Songs Of The Month: February 2018

I don’t think I need to write a long introduction to this piece. Let me just say that these are the songs that helped provide the soundtrack to this month of life. Let’s get on with it!

“Yeh Yeh” – Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames (1965)

“Yeh Yeh” is an energetic little number with a fast beat and lyrics that are fun to sing. It actually started as a jazz number, but Georgie Fame took it and turned it into a classic pop tune in the suave, finger-snapping style that became famous in the early 1960s with songs like Bruce Channel’s “Hey Baby” and pretty much every song by Dion (with my favorite being “Ruby Baby“). However, I think “Yeh Yeh”s jazz roots is where the song got its subtle suggestiveness. It’s very hot in a gentle, oblique way that I think is incredibly interesting!

“Now And Forever” – Carole King (1992)

Earlier this month, I watched A League Of Their Own after not seeing it for a long time. (It was still good, if you’re curious!) Music wasn’t really the main draw to the film for me, but I knew that it starred Madonna – I love her – and it did feature one of her songs over the end credits. Therefore, I was completely unprepared when Carole King’s “Now And Forever” blindsided me at the beginning of the film! The music itself is typical of early ’90s Easy Listening, but the lyrics are a heartfelt meditation on nostalgia and the feelings it can arouse in us. I love it!

“How Do You Like Me Now?!” – Toby Keith (2000)

I love country music, especially the songs from the 1980s and 1990s. I grew up on it, so it has an especially warm and homey feeling for me. I have to take Toby Keith on a case-by-case basis, though; while his early work is heartfelt and emotional, he got more and more crass as his career progressed. “How Do You Like Me Now?!” straddles that line for me; while the first verse sounds like the beginning of a sweet romantic story, it turns into a taunting anthem by the end. However, there’s no denying that the music is catchy, and the lyrics are emotionally satisfying. It’s worth a listen!

(Actually, I listened to another Toby Keith song a lot this month: “Drinks After Work,” which is better than “How Do You Like Me Now?!” in just about every way. However, the latter song is the one that sticks in my head!)

“I’m Not Sayin'” – Gordon Lightfoot (1966)

Here’s something you might want to know about me: I love folk songs and folk singers. I’ve generally grown up in cities (or near them), but I’ve always felt an emotional connection to deserts, mountains, and the wilderness, and listening to folk tunes makes me feel closer to that side of myself. I’ve always liked Gordon Lightfoot in that regard, but I knew him primarily for his more slickly produced work in the 1970s. It wasn’t until this past month that I learned he began his career as an unplugged singer. Since then, that part of his career has become my favorite. This song – a love song with a nice twist – is my new favorite of his work!

“Cheer Down” – George Harrison (1989)

Every Beatle had a pretty phenomenal post-Fab Four solo career, but my personal favorite of those has to be George Harrison. After the breakup of The Beatles in 1970, Harrison made his voice heard with All Things Must Pass, the legendary LP that he released later that year. It’s chock-full of wonderful work, like “What Is Life?,” “If Not For You,” and “My Sweet Lord.” However, my favorite phase of Harrison’s solo career has to be the late 1980s, the period I refer to as the “Traveling Wilburys period.”

The Traveling Wilburys were a rock group that lasted between 1988 and 1990, consisting of rock legends Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne, Bob Dylan, and Mr. Harrison. The group first formed after a trip Harrison made to Los Angeles. Harrison was in La La Land to oversee the filming of Checking Out, a film Harrison was producing with his company HandMade Films. During that trip, Warner Bros. Records execs asked Harrison to record a song to serve as the B-side to his single “This Is Love.” Soon afterward, during a dinner with Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison, Harrison asked Lynne to play on the B-side and for Orbison to attend the session as his guest. Tom Petty became involved in the act when Harrison went to retrieve one of his guitars, and Bob Dylan got into the act when the group decided to record the album in Dylan’s garage studio.

Together, the five-man group completed and recorded an unfinished song of Harrison’s. They took an inscription on a label in Dylan’s garage and named the song after it: “Handle With Care.” The five friends sent the song to Warner Bros. Records, who said that the tune was too good to be B-side filler. The record label released “Handle With Care” as a single, which went on to be highly successful. The Traveling Wilburys were born!

The Wilburys have a very distinct sound, something different than any of the separate members had done before. It’s an interesting fusion of electric rock and folksy heartland music – similar to what Bob Seger was doing in the ’70s, but not quite the same. However, although the Wilbury style wasn’t really something that the five artists had dabbled in before, it went on to affect some of their solo work: Tom Petty and “You Wreck Me;” Roy Orbison and “You Got It,” and George Harrison and “Cheer Down!”

“Cheer Down” was written to fulfill a commitment Harrison had made: to provide a song for Lethal Weapon 2. Together, Harrison and Tom Petty wrote a set of lyrics based around the title phrase, one that Harrison’s wife Olivia used when her husband got overly excited. The resulting song is an incredibly sweet love song about being there for one’s significant other whenever they need help. Jeff Lynne produced the song, which Harrison recorded in his home studio.

Of course, a love song didn’t really have a lot to do with Lethal Weapon 2‘s plot, which is probably why studio execs tacked it onto the end credits. However, the song does serve as a refreshing end note to an excellent sequel, and it also makes for a strong stand-alone single. I love it!

Bonus Track! This is “Handle With Care,” the single that the Traveling Wilburys put together in Bob Dylan’s garage. It’s a personal favorite of mine!



Starlog Saturdays: An Interview With Disney CEO Ron Miller!


Welcome To Starlog Saturdays, a new semi-regular feature where we dive into a random issue of the classic sci-fi magazine and take a look at an interesting article. Check back for new installments!

I don’t know about you guys, but when I’m nerdy about something, my passion often finds an area in which to be particularly fascinated. Prime example: I love Disney as a whole in any era, but I’m especially interested in the period between 1966 – when Walt passed away – and 1984, when Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Frank Wells took over the studio. This was a strange era for the studio, and most people – fans and average folks alike – tend to think of it as a period where Walt Disney Pictures was unfocused, wandering from project to project looking for the identity that was lost when Walt passed.

I sort of half-agree with the general consensus. While I do agree that Walt Disney Pictures lost some oomph with Walt’s death, I think the studio went in some really interesting directions during the 1970s and early 1980s, looking for a new path for the company. One man stood at the head of all this change: Ron Miller.


Ron Miller’s Hollywood career unfolds almost like a classic American success story. While attending UCLA, he met and fell in love with Diane Disney, Walt’s daughter. Diane was also in love with this young, handsome football star, and the two decided to marry. They did so in 1954, right before Miller was drafted into the U.S. Army.

After Miller completed his military service, he became a professional football player by joining the Los Angeles Rams. During one game, he caught a pass, only to be tackled from behind and knocked unconscious. Walt was at this particular game, and it concerned him to see his son-in-law laid out like that. At the end of the season, Walt approached Miller and asked him to leave football and work at Walt Disney Pictures instead. Miller readily agreed!

Miller began his Disney career by doing a variety of odd jobs, including directing Walt’s intro sketches for The Wonderful World Of Disney. However, after Miller nearly left the studio to star in a western TV series, Walt pulled his son-in-law back and started putting Miller in bigger producing positions.

After Walt’s passing, Miller continued producing in Disney’s live-action film division, working on such films as That Darn Cat!; Never A Dull Moment; Escape To Witch Mountain; Freaky Friday, and Pete’s Dragon. In 1978, Miller was made the head of Walt Disney Pictures, and he immediately started trying to take the studio in new directions.

That brings us to today’s Starlog article!


