‘The Pacific’: HBO

I’m watching The Pacific on HBO. This series is a significant investment in time, but well worth it. 

There haven’t been nearly enough films and novels about the Pacific war. World War II movies and fiction tend to gravitate to the war in Europe.

Perhaps that’s to be expected. The war in Europe took place in the middle of Western Civilization, in countries that everyone is familiar with: France, Germany, Russia, etc.

And, of course: Hitler, the Nazis, and the Holocaust. Probably half the documentaries on the History Channel are about the Third Reich. 

Much of the war in the Pacific (the part that we were involved in, anyway), was fought on thinly populated, remote islands. While the ideology of the Third Reich is well known to anyone with even basic historical literacy, few Americans grasp the essentials of the Japanese Empire, and its major players. 

Those are among the reasons why the war in the Pacific has been such a challenge to storytellers, and–as a result–often neglected by them. But this HBO series does a great job of bringing “the other World War II” to life.

‘Fright Night’: fun 80s horror

I’m presently rewatching the original Fright Night.

I saw this movie at the cinema in 1985, and I figured that after 34 years, I owed it another viewing. I enjoyed the movie the first time, after all. 

Fright Night is a fun movie. This isn’t cutting-edge horror. And unless you’re of an extremely sensitive bent, it won’t give you nightmares or keep you awake at night. 

I usually don’t like comedy-horror. The modern comedy-horror zombie movies are too often just gross, and/or in extremely bad taste. 

Fright Night, on the other hand, is clever, and the main characters are people you like, and want to see survive their horror movie ordeal.

(When I watched Woody Harrelson in Zombielandbig mistake on my part!–I found myself rooting for the zombies…Anything to shut up Harrelson’s annoying protagonist. But I digress.)

Fright Night has just enough horror to maintain the sense of dread, and just enough humor to keep things light. The opposing forces of horror and comedy are difficult to balance, but they’re balanced here. Almost perfectly.

Yes, I know that there is a 2011 Fright Night remake that stars Colin Farrell. I haven’t seen that one yet, but I’ve seen the previews, and it looks promising. I’ve added that one to my “to-watch” list. 

The Karate Kid (1984), and the perils of adults writing about teenagers

Some 80s movies age better than others…

 A New Jersey teenager named Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) moves to Southern California with his single mom. But Los Angeles isn’t the dreamland he’d been told it was. 

For one thing, California is full of bullies. And they all seem to know karate. 

Not all is dismal in California, however. Daniel meets a promising young California blonde, Ali (Elizabeth Shue). But one of the karate bullies just happens to be her very jealous ex-boyfriend. And he isn’t going to take no for an answer. 

Will Daniel walk away from the girl, or he will he resign himself to being beaten to a pulp every day?

But maybe there’s a third choice. Daniel is befriended by the mysterious Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita), the maintenance man of the rundown apartment building where he and his mother live. Mr. Miyagi might just be able to help him with that whole self-defense thing.

This is the setup for the first Karate Kid movie of 1984. The Karate Kid wasn’t the most wildly successful 1980s film franchise, but it did spawn three sequels and one remake, the most recent one in 2010.

This was one of those movies from my youth (I turned sixteen in 1984), that I never got around to watching when it was current. The Karate Kid was playing on cable the other day, so I decided to watch it, 35 years after everyone else in my peer group. 

There is a lot about this movie to love. Stories about mentorship and standing up to bullies have a timeless appeal, and for good reason.

This film also has some lessons about the importance of hard work and sticking to a process. Consider the scene in which Daniel thinks he’s beginning his karate lessons, but Mr. Miyagi tells him to wash and wax all those old cars. As we learn later in the film, there was a method behind Mr. Miyagi’s seeming madness.

No complaints with the acting. Pat Morita (1932-2005) was a perfect choice for the stern but compassionate mentor, Mr. Miyagi. The other members of the cast are at least adequate in their roles.

Certain elements of the script, however, seemed a bit dated…or maybe the standards of filmmaking have just changed too much. Or maybe I’ve aged to the point where I can no longer fully appreciate a movie made for a teen audience–even the teen audience that I was once a member of.

The character of Daniel comes across as flippant, and some of the actions he takes are just a bit too silly and self-destructive to be believed. Likewise, Ali’s sudden and dogged attachment to the new loser in school isn’t completely credible. 

In some of the scenes, I found myself saying: I don’t remember teens acting like this in the 1980s. This is an idealized version of how teens behaved and interacted in…the 1950s, maybe?

But then, it’s important to remember that John G. Avildsen, who directed The Karate Kid, was born in 1935.  Robert Mark Kamen, a Baby Boomer born in 1947, wrote the script. 

And herein lies the problem. If I were to make a movie about contemporary teenagers, my teens would all talk and behave like teenagers from the 1980s–because that’s what I know. (I’m about the same age today that John G. Avildsen was in 1984.)

