Rambo VI on the way, apparently

There is yet another Rambo film in the works, apparently. Sylvester Stallone, age 77, will return to his iconic role for the final (?) time, perhaps.

I have been a Rambo fan since the first movie came out in 1982. Rambo III (1988), in which John Rambo went to Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, was the best of the bunch, in my opinion. But all of the movies have been watchable, if not exactly profound.

I will freely admit that much of my love for this movie franchise is pure 1980s nostalgia. I miss that more optimistic, sensible decade. So long as Rambo movies keep coming out, the 1980s aren’t truly dead, perhaps. The insanity of the 21st century, while pernicious as a bad rash, can still be banished to the sewers from which it came. We can hope.

But I have another, and even more personal reason for my tireless loyalty to the Rambo brand.

Sylvester Stallone was born in 1946, the same year as both my parents. I’m now in my mid-50s. But so long as there is an active action hero old enough to be my dad, I’m not really so old, am I? Something to ponder during my next trip to the gym.

At any rate, I will never completely lose my faith in Western civilization, so long as there is another Rambo movie to look forward to. After that, all bets are off.

-ET

Molly Ringwald’s diverse anxieties

Molly Ringwald was born the same year I was, and her movies were part of the teen culture in which I came of age.

I don’t think I would have ever described myself as a Molly Ringwald “fan”, exactly, but nor was I a detractor. Like most Gen Xers, I saw her movies, in the same spirit that I watched MTV and listened to bands like Journey and Bon Jovi. Pop culture was more monolithic in those pre-Internet times, and you kind of took what they gave you.

I enjoyed Ringwald’s performance in The Breakfast Club (1985), a movie that almost all people my age have seen at least once.

Ringwald was a gifted teen actress. She was also a gifted twentysomething adult actress in the 1994 television miniseries, The Stand. She starred as Frannie Goldsmith, the heroine of Stephen King’s beloved apocalyptic horror novel.

So I have no qualms with Molly Ringwald the thespian. I have been far less impressed with Molly Ringwald the public person. In recent years, she’s become a fashionably left-leaning celebrity gadfly, mouthing all the familiar slogans when goaded by journalists and interviewers.

Most particularly, Ringwald seems to feel a compulsive need to apologize for the John Hughes teen movies that made her famous. Bashing the creations of the late Hughes (1950 – 2009) has become a peculiar obsession of hers.

Case-in-point: during a recent interview, Ringwald declared:

“Those [John Hughes] movies are very white and they don’t really represent what it is to be a teenager in a school in America today.”

“Very white”? Did she really just say that?

I’ll overlook the obvious non sequitur here: John Hughes was a Baby Boomer who made movies about teenage life in the mid-1980s. Although he technically wrote about Gen Xers, he was probably thinking about Baby Boomers most of the time. At any rate, Hughes never aspired to depict teen life in the mid-2020s. The mid-2020s were still forty years in the future, and many of those yet unborn teens’ parents hadn’t even met yet.

But that isn’t what Ringwald is really getting at. She is implying that because Hughes’s movies did not feature racially diverse casts, there was somehow something retrograde, or even racist about them.

Pop culture in the 1980s actually was quite diverse. Yes, it was the decade of Molly Ringwald, Bruce Springsteen, and Madonna. But it was also the decade of Michael Jackson, Prince, Whitney Houston, and Billy Ocean. We all watched The Cosby Show on television. Eddie Murphy was on everyone’s list of favorite comedians, both in stand-up and in film.

(In many ways, the music scene was far more diverse in the 1980s than it is now. Black artists got proportionately more mainstream attention, whereas nowadays everything in the pop music space is maniacally focused on blonde, vapid Taylor Swift.)

But what about those movies of John Hughes? It isn’t technically inaccurate to say that they were “white”, if we must call them that. There is no evidence that John Hughes was specifically opposed to racial or cultural diversity, but racial and cultural diversity clearly weren’t his focus.

And…so what? Diversity, in the best sense of that word, doesn’t mean—or shouldn’t mean—that every film, TV series, novel, and toothpaste commercial is suspect if it doesn’t contain a box-checked, racially diverse cast of characters. If everything is box-checked to death, then that becomes the norm, and nothing is truly diverse. Diversity, when carried to ideological extremes, can become monochromatic, predictable, and boring.

I don’t remember ever watching The Cosby Show, and saying, “Where the heck are all the Asian Americans and Native American characters? Where are the Jewish and Muslim characters?”