By February 1980, Miller’s first big experiment, the sci-fi film The Black Hole, had been released and was meeting a mixed response. However, since magazine issues are produced around six months to a year in advance, the magazine-makers were unaware of the response the movie was receiving. Therefore, Miller seems especially hopeful for the future – both of The Black Hole and his slate of upcoming experiments!

Miller starts the interview by discussing the reason for his experimentation: a desire to reach an audience that he felt remained untapped by Disney. At the time, Disney films had an unwarranted stigma of being sugary and “safe,” films that tried so hard to make their films family-friendly that they defanged the films for older audiences. I don’t agree with that blanket statement, but that assumption was a problem that needed to be addressed. I find Miller’s bold films to be a fascinating way of meeting that stigma!


In the next section of the interview, Miller addresses the angry letters that Walt Disney Pictures got after the premiere of The Black Hole. Miller shrugs them off with relative ease, saying that Walt got similar letters and reviews. While voicing concern over alienating all of Disney’s audience, he also basically says that, if you’re going to go to bold new places, you’re going to offend some people. If you’re going to succeed, you have to be prepared to deal with that. I totally agree!

Then, we come to what is, for me, the most fascinating part of the article: Miller’s plans for the (then) future! Many of the upcoming films he mentions came to fruition – Herbie Goes Bananas, Watcher In The Woods, The Last Flight Of Noah’s Ark, Midnight Madness, and Condorman, for instance. While most of those films bombed, I like that they exist for what they represent: a conscious effort to take Disney in a new direction. I really respect that.

What’s especially interesting to me, though, is one of the unrealized films he mentions: a sci-fi parody of Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, titled Snow Star. This project sounds a lot like current Disney flicks in a way that was really surprising to me. A lot of people are upset with Disney for remaking their animated classics and for making fun of their earlier films, and I count myself among that group. However, I’m now a lot less inclined to blame Bob Iger for this business model. It’s apparent that it was already being considered as early as 1980!


And now, we come to what I find the least interesting part of the article: the path The Black Hole took from page to screen. Generally, I’m interested in such tales, but this one failed to grab me for some reason. Maybe things just ran too smoothly during the production. Oh, well.

I’m really excited about this new Starlog Saturdays feature, and I’m especially excited that I was able to open this series with a Disney discussion. Please keep coming back for new installments, and let me know what you think in the comments below!


Starlog Bonus: Walt Disney holding a model of the Nautilus, Captain Nemo’s submarine from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea!


My Favorite Movie Trailers (That Don’t Show Any Of The Movie)


Like any other self-respecting film buff, I love trailers. However, like many of my fellow film buffs, I have a BIG reservation about how they’re put together.

In the early days of film marketing, trailers were marked by exclamatory phrases emblazoned across the screen. “SO TERRIFYING ONLY SCREAMS CAN DESCRIBE IT!” “THE BIGGEST BEST-SELLER OF OUR TIME REACHES THE SCREEN!” “THE MOST MOVING ROMANCE OF THE YEAR!” Those phrases were effective for their time, but they ultimately became a gag, an easy handle for filmmakers who wanted to emulate the era. It was time for something new.

Realizing that movies are called “motion pictures” for a reason, marketing departments became reliant on images and scenes to sell the movie. However, marketers ran into a problem, realizing that they had to show a great deal of the movie – practically revealing the whole story – to entice audiences. For that reason, studios turned to voice-over artists, people with distinctive voices who would verbalize the words that had once been written on-screen. At first, trailers still revealed most of the story – as this trailer for Deliverance shows – but marketers eventually came to discover the proper balance between image and verbals. All was well for a decade or two.

Sometime around 2005, however, film marketers decided that voice-over artists were old hat. Said marketers took voice-overs out of their trailers, leading them to the same old problem: showing almost all of the movie in order to sell it. We just don’t learn, do we?

However, there’s one brand of trailer that has largely avoided the trend of showing too much: the teaser. Why? Because they don’t have to show any of the movie at all!

Teasers arose from a problem: what to do when a film goes over schedule? Studio execs wanted to keep upcoming films on the public’s lips, and that meant creating a trailer. When a film was running overtime, however, that often meant that there was no footage ready to be cut into a trailer – nor the time to do so. When this occurred, the marketing department would get creative, crafting a trailer with footage entirely separate from the film. This sometimes meant that the stars would have to work an extra day or two, and the effects teams had to do a little overtime, but the resulting trailer would create huge rewards.

Many good trailers come from this batch of unique teasers. For example:

Christine (1983)

I know I just got done saying that many non-movie footage teasers came from troubled productions. Christine is an exception, though. By all accounts, this 1983 horror flick enjoyed a relatively smooth, trouble-free production. You guys are probably tired of hearing me talk about John Carpenter, but this smooth production is due to his confident, easygoing directorial hand.

However, Christine was to be released in tight conjunction with the novel’s release, and studio execs wanted to make sure these plans fell together correctly. For that reason, this short teaser was put together and placed in theaters – and I love it!

This teaser pulls a nice switcheroo, making it appear as if the trailer’s talking about a possessive human woman – until it’s obvious that they’re not. (I personally think the trailer reveals this surprise a little too early, but that’s a minor nitpick.) The voice-over does a great job evoking an ominous mood, and the jump scare provides a moment that sticks in the memory!

1941 (1979)

Man, you wanna talk about troubled productions? 1941 kind of takes the cake!

In 1977, Steven Spielberg could do anything he wanted. (Kind of like now.) After the twin blockbusters Jaws and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, every studio was eager to work with the wunderkind, especially Universal, the studio that gave him his start. What did Spielberg want to do? A project with three of the craziest men in Hollywood!

During the 1970s, Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale were considered wild young screenwriters, that reputation gained by the irreverent scripts they had placed in the Hollywood system. One of them – Bordello Of Blood – came to the attention of John Milius, the director affectionately called “The Viking Man” by his peers for his brash attitude, his adventures surfing, and for occasionally living like a mountain man in the hills. Milius liked Zemeckis & Gale’s style, and so the three decided to work on a script together. They crafted a sprawling comedy based on a true event: a false-alarm situation regarding a Japanese attack on Los Angeles during World War II. They called the script 1941.

Milius took the script to his friend Spielberg, who eagerly agreed to take the project. The project quickly spun out of control as the cast grew, new gags were added to the screenplay, and the special effects grew bigger and louder. The resulting film was a flop, but it’s a flop I kinda like. There are so many stars in the film and so many different kinds of jokes, there’s bound to be something for any audience member to enjoy!

As you’ve probably guessed, 1941 ran way over schedule, which threw Universal’s marketing department into a tizzy. Desperate to keep the upcoming film on audiences’ minds, the studio grabbed John Belushi, threw him into a plane, and gave him a monologue to memorize. The resulting trailer is definitely too non-PC to ever be heard in a theater now, but it is funny in a shocking sort of way. In that way, it’s a lot like 1941 itself!

Back To The Future (1985)

(There are cleaner versions of this trailer on YouTube, but I love these original 35 mm prints. The grain gives the video a great sense of personality!)

Speaking of Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, let’s talk about what’s probably their best-loved movie: Back To The Future!

Looking at Back To The Future today, it’s easy to think that the film enjoyed a smooth, easy path to the screen. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth! After the twin bombs of Zemeckis/Gale’s first two films – I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Used Cars – no studio wanted to work with the duo. Zemeckis realized that, if he and his partner needed to work again, they needed to break with Spielberg (he had produced both of their prior films) and they needed at least one success. Therefore, when the script for Romancing The Stone came into Zemeckis’s hands, he snapped it up. Romancing The Stone turned out to be the director’s first hit movie!

