The Perfect Halloween TV Lineup

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Lots of people talk about horror movies during the Halloween season, and I understand that. Movies are still the biggest storytelling canvas at our disposal, and most of our best horror stories come from that medium. I talk about scary films during Halloween, and I don’t plan on stopping.

However, for me, no storytelling medium embodies the Halloween season more than television. Halloween has never just been about scares to me; there’s also an element of fun and cheesiness that needs to be in a story to feel Halloween-y. Most television shows used to have this feeling (before The Sopranos came along, making TV more prestigious).

Therefore, instead of giving you a great double feature to enjoy on Halloween night, I’m going to recommend a lineup of classic television episodes (along with a few runners-up to substitute as you see fit). It’s my hope that these four TV shows help get you into the Halloween spirit!

These episodes are organized by the years the TV series debuted. Initially, I was unsure about this method, but I discovered that it actually made for a nice balance of tone. We begin and end with comedic half-hour episodes, and in between we find two hour-long shows with more intense stories. I really like how this turned out!

And now, without further ado, away we go!

“Fright Night” – The Brady Bunch (Season 4/episode 6)

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When I’m feeling stressed out, The Brady Bunch serves as my TV comfort food. I’m aware that it’s not the best show to hit the airwaves; a lot of the jokes try too hard, the show has an overall cheap look to it, and the plots are the hokey ones we’ve some to know from sitcoms before and after the Bradys. However, I don’t like The Brady Bunch despite that cheesiness; I like the show because of it. That cheesiness is also what makes “Fright Night” a prime candidate for inclusion in this lineup!

There are better Brady episodes that feature scary elements (“The Slumber Caper” and “To Move Or Not To Move,” for instance), but those episodes use scares as a small piece in a larger story, not as the centerpiece of the tale. “Fright Night” is all about an escalating scare-prank contest between the Brady boys and the Brady girls, building to a big one against Alice, the Bradys’ housekeeper. It’s mindless fun, and that’s perfect for Halloween!

“Go To The Head Of The Class” – Amazing Stories (Season 2/episode 8)

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Amazing Stories was one of many anthology series that cropped up in the 1980s, hoping to tap into the nostalgia people felt for The Twilight Zone. The best of this bunch of shows was, appropriately, the 1985 Twilight Zone revival, but each of them gave us a handful of stories that burn themselves into the memory. The most star-studded of these series was probably Amazing Stories, largely due to the fact that Steven Spielberg was producing it. Spielberg’s name brought a bunch of A-list filmmakers to television, including Joe Dante, Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, and Robert Zemeckis, who directed the episode we’ll be talking about today!

“Go To The Head Of The Class” tells the story of two high-schoolers (Scott Coffey and Mary Stuart Masterson) who have incurred the wrath of one of the strictest teachers in school (Christopher Lloyd). After being embarrassed by this teacher, our two students decide to get revenge, using occult methods to do so. However, things get out of hand when a spell goes wrong…

My plot synopsis is pretty simple, but it’s really the details that make “Go To The Head Of The Class” fun. Zemeckis and his writing partner, Bob Gale, use their hour-length time slot to construct a sophisticated story, with lots of plot points, black humor, and cool set pieces. The episode also has a level of production value that one usually doesn’t see in ’80s television, especially in the graveyard sequence. It’s a great-looking episode, and it has a solid story to go along with it!

“The Boogieman” – Quantum Leap (Season 3/episode 5)

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I haven’t discussed Quantum Leap often, but it’s one of my all-time favorite TV shows. For those who haven’t seen the show, it tells the story of Dr. Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) as he travels through time, jumping into people’s lives and righting things that once went wrong. Beckett is assisted in this time-traveling quest by Al Calavicci (Dean Stockwell), a U.S. Navy Rear Admiral in charge of the Quantum Leap Project, which is what’s causing Beckett to travel through time. With the help of a hologram version of Al and the supercomputer Ziggy, Beckett goes about putting things right – and striving to find a way home.

That basic framework allowed Quantum Leap to explore all kinds of stories, genres, and time periods, and that’s what I love most about the show. No two episodes are alike, and that variety makes the show both episodic and binge-able, a hallmark of great TV storytelling.

I should confess that I haven’t seen “The Boogieman” in a few years, so I can’t go into heavy detail about the plot. However, the colorful vibe of the episode’s haunted house sticks in my memory, as well as the surprising ending. I’m sorry I can’t reveal more, but the atmosphere in this episode is fun, and the buildup to the final twist is really impressive. Give it a try!

