Alien (1979)

Tonight I finally got around to watching the original Alien movie. 

I was too young (11) for this film when it came out in 1979, and I never got around to watching it until tonight. Better late than never…the story of my life.

Overall, I found Alien to be a very entertaining sci-fi horror flick. Some of the special effects are a little primitive by 21st-century standards, but hey…1979. Jimmy Carter was president when this movie was made. 40 years ago!

A few quibbles: The film depicts smoking aboard a spaceship, which should have seemed an unlikely scenario even to filmmakers in 1979. The spaceship in the film, Nostromo, is also home to a pet cat. 

The cat does fulfill several functions in the plot. But once again, this unlikely depiction momentarily knocked me out of suspension-of-disbelief mode. As a former cat owner, I’m all too aware of the practical difficulties that would be involved in keeping a cat on a spaceship.

Family ties, external threats, compelling fiction

I am reading Greg Iles’s kidnap-for-ransom novel, 24 Hours (2000), for the second time. 

I first read the book in 2009. I usually wait at least ten years before I reread any title. (I only subject my favorite books to rereads; there is simply too much new stuff to devour.) The first time I read 24 Hours, I gobbled up the 415-page novel over the course of a weekend. This time, it will take me a full three days.

24 Hours is that good. I won’t explain the whole plot here. (Amazon and Wikipedia have already covered that ground.) But you already know, more or less, based on my description above: kidnap-for-ransom.

Here are a few more details: Will and Karen Jennings are an affluent Mississippi couple. (He’s an anesthesiologist.) A gang of three criminals—two men and one woman—kidnap the Jennings’s diabetic daughter, Abby, for ransom. If the gang doesn’t get what they want, they will murder the Jennings’s young daughter.

24 Hours is a superbly written, page-turning book; but no one would call its premise original. You’ve seen and read multiple interpretations of the kidnap-for-ransom plot, probably including the 1996 Mel Gibson film, Ransom. The movie Ransom came out four years before 24 Hours was published, so Ransom may have influenced 24 Hours. That wouldn’t surprise me. 

Story concepts can’t be copyrighted, of course—for good reason. We certainly haven’t seen our last interpretation of the kidnap-for-ransom story, also for good reason. If these plots are executed with any reasonable level of skill, they make compelling film and fiction. A kidnap-for-ransom plot involves family, an external threat, and a series of best-worst choices. There are the makings of a good story, right in front of you. 

The flat-footedness of officialdom is also a fixture of the kidnap-for-ransom plot. In all of these stories, the authorities are unable to satisfactorily resolve the situation, regardless of whether or not they are informed or involved. Someone from within the family (usually a parent) therefore has to do what the authorities cannot or will not do.

In this regard, the kidnap-for-ransom tale is also delightfully reactionary. Hillary Clinton once told us, “It takes a village to raise a child.” This earned her cooing praise from the left, and eye-rolling disdain from the right. 

The kidnap-for-ransom story is telling you that you can’t ultimately depend on the village, the village elders, or the village police. The kidnap-for-ransom plot is telling you that it takes a committed parent—and not a consensus-driven village—to save a child’s life when all the chips are down. 

Don’t trust the authorities, in other words. Don’t trust “society”. Rely on your own wits, and do what you must in order to save your child. 

View 24 Hours by Greg Iles on Amazon.

‘Last Blood’: another Rambo movie

The trailer looks interesting, anyway…

There is going to be yet another Rambo movie, Last Blood. The movie, which hits cinemas on September 20, stars the seventy-three year-old Sylvester Stallone.

The first Rambo movie, First Blood, came out 37 years ago, in 1982. Ronald Reagan was still in his first term as POTUS then. There was no commercial Internet, and no cell phones in the modern sense. Both the fax machine and cable television were new, cutting-edge technologies. 

And to further put this in perspective: I was just starting high school in 1982. Today I’m in my fifties. Stallone, born in 1946, is a few months younger than my father, who was also born that year.

Sylvester Stallone, who starred in Rocky in 1976 (my fourth-grade year) is still an action hero. It is perfectly fair to point out that he is not what he used to be. But how many of us, who hold memories of the 1970s and 1980s, are what we used to be? 

