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.

‘Hobbs & Shaw’: Ed’s review

The Fast & Furious franchise, now nearly 20 years old, is the franchise that has no end, apparently. Hobbs & Shaw is a F&F spin-off, starring Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham. 

This is the setup: A shadowy terrorist organization called Eteon has gained control of a super-virus that can wipe out all human life on earth. Two reluctant agents who don’t get along (Johnson and Statham) decide to put their differences aside and track down the bad guys. 

You’ve seen various versions of this movie before. There is nothing new, here, plot-wise. But perhaps originality is overrated. 

As for the acting: Dwayne Johnson is, as usual, the big, likable tough guy. Jason Statham is, as usual, the snide hero whom you can’t quite bring yourself to like. (Statham projects the same personality, more or less, in every one of his movies.)

This is a visually spectacular film. The special effects and chase scenes are really something. The climactic scene, involving a string of vehicles and a helicopter, will keep you on the edge of your seat. 

The script, however, is written toward the same 13 year-old audience that flocked to Deadpool. Although it’s billed as an action thriller, Hobbs & Shaw doesn’t take itself seriously. There is a constant laugh track, and the jokes are only occasionally funny. (For example, there’s an extended dialogue between Johnson and Statham, in which one compares the other’s company to “dragging balls (yes, testicles) across broken glass”).

If this is your idea of fun, then you’ll probably enjoy Hobbs & Shaw. Likewise, you’ll enjoy this if you’ve enjoyed previous installments in the Fast & Furious franchise. If you’re in the mood for something fun and fast and not very challenging, then Hobbs & Shaw might be your ticket. 

Hobbs & Shaw is not exactly a bad movie, but it isn’t exactly a good one, either. I’ll give it 3 out of 5 stars. 

‘Rambo: Last Blood’: Ed’s review

Rambo: Last Blood is the greatest movie ever!

Okay–maybe I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. But I watched this (final?) installment in the Rambo franchise a few days ago, and I was favorably impressed. 

First, let me explain something to you: I’m from the 1980s. I’ve been a fan of Rambo ever since First Blood (’82), and yes, I’m old enough to remember when that film was new. Since then, I’ve watched Rambo bring down thunder and whoop-ass in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Burma. 

I’m also a Stallone fan. I liked the Rocky movies, too.

So that’s where I’m coming from. If you’re looking for a politically correct, hoity-toity movie review, visit The Guardian. They have plenty of them over there. 

Rambo: Last Blood follows a very basic revenge plot. As the movie opens, the 70-something Rambo has found a home, of sorts, with a few members of his extended family in Arizona. One of the members of the household is his college-aged niece, Gabriela (played by Yvette Monreal).

When Gabriela is kidnapped by sex traffickers south of the border in Mexico, Rambo goes into action.

I can’t tell you much more without going into spoilers, but that’s the setup, in a nutshell. Again, it’s simple. This isn’t Game of Thrones

The movie makes no attempt to hide the fact that Stallone is not the young man he was in 1982, when the first Rambo movie came out, or even the late-middle age man he was in 2008, when Rambo was released. Early in the movie Rambo is seen taking meds, presumably for hypertension, or some other age-related condition.  

Stallone (who has always had a creative hand in his films) also has the ego-restraint not to portray himself as the romantic interest of women young enough to be his daughters or granddaughters. In this film, he’s in a strictly protective, patriarchal role. (But then, Rambo never had much time for the ladies, did he?)

There is a lot of action in this movie, and a few surprisingly tender emotional moments. (If any Rambo movie will bring a tear to your eye, this one is it.)

My only (minor) quibble is the extreme, graphic nature of the violence. I mean, everyone expects a Rambo movie to be violent, but this one is over-the-top, borderline grotesque in a few places. 

The grotesqueness does add to the primeval nature of the revenge plot. But this factor also makes the movie a bad choice for some younger and more squeamish viewers who might have otherwise enjoyed it. 

I’ll give Rambo: Last Blood 4.5 out of 5 stars. This movie does what it sets out to do, in a very entertaining manner. 

