‘The Empire Strikes Back’ +40

The Empire Strikes Back debuted in theaters on May 21, 1980.

I might not have been there on 5/21/80, but I was certainly there no later than mid-June of 1980.

I was part of the original Star Wars generation. I also recall seeing the first one with my dad in the summer of ’77.

In May 1980 I was a little shy of 12 years old. I was starting to become an adolescent, with preteen interests (playing sports, girls). But I was nevertheless captivated for two full hours by The Empire Strikes Back. Continue reading “‘The Empire Strikes Back’ +40”

‘Greyhound’: Tom Hanks’s next WWII movie

I grew up on stories of World War II–real ones. My maternal grandfather served in the US Navy, mostly in the North Atlantic. He made numerous runs between the US and the United Kingdom. And he told me many tales of dodging Messerschmidts and “wolf pack” U-boats. 

There was never really a modern movie done about his war, though. There have been lots of movies about combat in the South Pacific and in the Middle East. There have been many, many films about D-Day. Not so many about the perilous North Atlantic runs between the United States and England.

That’s why I’m especially looking forward to seeing the next World War II movie from Tom Hanks, Greyhound, which is all about my grandfather’s war—naval combat in the North Atlantic. Continue reading “‘Greyhound’: Tom Hanks’s next WWII movie”

Will drive-in movies make a comeback?

Drive-in movie theaters hope to usher in comeback for entertainment sector

I have only childhood memories of the drive-in. Back in the early 1970s, I would occasionally attend with my parents. 

I was very young then, no more than about five years old. I usually fell asleep in the back seat of my dad’s Ford Torino long before the movie concluded. At that age, I was seldom interested in the movies my parents were watching, anyway. Continue reading “Will drive-in movies make a comeback?”

Sopranos prequel film delayed… because of coronavirus

I’m a huge fan of the Sicilian mafia films and TV shows. I’ve seen The Godfather more times than I can count. I can quote entire sections of the film’s dialogue from memory.

As I wrote in 2018, I am also a fan of The Sopranos, the HBO mafia drama that ran from 1999 to 2007.

Sopranos star James Gandolfini died in 2013 at the age of 51 (my current age, as chance would have it). His son Michael Gandolfini, though—now age 20—has been chosen to appear in a prequel movie, The Many Saints of Newark.

The prequel film will take place in the 1960s. The younger Gandolfini will play a younger version of Tony Soprano.

That was the plan, anyway. The movie was supposed to hit theaters in September of this year. Like so much else, though, it’s been delayed. You won’t get to see The Many Saints of Newark until March 2021. 

I’ll be there, though. Like I said, I’m a big fan of The Sopranos.

‘A Quiet Place’: quick review

View it on Amazon

The world has ended.  And no—not because of a virus from Wuhan, China. Actually, the planet has been invaded by a horde of insectile, carnivorous creatures; and they’ve gobbled everyone up. Or almost everyone. 

If you think you’ve seen this movie before, guess again. The insectile, carnivorous monsters in this movie are blind; they hunt by sound. That’s the hook of the movie.

***

A Quiet Place opens as a rural-dwelling family in upstate New York are walking home from scavenging in a deserted town, maintaining absolute silence. They communicate through sign language. The two parents (played by Emily Blunt and John Krasinski) maintain their vigilance over the children as the family passes through the eerie wooded landscape.

The parents insist on absolute silence. And before they reach home, we find out why.

***

When the family finally does make it home (spoiler alert!), possibly one member short, we’re given a few hints as to what happened to the world.

In recent times, the creatures invaded the earth. This is conveyed through newspaper headlines plastered to one wall in the basement of the farmhouse where the family is hunkering down—presumably their home from happier times.

The newspaper headlines reveal a few details about the creatures, and that they have destroyed most of the human population. One headline warns, “Go underground!” Another headline (which will seem eerily familiar to anyone watching this film during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic) announces, “New York on Lockdown!” Art imitating life…sort of. 

This movie has lacunas and plot holes galore. We’re never told exactly where the creatures came from. Outer space? Another dimension? We just don’t know. The entire story is told through the narrow perspective of a single family. 

Also: how did the two adults and three children in the movie all become fluent in sign language? 

And as is common in horror movies, the characters in A Quiet Place sometimes indulge in reckless acts that real people would almost never do under similar circumstances. The child characters are simultaneously wise beyond their years and annoyingly, conveniently (for the plot) foolish.