It is also perfectly fair to ask: Does an action film starring a septuagenarian make sense, from both an artistic and a commercial sense? 

The leading man of an action movie, after all, is traditionally between 25 and 35 years old. Maybe a youngish 40—but certainly not older than 45. Stallone is three decades older than that traditional upper limit.

In the case of Stallone, I think it does make sense. Rambo movies were never high-end artistic fare, and they always stretched the viewer’s suspension of disbelief, even when Stallone was in his prime. Stallone, moreover, now has four generations of fans. 

This all suggests that plenty of moviegoers will get out to see Last Blood a week from this Friday. Who knows? Despite the title, this might not even be the last Rambo movie. 

‘Color Out of Space’- the movie

First Color Out of Space Photo from Nic Cage’s H.P. Lovecraft Film

I’ve read this H.P. Lovecraft story several times over the past 30 years.

It isn’t a bad story…but some of the dialogue sure is:

“It come from that stone . . . it growed down thar . . . it got everything livin’ . . . it fed itself on ’em, mind and body . . . Thad an’ Mernie, Zenas an’ Nabby . . . Nahum was the last . . . they all drunk the water . . . it got strong on ’em . . . it come from beyond, whar things ain’t like they be here . . . now it’s goin’ home. . . .”

Lovecraft excelled at story concept and description. His principal weaknesses were characterization and dialogue.

The Grudge (2004)

I rewatched this one tonight. (I saw it for the first time circa 2005, shortly after the movie was released.)

The Grudge brings together two of my longtime interests: Japan and horror films.

This is a fun movie. Not anything that is going to leave you pondering the world in a new way for days, or awake for many nights with the lights on. The Grudge relies on atmospherics, jump scares, and classic Japanese ghost story tropes. The characters are the  stock  types you expect in a movie of this kind.

That said, there are a few genuinely creepy moments. If you wake up at night and suspect that there is something under the covers with you in your bed, you’re officially advised not to look. What you see may be more than you can handle.

View The Grudge on Amazon

‘The Girl on the Train’: the movie

Not as good as the book…

Well, I finally got around to watching this one, and I must say I was underwhelmed. 

I enjoyed the Paula Hawkins novel–even though there were times when I wanted to box the main character’s ears. (I have little tolerance for drunks.)

The movie, however, dwelled too much on the alcoholic self-absorption of ‘Rachel’. The directors should have emphasized the action more.

My advice: read the novel, skip the film version.

‘The Hunt’ cancelled

Universal cancels ‘The Hunt’ release after mass shootings in Ohio and Texas

I wrote about this movie in a previous post. 

This unreleased film is about wealthy coastal elites hunting red-state whites… for sport.

The movie was from the same company, Blumhouse Productions, that gave us The First PurgeThe First Purge was about whites hunting minorities once every year.

The earlier film from Blumhouse was a decidedly leftwing dystopian fantasy, whereas this one plays into rightwing fears. I therefore don’t want to read too much of a political motive into the scenario of The Hunt–which casts working-class whites as victims. Blumhouse Productions seems dedicated  to creating edgy films that stride both sides of the political divide.

I don’t have a problem with the subject matter, per se. Mass, socially coordinated homicide is an old subject in literature, especially of the speculative kind. Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, and Logan’s Run (the movie as well as the novel) present scenarios in which murder is carried out on an organized, legally sanctioned scale.

The company of other humans can be a source of refuge; but it can also be a source of brutality and violence.  This contradiction is part of our history, and, arguably, our DNA. We need not wonder, then, that it is a recurring theme in film and fiction.

That said, we live in an age in which audiences across the political spectrum are extremely sensitive and touchy.

Now that The Hunt has been canceled, the second-guessing has already started on the Internet, from both the left- and the right-leaning commentariat.

Whether or not the release of a controversial piece is worth the grief it might entail is a decision that every writer, publishing house, and movie studio has to make on a case-by-case basis. It is always their call–not your call–or mine, either. 

