Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Another Meme Thing: At the Movies

Every so often, goofing around on social media, these little survey/questionnaire things come across my path. I start to answer them, and then I realize the word count is going up so high that I might as well make it a column. This is one of those. This time it’s all about the movies. Feel free to play along at home.


Well, I already wrote about the two worst movies I’ve ever seen in Hell’s Multiplex.

I don’t have anything to add to that. They are simply the worst movies I’ve ever seen– quantifiably so, I think. But I don’t hate them.

Hate implies an emotional response, like you feel personally attacked somehow. For example, the fan reaction to franchise-killers (almost) like Star Trek Nemesis or Batman and Robin or the Star Wars prequel trilogy. I kinda feel that way about Skyfall and Spectre, especially Spectre; but only a little. Not enough for that to be my answer.

I hate the concept of the recent Joker movie with Joaquin Phoenix so much that I almost went with that, but I haven’t seen it (no interest in doing so, don’t even start with me about it) and that seems unfair. But it did kind of serve as a pointer. The franchise movie that angers me the way The Phantom Menace or the Schumacher Batman angers other people would probably have to be the animated adaptation of The Killing joke.

Mostly because I have slowly come to despise the original it’s based on (much like its writer has, so I don’t feel too bad about that) and also because the filmmakers involved with the adaptation made it, incredibly, so much worse by putting a whole bunch of skeevy Batgirl character assassination on the front end. I suppose this completely unnecessary and unpleasant Batgirl side plot was put in to pad it out to feature length, because the whole first act has nothing to do with the Joker story. But the net result is to make you despise everyone in the movie; when we get to the part actually adapting the comic (almost word-for-word) the tone of the thing has been skewed very nearly to a well-really-she-had-it-coming vibe about the way Batgirl is treated. Even Alan Moore didn’t take it THAT far. Eww.

MOVIE I THINK IS OVERRATED: Here’s where I get yelled at. Guys, I know most of you love it the way I love Batman ’66 or The Wild Wild West, it’s an integral part of your childhood… but the original Star Wars trilogy just isn’t that good.

Absolutely it’s a lot of fun, and in the 1970s the effects blew us out of our chairs. But I was a big science-fiction fan then and now, and like a lot of us back then, especially as it became such a mainstream juggernaut, I kept thinking Star Wars was a giant step backward for filmed SF. Remember, we were just getting to a place where smart science fiction movies like 2001 and Planet of the Apes were getting made and doing well enough to be hits, and even second-tier science fiction novels like Logan’s Run and Damnation Alley were getting adapted to the screen and making money. Star Wars sent filmed science fiction back to the kid’s table, and as actual science fiction it’s a mess. It simply does not deserve to be the influence it became.

MOVIE I THINK IS UNDERAPPRECIATED: This really could be its own column. But I think I have to call this one a tie between two wonderful Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptations– John Carter (of Mars! Dammit!) and The Legend of Tarzan.

To this day I still can’t understand why critics were waiting in the weeds for these: both of them seemed marked for assassination before they even came out. But, especially if you love the books, they are a joy. Beautifully cast and shot, and full of the adrenaline-fueled adventure that drove the original novels, but with all the problematic racism and sexism cleverly excised in a way that doesn’t feel like the spirit of Burroughs has been violated. (Especially with Tarzan, that is little short of miraculous considering how many movie adaptations just didn’t get it, whether you are talking about the Weissmuller series or Greystoke or any of the other shitty adaptations in between.)

MOVIE I LOVE: Oh, there are SO MANY. Almost an impossible question. Depending on which day you ask me, it might be The Maltese Falcon or A Few Good Men or The Great Race or Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or the newly-released Knives Out.

Then there are the sort of grindhouse type of lovably-bad action movies that I can’t really argue the case for on quality, but I can’t help loving them — things like Road House or Spacehunter or Vanishing Point.

Then there are the movies affectionately and respectfully adapting something I’ve loved since childhood, but adding lots of cool new stuff; The Avengers or Casino Royale or The Man From UNCLE.

So it’s honestly really, really difficult to narrow it down at all. But I think I have to go with a movie that I just swooned over the first time I saw it and my affection for it has only increased since then– the original Die Hard.