Suddenly hot, Zemeckis & Gale decided to dust off a script they had originally sent out in 1982: a comedy about a teen that goes back in time and interferes with his parents’ courtship. Originally, the script had been rejected by every studio in town; teen comedies were supposed to be raunchy at that time, but Back To The Future was too tame. However, after the success of Romancing The Stone, every studio wanted the screenplay. After some deliberation, though, Zemeckis and Gale decided to take the project to the one person who had liked the script from the beginning: Steven Spielberg! From then on, Spielberg was able to overcome the troubles that occasionally arose during production.

However, even with the combined heat of Zemeckis, Gale, and Spielberg, Back To The Future‘s success wasn’t a sure thing by any means. As we’ve mentioned, the successful teen comedies up to that point had been raunchier than Zemeckis/Gale/Spielberg’s time-travel adventure. Universal’s marketing team must have been aware of this, for they built a teaser entirely around the film’s three biggest selling points: the DeLorean, Michael J. Fox, and time travel.

Honestly, I think this whole teaser revolves around those last few seconds. The shoes walking up to the car and the lights inside are intriguing, but Michael J. Fox lifting those sunglasses and that exchange of dialogue is the clincher!

An American Werewolf In London (1981)

Hollywood studios are notorious for mis-marketing movies with mixed genres. (At least it seems that way to me!) Hollywood has issues with several combinations, but they’re particularly clumsy with comedy-dramas (Breaking AwayThe Family Man, and Bicentennial Man all have horrible trailers that totally fail to evoke the films’ tones) and horror-comedies. Hollywood studios can handle comedies with horror elements – Young Frankenstein, for instance – but what about movies that are both genuinely scary and genuinely funny? To be more specific, what about An American Werewolf In London?

John Landis – the director of our film in question – hates it when people call An American Werewolf In London a horror-comedy, so I’m going to apologize now. However, a horror-comedy is exactly what the film is! What else would you call a movie featuring zombies that talk like a college-age slob, a naked man running home with balloons covering his privates, and a werewolf having a semi-friendly chat with the ghosts of his victims? However, any film that features the infamous “subway attack” sequence and the initial “attack on the moors” scene has to be termed a horror film. An American Werewolf In London contains two very different tones, and it balances them well (with a selection of moon-related oldies for good measure)!

However, since horror and comedy are trying for very different reactions, they’re hard to mesh together in a short trailer. I’m sure Universal’s marketing team realized this, so they decided to avoid the issue of the two tones altogether. Instead, they focused on the one element that was a given: the werewolf itself. And, in doing so, they inadvertently created the screamer video! After all, what better way to get your audience’s attention than to make them jump?

Monsters, Inc. (2001)

Modern studios typically don’t make teasers like the ones we’ve been discussing, but Pixar is a glorious exception. Since animated films take three or four years to make, marketing teams at animation studios need to be creative in their marketing strategy. For much of their existence, Pixar’s plan has been to release teasers well before the films are released, ones that introduce the flick’s high-concept idea in an entertaining way. I knew that I needed to conclude this post with a Pixar teaser, but picking one proved to be a touch more difficult. I nearly went with The Incredibles‘s “getting the outfit on” teaser, but, ultimately, I went with Monsters, Inc.‘s original trailer!

What led me to cast the deciding vote? Well, let me take you back to the magical year 2000. The place is a stretch of Arizona interstate. I’m in my family’s Honda Odyssey, sitting in the back seats with my three younger sisters. Since the Odyssey was one of those awesome cars with the flip-down DVD screen in back, my sisters and I were watching Toy Story 2. For whatever reason, my sisters and I were totally okay with watching trailers on road trips, even though we didn’t always do so at home. At any rate, as we watched, the Monsters, Inc. trailer appeared on the screen. I was enraptured (and, as I recall, my sisters were, too). In fact, it may be the first time I realized how wonderful a teaser can be.

Watching this teaser after seeing the film, one may be tempted to point out the logic flaws it presents. Why is Mike in the room if he’s only Sully’s assistant? Why does Mike pick up the hula hoop if monsters believe that human children – and the things they touch – are toxic? Why do they use their slide card in the doorjamb, rather than in the electronic keypad at each door station? I don’t blame anyone for asking those questions; heck, I’ve asked them too as I’ve watched this.

However, Pixar realized that the most important thing a trailer must do is to get the audience interested in the characters. In order to that, Pixar was willing to shrug off the rules established in the film itself, and it paid off in spades. I can’t imagine anyone watching this teaser and coming away disliking Mike and Sully!


So what have we learned? Maybe not much, but hopefully we’ve all re-discovered how effective a teaser can be, if done well. Every good teaser is a reminder that, when it comes to advertising, less can be more!


My First Time (Quickie): ‘Assault On Precinct 13’ (1976)


I just watched this action classic for the first time today. Let me tell you about it!

Assault On Precinct 13 was only John Carpenter’s second movie, following his 1974 sci-fi comedy Dark Star. Carpenter originally intended to film Assault as a western, but the $100,000 budget meant the answer was no. As a result, Carpenter re-tooled the film to be a gritty police thriller set on the streets of L.A. That choice turned out to be an excellent one! The low budget forced Carpenter to take to the streets and use old-fashioned methods of filming, giving the flick a gritty, documentary-like vibe that I really love!

Besides, if it had been a western, it would have been even more obvious that Carpenter was borrowing heavily from one of his favorite films, Howard Hawks’s 1959 film Rio Bravo.


For those of you who don’t know what Rio Bravo is – although I’m sure most or all of you do – it’s a western that tells the story of four lawmen (John Wayne, Ricky Nelson, Dean Martin, and Walter Brennan) who fight to keep a murderer in their prison while the murderer’s gang attacks them. Carpenter took Rio Bravo‘s basic concept – a group of people confined by a gang that’s terrorizing the police – but he gave the structure ’70s touches that enhance the story.

For instance, in this case, the gang members want to kill not only the three cops in the building but the three convicts, too. To survive, the crooks and cops need to band together and come to trust each other, lending the movie another level of suspense. Also, unlike in Rio Bravo, there’s a sense that nobody is safe in this movie. The gang members will kill anyone who gets in their way (as evidenced by the infamous scene where they kill an ice-cream man and his young girl customer). Knowing the gang’s ruthlessness lends Assault On Precinct 13 a real sense of danger!


However, Carpenter kept one element of Hawks’s influence intact, and it’s the strongest point of the film: the characters. Carpenter took three classic Hawksian archetypes – the resourceful hero, the witty, independent woman, and the wisecracking tough guy – and placed them into the roles of police lieutenant, policewoman, and convict respectively. The three characters play together like gangbusters (no pun intended), with their sharp dialogue often creating sparks.

John Carpenter would make his most famous film – Halloween – two years later, and that’s the one most people cite as their favorite. It is good, but after today, I have to say that Assault On Precinct 13 might be my favorite. There’s something about the mixture of the documentary vibe, the tough-minded story, and the classic characters that I really responded to. 4.5 out of 5 stars from me!


Nostalgia Or Not? Looking At ‘Back To School’ (1986)


I don’t want you to think I’m a Luddite, but it does make me sad that advancing technology has done away with so many lovely quirks. For instance, the advent of streaming services – and, even earlier, DVD and Blu-Ray – have done away with the idea of the TV mix-VHS.

If you’re too young to remember VHS tapes, you’re probably too young to remember mixtapes, which makes explaining the mixed VHS a challenge. However, I shall endeavor to try. You see, back in the 1990s, if you had a crush on somebody, it was popular to send them a mixtape. Such mixtapes were a carefully curated selection of songs, chosen for the way they complemented each other. If you were sending the tape to someone you loved, you would pick songs that described the way you felt. However, music lovers would also assemble tapes for private listening, songs that centered around a common theme.