I would like to claim that I have never held anything back for fear of “the Twitter mob”.  For the most part, I don’t. There are, however, blog posts that I refrain from linking to on social media, simply because, I know how social media is. I figure that these essays will be found by people who come here regularly, people who like me, and who appreciate what I do.

Anyway, The Hunt is on the skids, at least for now.

“The Hunt”: Universal Pictures’ disaster in the making

This…will not end well.

A leftwing version of The First Purge? Apparently so. 

PJ Media takes a decidedly political interpretation of his, but they may not be far off the mark:

Hollywood clearly still likes the idea of promoting violence against people who aren’t good and obedient leftists, because Universal Pictures is set to release a thriller called The Hunt on September 27, which features left-wing “elites” hunting Trump supporters for sport.

PJ Media

Watch the trailer, and that does seem to be what’s going on here.

Okay, I get it…Equal time and all. And why not capitalize on the success of The First Purge by turning the scenario around? After all, hasn’t Hollywood proven that it will resort to literally anything to turn a buck?

But recent events have shown us that at the fringes, both the Right and the Left are equally capable of producing homicidal maniacs from within their ranks. 

This isn’t fantasy anymore. It’s docudrama. 

In the spirit of dialing back the inflammatory rhetoric a bit, maybe this isn’t the best time to be producing a film about Americans hunting other Americans for blood sport. Just sayin’!

The trailer of The Hunt almost makes you long for another hackneyed superhero sequel. 

‘From Dusk Till Dawn’

Not nearly as bad as I expected…

I vaguely remembered seeing this movie back in the 1990s. When it came on cable the other day, I thought, Sure, why not?

From Dusk Till Dawn is a movie about a pair of bank robbers on the run, who kidnap a preacher and his two teenage children to serve as hostages. They take the unwilling family to Mexico–to a sleazy strip bar, to be exact. 

Oh, and then the vampires come in. Yes, really, that’s the setup, in a nutshell.

From Dusk Till Dawn is a movie that should be really, really bad. It is part of the comedy-horror genre, which I usually don’t like.

But as it turns out, From Dusk Till Dawn is only a little bit bad. There are some cheesy scenes, and some politically incorrect sex jokes that wouldn’t pass muster today.

Nevertheless, for the type of movie that it is, the plot and pacing are good, and there is some decent character development.

I don’t mean to give you the impression that this is the cinematic equivalent of War and Peace. What I am saying: it isn’t horrible.

The movie stars George Clooney before he became political and annoying. It also stars Quentin Tarantino, who is as creepy in front of the camera as he is creepy and tasteless behind the camera.

And also Juliette Lewis. I liked all movies made in the 1990s with Juliette Lewis.

Get From Dusk Till Dawn on Amazon.

Black ’47

My maternal grandmother’s people emigrated from County Cork, Ireland to Maysville, Kentucky during the 1840s famine years. Partly because of this personal connection to Ireland, I’ve long had an interest in all things Hibernian. 

I’ve toyed with the idea of learning the Irish language, but I’ll probably never get around to it. I like the idea of speaking Irish, but I know I’m unlikely to ever use it.

Anyway, I enjoyed this movie, Black ’47, which takes place in Ireland in 1847.

This isn’t another superhero movie or Vin Diesel action film; but more thoughtful viewers will enjoy it. There are no car chases, but there’s plenty of conflict, violence, and mayhem. 

Black ’47 also includes a number of scenes in the Irish language, which delighted the language aficionado in me. 

Get Black ’47 on Amazon now!

Molly Ringwald, and the art of not being a one-trick pony

In late 1987/early 1988, I was a student at the University of Cincinnati. 

During that period, the movie Fresh Horses, starring Andrew McCarthy and Molly Ringwald, was under production in Cincinnati. 

Cincinnati, in case you don’t know, is no Honolulu or San Francisco. If you aren’t from the Midwest, you could easily confuse Cincinnati with Pittsburgh or Cleveland. So the shooting of the Ringwald/McCarthy movie was kind of a big deal, at the time.

I (almost) met Molly Ringwald

The UC campus was one of the locations where the movie was shot. One day I was in the campus’s university center, and whom did I see from a distance? 

Molly Ringwald

Wow. 