“The Haunting Of Taylor House” – Home Improvement (Season 2/episode 6)

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No other actor says “holidays” to me more than Tim Allen. That’s probably because Christmas movies are the most prominent in the holiday cinematic pantheon, and Allen headlines one of my favorites: The Santa Clause. However, Allen made a big impression on Halloween, too, through his ’90s smash sitcom Home Improvement. The show isn’t really talked about today, but it’s still admired for its Halloween episodes. Almost every October, the Home Improvement crew would bring out their A-game, creating an episode that captured the scary-but-fun spirit of Halloween.

My favorite Home Improvement episode is “The Haunting Of Taylor House,” which aired in the show’s second season. The plot of the episode revolves around a Halloween party at the Taylor house, where the oldest Taylor son, Brad (Zachery Ty Bryan) experiences romantic troubles with his crush, Jennifer Sudarsky (Jessica Wesson). I’m not going to say anymore about the plot, though, because that’s not why I love this episode.

What do I love about this episode, then? Well, I love the Halloween party. I love the banter between the characters, and the array of fantastic costumes. I’m also a big fan of the haunted basement Tim Taylor builds, which serves as the background to a pretty funny finale. It’s definitely the atmosphere that makes “The Haunting Of Taylor House” worth watching!

…And, with the end of that episode, you’ve watched three hours of great Halloween television. As I said at the beginning of this article, I think the true Halloween spirit consists of a mixture of scares and cheesiness. It’s my hope that this lineup – or at least this article – brings a little of that mixture to your Halloween season!

Honorable Mentions (feel free to mix and match these into the above lineup, or any other episode you wish!): “The Beast In The Black” (The Greatest American Hero, season 6/episode 2); “Doug’s Halloween Adventure” (Doug, season 4/episode 4); “Welcome To My Nightmare” (Amazing Stories, season 2/episode 4); any episode of Beyond Belief: Fact Or Fiction? (1997-2002)

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Five Awesome Horror-Related Commercials

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Happy Halloween! This article is the first of what will hopefully end up being a series of articles leading up to October 31st. I hope you enjoy them!

This particular article ended up being less Halloween-centric than I anticipated, but it’s still a great bunch of TV commercials with a horror flair. Check ’em out, and let me know what you think of them in the comments below!

“Do You Know Me?” With Stephen King – American Express (1984)

Back in the 1970s, the credit card company American Express decided to add an extra flair to their famous “Don’t Leave Home Without It” campaign. With this special line of ads, American Express recruited an array of celebrities who worked largely behind the scenes, be they artists, writers, politicians, etc. Each celebrity would begin the commercial by saying, “Do you know me?” They would then proceed to drop hints about their identity, before saying that the only way they were recognized in public was if they carried their American Express card. These celebrities included Garfield creator Jim Davis, Jim Henson… and Stephen King.

The 1984 Stephen King ad is probably the most famous of these commercials, and for good reason: it DEFINITELY has the best production value out of the group of ads. King wanders through a high-budget carnival haunted house, talking about how frustrating it is to be famous but not enjoy the perks that come from having everyone know your face. However, with his American Express card, he can still enjoy his fame.

I’m charmed by this ad. I’m in love with all the “Do You Know Me?” commercials, and the fact that this one contains a horror setting and one of my favorite authors just adds to the wonder. I NEEDED to include it here!

Scream “Audience” TV Spot (1996)

A lot of my fondest childhood memories come from visits to my grandma and grandpa’s house, and I don’t know what this says about me, but a lot of them revolve around TV. From Vin Scully’s voice announcing Dodger games to the Days Of Our Lives theme song to seeing commercials for Magic Mountain’s then-new Superman: The Escape and being terrified to ride it, ’90s commercials bring back a lot of fond memories.

…And, as the case is, one of those memories is horror-related!

Back in the thick of the 1990s, I was already into scary stories, largely due to the Goosebumps book series and Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid Of The Dark?. However, grown-up horror movies made me a little skittish, primarily due to a childhood aversion to jump scares. Slasher movies were an interesting, mysterious thing to me, and the biggest slasher movies at that time were the Scream movies.

I don’t remember what particular Scream TV spots I saw back then at my grandma and grandpa’s house, but I know I saw some, and this was probably among them. I chose this particular commercial because I love seeing the ’90s teens and twenty-somethings outside the theater. It captures being a teenager in the ’90s so well, something I didn’t get to experience myself, and I love that!