I love this one so much that the affection even slops over on to all the times it’s been ripped off; I have a bunch of those movies here too.

(I have a special fondness for No Contest with Shannon Tweed in the John McClane role. For one thing, it’s the only one with an actual Die Hard actor in it– Robert Davi — but mostly because it’s so insane. The trailer kind of speaks for itself.)

MOVIE I CAN WATCH OVER AGAIN AND AGAIN: The real answer to this is anything in the home library, which takes up one wall of the living room here. So again, almost impossible to narrow down.

But there’s another social-media question floating around the internet the last couple of weeks that helped me land on one in particular: What fictional world would you choose to live in, if you could?

For me and Julie it would probably be George Romero’s Knightriders.

This is a very odd movie for everyone involved, since almost all of them from Romero on down are mostly known for horror and/or SF. But this modern-day retelling of Camelot, as it plays out in a Ren Faire with motorcycle jousts, is somehow just completely endearing.

Not so much for the story– though it’s very well-written– but because this group of misfits who’ve found a family with a SCAdian biker carnival are all just tremendous fun to spend time with. According to the commentary from Romero and Tom Savini and others, it was much the same experience making the movie; over the summer they spent shooting it, they became family as well and that affection comes across in the movie. We just never get tired of visiting with them.

MOVIE THAT MADE ME FALL IN LOVE WITH MOVIES: This is another nearly-imposssible question to answer… mostly because all the things I love about filmed storytelling come from television, not the movies. There just isn’t a movie made that hit me as hard as the Adam West Batman or Voyage To the Bottom of the Sea or the original Star Trek did when I was a kid. When it came to honest-to-God, theatrical movies, though, when I was growing up going to the theater was generally restricted to tame kid stuff like The Apple Dumpling Gang or similar G-rated fare.

Looking back, the movie that made me feel like there was a reason to make a special trip to the theater and experience a story there along with an audience? I think it would have to be the first one I was allowed to go to that wasn’t a kid’s movie. The Towering Inferno.

I went with a group of friends back in its original release, in 1974, and the spectacle of the thing was just extraordinary for thirteen-year-old me. Especially when my only other theatrical movie experiences were stuff like Pinocchio in Outer Space or Bedknobs and Broomsticks. After Inferno, I understood why moviegoing was a thing.

MOVIE I WISH I HAD MADE: Well, this can be taken two ways. One is a movie that is completely screwed up but you know would be really easy to fix. The other is a movie that doesn’t exist yet but you wish it did. Because it’s my column and I can do it, I’m going to answer it both ways.

The movie that doesn’t exist yet but I wish did is a very self-serving choice, but damn it, I can SEE it in my head. The film version of Silver Riders.

silver riders

I literally ‘cast’ it mentally as I was writing it, and occasionally let my mind drift into what the movie version would look like. Josh Brolin as Fallon, Eva Green as Lisbet, Ben Kingsley as Reardon, maybe Alison Pill as Anne-Marie. Just daydreaming.

But for those of you that have read it, that’s kind of who I was thinking about, along with the real people that inspired the story in the first place.

And the screwed-up movie that would be so easy to fix? Again a tie between two adaptations of things I love. The Jason Momoa Conan the Barbarian and the James Purefoy Solomon Kane.

They both look great, and both are cast with actors who are really nailing it– but the scripts are just all wrong. Neither Solomon Kane or Conan needs an origin story. I’d scrap all that and just do straight adaptations. People of the Black Circle for Conan, and for Kane… I think I’d probably mash up Red Shadows and Blades of the Brotherhood. However I did it, though, this moment from Red Shadows would absolutely be in there.

MOVIE THAT CHANGED MY LIFE: Hmm. This one is an interesting question. See, at the end of the day I am much more of a reader than a moviegoer. I’m a book guy. I could rattle off a dozen books that I consider to have been life-changing influences. I could even manage a couple of TV shows. But actual movies? That’s a poser.

The best I can do is a movie that led to a book. Goldfinger.

Goldfinger was the first James Bond movie to be shown on television, in September of 1972, on the ABC Sunday Night Movie. My friends and I were very amped for it, mostly because we used to play the soundtrack by John Barry all the time and the pictures on the album just looked cool.