I would like to tell the reader that I walked up to Ms. Ringwald and impressed her with my witty conversation. (And after more than 30 years, who could prove me a liar, really?) 

But no, I didn’t meet Molly Ringwald. And though I’d seen all of her movies up to that point, I didn’t get around to seeing Fresh Horses until…

Just last week, actually. 

Better late than never

That’s right. Fresh Horses hasn’t played at the cinema since Ronald Reagan was president. The movie is included with my Amazon Prime subscription. I watched it on my laptop computer a few days ago. 

Fresh Horses turned out to be a very good movie. This is the setup: Matt Larkin (Andrew McCarthy), is an up-and-coming engineering student at the University of Cincinnati. He has a brilliant career ahead of him, and he’s engaged to marry a girl from a wealthy family.

Then one day Larkin crosses the Ohio River, and meets Jewel (Molly Ringwald), a troubled young woman from the backwoods of Kentucky. 

Matt immediately falls for Jewel. He impulsively breaks up with his fiancée. But Jewel is trouble, and the relationship requires Matt to challenge his basic values. 

I’m not going to tell you how the movie ends. Suffice it to say that the film concludes with a rare feat in drama: an emotional gut-punch that doesn’t involve someone dying. 

The secret to Molly Ringwald’s success

Most of all, though, I was impressed with Molly Ringwald’s performance in the film. This got me wondering: Why is Molly Ringwald such a good actor? What is it about her?

It’s true that looks confer an advantage in show business. Watch Fresh Horses (or any other Molly Ringwald movie from her 1980s/1990s heyday) and you’ll certainly see an attractive young woman. 

But Molly Ringwald was never OMG, look-at-her, five-alarm beautiful. She has always been attractive, but attractive people are a dime-a-dozen in Hollywood. 

Molly Ringwald is a great actor because she can become so many diverse characters, without any of those characters overlapping.

Here’s what I mean: In Fresh Horses, Molly Ringwald made me believe that she was Jewel, an uneducated teenage girl from Kentucky, in the late twentieth century. 

In The Breakfast Club, she was just as convincing as Claire Standish, a snooty, popular girl from a privileged background. 

There is no trace of Claire Standish in Ringwald’s interpretation of Jewel, or vice versa. 

I also saw Molly Ringwald as Frannie Goldsmith, in the 1994 television adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand

By that time, I had read The Stand at least twice. (I’ve been a Stephen King fan for decades.) And of course, I was already very familiar with Molly Ringwald. 

Nevertheless, Ringwald made me believe that she was Frannie Goldsmith. When I read The Stand for the third time a few years ago, guess who I saw in my mind’s eye as Frannie Goldsmith? 

That’s right: Molly Ringwald. 

The versatile vs. the one-trick ponies

There are plenty of actors who are quite successful, yet lack this versatility. 

Jason Statham, for example, is the exact same character in every movie. It doesn’t matter if Statham is the hero or the villain. He does one personality: the brooding, confrontational tough guy.

Humphrey Bogart was a successful actor for years, until his untimely death in 1957. But watch his movies, and he’s usually the same guy. Only one of his performances—that of Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny—really stands out as unique.

It’s been said that John Wayne never played the villain. Maybe that’s because John Wayne couldn’t play the villain. Watch the Duke’s movies: You won’t see much variation in his on-screen personality from film to film.

Sean Penn is annoying as a private individual, but he’s highly versatile as an actor. I first saw him as Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), his breakout role. He was completely convincing as a Southern California surfer dude from the early 1980s. 

But Penn is just as convincing as the sadistic Sgt. Tony Meserve in Casualties of War (1989), or as a convicted murderer in Dead Man Walking (1995).

I’ve seen some of his movies multiple times. None of Penn’s performances overlap. 

Sean Penn (whatever his private flaws), is versatile as an artist. He’s no one-trick pony. 

Acting isn’t the only realm of the arts where there is a division between one-trick ponies and more versatile creators. 

The Rolling Stones have now been making music for well over fifty years. There is certainly a market for what they do. But it all sounds the same.

I was never much of a Madonna fan, but she’s been around since I was in high school. Growing up, I couldn’t help but be exposed to her music.