P.S.: I finally saw Scream last year, and I can say that all these raving audience members are right. Scream is REALLY good!

McDonald’s “Scared Silly” (1985)

Junk food, fast food, and their history are a recent interest of mine. Recently, that interest has tied into my lifelong fascination with advertising and commercials to form a particular interest in McDonald’s commercials of the 1980s. They’re unlike any other commercial I can think of. They each have their own title and they often tell their own little story. On top of that, I feel like these ads are where Ronald McDonald reached his cultural-icon status!

The most famous McDonald’s ads of the ’80s revolve around the holidays, and I totally understand that; for whatever reason, I (and, apparently, many others) find that, in our memories, Mickey D’s has an inextricable tie with the holiday season. I’m sure that’s partly why “Scared Silly” is so well-remembered!

There’s also the fact that this ad is especially Halloween-appropriate – and I’m not just talking about the horror theming. Why are these McNuggets making dipping sauces? Do they WANT to be eaten, or are they unaware of sauce implies about their fates? After the McNuggets fail, why is Ronald so quick to provide suitable sauces? Are his hunger pangs so strong that he would devour his friends? These unnerving possibilities only add another level of horror to this already Halloween-themed ad!

(There’s also the fact that McNuggets are basically zombie chickens. We won’t go too far into that, though. There are other commercials to discuss.)

“Snake” Anti-Drug PSA (1986)

I was born at the end of the 1980s, which means that I came along when the entertainment industry began to worry about kids’ psyches. Even though I love the ’90s pop culture I grew up with, I truly believe that the ’80s were the best decade for family entertainment. With the Amblin movies, Don Bluth’s body of work, and other such films, kids were terrified and thrilled along with being delighted. I love that kind of stuff!

Hollywood filmmakers weren’t the only ones to realize that scare tactics were a great way to stick in children’s minds. Non-profit agencies noticed this, too, including organizations like The Partnership For A Drug-Free America, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and anti-crime groups. Taking the idea of scaring kids straight, these agencies and others created a truly memorable group of commercials, including ads about drunk drivers turning into skeletons, brains on drugs being compared to fried eggs…

…And snake monsters disguised as drug dealers.

Seriously, the last shot of this commercial probably did more to scare kids away from dealers than anything else. The commercial starts on a real note, with a dealer telling kids about the real dangers involved with doing drugs – while trying to sugarcoat it. However, sharp-eyed viewers will notice that the dealer’s transforming as he moves down the street. The transformation comes into full focus as the dealer steps in for a close-up, revealing himself to be a snake-human monster. Seriously, this mask is good enough to be in a big-budget creature feature. It’s the cherry on top of a great commercial!

Time-Life Books’s Mysteries Of The Unknown Series (1989)

I saved the best for last! This commercial is truly AWESOME. If you only watch one commercial in this article, make it this one!

Time Life Books is gone now, but it was a huge thing in the 1980s. I’m a little young to actually recall that heyday, but I notice lots of Time Life series in people’s homes, especially their The Old West series. My dad owns a set of that particular series, and I’ve flipped through a book or two. They’re informative and well-written, so much so that I want to read more. In the days before Google and Wikipedia, Time Life Books was one of those places where people looked for information.

Another of Time Life Books’s most popular series was Mysteries Of The Unknown, introduced in 1987. My grandma and grandpa (not the ones I mentioned earlier, but the other set) had three of these books, and I distinctly remember reading about the original “Men In Black” (the mysterious men who allegedly visit the homes of alien abductees) in one of them. For a kid who was already interested in the supernatural and paranormal, this was catnip.

However, the commercials for Mysteries Of The Unknown are even more famous than the books. Watching this fantastic ad, it’s easy to see why. Each commercial takes a handful of paranormal mysteries and dramatizes them, leaving us to wonder about the explanation for each tale. The production value is high for a commercial, and the mysterious air does a lot to draw the viewer in. It’s easy to see why the series sold so well!

Thank you for watching these commercials with me. I’m just hoping they did a little bit to get you into the Halloween spirit!

First Time Watching: ‘The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three’ (1974)

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New York City in the 1970s was different than the one we know today. Where today’s NYC is primarily seen as a wonderland for upper-crust people and tourists, the city of the ’70s was grimy, working-class, and depicted as being full of tough people who just as soon shoot you as they would look at you. That less-than-rosy view of Manhattan gave us a crop of movies (now considered classics) that depicted people dropped into or fighting the snake pit of the city: The French ConnectionSerpicoThe Out-Of-TownersThe Warriors, Death Wish, and others.