And the movie paid off in spades. It was every bit as awesome as the music and the photos had led us to believe, even though some of it was a little over my head (I was ten.) But, more importantly, I noted that there were books. I made it my business to inquire at the library and was told that Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels were in the adult section, and with my child’s library card I would need a parent’s permission to check them out.

My heart sank. Mom was wound so tight she’d never approve of that… but on the other hand, she had consented to let me stay up for the movie on a school night. It was worth a shot.

It was a battle but I eventually wore her down. I put everything I had into it– at one point I think the word ‘freedom’ was invoked. Clarence Darrow would have approved.

Mom finally caved. I don’t think it was my rhetoric so much as my relentlessness, and she could justify it because books and reading were good things for children. At any rate, however she got there, she signed the form and the adult section of the local library was open to me.

That by itself would have been life-changing for me, and in fact it was; but even more than that, Ian Fleming’s novels– not just the stories but the prose style itself, that hell-for-leather stream of consciousness thing he did so well– imprinted on me so powerfully that they crystallized my ambitions to be a writer. Like this:

…Bond watched the lithe golden figure in the white one-piece bathing-suit and wondered how soon she would be able to hear his voice above the noise of the gulls and the sea. Her pace had slowed a fraction as she approached the water-line and her head, with its bell of heavy fair hair to the shoulders, was slightly bowed, in thought perhaps, or tiredness.

Bond quickened his step until he was only ten paces behind her. ‘Hey! Tracy!’

The girl didn’t start or turn quickly round. Her steps faltered and stopped, and then, as a small wave creamed in and died at her feet, she turned slowly and stood squarely facing him. Her eyes, puffed and wet with tears, looked past him. Then they met his. She said dully, ‘What is it? What do you want?’

‘I was worried about you. What are you doing out here? What’s the matter?’

The girl looked past him again. Her clenched right hand went up to her mouth. She said something, something Bond couldn’t understand, from behind it. Then a voice from very close behind Bond, said softly, silkily, ‘Don’t move or you get it back of the knee.’

Bond swirled round into a crouch, his gun hand inside his coat. The steady silver eyes of the two automatics sneered at him.

Bond slowly straightened himself. He dropped his hand to his side and the held breath came out between his teeth in a quiet hiss. The two dead-pan, professional faces told him even more than the two silver eyes of the guns. They held no tension, no excitement. The thin half-smiles were relaxed, contented. The eyes were not even wary. They were almost bored. Bond had looked into such faces many times before. This was routine. These men were killers–pro killers.

That’s from the first chapter of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the first James Bond novel I got from the adult section of the library, and I remember my first time reading that like it was yesterday. From that point on Ian Fleming owned me. I already had the vague idea I wanted to write my own books some day, but now I had a direction, a goal to aspire to. I didn’t just want to write stories, I wanted to write tough cool stories like this.

It took a few decades, but I made it. The stuff I do for Airship 27, particularly the new-pulp work like the Domino Lady and the Black Bat, has a lot of Ian Fleming in its narrative approach. Not too long ago I came across the original hardcover omnibus editions I used to check out of the library over and over and gleefully snatched them up.

They’re not collectible or anything but I love having them here anyway. Just looking at them I can remember what a thrill it was to encounter those stories for the first time… and yeah, it was life-changing.

MOVIE THAT SURPRISED ME: Living inside the fandom-pop culture bubble that I do, it’s really damn hard to surprise me… first of all, because I am flooded with press releases and trailers and review copies and this and that and the other thing, so I tend to be aware of new movies and what they’re about by a kind of osmosis. It takes more and more conscious, deliberate effort to keep things from getting spoiled in advance.

Worse, though, when you’re immersed in genre stories all the time, you learn to see patterns. Certain kinds of stories have a rhythm, and even when you ring interesting changes on them– like, say, John Wick did with the classic revenge story– when you consume as much as I do, you still can kind of see things coming; it’s especially obvious with mysteries and thrillers, which tend to be built along rules that are almost as strict as the ones for writing a sonnet. Get it wrong and it all falls apart. .

But Knives Out was a mystery thriller that stayed way ahead of me all the way through.

