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.
MOVIE I HATE: 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.
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.
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.
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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