Real life itself, moreover, is not always diverse. During the 1980s, I attended a suburban high school not unlike the one depicted in The Breakfast Club. There were a handful of Filipino students, and a few kids with partial Japanese heritage. Other than that, my high school was as white as Wonder Bread. I make no apology for this. The degree of racial and ethnic diversity in one’s environment has always depended on where one lives.

Molly Ringwald is old enough—and smart enough, I suspect—to realize her own folly. Her hand-wringing about her 40-year-old movies being “white” seems to be her way of keeping herself “relevant” in a chaotic twenty-first-century culture that is neurotically obsessed with identity politics.

I would have a lot more respect for Ringwald if she would simply own her past performances (which were quite good, on the whole) rather than pandering to the diverse but intolerant present. Not even Claire Standish was such an abject conformist.

-ET

Molly Ringwald as Claire Standish in The Breakfast Club (1985)

Alex Garland’s ‘Civil War’

This is an election year. Given the two candidates and the mood of the country, the 2024 election will almost certainly entail controversy. Whoever wins, millions of Americans will be angry and disappointed by the result. There will be accusations of cheating, or voter suppression, or something.

British filmmaker Alex Garland has therefore chosen an auspicious year for the release of Civil War, a movie about a hypothetical Civil War II in the United States.

But perhaps he has made a movie that is just a little too timely. More on that shortly.

Civil War is “deliberately vague” about the exact causes and instigators of its hypothetical conflict. The movie posits four different factions, each comprised of various states.

This is where things get hinky. Garland doesn’t follow the Red-Blue formula that most of us would expect. For example, the movie portrays Texas and California in an alliance. We can all agree that this is something that would never happen in real life.

This unrealistic scenario is, I suspect, deliberate, too. Garland did not want to make a movie that blatantly picks sides in the American culture wars. Making the alliances unrealistic would be one way to do that.

Reviews and…buzz?

Reviews of Civil War are mixed. I’m not the first person to observe that the political alliances depicted in the film don’t mirror our current political divisions.

Some reviewers seem to have taken issue with that. Johnny Oleksinski of the New York Post put it this way:

“Civil War’s shtick is that it’s not specifically political. For instance, as the US devolves into enemy groups of secessionist states, Texas and California have banded together to form the Western Forces. That such an alliance could ever occur is about as likely as Sweetgreen/Kentucky Fried Chicken combo restaurant.”

Oleksinski called Civil War “a torturous, overrated movie without a point”. We may conclude that he didn’t like it.

But what “point” was Oleksinski looking for, exactly? Alex Garland faced an obvious marketing dilemma here. If he had made a movie about the Evil Libs, he would have alienated half his potential audience. If he had made a movie about the Evil MAGAs, he would have alienated half his potential audience.

There is really no way to please everyone with a movie like this. Except by remaining vague. And then you irritate people because you didn’t take a stand.

I haven’t heard a lot of buzz about this movie in my own social circle, nor in my personal Facebook feed. Civil War is not exactly a movie that most people will want to see with their kids. Nor is it likely to become a date night favorite.

Civil War’s topic, and the clips I have seen of it, make the movie seem too similar to the news stories we have seen in recent years: the BLM riots of the summer and fall of 2020, and the J6 riot of January 6, 2021. The current war between two former Soviet Republics: Ukraine and Russia.

How many people want to pay good money to see a movie about something like that at the cinema?

Good question. I suspect that Civil War will find a wider audience once it moves to streaming/cable.

Could another Civil War really happen?

Alex Garland is not alone in his speculations about a Civil War II. Frankly, I have my doubts.

The First Civil War (1861 – 1865) was actually about something. Southerners were fighting to preserve their entire economic system. White Northerners were fighting to preserve the Union.

(Contrary to what many people believe, the Union did not initially wage the Civil War with the goal of ending slavery. The sainted Lincoln, moreover, would have let the Confederate states keep their slaves, if only they had not seceded.)

Blacks had the biggest stake of all, with their freedom on the line.

Whichever side you were on, there was something worthwhile to fight about.

But what about now? Are we really going to go to war over transgender bathrooms and idiotic pronoun rules? Over the self-evident question of what a woman is? Over abortion? Over the annual Pride Month spectacles? Over whether or not President Biden will force Americans to buy uneconomical and unwanted electric vehicles?

The issues that divide us now, as divisive and tiresome as they are, seem trivial by comparison.

A civil war, over all that nonsense? Hopefully, the country has not become that stupid. But you never know.