Cinephiles took the mixtape concept and put their own spin on it, using their VCR recorders. With the help of the week’s TV Guide, movie fans would pop a blank tape into their VCR and program the player to record programs from certain channels at certain times. When done with precision, the resulting double- or triple-features would act in the same way as a mixtape, with the films centering on a common theme. Sometimes, however, the tape would merely consist of several films mashed together with no rhyme or reason.

As a child of the ’90s, mixed VHSes played a role in my growth into a cinema lover. I only really curated one tape – a much-missed triple feature of Creepshow, Creepshow 2, and The Howling – but my parents had inadvertently created other mixed videos that came to mean a lot to me. There was a mash-up of the 1989 Sly Stallone action flick Lock-Up, Star Trek Generations, and episodes of The Brady Bunch. However, the one I loved most had only two films on it: Kindergarten Cop and the 1986 flick Back To School.

Back when I was young, I was a huge fan of Kindergarten Cop (still am, in fact), and that was the primary attraction the tape held for me. However, there were times that I didn’t feel like fast-forwarding through the first film on the tape, so I would watch Back To School. I always liked it, but, through continued exposure, I came to love it. So, when I found a DVD copy of it at Dollar General a week ago, I picked it up.

So, did Back To School hold up, or is it all nostalgia? Read on and I’ll tell you!

back to school

Thornton Melon (Rodney Dangerfield) and his son Jason (Keith Gordon) in Thornton’s first class.

The film begins in New York City circa 1940, as a young Thornton Melon (Jason Hervey, AKA Wayne on The Wonder Years) enters his father’s clothing shop. Thornton hands his father his lackluster report card. Thornton’s father tells his son about the importance of education, letting him know that without one, life is a lot harder.

Flash forward forty years. The adult Thornton (Rodney Dangerfield) never went to college, but he did follow in his father’s footsteps, re-tooling the clothing shop into a line of successful stores catering to taller and fatter individuals. Thornton is rich, he has a nice house, and his son Jason (Keith Gordon) is in college. However, all is not well in Thornton’s life: his second wife Vanessa (Adrienne Barbeau) is cheating on him, and Jason won’t come home due to a distaste for his stepmother. Things come to a head during a party, after which Thornton and Vanessa agree to separate. Left with nothing to do, Thornton and his chauffeur/bodyguard Lou (Burt Young) leave for Jason’s college.

Thornton arrives to find Jason discouraged. Jason has only one friend – the free-thinking, blue-haired Derek Lutz (Robert Downey, Jr.), but the two of them have no other friends. Jason is tormented by Chas (William Zabka), the preppy leader of the swim team from which Jason was cut. Jason has a crush on the popular Valerie Desmond (Terry Farrell), but he’s afraid to approach her. Wanting to help his son, Thornton decides to make the ultimate move to help his son. Making a deal with the college’s president (Ned Beatty), Thornton signs on as the college’s oldest freshman!


However, Thornton’s plan proves to have a few flaws. Thornton falls in love with his English professor, Diane Turner (Sally Kellerman), but he makes an enemy of Gordon Bombay (Paxton Whitehead), Diane’s suitor – and Thornton’s business professor. Jason quickly becomes annoyed with his father’s lazy attitude and feels overshadowed by his father’s growing popularity. Thornton is discouraged by these developments, but he’s determined to make this school year work – and to help his son.

The enjoy-ability of Back To School depends on how much you like Rodney Dangerfield. He’s in almost every scene, he has all the most memorable lines, and the film depends on his charm to carry the audience through the story. This is a classic Dangerfield schtick – a loud, brash guy drops into an upscale environment – and I happen to like this particular routine. Essentially, if you like this scene, you’ll like the whole film!

However, that’s not to say that Rodney Dangerfield is the only reason to see Back To School. In fact, one of the most fun parts of the film is to watch the vast array of character actors in the supporting roles! In fact, the film’s cast is essentially a murderer’s row of fine actors and fan favorites, including Robert Downey, Jr., Ned Beatty, Burt Young, M. Emmet Walsh, William Zabka, Sam Kinison, Sally Kellerman, Danny Elfman and his band Oingo Boingo, and even Kurt Vonnegut. None of these actors have as flashy a part as Dangerfield, but the filmmakers – including such all-stars as Chuck Russell (The Mask) and Harold Ramis – seemed to know that surrounding Dangerfield with talent would only make the film better. It works beautifully!

The script runs more on concept than on plot; the story draws most of its inspiration from variations on the basic joke of Rodney Dangerfield going to college. It also suffers from something I like to call Stand-Up Syndrome: most of Dangerfield’s lines consist of one-liners and little else. However, the script ensures that all the other characters have strong personalities that clash with Dangerfield’s in entertaining ways. It’s fun to watch the sparks fly, fun enough that it’s easy to forgive the flimsy character development.

Is Back To School a masterpiece? No. However, it’s hard to go in expecting one. Looking at the poster, it’s easy to see exactly what the movie is: one of the many high-concept ’80s comedies slapped together to make money off of a comedian’s popularity. Seen in that light, the film delivers in spades.

In other words, I don’t think it’s just nostalgia. Back To School passes!

 Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars


(REVIEW) ‘The Bodyguard’ (1992)

In the early 1970s, a twenty-something aspiring screenwriter named Lawrence Kasdan sat down with a plan to break into Hollywood. Realizing that studio executives were more likely to accept scripts tailored to movie stars, Kasdan focused his sights on his favorite star, Steve McQueen. Kasdan took the classic McQueen archetype and started crafting a thriller around the character, framing McQueen as a stoic hero assigned to protect a pop star from a stalker. Aware that one movie star role wasn’t enough to sell a screenplay, Kasdan tailored the pop star role to appeal to real-world divas. He titled the story The Bodyguard.

Upon completing his script, Kasdan sent it out among the studios, where it was rejected – 67 times. Eventually, however, Warner Bros. picked up the script, who offered the lead roles to Steve McQueen and Diana Ross. Unfortunately for WB’s plans, it was 1975, during McQueen’s famous hiatus from acting.


Steve McQueen, as he looked in 1975.

At this time, McQueen was the biggest box-office draw in the world. Unfortunately for studios, however, McQueen didn’t feel like working; at the time, riding motorcycles and spending time with his kids held more appeal. He didn’t want to officially retire, however, so McQueen and his agents threw a major barrier between the star and the studios. McQueen would read screenplays – but only if he was paid a large fee in advance. Then, even when studios or directors paid the fee, there was little to no chance that the star would take the role. During this time, McQueen rejected offers to appear in films like Dirty Harry, The Great Gatsby, A Bridge Too Far, First Blood, The Cannonball Run, The French Connection, Sorcerer, Jaws, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Apocalypse Now…

…And The Bodyguard.

Undeterred, Warner Bros. made another attempt to set The Bodyguard up, offering the McQueen role to Ryan O’Neal. O’Neal agreed to take the role, co-starring with his girlfriend, Diana Ross, who was still attached to the project. Things were going swimmingly, until O’Neal and Ross broke up. In light of this development, O’Neal and Ross left the project, saying that they couldn’t work together.

In the wake of O’Neal and Ross leaving, Warner Bros. shelved Kasdan’s script. Throughout the ’80s, Warner Bros. would occasionally try to revive the project, but to no avail.


Lawrence Kasdan with George Lucas, one of the two men who would jump-start his career.