Every Which Way But Loose

Admittedly cheesy, but good…

Clint Eastwood is one of the few actors for whose work I am a completist—meaning that I have made it my mission to watch everything the actor ever made. 

My favorite Clint Eastwood movies are the more recent ones: Gran Torino and The Mule. But if you’re in the mood for something cheesier, you might give Every Which Way But Loose (1978) a try.

Every Which Way But Loose is a movie about a guy, Philo, who drives a truck and bare-knuckle boxes for extra money. 

Oh, and Philo has an orangutan as a sidekick. And a human sidekick. And a foul-mouthed mother.

The movie takes place at various locations in the American West. But it begins in Southern California. Philo falls for pretty but dodgy lounge singer, Lynne (Sondra Locke). She takes off, and he pursues her to Colorado.

That’s the main plot—sort of. But Philo also makes enemies of two vengeful police officers, and a neo-Nazi gang called the Black Widows.

If this sounds a tad ridiculous, well—it is. Nevertheless, Every Which Way But Loose is an oddly entertaining movie. From what I’ve read (I was alive in 1978, but too young to have watched the film), this movie was roundly panned by the critics, but it was a commercial success.

It just goes to show: Never trust professional critics. 

View Every Which Way But Loose on Amazon

So I finally saw ‘Taxi Driver’

Watching Taxi Driver (1976) had been on my to-do list for quite some time, and tonight I finally checked it off.

This was, first of all, a very dark film about the psychological and social malaise of post-Vietnam America during the Sickie Seventies. The film is set in New York, which—by all accounts—was truly a hellhole during that era. 

Robert DeNiro stars as 26 year-old Travis Bickle, a troubled Vietnam vet with obvious psychological issues. Travis takes a job as a nighttime taxi driver as an antidote to his persistent insomnia. 

Early in the movie, Travis meets Betsy (Cybill Shepherd). Betsy is a volunteer for the campaign of Charles Palantine, a surging candidate for President of the United States. Travis’s approach is a bit odd. But Betsy admires his spunk, and agrees to join him for coffee and pie.

At first it seems that Travis may find happiness with Betsy. But when he takes her out for a movie, his choice is very…inappropriate second-date fare. Disturbed by the date, Betsy stops taking his calls.

Disillusioned with Betsy, New York, and the human condition, Travis hatches a bizarre plan to assassinate Charles Palantine–though his plans take a surprise turn.

Travis also befriends Iris (Jodie Foster), 12 year-old prostitute. (Yes, really.) Although he has an opportunity to sexually exploit her, Travis only wants to save Iris from her life on the streets and her manipulative pimp.

How does it all shake out? I’m not going to tell you—just in case you haven’t yet seen the movie.

Taxi Driver is a good movie, but it’s a dark and depressing ride through nearly two hours of mid-1970s social decay, and the mind of an extremely disturbed young man. This is no John Wayne movie. Travis is an antihero; but there is enough good in him to maintain him as a sympathetic character.

Taxi Driver is also a film that would never get made today. The content in this movie would generate a long list of twenty-first century trigger warnings and speech code violations. Most shocking to present-day viewers (and this was even a boundary-pusher for me) was the blatant depiction of child prostitution. There is no underage nudity or sex scenes between adults and minors. Nevertheless, Jodie Foster would have been about thirteen when this movie was made. Though all the really bad stuff is merely implied, it would be a bit too close for comfort for today’s moviegoers. One can only imagine the outcry on Twitter.

Anyone who was alive in 1981 will know the historical significance of Taxi Driver. This was the movie that stoked John Hinckley Jr’s obsession with Jodie Foster, and gave him the idea of assassinating a president in order to impress her.

Hinckley originally planned to assassinate Jimmy Carter. But Carter left office before Hinckley could make a serious attempt. So Hinckley shot Reagan in Washington D.C. on March 30, 1981. (I can still remember hearing the news from a childhood friend’s mother; but that’s another story for another time.)