Listen to Madonna’s music over the years, and you’ll note that her style continually changes. Her music of the mid-1980s is nothing like what she was doing by the late 1990s, or the mid-2000s.

I would wager that this is what has given Madonna (another artist who is annoying as a private individual) such a long career. Listen to her entire oeuvre, and you’re going to find at least one or two songs that you like. 

Yes, even me. 

With the Rolling Stones, on the other hand, you either love them or hate them. Because the Rolling Stones never changed.

Writers can be divided into one-trick ponies and the more versatile, too. Dan Brown burst out of the gate in the early 2000s, with his Robert Langdon series. Angels & Demons (2000) and The Da Vinci Code (2003) blended conspiracy thriller tropes with a skepticism about Christian (and especially Roman Catholic) traditions.

But Dan Brown is a literary one-trick pony, if ever there was one. 

Since 2010, his publication dates have been growing farther apart, and his books have been losing fans rather than gaining them. USA Today called Brown’s Origin (2018) “only a fitfully entertaining religious rehash of his greatest hits”. For once, I agree with the mainstream media.

This doesn’t detract from Dan Brown’s success with the original Robert Langdon books. People will be reading The Da Vinci Code for years to come. 

But will they be reading books that Brown writes in the 2020s? I have my doubts about that.

The downsides of versatility 

On the other hand, sometimes an artist evolves, and his long-term fans don’t like the result. Case-in-point: Stephen King.

In the 1970s, and throughout most of the 1980s, Stephen King wrote taut, tightly structured novels. Most of these books were supernatural horror, but not all of them were. (There is barely a hint of the supernatural in Misery (1986). In Firestarter (1980) and The Dead Zone (1979), the supernatural is secondary to what are essentially standard thriller plots.) 

I became a fan of Stephen King during this period. I loved his early books: The Shining, Cujo, ‘Salem’s Lot, etc. 

Then Stephen King’s style changed—or evolved. I first noticed the change with It (1986). King began writing books that were much longer, and (in my view, at least), much less focused. 

As a result, I’m much less enthusiastic about the books Stephen King has written in recent years: 11/22/63, Duma Key, The Outsider. I found Lisey’s Story to be an outright slog. And I couldn’t even finish Cell or Under the Dome

Do be blunt about it: For around twenty years, I’ve been following Stephen King in a pro forma sort of way, hoping that he will go back to writing the kinds of books that he wrote during the first fifteen years of his career. 

I would really like another ‘Salem’s Lot or The Shining. King wrote a sequel to the latter, Doctor Sleep, in 2013. But for this reader, at least, the old magic simply wasn’t there.

Versatility, then, is a knife that cuts both ways. Artists can loose most of their audiences when they make shifts that are too abrupt.

During the early 1980s, the rock band Styx (under the influence of lead singer Dennis DeYoung) went in artistic directions that were simply too experimental for music aimed at teenagers. To make matters worse, the members of the group couldn’t decide if they wanted to do romantic ballads or straight-up rock music. Every album seemed to go in a radically different direction. 

This caused Styx to fall in the charts. The band also went on hiatus throughout the latter half of the 1980s, while Dennis DeYoung pursued several solo projects that didn’t quite fit the musical market of that era.

Nunn Bush

But the long game belongs to…

For the most part, though, I would bet on the versatile rather than the one-trick ponies. 

Back to Molly Ringwald. In All These Small Moments (2018) Ringwald plays a middle age wife and mother, going through various midlife crises.

She doesn’t suffer from the common curse of the child actor: the inability to transition into more mature adult roles. Ringwald is just as convincing in this role as she was in the characters she depicted in the 1980s and 1990s—that of teenage and twentysomething young women. 

Molly Ringwald’s days of playing teenage girls in coming-of-age films are long over; but she’ll probably be a successful actor for as long as she wants to keep doing what she does. Few people can achieve that in acting. 

Will there still be a market for Jason Statham movies in twenty years, on the other hand? Or for Jason Statham as a working actor? 

I have my doubts about that one, too.

Skip ‘Revenge’

I hate to pan a Kevin Costner movie. But Revenge (1990) just didn’t live up to my expectations.