Speaking as a person who has written whodunits and probably has spent more time thinking about how they are structured than 98% of the other people that saw this movie, I know how hard it is to do, and this movie was goddamned amazing. The structure of Knives Out is just elegant, starting as a whodunit and then a thriller and then a whodunit again, twist upon twist and all masterfully put together so you don’t dare miss a minute. It’s constructed as intricately as a Swiss watch. You may be familiar with Chekhov’s Gun…

Knives Out has at least a dozen of them and you don’t even realize it until the last act when they all pay off at once. I was just awed at how it all came together in the only possible way that worked– and yet right up to the end, I had no idea that was how it would all fit. For me, jaded pop culture enthusiast and lifelong mystery reader that I am, that happens about once every five years, if that. It’s a rare and cherished gift when it does.

GUILTY PLEASURE: I really don’t have any. Certainly not in the sense of “it’s wrong to enjoy trash.” After all my time sneaking around trying to get stuff past Mom when I was a kid (the Bond novel episode referenced earlier was just one of MANY such arguments over what was good for me and what my lawn-mowing money should go for) I feel no guilt as an adult getting caught up with things I was told were beneath me.

The closest I get to guilt would be finding out someone involved with creating a thing I love turns out to be so awful I feel bad about supporting their work. The handy example is Bill Cosby and I Spy, as I wrote about here a few years back.

But that’s television. Can’t think of any movies that are in Cosby territory off the top of my head. Maybe O.J. Simpson in Towering Inferno and the Naked Gun movies.

MOVIE I SHOULD HAVE SEEN BY NOW BUT HAVEN’T: Everyone thinks we should have seen The Rise of Skywalker by now, but we really don’t feel any urgency over it. Likewise Birds of Prey, Same answer. “Should” implies obligation, like I’m somehow failing as a moviegoer by missing out. I’m having a hard time thinking of something that qualifies.

Here’s one that kind of meets that criteria. As something of a pulp fiction and mystery scholar, I keep meaning to get around to Farewell My Lovely with Robert Mitchum as Marlowe.

I hear it’s great and I really enjoyed the version he did of Chandler’s The Big Sleep (in spite of the weird relocation of the story to London) but for whatever reason I just haven’t gotten around to the second one. But I just discovered when I went looking for the image that we have it included with Amazon Prime, so maybe that’s something that’ll get knocked off the list pretty soon.

Anyway, there you go. Those are my survey answers. Feel free to weigh in with your own in the comments below, and I’ll be back next week with something cool.

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  1. Edo Bosnar

    Man, doing that whole list seems like work. Also, for many of them I can’t really pick a single movie, or just narrow it down to a few even.
    So I think I’ll just pick and choose. First, the easy ones, overrated and underappreciated movies, because they’re basically the same answers you gave: the original SW trilogy is good popcorn space fantasy and that’s about it, that’s why I’ve always been on team Trek; and yes, John Carter especially is so, so underappreciated and underrated.

    Ones I can watch over and over again: Blues Brothers, any of the Python movies and Tko pjeva zlo ne misli (which has been loosely and inadequately translated as “A Song a Day Takes Mischief Away”) – a Croatian musical comedy of manners made back in 1970. It’s rather lovingly made satire of Zagreb society in the 1930s.
    Interesting that you chose Knightriders. I watched it for the first time pretty recently, and while I agree that it has its charms, I don’t think I could watch it repeatedly.

    Heh, I think I’d pick Silver Riders for the ‘wish I had made it’ category, too. I think we talked about this before in an e-mail, but some of my casting choices would be Rachel Weisz as Lisbet, Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Fallon, and Corbin Bernsen as Brainerd (I know he’s too old now, but when I was reading the book, I had his image, from his LA Law days, in my head for that character). Kingsley as Reardon is a good choice.

    On Conan – I didn’t really like any of the movies, although I think Momoa is perfect for the role. You’re right: they should have just adapted the original stories instead of doing origins.

    1. Edo Bosnar

      O.k. just thought of two that don’t involve a whole list of movies:

      MOVIE I HATE: Manhattan – just despise it more than any other movie I can think of that I didn’t like.