But none of that spoils the movie. If you’re willing to accept the film’s central premise, then you’re okay with a few plot holes. A Quiet Place does what it is supposed to do: It takes you away to a parallel universe, introduces you to characters you can sympathize with, and lets the scares begin. A Quiet Place showcases a few genuinely nail-biting scenes, as everything gets worse all at once. Plenty of tension in this one.

If you’re looking for a fun, escapist horror movie that moves quickly and doesn’t overdo the gore, you can’t go wrong with A Quiet Place.

(Note: You can get A Quiet Place on Blu-Ray, DVD, or 4K; but I watched it for free with my Amazon Prime membership.)

Looking for some horror stories to read???

***Check out my short story horror collection, Hay Moon & Other Stories on Amazon***

‘The Hunt’ coming to theaters, after all

Imagine a movie in which a group of “liberal elites” (per at least one line of dialogue in the film) decides to hunt red-state Trump voters.

That’s the premise of The Hunt, starring Hillary Swank, among others. The movie was produced by Blumhouse Productions, and will be distributed by Universal Pictures. The Hunt debuts in theaters on Friday, March 13th. 

The Hunt was originally scheduled for release last September, but Universal Pictures put the kibosh on the film. Apparently there’s been a change of heart. Sunk costs, and all that.

I watched several trailers of the film. It is basically billed as violent social satire. The movie clearly fetishes violence, though in a tongue-in-cheek manner. In one trailer (not the one embedded above) a group of hunters runs over a man’s head as he’s lying on the pavement. Nice, huh?

I should clarify that our freedoms of speech and artistic expression are close to absolute, and for good reason. We live in an era in which the freedom of expression is under attack. Not long ago, a leftwing Twitter mob hounded Beijing-born author Amelie Wen Zhao into shelving her fantasy novel, because of the book’s (perceived) depictions of race in an entirely fictional world. Late last year, romance author Courtney Milan publicly attacked a competitor as “racist” over a few lines of dialogue in a novel published in 1999.

Censorship, whether imposed by the government or by the howling mob, really is a horrible idea; and even seemingly benign instances of it tend to become slippery slopes. So let’s not be equivocal about this: Universal Pictures has every right to release The Hunt, theaters have every right to show it, and you have every right to see it. 

We can, however, reasonably ask if a film, a novel, or a work of art provides more heat than light to a controversial issue or a public debate. The 1960 film Inherit the Wind brings light to the issue of religious dogma vs. the freedom of scientific inquiry. On the other hand, the 1987 photo, Piss Christ, has only one objective: to offend Christians. Likewise, public Quran burnings, though legal, add little of substance to the debate about the conflict between Islam and Western values. 

Leftwing political violence has become a reality since Election Day 2016. In most cases, the violence is merely verbal (consider Chuck Schumer’s recent implied threats against Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh); but in some cases, the violence is real. A Trump voter was viciously beaten by a mob at a Chicago polling station in 2016. In 2017, a leftwing gunman opened fire on Republicans playing baseball in a Washington DC park. And then there is the organized political violence of groups like Antifa. 

A movie that satirizes such violence it is a risky proposition. And who is the movie’s target audience? Is the film’s objective to condemn political violence, or to slyly wink at it? 

Moreover, the basic premise of people-hunting-people is not exactly original. This was the setup of a 2018 Lee Child novel, Past Tense. The Hunt itself is based on a 1924 short story, “The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell.

As the movie’s release date approaches, there is much in the news, much of it worrisome: the Democratic primaries, coronavirus scares, and tomorrow’s headlines that we don’t yet know about. Amid all of this, a self-consciously provocative movie like The Hunt may or may not be provocative enough to lure many people into the local cinema. The Hunt may pass into history with a whimper rather than a bang. All the controversy may end up being for nothing, in the final analysis.

I hope, moreover, that I’m wrong about this movie, and there really is some illuminating message here. Judging from the trailers, though, The Hunt seems to be a cynical attempt to cash in on the present dysfunction of American society.

‘Them that Follow’: mini-review

A charismatic, fanatical preacher; a snake-handling cult in Appalachia…and a romantic triangle that involves an unplanned pregnancy.

Them that Follow might have been a good movie. It was certainly well-acted. Olivia Colman, Walton Goggins (of Justified fame) and Australian actress Alice Englert certainly did their best to breathe life into a turkey of a script. 

In the end, though, they couldn’t pull it off. The characters in Them that Follow consistently behaved in ways that few human beings actually would.