Kasdan was disappointed, but he decided to move on. He crafted another screenplay – a Howard Hawks-ian screwball comedy titled Continental Divide  – and sent it into the marketplace, where it was noticed by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Spielberg and Lucas approached Kasdan and told him that he was their choice to script this little adventure movie they were prepping at Paramount. While Kasdan was writing Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Lucas approached Kasdan again, asking the writer to do a rewrite on The Empire Strikes Back. Kasdan agreed, and both projects went on to become massive successes. On the strength of those two successes, Kasdan became one of the hottest writers in the industry.

Flash forward five years. Lawrence Kasdan had directed two successful films – Body Heat and The Big Chill – and was working on another dream project, his western Silverado. During this time, one of Kasdan’s cowboys, a fresh-faced actor named Kevin Costner, discovered the Bodyguard script and loved it. Costner wanted to make the film right away, but this young kid didn’t have the clout to get a project going. Kasdan shrugged off the enthusiasm.


A young Kevin Costner in his first Kasdan project, 1985’s ‘Silverado.’

Then, in 1987, Costner made two back-to-back hits: No Way Out and The Untouchables.

In 1988, Costner made the smash baseball comedy Bull Durham, followed the following year by the successful baseball drama Field Of Dreams.

In 1990, Costner parlayed his newfound stardom into his directorial debut, a three-hour western titled Dances With Wolves. The film went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture (the first western to do so since 1931’s Cimarron).

During this time, Costner decided that it was time to revive The Bodyguard. Warner Bros. was only too happy to dust off this project for such a major star, and proposed a list of pop stars to share the screen with Costner. Costner, however, was adamant. He already knew who he wanted for the part: Whitney Houston.


The album Whitney Houston was recording while Costner was making ‘Silverado.’ 🙂

Warner Bros. was less than thrilled by this proposition, for one simple reason: Houston was a busy woman, and if she were cast in the film, the whole project would have to be put on hold. WB tried to take this tack with Costner, but the star was fine waiting; he had other projects, and he could busy himself while waiting for Houston. Warner Bros. reluctantly agreed; after all, Costner was making another film for them, too. The execs cast Houston and waited for her to become available. Costner, meanwhile, made Robin Hood: Prince Of Thievesanother massive success.

Eventually, Whitney Houston became available, and she, Costner, Kasdan, and director Mick Jackson came together to make The Bodyguard. The film was released in 1992 and was greeted by HUGE box-office numbers and mixed-to-negative reviews. When reviewing the film, critics always pointed out the lack of chemistry between Houston and Costner, as well as the melodramatic story.

Were those critics correct? Did the film deserve the derision it got then (and still occasionally gets today)? Let’s find out!



As the film opens, we visit the dressing room of pop superstar Rachel Marron (Whitney Houston). The table is adorned with makeup supplies, flowers, and gifts, including a doll. As we watch, the doll explodes, blowing the table to smithereens. This near-miss is enough to convince Rachel’s manager, Bill Devaney (Bill Cobbs) to hire a security professional to beef up Rachel’s protection. Bill ends up hiring Frank Farmer (Kevin Costner), a former Secret Service agent who left the job after the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan. Needing the money, Farmer takes the job.

Frank and Rachel clash almost immediately. Frank finds Rachel a spoiled diva, while Rachel thinks Frank’s security methods are overly paranoid. Frank tries to quit, but Bill and Rachel’s current bodyguard, Tony (Mike Starr), take Frank aside and notify him that, unbeknownst to Rachel, she’s being watched by a stalker who has sent threatening notes and even broken into her home. Seeing that Rachel’s current security crew is no match for such a stalker, Frank sticks with the job.

After Rachel has a phone conversation with the stalker, Tony and Bill come clean with her. Realizing that Frank is the only bodyguard she has that has the skill to keep this enemy away from her, she agrees to follow Frank’s security protocols. As the two work together, Rachel and Frank come to respect each other – and maybe fall in love.


The script has some logic flaws (if your dressing room exploded, wouldn’t that be a hint that MAYBE someone was after you?), but, overall, Kasdan’s script is a solid, well-built piece of work. Kasdan has stated that, after several failed rewrites by other authors, Mick Jackson and Kevin Costner went back to the original 1975 draft and shot it pretty much word-for-word. Upon learning this, it’s especially incredible to see how sturdy Kasdan’s story is, knowing that this was his first professional effort.

The Bodyguard‘s script isn’t flashy, but it gets the job done in an efficient, entertaining way. Plot points come along at a decent pace, and there are plot twists that genuinely surprise. I also love how the character development is woven into the story with memorable scenes that stick in the mind’s eye. One of my favorite scenes in the film takes place outside a movie theater, where Rachel and Frank have just stepped out of Yojimbo, Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 samurai film. This exchange takes place:

RACHEL: “Well, it didn’t look like he wanted to die to me.”
FRANK: “He doesn’t want to die, but he’s not afraid of death.”

With that one line, you immediately know that the samurai’s code is Frank’s philosophy, as well. Rachel also gets several character moments that show us what’s going on in her mind. With these character moments, we grow to respect and understand Frank and Rachel as they do the same with each other.


Both of our leads are wonderful, but Kevin Costner’s performance stood out most strongly to me. It’s obvious to me that Costner knew The Bodyguard‘s history, for the actor’s channeling Steve McQueen in every scene of the film.

McQueen was famous for slashing tons of lines from his character’s roles, saying things like “Nope. I’ll say all this with my eyes.” For that reason, McQueen became famous for playing the man of few words, the guy who was so tough that he didn’t feel the need to call attention to himself. Costner tries this, using his eyes and face to convey emotions without dialogue. He doesn’t pull it off as well as McQueen, but it does have an effect.

And then there’s the late Whitney Houston, who didn’t need to act. She was already living Rachel Marron’s life. Houston takes her own experience and attitudes and gives them to Rachel, and they’re a perfect fit. There’s a natural ease to Houston’s performance that only a professional singer could’ve brought to the role, and I really appreciate that!

Let me sum things up: I liked The Bodyguard A LOT. It’s the kind of slick, intimate thriller that was popular in the 1990s, with a very ’70s-feeling section in a cabin in the woods. As a nostalgic person who loves thrillers, this time warp was just what the doctor ordered. If you haven’t seen this film, please do!

Final Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

My First Time: Watching ‘The Absent-Minded Professor’ (1961)


By 1961, Walt Disney Productions had become a bigger juggernaut than even a visionary like Walt could have imagined. The animation branch – the studio’s bread and butter from the beginning – was riding a massive wave of creativity, bringing us fantastic films like Peter PanCinderella, and, most recently, 101 Dalmatians. The studio’s TV series Walt Disney Presents was pulling down big numbers each Friday night on ABC, and, before the end of the year, the show would re-name itself Walt Disney’s Wonderful World Of Color and move to Sunday nights on NBC. And then there was the studio’s biggest money-maker, Disneyland, drawing tons of visitors to Anaheim, CA year after year.

And then there was Disney’s live-action division, which is what brings us together today!

By the ’60s, Disney’s live-action films had found a formula that proved to be both popular and profitable. For their dramas, the modus operandi was to find a book beloved by children and adults and adapt it to film. The most famous examples of this include Old Yeller, Treasure Island, and, probably best of all, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea.

With comedies, however, the concept was to come up with a goofy concept and build a story to serve it. This formula’s results are a little more scattershot than the dramas, but Disney comedies of the period were certainly distinctive and very much of their time!

Disney pumped out so many comedies during the 1960s that it’s hard to pick one to cover – and, over the course of this series, I’ll probably discuss several. However, few movies are more indicative of this formula than The Absent-Minded Professor!