This is the setup: A jet pilot and Vietnam vet (Kevin Costner) retires and travels to Mexico, where he is the guest of an old (and much older) friend, Mendez (Anthony Quinn).

Oh, and Mendez just happens to be a Mexican gangster. 

And the hero falls in love with Mendez’s comely young wife (Madeline Stowe). 

Of course, the lovers are discovered.

And what do Mexican gangsters do when their wives are unfaithful? Nasty stuff.

That’s the first of half of this rather long (too long, really) movie. The second half of the film is vaguely reminiscent of The Count of Monte Cristo. It’s a revenge plot, as the hero embarks on a rather convoluted quest to exact retribution. 

For the guys, there are lots of nude shots of Madeline Stowe. (I hate to be crude, but that’s really the only good thing I can see here.)

Costner, Stowe, and Quinn all put in competent performances. But they were working with a bad script. The story structure here is flawed. Revenge felt like two movies stitched haphazardly together. 

Not everyone agrees with me, of course, though. You can watch Revenge on Amazon, and decide for yourself. (The film actually has a rather high rating average.)

On rewatching teen movies as an adult

Last night I watched Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) for the second time. I had not seen the movie since around the time it came out, when I was in high school myself

Where the artifacts of youth culture are concerned, your mileage may vary, thirty-six years on. There are song lyrics that I thought were perfectly brilliant in 1985, that I cringe when I listen to today. 

It’s also worthwhile to remember that youth culture is ephemeral and constantly changing. I never really got a grasp on the youth culture of the Millennials (the oldest of which were born around 1982), and I am, of course, clueless about Generation Z. 

But I was clueless about much of what the Baby Boomers got excited about, too. I remember, in the early 1980s, hearing then forty-something Baby Boomers rave about the film, The Big Chill (1983). I finally got around to watching The Big Chill a few years ago, when I was a forty-something myself.

Suffice it to say, I was unimpressed. The Big Chill was intended to speak to the concerns of Baby Boomers, circa 1980-something, as they entered mid-adulthood and looked back on their youthful glory days of the 1960s. But the movie didn’t speak to me, as a middle-age adult in 2015 or so.

St. Elmo’s Fire (1985) is a teen movie from my own teenage years that I never got around to watching back in the 1980s. Everyone gushed about the movie in 1985, as I recall. 

I finally watched St. Elmo’s Fire as an adult a few years ago. I found the film stilted, boring, and self-indulgent. 

But the movie obviously appealed to someone, at some point. St. Elmo’s Fire made almost $30 million in profit—a lot of money in the mid-1980s. (A lot of money now, for that matter.)

The concerns of teenagers, at least when seen through the prism of adulthood, are trivial, insular, and self-obsessed. Older adults are often criticized for their rigidity and resistance to change—and often with good reason. But no one is quite as parochial as the typical suburban teenager, who believes that his or her little peer group comprises the entire universe. 

I suppose this is why teen movies often seem trivial, too. If you make a movie about a teenager doing something really important, then it exceeds the teen movie genre. Since the teen movie genre was launched (in the late 1950s), the teen movie has always been about hooking up, fitting in, and bucking the restraints of adult authority. Not since World War II have young people, as a generational cohort, done anything truly worthwhile; and this is reflected in the movies made about them and for them, ever since the Eisenhower era.

That all said, there are a handful of teen movies from the 1980s that I believe do stand the test of time. One of these is The Breakfast Club (1985); and another is Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982). 

I’ve now rewatched both of these movies as an adult. And I’ll likely review them both in detail here, at a later date. For now, though, I will simply assert that both The Breakfast Club and Fast Times at Ridgemont High continue to be enjoyable because both are exercises in the principles of good storytelling, with relatable characters, skillful pacing, and plenty of conflict. 

And yes: Both The Breakfast Club and Fast Times at Ridgemont High are ultimately about the trivial concerns of teenagers: hooking up, fitting in, and straining against adult authority. But good storytelling is good storytelling. And not every good story has to involve a global conflict, a bank heist, or an alien invasion. 

Even the trivial can become solid story material…when the story is told in the right way.