Adults can never fully understand contemporary teenagers, perhaps; but adults are the ones who direct movies and write screenplays. I can only wonder what today’s teens think of the movies made for them and about them, by writers and directors of my generation. They no doubt shake their heads in irony, like I inadvertently did while watching some parts of The Karate Kid.

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.

‘The Breakfast Club’: its strengths, and yes…its flaws

This was one of the big teen movies of my youth. I saw it when it came out in the mid-1980s. I recently watched it again as a middle age (51) adult.

 The basic idea of The Breakfast Club is immediately relatable: Five very different teens (a nerd, a jock, a princess, a basket case, a criminal) are thrown together in the enclosed space of their high school’s library. They are then forced to interact over the course of a day-long detention period on a Saturday. This is a small drama, but also a much larger one: The setup for the movie provides a concentrated and contained view of all teenage interactions.

Why we like The Breakfast Club

I liked The Breakfast Club, for all the usual reasons that millions of people have liked the movie since it first hit cinemas in February 1985. Everyone who has ever been a teenager can relate to feeling awkward and misunderstood; and The Breakfast Club has teenage angst in spades. The cast of characters is diverse enough that each of us can see parts of himself in at least one of these kids. 

The Breakfast Club is free of the gratuitous nudity that was somewhat common in the teensploitation films of the era. There is no Breakfast Club equivalent to Phoebe Cates’s topless walk beside the swimming pool in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. (There is a brief glimpse of what is supposed to be Molly Ringwald’s panties. But since Ringwald was a minor at the time, an adult actress filled in as a double for this shot.)

Nor are any of the actors especially good-looking or flashy. They all look like normal people. No one paid to see this movie for its star power or sex appeal. The Breakfast Club succeeded on the basis of its script, and solid acting and production values. 

What I didn’t see in 1985

I enjoyed the movie the second time around, too. I have to admit, though, that teenage self-absorption can seem a little frustrating when viewed through adult eyes.

I’m the same age as Michael Anthony Hall and Molly Ringwald; we were all born in 1968. The other actors in the film are all within ten years of my age. Nevertheless, this time I was watching their teenage drama unfold as an older person–not a peer. Teenage drama is, by its very nature, trivial (and yes, a little annoying) when viewed from an adult perspective. 

The movie also makes all adults look corrupt, stupid, or craven–as opposed to the hapless and victimized, but essentially idealistic– teens. Every young character in The Breakfast Club blames his or her parents for their problems, and these assertions are never really challenged.

We get only a few shots of the parents, when the kids are being dropped off for their day of detention. The parents are all portrayed as simplistic naggers. 

The teens’ adult nemesis throughout the movie, Assistant Principal Vernon, is a caricature, a teenager’s skewed perception of the evil adult authority figure.  The school janitor, meanwhile,  is no working-class hero–but a sly operator who blackmails Vernon for $50.

A movie written for its audience

One of the reasons you liked this movie if you were a teenager in 1985 is that it flattered you–without challenging your myopic, teenage perspective of the world. If you weren’t happy, it was probably because of something your parents did, not anything that you did–or failed to do. 

That may have been a marketing decision. Who knows?  The Breakfast Club goes out of its way to flatter its target audience–the suburban teenager of the mid-1980s. I suppose I didn’t see that when I was a member of that demographic. I see it now, though. 

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

Rambo: First Blood

I rewatched the original Rambo movie, First Blood.

Not bad, for a film that was released in 1982. It’s a fast-moving, barebones action movie without any fluff. 

As such, the movie suffered from some limitations. 

The most glaring of these is that there are no female characters in First Blood.

No, this isn’t a statement of my personal feminism. It’s just to acknowledge that a story that contains characters of only one gender (either male or female) is going to be somewhat limited in scope and appeal.

First Blood is basically a men’s struggle/survival tale. In that regard, First Blood reminds me of Deliverance, which preceded Sylvester Stallone’s film by about a decade.

First Blood is also notable for its political message, regarding the treatment of the Vietnam vets in the 1960s and 1970s. (This would be a consistent theme throughout the first three Rambo movies.)

Chinese censorship and American filmmaking

Movies in the People’s Republic of China are still subject to heavy-handed state control and censorship throughout the production process. This has been the case ever since the beginning of the Chinese filmmaking industry under Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule. 

In recent years, however, we have a twist: American filmmakers are now allowing CCP biases and hot buttons to change key elements of American movies, too.

In 2012, the remake of the classic 1980s film, Red Dawn, was modified to avoid offending China. The 1984 version of the film depicted a Soviet invasion of America. Since the USSR hasn’t existed since 1991, the 2012 reimagining of the movie was originally based on the premise of a Chinese invasion. 

But after outcry from the Chinese government, the entire movie was altered. The 2012 remake of Red Dawn that we actually saw was a North Korean invasion of the United States–a completely implausible scenario. 

We’ll soon see a remake of another 1980s classic: Top Gun. To avoid offending the Chinese government, the flags of Japan and Taiwan will be removed from Maverick’s leather jacket. (I suppose we should be grateful that Chinese government censors are allowing the inclusion of the American flag.)

