodney Dangerfield…as a…baby photographer! I couldn’t contain myself when he was trying to get a plump toddler to sit still and finally unleashes a tirade of inappropriate expletives. Comedy works best when one party is tainted by another.

Monty drinks, smokes, gambles, overeats and often visits the local strip joints with his best pal, Nicky Cerone (a perfect partnership with Joe Pesci). His hoity mother-in-law (Geraldine Fitzgerald) has never approved of her daughter’s (Candice Azzara) marriage to this offensive slob. When mother passes away, she leaves Monty her ten-million-dollar furniture store enterprise to him, but only if he gives up on all of his habits as well as loses some weight. This is a perfect set up for a Rodney Dangerfield movie. Unfortunately, it does not go far enough with the gags.

The first thirty minutes are comedy gold as we see Monty and Nicky going from one moment of debauchery to the next. When they lose big on the horse races, I about died watching Nicky take to the field to punch out the rider. When they pick up the wedding cake for Monty’s daughter’s wedding and wedge it into the back of Nicky’s plumbing van next to the toilet, I had to pause the film to catch my breath and finish laughing. Plus, think for a moment of what’s gonna happen to that cake before the night is done. It’s more hilarious than you could possibly imagine. The first thirty minutes paint a perfect picture of Monty and his terrible ways.

When the turning point happens after Mother dies, the remaining hour only generates a handful of memorable moments. The film diverts to Jennifer Jason Leigh as Monty’s daughter who has now married a greasy gang member eager to take her virginity. She leaves the jerk on her wedding night and the film takes up too much time with the guy trying win her back. Dangerfield is not in much of this storyline, nor is Leigh. It focuses way too much on a boring performance from actor Taylor Negron as the jilted groom who is not funny in any way. As well, his selection of scenes come off unfinished at times. The groom, Julio, climbs to the outside of the second story of the house one night and falls off the pipe he’s holding on to, but you never see his reaction or where he lands. In Tom & Jerry cartoons, you were always treated to the aftermath of the fall or the big bang where little birds flew around poor Tom’s head. Did the editors just fall asleep in post?

The wedding ceremony at church and the reception in the fenced in New Jersey backyard? Now that’s funny. Really funny. Just look at the outfits for one thing. Purple tuxedos for the groomsmen. Lime green dresses for the bridesmaids and the inevitable overly, emotional, tears of joy family member who just won’t shut up. It’s a perfect tempo for laughs. I’m laughing as I recall this moment. The Italian gathering of hundreds of people dancing in a perfect overhead shot of a crammed in backyard is an absolute contrast to the elegance you’ll find in The Godfather.

Monty’s struggle with giving up on his unhealthy lifestyle is not touched upon enough and I can’t understand why. The door was wide open for these moments. Imagine Monty at an AA meeting or an Overeaters Anonymous gathering. Opportunities were missed in Easy Money. A perfect set up with not enough of an execution. I was ready to declare this film as Rodney’s best (better than Caddyshack or Back To School) but then the last hour settled in.

Easy Money is not a terrible movie. Far from it. It just could have been so much more. Watch the first thirty minutes, and then turn on Back To School to feel fulfilled.

SUDDEN IMPACT

By Marc S. Sanders

The very first R rated picture I ever saw in theaters was the fourth installment of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry franchise, entitled Sudden Impact.  I was eleven years old and I loved it.  My brother Brian took me with his best friend Nick.  Age 11 and I’m in a crowded theater on a Saturday night watching a brutally violent and sometimes funny crime drama with the cop who carries the .44 Magnum.  Looking back, it felt like a rite of passage.  It felt rebellious.  I’d now be the coolest kid in school as I recount for them everything I was allowed to see that their parents refused to even consider.

Brian introduced me to many of what remain my favorites this very day.  He introduced me to Jackie Gleason in The Honeymooners,and then at age 8 or 9 I must have watched the first of Eastwood’s series, Dirty Harry, on video tape.  At that age, you just want to get to the next shootout where Harry allows his bloodletting revolver do the talking while he finishes his hot dog.  I watched those first three films (Dirty Harry, Magnum Force and The Enforcer) over and over again.  As an adult, I more so appreciate the themes of the San Francisco cop, Harry Callahan.  He always had a low tolerance for the bureaucratic BS of court procedure and legal precedent.  He was always smart enough to know who the real bad guys were and that was enough to bring them in. If they didn’t cooperate, well then there were other means. 