-ET

Classical music in small doses 

Amadeus, the biographical drama about the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, was one of the most critically acclaimed movies of the mid-1980s. Starring F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce, and Elizabeth Berridge, Amadeus brought the famed 18th-century composer and his times to life.

Amadeus remains one of my favorite movies of all time. But when I saw it for the first time, as a teenager in the 1980s, I was inspired: I had a sudden desire to learn more about classical music, or at least about Mozart.

This was more than a little out of character for me at the time. As a teenager, my musical tastes ran the gamut from Journey to Iron Maiden, usually settling on Rush and Def Leppard.

So I read a Mozart biography. I was already an avid reader, after all. Then it came time to listen to the actual music. That’s when my inspiration fell flat.

I found that Mozart the man was a lot more interesting than his music. At least to my then 17-year-old ears. Nothing would dethrone rock music, with its more accessible themes and pounding rhythms.

Almost 40 years later, I still prefer rock music. In fact, I still mostly prefer the rock music I listened to in the 1980s.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 1781 portrait
**View Mozart biographies on Amazon**

Recently, however, I took another dive into classical music.

Classical music, like popular, contemporary music, is a mixed bag. Some of it is turgid and simply too dense for modern ears. Some pieces, though, are well worth listening to, even if they were composed in another era.

Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” is one such piece. For the longest time, I mistakenly assumed that this arrangement was written for the 1986 Vietnam War movie, Platoon, in which it is prominently figured.

I was wrong about that. “Adagio for Strings” was composed in 1938, long before either Platoon or the Vietnam War.

“Adagio for Strings” is practically dripping with pathos. It is the perfect song to listen to when you are coping with sadness or tragedy. This music simultaneously amplifies your grief and gives it catharsis. You feel both better and worse after listening.

“Adagio for Strings” was broadcast over the radio in the USA upon the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945. It was played at the funeral of Albert Einstein ten years later. The composition was one of JFK’s favorites; and it was played at his funeral, too, in 1963.

Most of the time, though, you’ll be in the mood for something more uplifting. That will mean digging into the oeuvre of one or more of the classical composers.

While the best-known composers (Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, etc.) all have their merits, I am going to steer you toward Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) instead.

Dvorak was born almost a century after Mozart and Beethoven, and longer than that after Bach. To my philistine ear, Dvorak’s music sounds more modern, while still falling within the realm of the classical.

Antonin Dvorak

I would recommend starting with Symphony Number 9, Aus der Neuen Welt (“From the New World”). This is arguably Dvorak’s most accessible work, and my personal favorite at present. Symphony Number 9 contains a lot of moods. It takes you up and down, and round again.

This is not the story of an older adult turning away from the pop culture of his youth for more sophisticated fare. Far from it. Dvorak is not going to replace Def Leppard on my personal playlist. Bach and Mozart have not supplanted Rush and AC/DC. 

But time has made me more musically open-minded. Almost 40 years after I was inspired by the movie Amadeus, I have, at long last, developed a genuine appreciation for classical music.

But that is a qualified appreciation, for an art form that I still prefer in measured doses.

-ET

Celebrity crushes I (almost) never had

One of the nostalgia-based Twitter feeds I follow recently posed the question: “Who was your celebrity crush when you woke up on your 13th birthday? I’ll start.”

The Twitter feed’s author then posted a vintage poster of Christie Brinkley from the early 1980s. If you’re of a certain age, you’ve no doubt seen this one before: Brinkley clad in a one-piece blue swimsuit, her facial expression maddeningly sultry, her blowing hair accentuating her in all her early twentysomething feminine glory.

This got me thinking about the whole concept of celebrity crushes, why some people get them, and why I have always been more or less immune to them.

Not that I’m above tilting at romantic windmills. When I was a freshman in high school, I developed an aching crush on a senior girl at my school who was also a popular cheerleader. Talk about hopeless causes.

And it actually got worse from there. From my adolescence through my early adulthood, I subscribed to the Groucho Marx school of romance. Marx, you might recall, once said, “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.” There was a time in my life when my interest in a member of the opposite sex burned in inverse proportion to her interest in me, or lack thereof. (Fortunately, I have learned to put that one behind me.)

But I have always confined my interests to people who were physically present within my immediate environs, and at least theoretically attainable. I never fixated on anyone whom I knew only from television, movies, magazines, the radio, or the Internet. What would be the point of getting worked up about someone who lives on the other side of the country, or the other side of the world?