The professor of the film’s title is Ned Brainard (Fred MacMurray), a good-natured, likable science teacher at the Medfield College Of Technology. At first glance, he seems to have the perfect life: a cushy job, a comfortable home, and a loving fiance, Betsy Carlisle (Nancy Olson). However, things aren’t as rosy as they seem. Brainard, while beloved by the students, is in the doghouse with the college faculty for the costly repairs required after his class mishaps. By the same token, his home has also borne its brunt of explosions. Saddest of all, however, is the fact that Betsy is becoming irritated with her fiancee after Brainard has missed several wedding ceremonies. In fact, things have gotten so bad between Ned and Betsy that a new suitor (Elliott Reed) has come between them.

However, Ned’s luck takes a turn for the better when one of his lab accidents results in a new discovery! After waking up from an explosion, Ned sees a metal container floating in the air. Ned opens the container to find a rubbery substance inside. Ned forms a piece of it into a ball. Soon, he makes a strange discovery: instead of losing energy and height with each bounce, the ball gains, bouncing higher each time! Searching for a name for this new material, Ned fuses the words ‘flying’ and ‘rubber’ to create FLUBBER!

Excited over his discovery and what it could mean for Medfield College, Ned runs to tell Betsy all about what’s happened. Sadly, however, Betsy wants nothing more to do with Ned, and the new suitor’s only too eager to tear Ned down in Betsy’s eyes. Now determined to win Betsy back as well as help the college, Ned sets out to show the world what flubber can do, placing it on the heels of basketball players’ shoes and using it to make his Model T fly!


Unfortunately, none of these events help Ned win Betsy’s heart. However, flubber does come to the attention of Alonzo Hawk (Keenan Wynn), a rich alumnus of Medfield College. Hawk has turned against Medfield, however, planning to foreclose on the college and sell it off to land developers. Aware that flubber could put the college back on solid financial ground, Hawk sets out to disprove Ned’s claims and keep his plans rolling.

A plot like this is par for the course for Disney live-action of the period, in terms of its goofy concept and amiable vibe. This is probably to be expected, since the screenwriter, Bill Walsh, penned many Disney films during this period, creating that period’s Disney style.

Basically, The Absent-Minded Professor feels like a ’50s sitcom dialed up to 11. The situations are zany, the characters are larger-than-life, and things move at about a million miles an hour. It’s fun enough, I suppose, but it’s a touch too nuts for my taste.


That brings us to the acting, and the two brightest spots in the film. Who are those bright spots? Why, they’re Fred MacMurray and Keenan Wynn!

Fred MacMurray is simply WONDERFUL as Ned Brainerd. Brainerd was probably a deceptively difficult role to play; While he’s our hero, he also makes some decisions that make you want to shout at the screen, and his absent-mindedness gets him into situations that made me wince. In the hands of another actor, those moments may have made Ned a hard character to follow. MacMurray, however, infuses his performance with a sense of friendliness, humor and natural charm that made me like Ned Brainerd. Yes, he inadvertently makes maddening mistakes that cost him dearly. However, Brainerd’s likable qualities are what made his hardships so hard to watch. Mission accomplished, I guess!

Keenan Wynn also does a good job as Alonzo Hawk, largely because he seemed to take the part seriously. A lot of the acting in The Absent-Minded Professor feels overly light and fluffy, as if the actors considered a zany comedy to not be worth their best work. Not Keenan Wynn, though! Being the professional that he was, he took this slightly over-the-top villainous role and played it totally straight. By not mugging for the camera, Wynn gives this crazy story the anchor in reality it desperately needed!

Flying car pretty

Three years after The Absent-Minded Professor was released, Walt Disney Pictures would release Mary Poppins, a Technicolor extravaganza of music, big stars, and – maybe most importantly – lots of visual effects. Looking at both films, I’ve come to the conclusion that Disney’s effects crew saw Professor as a dry run for Poppins, using many of the same effects they would use in 1964.

Now, not all of those effects hold up as well as the ones in Mary Poppins; a few of the process shots of Ned Brainerd’s flying Model T look a little dated, and the bouncing basketball players look fake at certain points. However, there are a few BEAUTIFUL long shots of the Model T in mid-air – flying across lovely matte paintings of clouds – that make all the clunky effects worthwhile. Those choice shots are one of my favorite things about the film!

So what’s to be done with The Absent-Minded Professor? Well… not a whole lot, actually. It definitely doesn’t need to be punished; despite its flaws, it’s still a decent little comedy, an okay way to spend an hour in a half. However, those aforementioned flaws keep it from rising above a run-of-the-mill 1960s comedy. Still, if you’re bored on a lazy afternoon and you want something to watch, you could do worse!

Final Rating: 3 out of 5 stars


My First Time: Watching ‘My Bodyguard’ (1980)

MPW-18029 (1).jpg

Welcome to My First Time, a series where I review classic films (1930s -1990s) as I see them for the first time. Check back weekly for new installments!

People often say that high school should count among the best years of our lives, and, in many ways, they can. Those years between 14 and 18 are the last years of our childhood before the full load of adult responsibilities set in. With football games, school dances,  first dates, and all the small memories that come between those milestones, high school can be a warm, happy time.

However, as we grow older, it can be easy to forget that teenage years can be fraught with turmoil. During those years, the pressure to fit in and to be popular is strong. If one’s unfortunate enough to deviate from the norm, one can be vulnerable to attacks from others. As if that weren’t enough, our bodies choose that particular time to go CRAZY, bringing us wonders like the zit, changing voices, an outcropping of facial hair, and other changes. Such things can make teens feel more awkward than they already do. Then there’s the emotional changes, bringing stronger interest in the opposite sex and more intense feelings.

How can we adults stay in touch with those experiences and emotions? Well, movies can be an excellent way. In my opinion, the best teen movies are the ones that remind us of the challenges, experiences, sadness, and joys that every teenager faces, helping us to experience them again and, therefore, enabling us to empathize with others.

When it comes to great teen movies, John Hughes’s name usually comes up first. This is as it should be. Hughes’s magnificent run of teen-oriented films in the ’80s (including Ferris Bueller’s Day OffSixteen Candles, and The Breakfast Club, among others) popularized the sub-genre, paving the way for good films like Three O’Clock High, Clueless, and Easy A.

However, while John Hughes was the one to popularize the modern teen movie, he wasn’t the one to invent it. One of the more popular pre-Hughes films is Tony Bill’s 1980 directorial debut, My Bodyguard!


Clifford Peache (Chris Makepeace) lives in a posh suite in Chicago’s Ambassador East hotel with his dad (Martin Mull), the hotel’s manager, and his daffy grandma (Ruth Gordon). Clifford’s been attending an upscale private school, but this year – his sophomore year of high school – Clifford moves to a public school. On his first day, Clifford arrives in a hotel limousine, immediately setting him apart from his classmates.

Before the day is over, Clifford runs afoul of the school bully, Melvin Moody (Matt Dillon), and his gang. Moody corners Clifford in the bathroom and tries to extort Clifford’s daily lunch money. Moody tells Clifford this will serve as protection money; if Clifford pays, Moody will protect Clifford from Ricky Linderman (Adam Baldwin), a quiet outcast rumored to have raped teachers and killed people. Clifford refuses to give up his money. Angry at Clifford’s defiance, Moody and his gang begin terrorizing Clifford on a daily basis.

At the end of his rope, Clifford works up the courage to approach Ricky. Clifford asks Ricky to be his bodyguard. Ricky is initially reluctant, but takes on the job just for the money. What begins as a business transaction, however, turns into a friendship as Clifford and Ricky restore a motorcycle together.

Clifford comes to realize that Ricky isn’t the psychopath legend colors him to be; rather, Ricky is a shy teen who feels immense guilt over a childhood event. Together, Clifford and Ricky discover that they’re kindred spirits. Moody, however, isn’t going to take this bodyguard business lying down, and he’s plotting his revenge.