The first two films in the series question Harry’s procedures and philosophies.  The third film, although entertaining to a degree, deviated from that.  The fourth film returns to test Harry’s beliefs in police enforcement and justice.  Only this time, it’s actually from the perspective of a gang rape victim, played by Sondra Locke.

Much of the first hour of Sudden Impact is episodic.  Scene after scene shows Harry’s encounters with various hoods that he has a connection too.  Harry disrupts a wedding to undo a vicious mobster.  Later, those guys try to take him down.  Some punk kids get off on a technicality in court.  They’ll have something to say to Harry as well, and just in case you need a little more action, there is that very memorable coffee shop robbery where Harry tempts all of us to “Go ahead.  Make my day.”  There’s also good laughs as Harry is gifted a bulldog he calls Meathead. 

Weaved within these various moments is a separate story focusing on a beautiful painter who has a knack for killing men with one bullet to the genitals and another to the head.  She has revenge on her mind following a gang rape of her and her sister ten years prior.  Eventually, Harry is assigned to investigate and he is on his way to a fictional neighborhood known as San Paulo (filmed in Santa Cruz).  Harry has to navigate around a difficult police captain (Pat Hingle) as the killings continue to happen out here.

I’ve always been fascinated with the Dirty Harry series.  Surprisingly, when I do internet searches on the films and character, I don’t find much that explores the measure of rights and law.  Yet, beyond the sometimes-comic book violence of the pictures there’s much to question and think about.  Is Harry right with his chosen actions?  After all, the films make clear that the bad guys are the bad guys.  The writing however, makes it a challenge when legality interferes and the rights of men and women are tested.  Sudden Impact does the same thing.  With Eastwood directing, he makes the viewers witnesses to what the Locke character is subjected too.  That should be enough, right?  Real life is not that clean cut though.  However, in an age of internet surfing and headline breezing, people are endlessly tried in the court of public opinion and not a court of law.

The first film in the series had Harry declare that the law is crazy.  The second film tested the protagonist when he uncovers that people supposedly on his own team were carrying out vigilante murders against the worst mobsters and pimps in the city, as a means to clean up the streets.  Now, another and more personal vigilante appears.  What makes Harry right and these others wrong?  I don’t think any of the five films in the series ever give a clear-cut answer.  That’s okay.  I’d be frightened if there were a direct response, because it remains a complex issue.  When the courts fail us, what is there left to do?

Do not mistake me.  I am not calling for violence.  I’m just questioning a system that is sometimes broken.    

Recently, a local trial wrapped up where a retired police officer shot a man in a movie theatre who became argumentative and belligerent when he wouldn’t turn off his cell phone.  Popcorn was thrown, a gun was drawn and a man was instantly killed.  The retired police officer was found not guilty by a jury of his peers.  The court of public opinion by and large have been outraged with this verdict.  The grieving widow felt as if justice was not served.  Followers of the story didn’t either.  Another story focused on a beloved teacher who was hit by a car in a school parking lot.  I actually got into a public Facebook debate with someone who said the driver should be punished to the full extent of the law.  I questioned if the driver is truly guilty of murder or manslaughter.  It could have just been an accident.  We are humans to a fault.  How do we know the teacher didn’t just step in front of the car without looking?  The opposing view insisted the driver had to be speeding.  Maybe.  Yet, at the time neither of us knew that.  A car going at 5 mph can just as easily crush a human to death as a car going at 30 mph.  I insisted to the person I was sparring with that she was riding a slippery slope of presumption without all of the facts disclosed.  A police report has yet to be publicly disclosed.  Circumstances always come into play.

I know I’m digressing.  With a Dirty Harry picture like Sudden Impact, it’s laid all out for you.  Harry will request that four robbers put down their guns before introducing his friends Smith & Wesson.  He’ll also consider the circumstances after a woman’s life has been permanently scarred with no one to side with her.  A police officer should not be judge and jury.  Yet, it’s reassuring those films like Sudden Impact or Dirty Harry will allow a comeuppance for the wrongdoers in the world. During the closing minutes of the film, Sondra Locke delivers a monologue that at least is worth consideration even if it’s not agreeable.  I don’t believe our society should turn into a wild west circus where you can get gunned down in a movie theater over thrown popcorn.  I do believe however, that evidence must be taken more seriously in many circumstances.  Suspicion must be valued more often. 