I have, at times, become briefly infatuated by the combination of an actress/character. I am part of the generation that grew up watching the Brady Bunch in rerun syndication. I suppose I would be lying if I denied that I had a pre-sexual, boyhood crush on Jan and Marcia Brady, played by Eve Plumb and Maureen McCormick. But even then, I recognized that these characters were contrivances, not real life. To romanticize them overly much was delusional.

Maureen McCormick as Marcia Brady, circa 1970

Later on, in my teenage years, I found myself drawn to Diane Franklin’s innocent, doomed Patricia Montelli in Amityville II: The Possession (1982). But I also saw Franklin portray a manipulative schemer in The Last American Virgin, which came out the same year.

I will admit that Molly Ringwald’s interpretation of Jewel in Fresh Horses (1988) stirred a little mini-crush in me for the 105 minutes of that film. By that time, though, I had already seen Ringwald in a variety of roles. The illusion ended as soon as the closing credits rolled.

Celebrity crushes seem to cross lines of both gender and generation. Consider those film clips from the 1950s, which show young women of the Eisenhower era going absolutely nuts over Elvis. When I was in grade school, a conspicuous number of women in my class maintained fantasy relationships with Shaun Cassidy and Scott Baio. Perhaps your twenty-something daughter once had a thing for…what was his name…Justin Beaver?

In more recent years, I’ve read stories about Taylor Swift’s stalkers, and the lengths to which they will go in order to get a few minutes of facetime with the constantly hyped and too-omnipresent singer. In their throes of futile devotion, they send her both love letters and death threats. One broke into Swift’s New York City apartment twice in one year. Police found the man sleeping in her bed, like a demented Goldilocks.

I would have no interest in meeting Swift, let alone turning her into a quest of some kind. I’m baffled by the legions of male and female Taylor Swift fans who self-identify as “Swifties”.

But Rolling Stone identifies the typical Taylor Swift devotee as “Millennial, suburban, and white.” I’m a Gen Xer. The oldest Millennials were born when I was in high school. I’m about 15 to 25 years older than the typical Taylor Swift fan.

And indeed, most of Taylor Swift’s overly ardent male fans seem to be Millennials, too. Come to think of it, I have never heard a man of my generation make so much as a wistful remark about Ms. Swift.

There is, however, an online legion of men my age who hold long-simmering crushes on Diane Franklin. This seems to come up every time the actress (who is amazingly humble and good-natured for a “Hollywood person”) sits for an interview.

You need only peruse some of the 1980s- and horror-themed podcasts on YouTube to get a grasp of this. Every middle-age male podcaster who interviews Diane Franklin seems incapable of not telling her that he had a teenage crush on her back in the 80s. As if she hadn’t already guessed that.

She always smiles unflappably, and waits for her interviewer to move on. All of them eventually do, but sometimes after belaboring the point a bit too long.

Franklin was, indeed, one of the crush-worthy young female stars of the 1980s, starring not just in the aforementioned Amityville II and The Last American Virgin, but also in Better Off Dead (1985). She even had a role in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989). No, I never had a crush on her; but I do remember her as an actress.

About two years ago, I decided to become more active than usual on Twitter. I looked around for various 80s pop culture-related Twitter accounts to follow, and this inevitably led me to Diane Franklin, who has a presence on the platform.

Franklin has a mid-sized account, of about 10K followers. I skimmed through her most recent tweets, and I noticed that she was interacting with some of her followers.

“Oh, what the heck?” I thought.

I followed Diane Franklin and sent her a tweet. She tweeted back. I tweeted back. And so on.

Then it struck me. Diane Franklin and I were actually having a conversation (though it was doubtless more enthusiastic on my end). If only that 14-year-old version of myself, circa 1982, could have seen this!

She may have glanced at my Twitter profile. I look my age, and my tweets would have revealed me as someone old enough to have seen her 1980s oeuvre when all those movies appeared for the first time in the cinemas.

Then I paused, and considered what I was doing. I suddenly realized that I was in imminent danger of becoming one of THEM: one of those now middle-age, formerly teenage Gen X males who still carry quixotic torches for Diane Franklin.

“Oh, no! This is weird!” I shouted. “This is creepy. I’m not going to do this!…Or at least: I’m not going to do it anymore.

I quietly deleted all my tweets addressed to Franklin, and then I unfollowed her. I’m sure she barely noticed my disappearance. She probably didn’t notice at all.