(Spoiler alert): Here’s an example: After one of the main characters is bitten by a rattlesnake, there is a kitchen-table amputation scene that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. (There are hospitals in West Virginia, too.)

The premise of the film seemed to be: People in Appalachian America are unremittingly ignorant, gullible, and prone to religious fanaticism. 

I’ve spent a lot of time in Appalachia: in Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. This area of the country certainly has its problems. For at least a century now, Appalachia has suffered from a dearth of economic opportunities and depopulation. Ambitious young people tend to leave and haul stakes for the city—just like my grandfather left Adams County, Ohio for Cincinnati in 1939. The rural drug epidemic of recent years has only made things worse.

But the people of Appalachia, in my experience (and again, I do have actual experience in Appalachia), are not the irrational simpletons depicted in Them that Follow

The biggest problem with Them that Follow, however, was that it was…boring. The plot meandered; and it was difficult to discern who you were supposed to root for, what was actually going on.

On the plus side, the film did consistently project a dark, bleak atmosphere, which seems to have been the whole point of the thing, anyway.

I would give this one 2.5 out of three stars. Not awful, but not very good, either. 

Cincinnati in film

Professors on their favorite Cincinnati films

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Jobs’ (2013) brief movie review

A quick movie review for you today.  I recently watched Jobs (2013), starring Ashton Kutcher. I liked this movie much better than the subsequent Steve Jobs (2015), which starred Michael Fassbender. 

Say what you will about him, but Ashton Kutcher is a skilled actor. In this movie, Kutcher pulled off one of the most difficult acting feats: He believably stepped into the shoes of a recently deceased figure who is still very much a part of our collective, living memory. 

Jobs covers Steve Jobs’s long up-and-down journey from college dropout in the mid-1970s, to personal computing wunderkind of the early 1980s, to corporate exile of the early 1990s. And, of course, his triumphant return to Apple later in that decade.

I’m something of a Steve Jobs fanboy, and I’ve read Walter Isaacson’s biography of the man, published shortly after Jobs’s death. The movie is largely accurate, based on my reading of the Isaacson biography. 

Steve Jobs died at the relatively young age of 56, but he packed a lot—and I mean, a lot—into that short life. You’ll probably get more out of the movie if you can manage to read the Isaacson biography first.

Jobs is over two hours long. Despite that length, the film necessarily truncates a large portion of its subject’s life—namely, the years Jobs spent in relative obscurity at NeXT. 

The abridgment of the NeXt years is understandable. I would, however, have liked to have seen a bit more detail about how Jobs rescued his old company from near bankruptcy in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The new iMac, the iPhone, the iPod….There is a lot to cover there.

The movie does touch on these events. Jony Ives (played by Giles Matthey) makes a brief appearance. But viewers who haven’t read the Isaacson biography will likely miss a lot of this.

I acknowledge the counterargument, though: A full coverage of this final stage of Steve Jobs’s career—and life– would have added another full hour to the movie. The creators of Jobs probably determined (and probably correctly) that this would have been simply too long for the attention spans of twenty-first century moviegoers, no matter how fascinating the subject matter.

Rewatching ‘Platoon’ (1986)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another ‘Amityville’ movie

Yes, another Amityville movie

There’s another Amityville movie out. This one, like Amityville 2: the Possession (1982), is a prequel of sorts. It depicts the murders that occurred in this infamous suburban Long Island home in November 1974.

I watched Amityville 2 back in the 1980s. Amityville 2 was only loosely based on the murders. (For example, the family was named Montelli, and not DeFeo.) This newest movie, however, appears to be aiming for more of a biopic. The characters correspond to the actual members of the DeFeo family.

I’ll have to get around to watching this and reviewing it here. I saw that Diane Franklin is in it. Her performance in Amityville 2, as the family’s doomed elder daughter, was riveting. In this version, Franklin plays Louise DeFeo, the mother of the family.

I have mixed feelings about all these Amityville Horror movies. On one hand, I recognize that this is an almost irresistible topic for horror filmmakers—kind of like the Nazi era is for the makers of historical documentaries.

On the other hand, though, I also feel that the original tragedy, in which six people lost their lives, has been exploited somewhat. Perhaps it’s time to let the dead of Amityville rest in peace, and move on to other topics. 

Nevertheless, I do want to see this one—if for Diane Franklin, if nothing else. She’s one of my favorite actresses from the 1980s, and she seems to be a genuinely nice person, based on what I’ve seen of her in interviews.

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.