Sudden Impact might have a right-wing attraction to it.  It glorifies gun violence, for the sake of action entertainment.  Harry doesn’t just have a .44 Magnum.  Now, he also has a .44 Magnum Auto Mag!!!!  (Whatever that is!)  Ironically, this picture is primarily told from a woman’s point of view where she wants to be believed and she wants justice, much like many of the messages of the Me-Too movement that gained major traction in 2019.  It’s insisted that when a victim says they have been raped or assaulted, no matter how far back the incident occurred, it should be believed.  The argument is where’s the proof?  Like Harry Callahan though, proof is not always the end all be all.  Instinct and common sense sometimes have to prevail.  Again, it’s a slippery slope, but it’s also always worth questioning.  Harry Callahan is always worth questioning.

RETURN OF THE JEDI

By Marc S. Sanders

There’s a moment in Return Of The Jedi where Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is about to be forced into Jabba The Hutt’s monstrous Sarlaac pit. R2D2 launches the Jedi Knight’s lightsaber in the air. Luke catches the hilt of the saber and just before he ignites it, the hero gives a smile. The Star Wars saga is not just fun for audiences. The players in the film are enjoying themselves just as much.

Following the mind-blowing cliffhangers of The Empire Strikes Back from 1980, the third film in the original trilogy picks up to tie off all those loose ends. The result is nothing but giddy, refreshingly inventive, swashbuckling adventure. I always admired the sets of the original trilogy. No two locations looked the same. Prior films have introduced desert, snow, swamp and cloudy locales. Jedi takes us to a forest moon known as Endor. It’s no surprise that a forest moon will not offer much technology even in science fiction/fantasy. So, we are treated to a welcoming and ironic final battle to overthrow Darth Vader’s evil Empire. Ewoks, cuddly looking teddy bears, known for the means of survival with primitive devices like rocks, sticks and logs will face up against armored Stormtroopers and gigantic, zippy little speeder bikes, and steel chicken walkers armed with powerful blasters. The battle scenes are fun, and they work. Just before the heroes break into an Empire bunker, Han Solo outstretches his arms and gives a smirk at the Imperial troops. Even Harrison Ford is having a good time. There’s much opportunity for the audience to clap along.

The main story involves Luke making an effort to defeat Darth Vader once and for all after he’s urged by Yoda and Ben Kenobi (Frank Oz and Alec Guinness) to confront the dark lord as a means to complete his training to be a Jedi. It will not be easy as it also means that Luke must resist the evil Emperor Palpatine’s seductive nature to join the dark side.

Ian McDiarmid is the Emperor and I always say this guy never got enough recognition. He’s as masterful with the role as Margaret Hamilton was with The Wicked Witch of the West. He chews the scenery and like the good guy actors, he’s also having fun in the part.

Jabba The Hutt is also a terrific surprise that’s finally revealed (if you had been following the more preferred original cuts of the trilogy). This large, slug like puppet character is an amalgamation of Marlon Brando in The Godfather and a very bulky Orson Welles. The infamously controlling gangster on Luke’s home planet of Tatooine gleefully displays a captive Han Solo still frozen in carbonite. The sets within his palace are magnificently detailed in creature extras and sleazy decor, much like a seedy strip club.

I think the appeal of Star Wars comes partly from the nature of human beings and the planet Earth where we reside. All looks familiar in a way the first time we see something and it’s easy to make presumptions of this galaxy’s inhabitants and what they are respectfully capable of. We can recognize that Ewoks might be as constructive as the Swiss Family Robinson with their tree like village. At the same time, a giant slug with a green skinned, dancing concubine chained to him commands over a peasantry. Elders in black robes carry an instinct to almost gaslight a weaker opponent for personal gain.

George Lucas sourced from prior films of all different categories used before. He only made it his own original work with some modifications. So you get sword fights, only in this world the swords are beams of light. You get a strip club bar, but it’s science fiction polish allows it to be a little more PG rated.

Return Of The Jedi serves as a great time to watch a movie. It’s swashbuckling and even well-acted, especially with Mark Hamill in the lead. His character changes from one film to the next. He’s no longer a child here. He’s now an absolute leader walking into the depths of hell aboard a new and more powerful Death Star, ready to sacrifice himself to fulfill a likely prophecy, as well as to save the Rebellion he commands.