Yes, I know: Hollywood has long demonstrated itself to be craven and greedy. (I certainly do my share of railing against know-it-all celebrities in this space. ) But the larger lesson here is that Chinese money always comes with significant strings attached.

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.

Representation and realism in film casting

Political correctness, alas, often results in unconvincing art.

The other night I watched Mary Queen of Scotts (2018), directed by Josie Rourke. I’m an Anglophile and one of that relatively small group of Americans who can name most of the monarchs of Albion. I therefore wasn’t going to miss this one.

Overall, I was disappointed. I found Mary Queen of Scotts inferior to Elizabeth (1998) and Elizabeth: the Golden Age (2007)—not to mention the vastly superior miniseries, The Tudors, which ran from 2007 to 2010.

The screenplay of Mary Queen of Scots trivialized significant historical events into pure soap opera. But more than that, the film’s stated political agenda detracted from its believability.

One of the first things I noticed in the film was all the nonwhite actors—in Tudor England. There were numerous black actors, as well as Gemma Chan, cast in the role of Bess of Hardwick—who had reddish-blonde hair. 

I did a bit of Googling, and discovered that director Josie Rourke had no intention of stooping to the commonsense practice of realistic casting. Rather, she wanted to use this movie to demonstrate how “woke” she is. 

Rourke made no bones about her agenda, telling several sources, “I was really clear, I would not direct an all-white period drama.”

But what if your subject matter is all white? Or mostly white? 

Or for that matter, what if your subject matter is African? Would it make sense to cast a blond actor in the role of Kunta Kinte in the next Roots remake? 

Most moviegoers, I believe, would see the absurdity of this. But when it’s turned around, ideology tends to take over. That’s exactly what happened with Mary Queen of Scots.

Two (artistic) wrongs don’t make a right

When interviewed about being cast in the role of Bess of Hardwick, Gemma Chan said, “if John Wayne could play Genghis Khan, um, I guess it’s OK that I played Bess of Hardwick.”

But here’s the point: Hollywood “whitewashing” of properly Asian, Native American, and even African roles during the 1950s, 1960s, and 70s wasn’t “OK”. 

I’ve seen John Wayne’s performance in The Conqueror (1956). John Wayne isn’t remotely convincing as a Mongol warlord. Nor is David Carradine convincing as Kwai Chang Caine in Kung Fu (1972 – 1975). Bruce Lee—who was involved in the development of Kung Fu—should have been cast in that role. 

I think there are also a few old Hollywood Westerns that feature Kirk Douglas and/or Robert Mitchum as Apache warriors. Ridiculous. 

This wasn’t realistic, either.

Live theater is not the movies

But it’s Shakespeare! you say. The theater! 

I get it: Why should Shakespearean acting be the exclusive province of white people? 

It is not, and it should not be. Adrian Lester, the son of Jamaican immigrants to the United Kingdom, is an accomplished Shakespearian actor. 

The theater, however, is “different” in terms of the level of realism that the audience expects. Unisex theater productions, in which males play female roles, and vice versa, have long been successful throughout the world. Likewise, no one expects full realism in a theater set. 

Live theater is not the movies. Theater is a more abstract art form.

But film is about realism. Otherwise, why would Hollywood spend so much money on CGI effects, period costumes, and ultra-realistic settings?

When defending her “colorblind casting”, Josie Rourke touted the aforementioned Lester’s accomplishments as a thespian. (Rourke cast the Jamaican-British Lester as Lord Thomas Randolph.) “Why wouldn’t you cast him (Lester) in that role?” Rourke asked an interviewer.

Probably for the same reason that you wouldn’t cast a 70 year-old in a film role written for a teen. Because such casting choices aren’t realistic. When you see a casting decision that is completely (and in this case, deliberately) out of line with reality, you are shocked out of your suspension of disbelief.

The Sopranos, The Americans: casting done right

I was a big fan of The Sopranos. One of the strengths of The Sopranos is its true-to-life casting. 

Do a Wikipedia search, and you’ll find that a disproportionate number of the actors cast as New Jersey Italian-Americans in The Sopranos are, indeed, Italian-Americans from the East Coast: James Gandolfini, Lorraine Bracco, Edie Falco, Michael Imperioli, etc, etc…These actors all excelled at convincing you they were Italian-Americans from “Joisey” because well, they were. 

Likewise, The Americans (2013-2018) achieved a supreme level of realism partly by casting actual Russian actors in the roles of Soviet characters. 

Why is this controversial? Or—if I may address the fans of ideologically motivated casting—why is this not common sense?

Wokeness: detrimental to art

I understand that this era of “wokeness” is also an era in which the emperor perpetually has no clothes. We aren’t supposed to point out the obvious anymore, if the obvious contradicts the politically correct narrative. 

Deliberately unrealistic casting may be fine for the theater. It detracts from the realism (and therefore, the art) of filmmaking. 

Or to be more blunt about it: We don’t need a blond Kunta Kinte. I’ll let you fill in the rest….

‘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 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.