I’ll never approach Diane Franklin on Twitter again, needless to say, nor any other female celebrity. That was a one-time lapse. (I’m not much for social media, anyway.)

I still have fond memories of Diane Franklin’s films, of course. I still appreciate her acting skills and good public graces.

But I have this rule: “No celebrity crushes.” I’m not going within even a hundred miles of such make-believe and self-delusional territory, not even for a celebrity who was gracious enough to communicate with me, and not even within the make-believe world of Twitter.

-ET

‘Dark Places’, and the heavy metal controversies of the 1980s

I’m a fan of Gillian Flynn’s novels, and I enjoyed the film adaptation of Gone Girl (2014). So I thought: why not give Dark Places (2015) a try? Although I had read the 2009 novel, enough years had passed that much of the plot had seeped out of my mind. (That happens more and more often, the older I get.)

First, the acting. The two female leads in this movie (Charlize Theron, Chloë Grace Moretz) were perfect choices. Charlize Theron has proven herself willing to downplay her physical beauty for the sake of a dramatically challenging antihero role. (See her performance as Aileen Wuornos in Monster (2003).) And the lead role of Libby Day, the tragic but unlikable protagonist of Dark Places, forced her to make the most of these skills.

Chloë Grace Moretz, meanwhile, played the teenage femme fatale, Diondra Wertzner, in the backstory scenes (which comprise a significant portion of the movie). Moretz provided just the right blend of sex appeal and darkness that this character required, more or less what I imagined while reading the novel.

I’ve been following Moretz’s career since her breakout role as a child vampire in Let Me In (2010). Now in her twenties, Moretz seems almost typecast as a dark/horror movie actress; but she always manages to pull off the perfect creepy female character. (Note: Be sure to watch Let Me In if you haven’t seen it yet.)

Dark Places kept me glued to the screen. As I was watching the film, the plot of the book came back to me. Dark Places remained faithful to its literary source material, but in a way that moved the plot along more smoothly than the novel did. (This might be one of those rare cases in which the movie is actually a little better than the novel, which—despite being good—drags in places.)

As alluded to above, Dark Places is primarily set in the twenty-first century, with a significant portion concerning flashback events of 1985, when the adult characters were children or teenagers.

I was 17 in 1985, and I remember that era well. Much of this part of the story revolves around rumors of teenage “devil worship”, and the influence of “satanic” heavy metal: Dio, Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, Ozzy Osbourne. This is an old controversy that I hadn’t thought about much in decades. Dark Places brought some of those long-ago debates back to me.

I listened to plenty of heavy metal back in the 1980s. (I still do). The heavy metal of Ronnie James Dio, Black Sabbath, Ozzy Osbourne and Iron Maiden does not encourage satanism, any more than films like The Exorcist encourage satanism. But like The Exorcist, some ‘80s heavy metal does dwell excessively on dark themes. And here is where the source of the confusion lies.

I never had the urge to draw a pentagram on my bedroom wall or sacrifice goats while listening to Blizzard of Oz or Piece of Mind. Nor did I detect any dark exhortations in the lyrics, whether overt or subliminal.

Since the 1980s, Ozzy Osbourne has become a reality TV star. Iron Maiden’s lead singer, Bruce Dickinson, has emerged as a polymath who writes books and flies commercial airliners when not on tour.

Ozzy strikes me as one of the most gentle people you might ever meet. Dickinson, meanwhile, is a conservative (in the British context of that political label) and a eurosceptic. Neither man fits the profile of the devil-worshipping maniac.

I will admit, though, that some 80s metal music became a bit cumbersome to listen to on a regular basis. I eventually moved on to more light-hearted, commercial rock like Def Leppard. I still listen to a lot more Def Leppard than Ozzy Osbourne or Iron Maiden. But I digress.

The 1980s fear-mongering over heavy metal turned out to be just that: fear-mongering. Although I’m sure there were isolated real-life horror stories, I didn’t know a single kid in the 1980s who was into satanism. The teenage satanists of the 1980s existed almost entirely within the fevered imaginations of a few evangelical preachers and their followers.

Back to Dark Places. The problem (with both the book and the movie) is that it is a fundamentally depressing story, without any characters that the reader/viewer can wholeheartedly root for. While there is a reasonable conclusion, there is nothing approaching a happy ending, or even a satisfying ending. That is a central flaw that no acting or directing talent can rectify.

This doesn’t mean that the movie isn’t worth watching. It is. But make sure you schedule a feel-good comedy film shortly thereafter. You’ll need it. And don’t watch Dark Places if you’re already feeling gloomy or depressed.