It may not be the best film of the original trilogy, but Return Of The Jedi was one of the most satisfying movie going experiences from the decade of the 1980s.

OCTOPUSSY

By Marc S. Sanders

By the time Octopussy was released in 1983, I think part of the joke was that Roger Moore, on the latter half of middle age, can survive and triumph over insurmountable odds. The crow’s feet show around the eyes. The hair color looks faded. He doesn’t necessarily look physically fit anymore. Yet, 007 can still outrun a pack of hunters riding elephants and shooting at him with sniper rifles. If you just accept this standard and laugh at the absurdity, you’ll likely have enjoyed Octopussy.

Director John Glen’s movie is a mixed bag of really good action material and a regrettably choppy storyline involving jewel thievery and a Russian nuclear bomb. Only it’s not made clear how these two connect until very late in the picture. By that point I didn’t care much.

There’s some amazing footage in Octopussy. Particularly, a spectacular scene where Bond manages to get on top of an airplane and stay there. With the exception of close ups for Roger Moore, this is all stunt work and my jaw drops no matter how many times I see it. Bond is trying to prevent villain Kamal Khan (Louis Jordan) from escaping with his henchman. Khan tries to shake Bond off the plane by doing aerial maneuvers including flying upside down. Glen’s camera captures his stuntman doing it all at 30,000 feet. Then the henchman goes outside of the plane! It’s a sequence that must be seen. Another all time great stunt in the series.

Oh yeah, the story! Bond travels to New Delhi, India to uncover why Khan has spent an enormous fortune on a Russian Faberge Egg at a Sotheby’s auction. Following a backgammon match where 007 outwits his opponent’s cheating with loaded dice, Bond finds himself outrunning bad guys in a street market complete with sword swallowing, a bed of nails and running on hot coals. I was waiting for him to break into song like Disney’s Aladdin. (Ironically, Tim Rice wrote the lyrics to the film’s song “All Time High,” performed by Rita Coolidge.)

Eventually, he catches up with Maud Adams, making her second appearance in the series; this time as the title character. She’s a jewel smuggler working with Khan, only she’s got scruples that Khan does not possess. Consider the fact that once she realizes Khan is working with a renegade Russian general (Stephen Berkoff) to detonate a nuclear bomb during a circus located on an American military base in East Berlin, Octopussy has an epiphany that she has been double crossed. This really does not seem so surprising to anyone except Octopussy.

Bond has to endure a lot in this film. Besides contending with Khan’s turban wearing henchman, he also has to fight against deadly identical twins who are experts at knife throwing. Worse yet is when he has to don a clown outfit complete with rubber nose, floppy shoes and makeup.

The action of Bond making efforts to get to the doomed circus is great as he has to leap on to a train and follow after the locomotive with a Mercedes Benz on railroad tracks. Good automobile stunt work further in this extended scene also works well.

What leaves me feeling ho hum, though, is Octopussy and her lady soldiers in red jumpsuits, all skillful in fighting techniques and weaponry ready to take on Khan’s bandoliers. Looks like an old Batman tv episode really. It’s a little eye rolling to say the least.

Octopussy is watchable but it’s nothing special. This film and Roger Moore’s next and final adventure as 007 are certainly two of the weakest in the series. I must persist though.

TERMS OF ENDEARMENT

By Marc S. Sanders

Acclaimed television writer James L Brooks’ first feature film was the 1983 Best Picture Winner Terms of Endearment.  The movie succeeds in more ways than one because of its varied relationships among the characters.  You have Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine) and her daughter Emma Greenway-Horton (Debra Winger).  There’s Emma and her husband Flap Horton (Jeff Daniels).  There’s Aurora and Flap, and then there is Aurora and her neighbor Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson).  Sounds like a lot to take in for a two hour picture, and yet Brooks manages to adapt a script from Larry McMurtry’s novel that smoothly covers realistic depth and dimension among these characters, and how they connect with one another.  Brooks is at least an incredibly efficient writer/director.  Honestly, I’m not complimenting him nearly enough.

Shirley MacLaine provides one of the best female performances to ever grace the silver screen.  She doesn’t have to utter a word of dialogue to say so much about how Aurora feels.  One of her greatest facial expressions is when she is addressed by her grandson as “Grandma!”  This moment is so utterly hilarious that the studio selected it to close out the original theatrical trailer.  If anything is going to get you in the seat at the theatre it’s this moment.  Aurora is a widow who can be difficult to please, judgmental and always conscious of her part in the world-even while she is hosting multiple gentlemen suitors in her Houston, Texas home.  This character is so powerful that it is hard to understand why Hollywood really never followed suit with presenting more films focused on the middle age woman or man.  There are still interesting things to be found in being a widow and dealing with ageism, motherhood and a resurrection of sexuality.  Think about The Golden Girls which dominated television sets on Saturday nights for most of the decade.