My Bodyguard is marked by great performances from top to bottom, but Adam Baldwin is especially great as Ricky, the bodyguard of the title. Baldwin carefully modulates his performance from scene to scene, moving from a silent supposed-psychopath to the sweet, damaged character we see at the end of the film. Baldwin displays a wide range of emotions, building from sullenness to a state of quiet happiness as he comes out of his shell, only to be reduced to tears as he’s overwhelmed by his guilt and fear, and, at the end, a sense of closure and renewed happiness. Baldwin’s performance is a thing of beauty, and it’s even more remarkable that it’s his screen debut!

Chris Makepeace is also great as Clifford. I think Makepeace was probably cast for his looks – he certainly fits the part of a sensitive, slightly well-to-do teen – but he also brings skill to the role. He seems to play the role almost effortlessly, trading witty barbs with characters and sharing caring words with others. Clifford is likable almost from the first minute we meet him, and Makepeace’s quiet skill makes it so!

The role of Moody isn’t as fleshed-out as Clifford or Ricky, but Matt Dillon makes a real impression as the bully. He’s relentless as he picks on Clifford and the other students, and Dillon really sells us on the idea that Moody enjoys being the bully.

Before we move on, I have to give major props to Joan Cusack’s work in a small but heartbreaking role, Ruth Gordon’s flawless comedic performance as Clifford’s eccentric grandmother, and Martin Mull as Clifford’s well-meaning but harried dad. Great work from everyone, as I said!


Of course, none of these actors could have done their work if it weren’t for Alan Ormsby’s script. My Bodyguard is an anomaly in Ormsby’s career, which primarily consists of horror movies. It’s a shame that he never returned to teen movies, because he has a real gift for the genre! It’s obvious that Ormsby was in touch with his teenage experiences, because watching the movie vividly brings back similar emotions in myself.

Anyone who’s been bullied remembers the feelings of being trapped in the situation, of the hopelessness. The bullying situations Ormsby places in the script brought those same feelings – emotions I hadn’t felt since middle school – back, helping me empathize with Clifford. I also had a chance to connect with Ricky as he breaks down and confesses the sense of guilt he always feels. As someone who struggles with anxiety and self-loathing, my heart went out to Ricky. I credit Ormsby’s script for helping me feel that way!

Working with his crew, director Tony Bill turned the script into a teen movie with a very unique look! It’s especially interesting to compare the look of My Bodyguard with that of John Hughes’s later films, since they all take place in Chicago and the surrounding area. Where Hughes’s movies paint Chicago as a slightly larger-than-life wonderland, My Bodyguard goes for a muted, realistic look that fits well with the tone of the script. You can see what I mean here!

If you watched the video, you also heard part of Dave Grusin’s lovely score. Grusin is primarily known as a virtuoso pianist, and his most famous scores (On Golden Pond, The Firm) rely heavily on that instrument. However, Grusin was also good when working with other instruments, and My Bodyguard‘s score is a prime example! The music manages to capture both a sense of wonder and a feeling of melancholy, which fits well with the overall tone of the film. The main theme is also wonderful to listen to on its own (which I’ve done often since seeing the movie)!

It’s important to grow more mature as we get older, but it’s also important never to forget the experiences and feelings that brought us to where we are. If we keep in touch with those emotions, we’ll find that it’ll make us better people, and we’ll also be able to help the next generation along as they strive for adulthood. Thoughtful, funny teen films like My Bodyguard can help us keep in touch with those youthful emotions. Nothing wrong with that!

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

My First Time: Watching ‘They Live’ (1988)

they_live_xlg (2)

Welcome to My First Time, a series where I review classic films (1930s -1990s) as I see them for the first time. Check back weekly for new installments!

It’s tough to be a horror fan. I enjoy the genre – and have since my Goosebumps-reading days – but liking scary stories carries a certain stigma with it. Fortunately, I’ve never encountered much opposition. Sadly, though, one often hears stories of fellow horror fans having their passion rebuked with a distasteful sneer and an utterance of “You actually LIKE that stuff?”

To be fair, I can understand where that distaste for horror comes from. Let’s admit it: a lot of horror films are smutty, overly gory, and just plain gross. After 1978’s Halloween (actually not a bad film), a wave of slasher movies hit the screen, all featuring promiscuous teens, gory deaths, and killers that we’re encouraged to root for. Allow me to be clear: aside from a couple good exceptions (Halloween and the parts of Scream that I’ve seen), I dislike those movies. They give horror a bad name.

What’s especially sad is that bad horror films cause some to reject the whole horror genre, and that’s a shame. That means missing out on great stuff like Stephen King novels, Boris Karloff’s TV series Thriller, the first two film adaptations of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, Michael Jackson’s Thriller music video, 1963’s The Haunting

…And John Carpenter’s They Live!


Nada (Roddy Piper), our fearless hero.

As They Live begins, we meet John Nada (Roddy Piper), a drifter making his way into Los Angeles. After getting a job at a construction company, Nada meets fellow worker Frank Armitage (Keith David), who befriends Nada and takes him to a soup kitchen near a shantytown. While at the kitchen, Nada becomes intrigued by strange activity revolving around the nearby church: a preacher standing outside the church and vehemently urging people to “wake up,” as well as another drifter claiming that his TV signal is often jammed by another signal from the church.

Nada enters the church building, only to realize that the building isn’t a house of worship; rather, the place is filled with scientific and broadcasting equipment. Nada discovers a false panel in a wall and moves it aside, revealing a cardboard box. He reaches for it, but stops when the preacher notices him. That night, the “church” is inexplicably raided by the police. Nada returns the next morning to find the building empty – except for the box hidden in the walls. Nada snatches the box, runs to an alley, and opens it, uncovering… lots of sunglasses.

Nada slips on a pair and immediately notices some strange things. First, the sunglasses force the wearer to see their surroundings in black-and-white. Second, all magazines and signs have been stripped of their usual images, replaced with messages like STAY ASLEEP, WATCH TV, CONFORM, and NO INDEPENDENT THOUGHT. Third (and definitely most disturbing), Nada discovers that a solid percentage of the people on Earth aren’t people at all; rather, they’re aliens who look like zombies.


The world in sunglass-vision.

Rather than being frightened, Nada becomes aggressive, confronting two aliens in a grocery store and killing most of the aliens in a bank. Unfortunately, this brings him to the aliens’s attention, as well as placing him on the police’s radar. Desperate for a place to hide, Nada hijacks a car, forcing Holly Thompson (Meg Foster) to take him to her apartment. After hearing Nada’s crazy-sounding story, however, Holly takes matters into her own hands. Catching Nada unawares, Holly pushes him out the window of her second or third-story apartment. However, Nada survives.

Nada returns to the alley he left the glasses in and retrieves them, only to encounter Frank. (Remember Frank, Nada’s construction-worker friend?) Nada wants Frank to put on a pair of the glasses, but Frank, believing Nada’s just a crazy shooter, wants no part of it. After a famous six-minute fist-fight sequence, Nada slips a pair of glasses on Frank, waking him up to the true state of the world. Now on the same side, Frank and Nada team up to put an end to the aliens’s rule once and for all!


Our Dynamic Duo! (Left: Keith David as Frank; Right: Roddy Piper as Nada.)

If I had to describe They Live‘s plot in one sentence, I’d say, “What if an ’80s action hero dropped into the middle of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers?” There’s a lot of humor and horror inherent in that situation, and writer/director John Carpenter understood that. As he adapted Ray Nelson’s story “Eight O’Clock In The Morning” into the They Live script, it’s obvious that Carpenter (under the pen name Frank Armitage) took care to balance the action-oriented, horrific, and comedic elements of the story. He succeeded remarkably well!