-ET

Original story idea vs. execution: which is more important?

The other day, one of you emailed me to get my take on an age-old debate in writing, filmmaking, and storytelling circles:

Which matters more…the big, highly original idea, or the execution of the story, regardless of its originality?

Many writers fret constantly about people “stealing their ideas”. They put off writing because they “don’t have any original ideas”. They worry about forgetting ideas.

So which is more important? There is evidence for both.

Star Wars took off in 1977 partly because it was such an original idea. Here we had the rough equivalents of cowboys and samurai warriors in space. There had never been anything like that before.

In 2013, I first read about The Americans in the television and movie review section of a magazine. The highly original premise of The Americans— deep undercover Russian spies in Reagan-era America—instantly intrigued me.

The Americans intrigued a lot of people. The Americans ran from 2013 to 2018. During that time, the Cold War period drama received high marks from reviewers and viewers alike. The series has a 96% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The Google composite review score is 4.8 out of 5. That’s pretty close to unanimity, at a time when people widely disagree about almost everything.

Nevertheless, it is easy to imagine The Americans having become nothing more than a Tom Clancy-esque knock-off for cable television. Why didn’t that happen?

The Americans is, indeed, based on a highly innovative “big idea”, what movie and fiction folks like to call “high concept”. But it is in the execution that The Americans really shines: the depth and arc of the characters, the nuts and bolts of each episode.

Plenty of stories succeed in the world of books and film without being very “high concept” at all. Consider the success of Downton Abbey. There is no high concept in Downton Abbey. It is little more than a soap opera set in Edwardian England, in fact.

When I watched the first episode of Downton Abbey, I didn’t know what I was going to think of it. But I was blown away. Not because of the “big idea” (there was none), but because of the execution: characters and individual episodes. The success of Downton Abbey is all in the execution.

An example in the book world would be Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. Jonathan Franzen is inconsistent as a writer. (He takes an average of about 6 years to write each book.) He is eccentric as an individual. But he scored a home run with The Corrections in 2001.

I remember getting my hands on this book over the Christmas holiday of 2001. I sat down and read it cover-to-cover, over a period of about 48 hours.

There is no high concept in The Corrections, either. A highly autobiographical novel, The Corrections is a fictionalized adaptation of people and events from the author’s life. But the world that Franzen creates in this book, while mundane, pulls you in. It pulled me in, and it pulled in millions of other readers, too.

***

On the opposite side of this coin are the high concept stories that fall flat because of poor execution.

We have all been bored by stories with incredibly high stakes: literally the end of humanity, in some cases. They bore us because of flaws in characterization, pacing, or depth.

This shows up in a lot of 2- and 3-three star Amazon reviews, that begin with phrases like, “I really wanted to like this book, but…”. Others outright say, “Great idea, but poor execution.”

For me, The Expanse fell into this category. This was true of both the book(s) and the Syfy series.

The premise of The Expanse did intrigue me: neither a near-future alien encounter tale, nor a space opera set in deep space, The Expanse is set a few centuries from the present, within our solar system.

But when I actually dug into the first book, it left me cold. The characters were flat, and there were too many of them. The narrative was unfocused. I had the same reaction a few years later, when I tried the Syfy series. I just couldn’t get into it.

Some of you will disagree with me, of course, but I’m not the only one who found the execution of The Expanse lacking. And I am not someone who dislikes science fiction. I loved the original version of Battlestar Galactica in the 1970s, as well as the “reimagined version” in the 2000s (though with some reservations).

Battlestar Galactica, whether in the hands of Glen A. Larson in the 1970s, or SyFy in the 00s, featured good execution.

But was Battlestar Galactica high concept? Highly original?

20th Century Fox certainly didn’t think so. In 1978, 20th Century Fox sued Universal Studios for allegedly ripping off Star Wars. The lawsuit claimed that Battlestar Galactica had filched more than thirty distinct ideas from Star Wars.

Whether you accept this notion or not, there is no doubt that the original BSG rode the coattails of Star Wars, which was then a monolithic phenomenon of popular culture.

And the rebooted BSG wasn’t original at all. It was based on the 1978 series, which owed much to Star Wars.

***

I’m therefore going to come down on the side of execution over big, original idea.