By all means, watch Taxi Driver; but realize that it will give you a mental hangover for a few hours. Although the ending is not entirely unhappy, this is not an uplifting movie.

But sometimes dark films can be worth watching, too. I believe this is one such case. 

View Taxi Driver on Amazon!

‘Nevada Smith’: one of the last golden-age westerns

In 1966, the war in Vietnam was already a major concern for most Americans in real life. The tumultuous year of 1968 (also the year of your humble correspondent’s birth) was fast approaching. The golden, innocent era of postwar America was drawing inexorably to a close.

But Hollywood was still cranking out westerns. The Great American Western, too, would be killed by the societal upheavals of the 1960s. After that decade, American audiences were no longer as willing to embrace the straightforward notions of good and evil, heroes and villains, that typified the western movie. Make of that what you will.

But Hollywood was still cranking out these movies in 1966. In that year, Nevada Smith, starring Steve McQueen, hit the theaters. (The movie hit my cable box last night, fifty-three years later.)

Nevada Smith employs a classic revenge plot. Max Sand (aka Nevada Smith) is the son of a white father and a Native American mother. During his youth, both of his parents were brutally murdered in a crime with vaguely racial overtones. Now an adult, Max sets out to track down the killers and avenge his parents.

This is an entertaining film. The main character goes on a long quest to fulfill his aims, and that presents numerous opportunities for plot twists, and a colorful array of secondary characters. I suspect, though, that at 128 minutes (a little more than two hours), Nevada Smith would have to be cut down for twenty-first century moviegoers, who are now so accustomed to peripatetic superhero flicks.

If anything detracted from Nevada Smith, it was the film’s lack of realism, which was simply taken for granted by moviemakers and moviegoers alike prior to the 1970s. To cite one example: when characters are shot, they simply grab their chests and keel over. This may have spared 1960s audiences blood and gore, but it also required a lot more suspension of disbelief.

Nineteen sixty-six was not a “woke” year (no one back then would have even known the term), nor is Nevada Smith a “woke” movie. That said, the film’s portrayal of Native Americans, and various mixed race people, is sympathetic and respectful. (I have no doubt, though, that today’s PC crowd would watch the film and find something to carp about. Don’t they always?)

Steve McQueen died in 1980 at the age of 50. Nevada Smith represents one of his better performances. Worth a watch if you like classic westerns.

View Nevada Smith on Amazon!

‘Hamburger Hill’: Vietnam, 1980s style

Several of the best Vietnam War movies ever made were made during the 1980s: namely Platoon (1986) (the best one ever, IMO), and the dark and surrealistic Full Metal Jacket (1987). 

Then there was Hamburger Hill, also made in 1987. 

While Platoon and Full Metal Jacket are classics, Hamburger Hill is a Reagan-era movie about Vietnam that simply doesn’t age well. (I don’t know how good it was in 1987, all things considered. I saw it for the first time last night.)

For starters, this movie contains every possible cliche about the Vietnam War.

The  Procol Harum song “A Whiter Shade of Pale”?  Check!

Vietnamese prostitutes who promise to “love you long time”? Check!

Hackneyed and tortured portrayals of racial tensions in the ranks? Check!

The action, moreover, is uneven. And there is not a single scene in which actor Dylan McDermott doesn’t have perfectly arranged hair. 

Hamburger Hill isn’t a horrible movie, but there are far better options in the Vietnam War movie genre, including the more recent We Were Soldiers (2002), starring Mel Gibson.

View the Hamburger Hill DVD on Amazon!

Stephen King adaptations

Not all of them are equal, as an article in The Boston Herald reminds us.

The article includes a list of must-see Stephen King adaptations.

I have one  quibble with the list. The 1994 TV miniseries adaptation of The Stand (starring Molly Ringwald and Gary Sinese) is not included.

Yes, it aired 25 years ago. Nevertheless, that was a top-notch television adaptation of very complex and visually challenging piece. 

‘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.)

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.

‘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”: 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.)