Continental Divide ( 1981 )
Spielberg was down but not out. He had produced two comedies directed by Robert Zemeckis that failed at the box office, and directed a Robert Zemeckis script, 1941, which was a colossal bomb, only outshadowed by Heaven's Gate as the all time box office disaster. Whatever magic put Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind in the top three box office hits of all time was no longer working. And yet he pushed forward with a producing career, founding Amblin' Entertainment, named after the short that was his first commercially released film. Amblin's first film, Continental Divide, was a little safer than the previous projects. For one it was directed by Michael Apted, who had previously directed Coal Miner's Daughter ( 1980 ) which earned an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. Spielberg had bought the script from an up and coming script writer named Lawrence Kasdan. He had previously written the script for The Bodyguard, which was intended for Diana Ross and Steve McQueen, but would end up in production hell until it was eventually made years later with Whitney Huston and Kevin Costner. Spielberg was so pleased with the script for Continental Divide that he introduced Kasdan to George Lucas, who in turn hired him to write the script for The Empire Strikes Back ( 1980 ) followed by Raiders of the Lost Ark ( 1981 ). Raiders had been in the works since 1977 when Lucas and Spielberg were on vacation together and Lucas got Spielberg to agree to be it's director. Ironically, it is because Kasdan was able to take Lucas and Philip Kaufman's original outline and turn it into a script that Spielberg was obligated to direct Raiders in 1980, preventing him from directing Continental Divide and needing to hire another director. ( and since I obviously own all the Indiana Jones movies, none will be part of my Spielberg marathon. ) Continental Divide was also the first solo starring vehicle for John Belushi, who's previous film The Blues Brothers ( 1980 ) had been a huge hit. So yeah, there was high hopes for this movie.
Raiders of the Lost Ark was another huge box office hit for Spielberg and Lucas, at the time becoming the third money earning film of all time behind Star Wars ( 1977 ) and The Empire Strikes Back ( 1980 ) and sharing the top five with Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Jaws. Some saw this as nothing more than a Lucas film that Spielberg directed, noting that Jaws was another movie already written that Spielberg had been asked to direct, limiting his creative success to just Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and proving that it was really Lucas who was the genius. However, Raiders success gave Spielberg the clout he needed to begin his next project, a film about a lost alien. In the meantime there was still the matter of releasing Amblin's first movie. And unfortunately Continental Divide underpreformed, even with all the talent associated with it.
Watching the movie, it is no wonder it never came close to being a blockbuster. It's basically no different as any random movie made for the Halmark Channel. John Belushi plays a well known investigative reporter for a Chicago newspaper who has been reporting on the corruption of city hall. When the mayor has two policemen beat John up and put him in the hospital, the paper's editor asks him to leave town before he gets killed, forcing an assignment on him to interview a reclusive scientist who lives in the Rocky Mountains to study eagles and has since become an activist known as the Eagle Lady ( Blair Brown ). Of course she hates reporters, but reluctantly is forced to host John because the mountain guide who brought John to her cabin had left him there while she was out, and will not be back for two weeks. John and Blair do not like each other, so naturally they end up in love. After the two weeks John returns to Chicago, but without Blair becomes depressed and is unable to write. But after he finds out his informant at city hall had a fatal accident by falling to his death off a fire escape, John is motivated again to expose the corrupt politician who he believes had him killed. This is not a spoiler. The script for this movie is so lazy that the first time you see the informant leaking information to John in an allay, he for no reason points to a fire escape and tells John that he would never use one of those things because he is afraid of them. The very first thing I thought after he mentioned that was "this guy is going to end up tossed off a roof". It was that obvious a setup. John's newfound motivation to write about city hall results in someone bombing his apartment, but he continues investigating until his reports finally resort in an official investigation into the whistleblower's death and the government official most likely responsible. But the same day that news breaks, John finds out that Blair is in Chicago to have a lecture at the natural museum. They rekindle their relationship and fall in love again. But they then realize that John was meant to be a Chicago reporter and Blair was meant to study eagles in the Rockies, and to be together one of them must give up their life's ambition. I will not spoil the couple's decision, but it is not really much of a spoiler.
Continental Divide is not a bad movie. In fact it is pretty decent. It is just that you can't help but wonder why everyone was involved. What motivated Kasdan into writing such an unremarkable formula romance script? Why did Spielberg like the script so much that he bought it and ultimately made it Amblin's first production? Why did Michael Apted want to direct it? Most confusing is why was Belushi in it at all? His expertise was the manic screen character. Continental Divide had him basically playing Clark Kent, in a movie that was very light on the comedy and very heavy on the drama. Perhaps Belishi was looking to expand his acting range. But considering how few films he made before his death a year later, Continental Divide seems a waste of his talent. One can only wonder what other film he could have completed during the time he spent acting in this film. Animal House and The Blues Brothers will always be memorable. Even 1941 has earned it's place as a popular cult movie. But there is nothing memorable about Continental Divide. In fact it's best moment was lifted by Kasdan for the Raiders of the Lost Ark script. After surviving an encounter with a mountain lion, John is being attended in bed by Blair. Asking where it hurts John points to one of the scratch marks and Blair kisses it. He points to another scratch mark saying it also hurts and Blair kisses it as well. John eventually points to his lips to say they hurt as well, and the two end up in bed together kissing. Not only did they do the same thing in Raiders, but Raiders came out a full three months earlier, so by September everyone had seen that gag.