Recently, thanks to TCM and their Summer Under The Stars programming, I got to see a great example of this ’70s New York subgenre. That movie was The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three!

The film opens on a typical day in New York. People mill around on the streets, people choke the subways, and lots of people head to work, including transit policeman Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau). Garber isn’t anticipating anything more than a regular workday, slightly shaken up a visiting group of Chinese dignitaries. However, a regular day is not in the cards.

Not long later, a certain subway train – Pelham 123 – mysteriously stops on a railway spur. Not long after, it starts moving again – but leaving several of its cars behind. Then, suddenly, Garber gets a call from Pelham 123. The caller is a British man (Robert Shaw) who identifies himself only as Mr. Blue. Mr. Blue informs Garber that he and his crew –  Mr. Green (Martin Balsam), Mr. Gray (Hector Elizando), and Mr. Brown (Earl Hindman) – have hijacked the subway train and taken seventeen hostages. Blue tells Garber that the hostages will be released unharmed if New York City gives the crew a million dollars in ransom. If the ransom is not delivered within an hour, the crew will start executing hostages – one for every minute the payment is late.

The rest of the movie is both a thrilling race against the clock and a strong detective story, with Garber, the New York City cops, and the mayor struggling to comply with Mr. Blue’s demands while also trying to figure out who the hijackers are!

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The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three has a simple plot, but that doesn’t matter; this movie’s strengths lie in the details. Those details begin in the screenplay’s attention to accuracy. The script was penned by Peter Stone, who’s best known for frothy comedy-thrillers like Charade, comedies like Father Goose, and musicals like 1776. However, for this script, Stone abandons his larger-than-life touch and pens a thriller that hinges on realistic-feeling logistics. How long does it take to count a million bucks and prepare it for a ransom payment? What are the political machinations that take place behind a hostage situation? How does something as simple as a cold affect committing a crime? Those details – ones thrillers typically overlook – are the elements that generate suspense and serve as hinges for the plot. I love it for that!

The film’s authenticity extends to the supporting roles. While our crooks and cops generally have to stick to classic thriller roles to make the plot work, the supporting parts are colorful and non-flashy. They’re also realistic in that the characters act like real blue-collar workers: they complain about their bosses, whine about doing extra work, and are generally bored with their jobs. Just another thing that grounds the film in reality!

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Our heroes and villains are more typical archetypes, but that’s okay because those roles are filled by such good actors. Walter Matthau is quite good as Garber, playing the transit cop as a dry-witted guy who gets his job done without panache and with unflappable calmness, even in a hostage situation. Robert Shaw truly embodies his role of Mr. Blue, a quiet, cold, darkly intelligent crook willing to do whatever it takes to get his money. Hector Elizando portrays the loose-cannon crook trope that we’re familiar with from tons of crime stories, but his unique presence lends the character a quiet insanity that fits the role well.

However, my favorite performance in the film comes from Martin Balsam. He portrays the one well-rounded hijacker, a disgruntled former subway engineer who wants revenge on the city that he feels wronged him. Unlike his partners, he’s not acquainted with a violent life, and he’s not comfortable with the idea of killing anyone. He’s struggling with a bad cold throughout the day, making him even more relatable. In fact, he’s one of the most relatable characters in the film, which is saying a lot for one of our bad guys!

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The 1970s was a great decade for gritty, small-scale, realistic thrillers, including several of the New York City movies we discussed earlier. The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three stands out among the crowd – and even today – for its authenticity and attention to detail, giving us a thriller that feels like it takes place in the real world. It’s very much worth a watch!

RATING: Four Out Of Five Stars

 

 

 

Conquering Fear: Martin Brody’s Twin Journeys in ‘Jaws’

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The year was 2000. I was eleven years old, and I was coming to the end of my childhood years in southern California. Within a matter of months, we would be moving to Utah, where I would carry out my middle school, high school, and college years. It was the end of an era.

However, I still had one experience waiting for me under the California sun. I was about to become a movie nerd.

My mom and I were in Vons, our local grocery store, when I came across a new temporary display. It was adorned with a giant shark and big red letters spelling out the word JAWS. The display was filled with oversized VHS boxes, filled with two tapes each. These were special editions of Steven Spielberg’s 1975 classic, released for the film’s 25th anniversary.

