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 hoodlum) 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 ourselves 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 irksome when viewed through adult eyes. Even the teenage self-absorption of one’s own generation.

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 as a teenager myself. 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 and blameless—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.

‘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!