Ninja Wars ( 1982 )
Like I said last week, I bought a four movie box set of Sonny Chiba movies to get Legend of the Eight Samurai. Last week when I was buying my next batch of movies, Amazon suggested Bullet Train as something I should buy based on my previous purchase. As it turned out Bullet Train ( 1975 ) was one of the movies I needed for my collection of films that had aired during the 80s Saturday afternoon martial arts movie block on Channel 5. But the blu-ray Amazon wanted me to buy was a little pricey. So I did a little investigating and discovered it had been released as part of a six movie set that was also called The Sonny Chiba Collection, this time with six movies ( seven if you count that they had both the Japanese and international versions of Bullet Train. And the set also had Golgo 13: Assignment Kowloon ( 1977 ) which was another film I needed for my 80s Saturday afternoon martial arts collection. And the set was OOP but still cheap with one independent seller, so if I was ever going to get it, I would need to buy it now. So with both collections, I am going to be waching Sonny Chiba movies each week for a while.
You all know who Sonny Chiba is. He was Space Chief in Invasion of the Neptune Men ( 1961 ), and surviving that movie, moved on to better films for the same studio. He reached international stardom in 1975 with the movie The Street Fighter, a film so violent that it resulted in the MPAA cracking down on violent martial arts movies. The Street Fighter was the first movie ever to receive an X rating for violence. New Line Cinema ended up editing out 16 minutes worth of footage to get an R rating. None of the fight scenes survived the edit. Chiba's character would be seen approaching opponents, and then the movie would jump cut to Chiba walking away from the opponents lying on the ground. This was the same version released on home video. In the late 80s martail arts enthusiasts were able to restore the movie as a bootleg by combining the US home video release with footage from the Japanese laserdisc. The X version was finally released on home video in the mid 90s.
By the way, none of this has anything to do with Ninja Wars other than the movies featuring Chiba. This is one of those movies that Chiba is barely in, but gets top billing. Chiba had some sort of mentor relationship with younger actor Henry Sanada, and appeared in smaller roles in a lot of the films Sanada played lead in. In this movie Sanada is a ninja who's girlfriend ( also a ninja ) is kidnapped by evil martial arts magicians. It turns out she is one of two twins born to a servant of the Shogun who he had an affair with. One of the sisters the Shogun accepted as his daughter, the other ended up being raised by the ninja clan. An evil sorcerer tells a corrupt government official that if he can steal the Shogun's daughter from her husband by making her fall in love with him, then the prophecy says he will become the next Shogun. To do this they must make a love potion, and to make this love potion they must collect the tears of her twin while raping and killing her. The ninja clan decides not to get involved, so Sanada asks to leave the clan in order to take revenge for his girlfriend and protect her sister. So it is not really much of a ninja war, is it? But it is a mildly entertaining martial arts fantasy.
Phantasm ( 1979 )
Another of my favorite films. This one would probably be inside my top 50. Definitely in my top 100. It use to air a lot on the CBS late night Friday movie, that is until CBS hired David Letterman and gave his show that timeslot. So I only remembered the edited for television version. But even with the jump cuts to edit out violence and nudity, and the sound drop offs every time someone cursed, it was a great film to watch. Phantasm was written and directed by Don Coscarelli, who's biggest film to date was The Beastmaster ( 1982 ), and starred a young Michael Baldwin, the least successful of the Baldwin Brothers, and Angus Scrimm as the film's villain, an undertaker known only as The Tall Man.
This is a film I have been trying to buy for a while. The problem being that it was usually released on DVD when I was not looking for it, and out of print when I was. For example, it was released by M.G.M. on DVD in letterboxed format just before they filed for bankruptcy and Warner Bros. took over their home video library. The DVD went out of print immediately and every copy was bought up by collectors. Next Anchor Bay released it, the company known for limited releases of all their films. Movies on Anchor Bay are OOP within months of release. By the time I found out Anchor Bay had released it, the going price for a new unopened copy was over $100. Good thing I waited, because the newest release is a restored edition ( supervised by J.J. Abrams, another fan of the movie. ) Perhaps my only regret was that within days of purchasing the movie, Well Go announced they were releasing the entire film series in a single box set, at a cheaper price than buying all the movies individually and with a few extras the individual discs do not have. But then again, do I want to see the rest of the series?
Phantasm is not scary ( a few of the jump scares are legitimately startling, but Coscarelli put too many into the movie to the point where they lose their effectiveness by the end of the movie. ) The acting is near amateurish, as is much of the production. What the movie has going for it is it's inventiveness. There is nothing close to formula in this movie. Everything has the feel of the director making the movie up as he filmed it, putting in a scene because he thought it would be cool, then trying to figure out how it fit in to the plot as filming went along. The story is basically this: people in a small town are dying, either by suicide or accident. No one suspects any of it is murder. However, after a young teenage boy ( Baldwin ) begins sneaking around the local cemetery and mausoleum/funeral home he begins to realize that the place is inhabited by killer dwarfs ( who look and dress like the Jawas from Star Wars ) and a scary tall undertaker who is strong enough to lift an entire coffin by himself with no effort. Eventually convincing his older brother than someting evil is going on at the cemetery, they take it on themselves to investigate further, and when discovering the tall man's evil plot, decide they should fight him themselves. And did I mention the mausoleum is guarded at night by a flying metal orb that sprouts knives and kills you by drilling into your head? Or that the Tall Man can sometimes turn into a sexy blond woman who sometimes lures men out of the local bar to have sex in the cemetery where she/he then kills them and makes it look like a suicide? By no means a scary film, but very entertaining and with proactive characters that actually act smart instead of the usual dumb horror movie characters who are oblivious to the danger around them and don't realize there is a monster among them until only two cast members are left. And it has my favorite theme music from a horror film ( with the theme from Halloween and Tubular Bells from The Exorcist coming in a close second and third )