      GUILTY PLEASURE: Zorro, The Gay Blade

  2. Eric van Schaik

    I agree with Edo, so I’ll pick and choose too 😉

    MOVIE I HATE: That’s an easy one. The only movie were I should have listened to myself during the intermission and get out of the theatre, but didn’t.
    The movie? Commando Leopard.

    MOVIE I THINK IS OVERRATED: All of the Daniel Graig Band movies imo.

    MOVIE I THINK IS UNDERAPPRECIATED: Like you I thought the John Carter movie was great fun.

    MOVIE I LOVE: Blues Brothers, Back to the Future, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Fifth Element, Robocop (The Paul Verhoeven version of course)

    MOVIE I CAN WATCH OVER AGAIN AND AGAIN: Predator, Alien and Aliens, Lord of the Rings, the first Matrix, Falling down, John Carpenter’s The Thing and many more

    MOVIE THAT MADE ME FALL IN LOVE WITH MOVIES: The first Star Wars movie. It was the first one I watched a few times in theatres.

  3. Jeff Nettleton

    I’m gonna argue Star Wars; but for a specific point: Star Wars is not responsible for the lack of advancement of sci-fi movies in the following years. That is down to the lack of imagination in Hollywood and the trend of following whatever is hot, which gained more traction in that era as we transitioned from Old Studio Hollywood to Corporate Hollywood. It starts in the 60s; but, the 70s are a big period of studios being bought by conglomerates, who then start churning out whatever is selling or movies designed to be summer blockbusters. So, in that sense, you could blame Jaws for the dumbing down of sci-fi film as much as Star Wars, since it was the big blockbuster that every studio had their sights on.

    Star Wars is great swashbuckling fantasy, with much bad dialogue (but some great individual lines) and plenty of plot holes; but, it’s fairy tale fun and it holds together as a single movie. Empire is a great film and the one that created a franchise. It actually has character development, though thanks more to Irvin Kirschner than Lucas and Kasdan (and Leigh Brackett’s first draft, which provides much of the plot). Jedi is not a great film, requires a lot of suspensions of disbelief and leaps in logic. However, it’s set pieces are enough to give an emotional satisfaction that brings the storyline to a conclusion. Everything after that is just a remake, using discarded ideas from earlier drafts and attempts to stitch together plot holes between Star Wars and Empire. So, Star Wars may not be “good;” but, it ain’t “bad”. After Empire? Yeah, pretty much.

    MOVIE I HATE: Watchmen. Not because Snyder changed the ending; but, because he missed the entire point. It’s a right-wing hatchet job on Moore’s ideas, even more than V For Vendetta, which traded political philosophy for visuals, since the Wachowskis (who stage managed the production) talk a lot of jibberish but only care about cool shots (except maybe for Bound).

    MOVIE I THINK IS OVERRATED: Saving Private Ryan. All of the praise heaped on it rests on the first 20 minutes; then, it devolves into cliche.

    MOVIE i THINK IS UNDER-APPRECIATED: I will agree with you on John Carter (of Mahz, as Arnie would say). Great film, ton of fun, captures the flavor of the original but for a modern audience. I would also agree that critics and pundits were waiting to ambush Tarzan and didn’t even watch the film. With John Carter, their stories were more about production issues and cost over-runs and studio politics, without watching the film. With Tarzan the condemned the whole thing without ever having read Burroughs or seen a Tarzan film, let alone this one. There is plenty to attack in Burroughs and in the old films; but, that’s not an excuse to condemn this film sight unseen.

  4. Jeff Nettleton

    MOVIE I LOVE: The Crimson Pirate. Burt Lancaster was born to play a pirate, the film is hilarious, well cast, with great action sequences (massively aided by Burt & partner Nick Cravat’s circus background), a decent romance, and plenty of silliness to make you giggle.

    MOVIE I CAN WATCH OVER AND OVER AGAIN: The Three Musketeers (Richard Lester version). Really, I consider the Three and Four Musketeers to be halves of one film (as did the court, which it was, split into two, which led to the cast lawsuits and the “Salkind Clause,” in movie contracts). Captures Dumas’ writing better than just about any adaptation, tremendous fun, nice comedic bits, dark segments, rousing fights, plenty of daring-do, romance and a cast that can’t be beat.