There are so many stories that we’ve all seen time and time again:

The rough-edged police detective who chafes against “the brass”, but will go to any length to catch a criminal…

  • The star-crossed lovers…
  • The ex-green beret whose daughter has been kidnapped…
  • The sympathetic vampire
  • Aliens/zombies/other monsters disrupt human society…
  • and so on…

Nevertheless, both novelists and filmmakers continue to find fresh new angles on these old ideas…new ways to execute them.

Join Amazon Prime – Watch Thousands of Movies & TV Shows Anytime – Start Free Trial Now

***

For example: I recently enjoyed the final season of Bosch on Amazon Prime Video.

Bosch is based on Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels. The Harry Bosch novels are about a big-city homicide detective, Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch.

I don’t think that Michael Connelly would mind me saying: that’s a very old idea. Nothing original at all in the “concept”! But the Harry Bosch novels represent some of the best genre fiction out there.

Why? Because Michael Connelly’s execution of the character of Harry Bosch, of the murder cases, is so darn good.

Originality, in other words, might be overrated. To be sure, there is a place for it. (It is also a bad idea to jump on literary bandwagons; but that’s a separate topic for another day).

It is probably better to focus on the superlative execution of a “good” story idea—even if it’s been done before—versus waiting around for one superlative idea to come the writer’s way.

Ouija: Origin of Evil

I’ve written multiple horror novels, and I have an interest in things that go bump in the night.

Nevertheless, most horror movies don’t scare me. 

This is because at the end of the day, a horror movie is the product of someone’s imagination. As a writer myself, I can’t completely set that aside. I can only suspend my disbelief so far. I might find a horror movie interesting, or suspenseful. But rare is the horror film that makes me look over the edge of my bed at night, wondering if something might be there.

But I found Ouija: Origin of Evil to be genuinely creepy. Continue reading “Ouija: Origin of Evil”

Cincinnati in TV and the movies

My hometown of Cincinnati isn’t exactly Paris or New York. It is therefore somewhat understandable, I suppose, that our local news media is making a big deal of the episode of The Brady Bunch that was filmed here nearly a half-century ago:

47 years ago, The Brady Bunch visited Kings Island

While I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, going to Kings Island—Cincinnati’s only real amusement park—was a “big deal”. Much of the scenery in the above clip from The Brady Bunch therefore looks familiar. 

Kings Island is still there, by the way. But it’s changed a lot since 1973.

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A few feature-length films were shot in Cincinnati in the 1980s. Rain Man, starring Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise, comes immediately to mind. This movie was filmed in various locations in and around Cincinnati.

I’ve had lunch in the Italian restaurant Pompilio’s, in Northern Kentucky, where Rain Man‘s iconic “toothpick scene” takes place. Continue reading “Cincinnati in TV and the movies”

‘Blazing Saddles’ is a politically incorrect classic

Watch the Mel Brooks satirical Western comedy, Blazing Saddles, if you haven’t seen it before.

There is one memorable scene in Blazing Saddles in which the African American Sheriff Bart  (played by Cleavon Little) distracts a pair of Klansmen, so that his sidekick, Jim (played by Gene Wilder) can carry out a necessary mission of reconnaissance.

Jim pretends to catch Bart for the Klansmen. He grabs Bart by the collar and calls out to the Klansman, “Hey boys, look what I’ve got!”

Bart then says, in a Southern black dialect, “Hey, where the white women at?” Continue reading “‘Blazing Saddles’ is a politically incorrect classic”

‘The Stand’ (1994) now available in blu-ray/DVD

It was the late spring of 1994. Bill Clinton was in the White House. Seinfeld was the country’s most popular sitcom. (Friends wouldn’t debut until the autumn of 1994.)

I was living in Wilmington, Ohio. I had a job I liked, and I lived in a cheap apartment with wood panel walls and worn shag carpet from the 1970s. I was 25 years old. Those were good times, all the way around.

For five days, from May 8 to May 12, 1994, ABC aired a miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s 1978 post-apocalyptic novel, The Stand.

In case you’re not aware, The Stand is one of King’s most popular books. The Stand is a good-versus-evil epic about a supernatural battle between good and evil.

Oh, but before that happens, 99% of the world’s population is wiped out by the Superflu, or ‘Captain Trips’. That was years before COVID, of course. But the end of the world is always a good place to start a story. Right? Continue reading “‘The Stand’ (1994) now available in blu-ray/DVD”

Remembering ‘Red Dawn’

80sThen80s now is one of the few accounts I follow on Twitter, because, well…I’m nostalgic for the 1980s.

Today the account tweeted this post about the movie Red Dawn (1984). In response to the poll, I gave the movie a 9. 