Aurora disapproves of Emma marrying Flap.  Flap has no imagination or drive and is as devoid of affection as his name suggests.  Best he can do for Emma and their three children is find whatever college professor job he can muster and uproot his family from one mid-western state to another.  Emma knows of her mother’s disdain for Flap, and can’t disagree with her.  She knows Flap is a loser, but if it means aggravating her mother then it is worth it at least to marry him.  Early in the film it amuses Emma to frustrate her mother a little more and a little more.  Contrary to Aurora’s instincts, Emma is naively unaware that life settles in soon enough and the happy nuptials fade away.

Still, Aurora and Emma have a strong mother/daughter relationship where numerous phone calls each day happen between them.  These conversations consist of Emma reluctantly telling her mother that she may be pregnant, yet again, or that Aurora is proud to let her guard down and approach the boorish, drinking next door neighbor astronaut, Garrett, played with a devil may care seductiveness from Jack Nicholson.  Aurora’s serene peacefulness in her beautiful backyard garden and home is always disrupted by Garrett’s loud bellow before diving into his swimming pool.  Still, she can’t help but be attracted to him while putting on a façade of disapproval in his presence.  The first lunch date that Aurora and Garrett share must be one of the best dates ever depicted on film.  The scene might have been written and staged by Brooks, but it is thankfully hijacked by Nicholson and MacLaine.  One of the funniest moments to ever come out of 1980s cinema for sure.  There’s much reason that MacLaine won Best Actress and Nicholson won Best Supporting Actor.  These actors easily stage a scene of realistic comedic chemistry while later expressing deep rooted drama and affection with one another.  Not easy to do all in one film.

Brooks masterfully writes these characters with such authenticity that you find yourself legitimately laughing at a scene or a piece of dialogue, while the person sitting next to you might embrace the dramatic element of the very same moment.  Both responses to random moments in Terms Of Endearment allow varied reactions like that.  When Emma suspects Flap of committing adultery, pay attention to the dialogue and the performance from Winger and Daniels.  Emma allows Flap to dodge a lie he’s about to tell by warning him that he may have just lost his senses, but if he continues down a wrong path, then he will end up worth less than he already is.  He doesn’t fight her on that observation.  Hard to explain here but listen to the vocabulary Brooks applies to Emma’s dialogue and watch how Winger traps Daniels.  You may nod with a smirk, or you may feel frightened for Emma and her marriage. 

I always say Terms Of Endearment is a comedy first and a drama second.  The film steers towards a frightening fate for the Aurora and Emma.  However, before that third act sequence there is so much to treasure, love and laugh at in the film.  When a cloud of imminent loss feels like it may approach, that is when the dramatic elements step forward.  To truly feel loss, you had to treasure wonderful moments with a loved one or a friend.  You had to value something important in your heart and soul to feel so terribly frightened and mad and hysterical when days might seemingly appear numbered.  James L Brooks and Larry McMurtry remind us of that.  Every person on the planet is destined for this feeling at one point or another.  What happens when the inevitable arrives is what sustains Terms Of Endearment to it’s satisfying end.  A character may appear on a hotel staircase to reconnect with support.  A hug goes a little longer than expected, and for the first time the one who normally lets go first actually tries to keep the moment frozen in time.  A gift from long ago is recovered to touch someone emotionally.  Brooks includes all of these moments in his film and that’s what I embrace most importantly.  Cinematically speaking, these points in the film are heightened by a memorable soundtrack of quirkiness and passage of life from composer Michael Gore.  His music is so effective that it has been used countless times over to enhance trailers for other films marketed at audiences that this picture was catered for.

Yes, after numerous viewings, Terms Of Endearment never fails to me put me in tears.  Like ugly crying!  I prefer to watch it alone actually, because I connect with the characters differently than most people I know, including my wife.  It’s a very personal film for me.  It reminds me of loss that I have felt and experienced.  More importantly though, it reminds me of all I’ve had, and all I continue to hold on to.  Terms Of Endearment is one of my favorite films.