    MOVIE THAT MADE ME FALL IN LOVE WITH MOVIES: Hmmmm…probably The Great Race. I saw it on tv, one Saturday afternoon and was lost in the fun. We didn’t get to see many movies, when I was a kid, so tv broadcasts were my main source. That one gave me a love for great comedy, swashbuckling action (the spoof of the Prisoner of Zenda segment) and pie fights! Plus, Natalie Wood in her undies!

    MOVIE i WISH i MADE: Chasing Amy. I went through a similar experience as depicted in the film (well, part of the triangle) and went to see the film, to distract myself from personal issues. Then, as the story unfolded, I sank in my seat at the parallels. It’s hard to watch that film and seperate that experience; so, I would redo it just to change that aspect.

    MOVIE THAT CHANGED MY LIFE: I got nothing. I can’t really point to a film that had that profound an effect. I could say An Officer and a Gentlemen, since I was a naval officer; but, I saw it after I was already a midshipman.

    MOVIE THAT SURPRISED ME: Casablanca. For years, I heard praise heaped on it, the lines quoted, the ending copied and thought it was just over-rated nostalgia. Then I watched it. That film is SOOOOOO GOOD! There was a reason everyone talked about it over the years, because it really creates an emotional response in you. For me, it’s not the romance; it’s the spirit of defiance when Viktor Lazlow tells the orchestra to strike up La Marseilles, when the Nazis are singing their songs, and the crowd belts it out as one, especially the nightclub singer. It captures the spirit of the times in everyone in the occupied territory who stood in defiance of Nazi oppression.

    GUILTY PLEASURE: All the Marbles. Peter Falk manages a female tag-team, in a quest to capture the titles. Pure character piece that is better than it has a right to be and still the best pro wrestling movie, for my money.

  5. Movie I Hate: Frances. Was dragged into it by someone who got freaked out and left. I should have too. Unrelentingly bleak and miserable and lacking a lot of context regarding Frances Farmer’s life.
    Movie I think Is Overrated: Mel Gibson’s The Patriot. In a time teeming with serious issues, Gibson reduces everything to “the British guy was mean to me. He must pay!” And a historian friend of mine said the idea Gibson’s servants are all free blacks had him rolling on the floor laughing.
    Movie I Think Is Unappreciated: Probably because nobody’s heard of it but the Czech time travel comedy “Tomorrow I Will Get Up and Scald Myself With Tea” is hysterical.
    Movie I Love: What’s Up Doc?, the delightful Barbra Streisand/Ryan O’Neal rom-com, with Madelne Kahn in an early appearance. “Snakes, as you know, have a deathly fear of … tile!”
    MOVIE I CAN WATCH OVER AGAIN AND AGAIN: Casablanca. And pretty much any of my Christmas favorites.
    MOVIE THAT MADE ME FALL IN LOVE WITH MOVIES: Catching Captain Blood on TV in the early 1970s.
    Movie I Wish I Had Made: Can’t think of one.
    Movie That Surprised Me: Knives Out, though a nurse friend of mine says that’s partly because the medical side makes no sense. And Empire Strikes Back because “Luke, I am your father” I did not see coming (I rate the movies higher than you do).
    Guilty Pleasure: Probably the gloriously cheesy “Invasion of the Bee Girls.” Hot women, bat-shit science (“It would work if we replaced the testosterone and estrogen with androgynous hormones!”), Victoria Vetri rocking the sexy librarian look as the love interest.
    Movie I Haven’t Gotten To Yet: Pretty much everything from the last few years. My wife doesn’t go to movies as much as I do (though she’s fine if I go alone) and that makes a difference.

    1. Jeff Nettleton

      The part of the Patriot that had me rolling in the aisles, laughing, was when Mel and his family are riding in a coach, headed up screen and you see CGI ships moored in the upper left of the screen. I was stationed in Charleston, SC, for 3 years; those ships are on dry land. The street they are heading up goes past the old Customs House, which is near the Charles River; but, the river is behind the Custom’s House, on the right side of the screen.

      That was just the start of things. The idea of white people hiding among the gullah community was even more laughable. It was just a smorgasboard of bad history and melodrama.

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