I’d never seen the movie before, but I begged my mom to buy me one of those sets. She did.

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When I got home, I opened the set and watched the making-of special first. (I was too scared to watch the movie first.) After enjoying the special features on the second VHS, I popped in the first tape and started watching the film.

I fell in love with the movie. I ate up every second of it, and I watched it innumerable times, for months. I watched it alone, I introduced it to friends, I soaked up stories from the making-of special… I did it all.

I had loved other movies before 2000, but never with the passion that I did Jaws. In a literal way, it’s the movie that made me a film nerd.

By high school, I had hit upon the idea that maybe I could make a career out of making movies. I had originally decided to be a director, but I abandoned that idea after learning about the tons of do-or-die decisions directors have to make EVERY SINGLE DAY. Therefore, I turned to screenwriting. I knew scripting was hard work, too. I’d always been interested in writing and telling stories, though. I knew that line of film-making was the one for me!

If you’ve ever read screenwriting books, you’ll know that every one advises you to study your favorite films (and ones that aren’t so great, too): to break down their story beats, to analyze characters and their arcs, to essentially break them down to see what makes them tick. Since Jaws was the movie that started me on this career path, I decided to analyze that film, too.

Jaws stumped me, though. I had read books that had staunchly advocated the three-act structure. These books laid out the story beats that show up in every story, and one of these books even had rules about the page number on which each beat should arrive. I could find those story beats in Jaws, but they didn’t land in the right places.

As I grew more knowledgeable in story craft, I learned that, while the story beats I had learned were solid and accurate, that assigning arbitrary page numbers to them was silly, and could hurt stories. I had known this for quite a while, but it wasn’t until today that I realized why Jaws‘s story beats were so oddly placed. It’s because Carl Gottlieb, the writer of the final drafts of Jaws, re-worked the story into a film that would resonate with audiences for decades to come.

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…And, afterwards, Gottlieb also wrote one of the most acclaimed making-of books of all time. The guy’s no slouch!

You see, Jaws isn’t a plot-driven story. It’s character-driven, and it’s powered by one core element: Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) overcoming his fears.

Let me explain!

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Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) at left, with Mayor Larry Vaughan (Murray Hamilton) and newspaper reporter Harry Meadows (Carl Gottlieb).

At first glance, it might seem strange to divide Jaws into three acts. It feels as if it falls into two halves: on land and at sea. And you know what? I agree with you! The movie does neatly fall into two halves: an act and a half for the land portion, and the same for the sea scenes. I’m confident that Gottlieb intended the film to be structured this way, for he gave Brody two fears to overcome: one for the first half, and one for the second.

In both halves, it’s the gigantic killer shark that drives the plot, but the shark serves different purposes in each portion. In the first half of the movie, the shark is the engine that drives the political scheming in Amity Island – an intimidating web that Chief Brody is afraid to stand up against.

After Jaws‘s infamous opening scene – where the shark makes a snack out of skinny-dipper Chrissie Watkins (Susan Backlinie) – Brody spends the first part of the movie (affectionately known to Save The Cat! readers as The Set-Up) making the right choices: investigating the swimmer’s remains, reporting the killing as a shark attack, and planning to close the beach. That changes, however, with this scene.

After Mayor Larry Vaughan (Murray Hamilton) tells Brody about the catastrophic results a beach closure will have on Amity Island’s economy, Brody decides to follow the mayor’s wishes and keep the beaches open. It’s not long, however, until the shark claims its second victim, Alex Kintner (Jeffrey Voorhees).

After this second death, Brody tries to close the beaches again, but backs down after heavy resistance from Mayor Vaughan and Amity Island’s business owners. Brody does everything he can to stop the shark from attacking: he hires people to patrol the swimming areas; he initiates constant helicopter surveillance, and he hires Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), a young marine biologist, to come to Amity Island and assist him. A group of fishermen catch a tiger shark, but, despite Brody and Hooper’s warnings, the townspeople believe that the tiger shark is the killer shark.

Things come to a head, however, when the real killer shark murders another man – and nearly kills Brody’s own son. This event is the final push Brody needs to overcome his fears. He goes to Mayor Vaughan and demands to be allowed to hire Quint (Robert Shaw) – a strange old fisherman who offered to kill the shark. This brings us to the end of the first half of the film. Let’s pause things for a second!