Red Dawn wouldn’t necessarily be a 9 if it were released today, mind you. But you have to evaluate a movie by the filmmaking standards of its era. A lot of movies in the early 1980s were pretty rough, compared to the slick, CGI-enhanced productions of today. And so it is with Red Dawn. Continue reading “Remembering ‘Red Dawn’”

Cincinnati in film

Professors on their favorite Cincinnati films

From The Northerner, the student newspaper of NKU. (I attended NKU as an undergrad from 1986~7, then as a grad student from 2002~4, by the way.)

I have an opinion on this matter, of course. The best Cincinnati films to date are Traffic (2000), and Fresh Horses (1988).

Rain Man (1988), which tends to get the most attention, left me cold, even though I’ve liked most movies with Tom Cruise or Dustin Hoffman.

Traffic, though, is a multilayered, engrossing story about the narcotics underworld. I recently saw it for the second time, and it’s held up well over the past two decades.

Fresh Horses is a coming-of-age movie starring Molly Ringwald and Andrew McCarthy. This movie is a little dated, and a bit uneven in places; but it isn’t bad for 30-year-old teen movie from the late Reagan era.

Also, one scene in Fresh Horses features the University of Cincinnati lecture hall where I took organic chemistry in 1987, after I transferred to UC from NKU.

Rewatching ‘Platoon’ (1986)

I can still remember the first time I saw Oliver Stone’s Vietnam War epic, Platoon, in a cinema in South Carolina during the summer of 1986.

At that time, the men who had served in the war were still mostly in their late thirties and early forties. The Vietnam War was as recent to the present as the first term of George H.W. Bush, and the US-led invasion of Iraq, are recent to us today.

I was only a few weeks away from turning eighteen when I watched Platoon that afternoon. Born in 1968, I was too young to recall the Vietnam War, but I had grown up in its shadow. The Vietnam War was a constant cultural reference point—kind of like the war in Iraq is now.

Platoon was not the first movie to feature the Vietnam War; but most of the previous efforts in this regard had turned out badly. Apocalypse Now (1979) was simply weird, and completely lacking realism. The Deer Hunter (1978) was depressing and nihilistic. 

Platoon was the first major film that addressed the Vietnam War in a manner that was realistic and artistically engaging. This movie didn’t flinch from the dark side of the conflict; but this was no self-indulgent wallow in the gloom. There are characters in this movie worth knowing, and the film ends on a redemptive note.

I found the movie powerful in 1986, but I wasn’t quite sure why. At the age of eighteen, I really had no idea of the difficult choices that the real world requires of us all: between right and wrong, idealism and pragmatism, serving others and serving oneself.

This theme is present throughout the film, but it’s encapsulated in the above scene, “I am Reality”. That famous line from Sgt. Barnes:

“There’s the way it oughta be, and there’s the way it is.”

This line went over my head on that teenage summer afternoon almost thirty-four years ago. All teens see the world, and themselves, in absolute, black-and-white terms. I was no exception.

I rewatched the movie a few nights ago. At the age of fifty-one, I understand the significance of Sgt. Barnes’s line, and how the real world is many shades of gray. 

And this—to me, at least—is what the movie is all about. This is why Platoon will continue to be a classic, long after the Vietnam War generation (and we, their children), have passed into history.

Memories of ‘The Evil Dead’

I can still remember the first time I saw  The Evil Dead—sometime back in the 1980s, on VHS. (I don’t believe this 1981 film had a long run at the theaters—it wasn’t exactly date night stuff.)

The Evil Dead wasn’t like The Exorcist, in the sense that it would send your imagination running and keep you awake at night. Rather, The Evil Dead was one long series of endless jump scares.

The movie started intense, and it just never stopped. 

The Evil Dead was also Sam Raimi’s best work. There was a certain dark humor in the film. But Raimi didn’t overplay the humor element—as he would in subsequent installments of the franchise, and later movies like Drag Me to Hell (2009).

The setup was simple: A group of people spend the night in a remote cabin. They play a recording that summons evil spirits from the bowels of the earth.

One by one, they are turned into homicidal zombies. The End.

And yet—maybe horror tales (whether on the page or on the screen) are best when they have simple, readily accessible plots. I remember reading Dan Simmons’s overlong Carrion Comfort and thinking, man this is just too much plot for a horror novel

The Evil Dead was good storytelling. The special effects are primitive, by today’s standards. But the movie is still quite unnerving to watch.