RISKY BUSINESS

By Marc S. Sanders

It’s telling of how happily cash rich people were all to proud to carry themselves in the 1980s Reagan era.  It was not a time to focus on emotions and sensitivity.  War was over.  Shopping malls were all over the place.  Credit cards were easy to get and use.  Forget about what happens later.  Heck even the music was happy and fun with acts from Wham! The Go Go’s and Katrina And The Waves.  Maybe it was not as apparent, compared to today’s “Me Too”/”Black Lives Matter” themes, to focus on the minorities or even basic charity.  Free enterprise was the theme.  Profits and prestige were the goals.  It was even taught to be that way in high school.  Love was not important.  Making money was the all rage.  Making money and spending money-including your savings bonds from grandma and grandpa.  Paul Brickman’s Risky Business was evidence of that mentality.  Long before, it ever became transparent that well to do parents could buy their kid’s Ivy League education for a promising future, just the idea of mounting pressure to get into a school like Princeton University was a terrible ordeal for a 17 year old kid.

Tom Cruise’s breakout role of Joel Goodson, with his sock covered feet, pink polo shirt and BVD white underpants faced this issue, and yet it was not Joel’s most important problem to contend with.  Risky Business showed us the first couch that Cruise jumped up and down on with help from Bob Seger.  Cruise’s career was never the same ever since this 1983 film.  It only got sexier and better and outrageously more successful following this film.

Brickman’s script which he directed was one of the first commercially successful 80’s teen flicks to adopt the concept of the parents are out of town, so let’s party approach.  Only thing is beyond joyriding in dad’s Porsche, Joel is not as obsessed with popular jock/cheerleader parties, as he is with getting laid. He dreams of gorgeous naked girls in the shower and on his bed, or who is on the other end of the line when he calls an escort personal ad.  Yet, paranoia takes over for Joel.  His WASP parents seemed to have instilled Joel with fear of a S.W.A.T team nightmare if he even dares to make out with a strange and exotic woman in their beautiful suburban home. Through a set of circumstances that disrupts Joel’s comfortable fantasies and strait-laced activities, a high priced and ravishing call girl named Lana (Rebecca DeMornay) enters Joel’s life and his dad’s Porche, and his house and then, doesn’t leave. Joel gets his cherry popped, but things go awry like in most 80s teen comedies.  The Porsche needs to be towed out of Lake Michigan, his mother’s precious crystal egg needs to be recovered from Lana’s pimp (Joe Pantoliano), and Joel has to remember to interview well on Friday night with a Princeton admissions advisor. 

All of this sounds familiar.  These themes have been copied countless times over.  Yet Paul Brickman goes in an extraordinary direction that remains original nearly 40 years later.  His characters of Joel and Lana are smart.  They are portrayed with great instinct by Cruise and DeMornay, who are never playing for laughs and allow the gradual situations of the script to deliver the humor.  Joel is the student.  Lana is the teacher.  By the end, they’ll likely be on an even playing field. 

SPOILER ALERT:  The third act is the true highlight, as the world’s oldest profession becomes a business of free enterprise to make Lana money and rescue Joel from impending doom on a hundred different angles.

As I’ve written before, I love character arcs in all kinds of stories.  Brickman writes Joel as a rigid and by the book kind of kid with his shirt neatly tucked in, a preppy chestnut brown haircut, docksiders and well pressed jeans and khakis.  This kid will not even get a speeding ticket, regardless of the Porsche’s horsepower.  Only after experiencing sex and the possibility of going outside the lines like Lana demonstrates, does Joel realize the value of throwing caution to the wind; more specifically, as the script proudly reminds us “Sometimes you just have to say What The Fuck!”

To sidestep for a moment, when I finally saw James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause, all I walked away with was a very cool looking guy with a red jacket, white t-shirt and blue jeans.  Not much dimension there.  Pretty flat if you ask me.  Then, I’m reminded of Risky Business.  Here is a hallmark film of teen angst.  Joel’s episodes in one week, while mom and dad are away, are not likely to happen in real life.  Yet, Brickman doesn’t aim for farce.  The laughs come in clashing the sons of Chicago white suburbia WASP culture with the nightlife these boys only dream about. 

With Tangerine Dream offering up a cool dreamlike soundtrack, Risky Business is exotic and sexy and dangerous and then it’s funny.  Very, very funny.