This balance is easiest to see in our lead character. John Nada is a perfect example of what I call the “Carpenter Horror Hero:” a brave person who, rather than cower in fear of the evil confronting them, immediately decides to stand and fight back! John Carpenter had made a definitive statement on this hero in his 1982 film The Thing. Where it was serious in The Thing, however, Carpenter does it more playfully here. While Nada is scared of what’s going on, he also finds time to drop a number of ’80s-action-hero one-liners. Some of my favorites include:

“Mama don’t like tattletales.”
“Come to show them where I am, huh? NOT NICE!”

And, most famously (one swear word in this one, so be warned):

Even with all this humor, horror, and action, John Carpenter also manages to share an important theme, warning against conformity, group-think, and the power of the media. Not bad for a little genre movie!

That brings us to the acting. If you saw the video above, you could probably tell that Roddy Piper wasn’t the greatest actor in the world. Heck, you don’t have to be when you’re a WWF superstar! However, like another wrestler-turned-actor named Dwayne Johnson, Piper is fine when he’s given something in his wheelhouse. The role of John Nada is perfectly crafted to fit Piper’s strengths; all it requires is swagger and a strong physical presence. Piper delivers both of those things in spades! It doesn’t matter that he reads his lines a little flatly; Nada is a classic B-movie hero, so an in-depth interpretation isn’t needed.

Keith David cleans house as Frank, but I was expecting that! He’s not quite as physically strong as Roddy Piper, but he exudes a sense of sturdiness and toughness with every line he delivers. He gives my favorite performance of the three leads!

I wish I could say Meg Foster did a good job, too, but I cannot tell a lie. She’s just as bad with line delivery as Roddy Piper, but her role isn’t accommodating like Piper’s role. It also doesn’t help that she almost ALWAYS has the same look on her face, regardless of the situation.


See this expression? Get used to it. You’ll be seeing it often!

I didn’t want to wrap up this article without talking about the score, which was composed by John Carpenter and Alan Howarth. Carpenter often writes the scores for his films, and they’re famous for being simple, electronically-based, and keyboard-driven. That wouldn’t work for every film, but they fit Carpenter’s brand of movie perfectly! For They Live, however, Carpenter brought in Alan Howarth to help, and you can hear his influence. Carpenter’s electronic base is still there, but Howarth (I’m assuming) adds bluesy guitar stings that give the music such a unique flavor. It’s unlike any horror score that I’ve ever heard!

Like I said at the beginning of this review, horror gets a bad rep, and it’s often deserved. However, gems like They Live are what make dipping into the genre worthwhile. The balanced mixture of action, horror, and comedy make it truly unique, and the themes are worth picking up on. They Live is totally worth your time!

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars




My First Time: Watching ‘Father Goose’ (1964)


Welcome to My First Time, a new series where I review classic films (1930s – 1990s) as I see them for the first time. Check back often for new installments!

Several directors live and die by the maxim that every successful movie requires only two things: a good script and a well-chosen cast. I agree with that. Personally, when I watch a film, I’m not kept in my seat by the cinematography, editing, or score (although I can and do appreciate greatness in those things); rather, I’m hooked by an intriguing story and well-drawn characters. These elements are laid out on the page, and the actors embody them on the screen.

How important is the cast to a film? Well, it’s so important that one miscalculated casting choice can derail a movie. Sadly, I feel like that happened with 1964’s Father Goose.


Cary Grant, all grizzled up for his role. See how the charm still shines through?

Father Goose begins as Walter Eckland (Cary Grant), a boozy, uncouth beach bum, pilots his boat up to a harbor on a south Pacific island near his home. World War II is in full swing, and as a result, the harbor has been re-purposed as a military outpost. Eckland docks and proceeds to mooch barrels of fuel off the pier, something he’s often done. This time, however, it attracts the attention of a British naval officer, who informs his superior, Commander Haughton (Trevor Howard).  Haughton sees Eckland – who he knows from pre-War days – and an idea flashes into his mind!

Haughton tells Eckland that his boat will be impounded – unless Eckland volunteers to become a spotter, living on a seemingly deserted island and reporting Japanese plane and ship movements to the Navy. Eckland doesn’t like the idea, but he also wants to keep his boat. Eckland reluctantly agrees to take the job. Eckland spends the next couple weeks begrudgingly doing the job.

One day, Haughton radios Eckland with good news: Haughton has found a replacement spotter for Eckland, but Eckland has to pick him up from another island. Eckland eagerly heads to the island, but when he gets there, he finds a freshly-dug grave and a bullet-riddled shack. While investigating the scene, Eckland makes another discovery: a teacher, Catherine Freneau (Leslie Caron), and seven schoolgirls! The eight ladies were dropped on the island not long before, from a plane under attack.


Cary Grant and his fellow islanders!

Eckland agrees to take Ms. Freneau and the schoolgirls back to his island and protect them until help can come. Almost immediately after arriving on the island, Eckland and his rough personality begin clashing with Ms. Freneau’s prim, upper-crust lifestyle. Comic hijinks ensue as Eckland struggles to co-exist with the schoolgirls and Ms. Freneau, and vice versa!

All of this makes for a perfectly solid story. We’ve seen the “seedy man clashes with prim woman” trope many times (The African Queen probably being the most-acclaimed example). However, Peter Stone, Frank Tarloff, and S.H. Barnett’s script does a decent job keeping these ancient plot devices watchable. My favorite thing about the script is that it doesn’t let the comedy detract from the fact that there’s a war on. There are moments of genuine peril when Japanese patrols land on the island, and I love those parts of the film.

The juxtaposition of war and comedy also makes for one memorable visual. During the opening sequence, we see Cary Grant idly cruising toward a island shore, listening to pop music as explosions appear on land. There’s not an actual battle going on, but the shot is a striking one. It’s definitely not something you see every day!

Now, however, we come to the casting.

More than once, Cary Grant stated that Walter Eckland was one of his all-time favorite roles. He also claimed that Eckland embodied his real personality more than any other part he played. I love those statements, and it’s easy to see that Grant’s having fun with the role, putting everything he has into it. Even with all that effort and energy, though, Grant isn’t convincing in the role. We’ve seen so many movies with Cary Grant as a debonair smooth-talker or a cocky, boyish hero that it’s hard to buy him as a scruffy, un-mannered, boozing beachcomber. That’s not Grant’s fault by any means; like I said, he’s doing his best. There’s just no way for Walter Eckland to come out from Cary Grant’s persona!

The script does give Grant some action-hero stuff to do in the third act, and it’s fun to watch. Grant only occasionally got to do any Indiana Jones-style heroics. I never knew he was so good at it!

Trevor Howard does a solid job with the thankless straight-guy role of Commander Haughton, providing a good foil to the comic craziness happening on the island. The young girls do well with their roles; they’re fun to watch as they react to Grant’s comic stylings. Unfortunately, the other lead, Leslie Caron, doesn’t do much with her role. She’s okay, but she seems to be phoning it in.

Father Goose 1964 07 Cary Grant.JPG

Grant, right before he goes into action-hero mode. (This is my favorite moment in the film!)

All things considered, Father Goose is a solid, inoffensive family film. Aside from Cary Grant’s miscasting and Leslie Caron’s lack of real acting, I have no complaints. It’s not a world-beater of a film, but it won’t make you want to gauge your eyes out, either. In fact, it might be a good way to introduce kids to Cary Grant and his body of his work! It’s definitely something to consider!

Final Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5







Continue reading