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The real threat in Jaws‘s first half isn’t the shark; it’s Larry Vaughan, the semi-corrupt mayor of Amity Island. After Vaughan insists that Brody keep the beaches open, Brody does so out of fear of retribution from the mayor. Even after another attack, Brody’s fear of the the mayor and his power overcomes his responsibility to the townspeople. This remains true up until death knocks on Brody’s front door, with the near-death of his son. This is the catalyst Brody needs to overcome his fears, stand his ground, and get the mayor to take action.

Because the Brody-Vaughan conflict is what’s driving Jaws‘s first half, certain elements of the film temporarily get the shaft. Quint – a lead character in the film – appears in only one scene, and the shark himself only makes himself known in four scenes. That’s because, at this point, Jaws isn’t a survival thriller yet, it’s a post-Watergate political drama with lots of under-the-table dealing. The elements that later become vital in the second half – when the movie DOES become more primal – would feel superfluous in this more nuanced segment.

Ultimately, however, Brody is able to overcome his fears of the mayor; he breaks the political dealing by deciding to do what’s right, no matter what. This is definitely a win for our main character! Unfortunately, it’s also what Save The Cat! calls a “false victory,” a moment where the protagonist achieves a goal – but he still has a LONG journey ahead of him. This usually happens at the midpoint of the film – and you know what that means? We’re ready to dive into the second half of Jaws!

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The second half of Jaws begins not after the Midpoint, but smack in the middle of it. YOu see, in Save The Cat!, Blake Snyder explains that two things usually happen at the midpoint: there’s a false victory (or false defeat) and the stakes are raised. In this case, the stakes are raised like so: Brody’s fears shift from the non-lethal threat of losing his job to the VERY lethal threat of losing his life to the shark. And that’s not even considering his fear of swimming and intimidation around Quint’s blustery, uber-masculine nature. The second half begins as Brody joins the shark hunt – and that happens in the middle of the midpoint!

The second half begins by re-introducing a character we only briefly saw in the first half: Quint. He’s not afraid of the shark, but he does have a specific reason for hunting the killer down. He HATES sharks, and he’s felt a sense of vengeance toward them since the horrific shark attacks he witnessed during World War II. This hatred eventually makes him crazy and single-minded in his quest to kill the shark. This intensifies Brody’s fear as Quint takes increasingly wilder measures in his attempts to kill the shark.

I think Hooper also has a specific purpose in hunting the shark, but it’s not as clearly stated as Quint’s or Brody’s. He’s there to show Quint up, to prove that technology and science are just as effective in shark-hunting as Quint and his overblown machismo. We see the tension between Hooper and Quint at several moments, moments that I’m convinced are there to illustrate Hooper’s goal in this hunt.

Really, Brody is the only member of the shark-hunting trio who is there for unselfish reasons: to uphold his sworn responsibility to protect Amity Island. In fact, Brody doesn’t even want to be there, for this situation forces him to confront two big fears: one of the water in general and the (justifiable) fear of a gigantic killer shark.

However, since Brody is the only character who has unselfish motives behind his journey – and because he’s the main character – story logic dictates that he must be the one to defeat the shark. Throughout the course of Jaws‘s second half, the shark eliminates every exit Brody could conceivably take. The boat’s engine blows out, stranding our trio at sea. The boat slowly starts to sink due to the shark’s many battering attacks. Hooper ventures into the water with a shark cage and harpoon loaded with poison, only to narrowly escape with his life when the shark rips the cage apart. Quint is eaten (in gory fashion) when the shark leaps onto the stern of the boat. The shark’s leap causes the boat to sink faster, forcing Brody to resort to desperate measures to kill the shark. He does so, killing his fear in the process!

 

I don’t know about you guys, but at the end of Jaws, I always feel immensely satisfied, the movie-watching equivalent of finishing a hearty meal. It may be partly because of John Williams’s beautiful end music, or it may be because I just watched an amazing adventure flick. Personally, though, I think it’s because I’ve just witnessed a fantastic, character-driven story. The shark-powered elements of the tale are exciting, but they’d feel shallow without a character to care about. Through his careful screenwriting, the late, great Carl Gottlieb created such a memorable character in Martin Brody, and he allowed him to triumph at the end. For that reason, I think the most triumphant line in Jaws is the one we hear at 1:11 in the video above, when Brody says “I used to hate the water. I can’t imagine why.”

 

 

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!

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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.

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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!

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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!

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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!

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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!

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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!

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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)

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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.

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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!

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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!

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

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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!

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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!

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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)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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