Tag Archives: Cinema

Thoughts on the Guardians of the Galaxy Trailer

It’s been barely 24 hours since the Guardians of the Galaxy trailer was released and it has already topped 4 million views on YouTube.  I was surprised by the positive buzz over it in my office today, mostly from non-comic book readers (including one of my co-workers that admitted he’s never read a comic book in his life – you know who you are…).

When I first learned that Marvel Studios had green-lit Guardians of the Galaxy, my initial reactions were surprise and skepticism.  Considering the higher profile characters and super teams that have yet to get the big screen treatment (Doctor Strange, Black Panther), I was surprised Guardians was even on the cinematic radar.  I’ve only read a handful of GotG comics, so while I’m hopeful the film version of Guardians of the Galaxy will continue Marvel Studios’ current positive streak at the box office, I’m not as emotionally connected to the characters or canon as I would be to the Fantastic Four, Alpha Flight or even the New Mutants.

Before I even watched the Guardians trailer, I was convinced I wouldn’t like it.  Maybe a better choice of words would be that I was convinced there wouldn’t be enough in it to make me want to give the film a chance.  But I’ll admit, I liked what I saw though not without a few concerns.

Positives:

A solid cast: Bradley Cooper (Rocket Raccoon), Vin Diesel (Groot), Zoe Saldana (Gamora), Benicio Del Toro (the Collector), Djimon Hounsou (Korath the Pursuer), Glenn Close (Commander Rael), John C. Reilly (Rhomann Dey)

The effects, production design and makeup/costumes show that Marvel Studios saw something in the Guardians of the Galaxy and didn’t skimp on the budget.

However:

The trailer doesn’t give any indication as to what the movie is about.  Maybe the “Who are these guys?” element of the trailer will drum up initial curiosity/interest in the film, but I can’t help but wonder what it might be lacking in plot.

The reliance on comedy in the trailer has me concerned that the studio is trying to make the film more “accessible” to a non-comic reading audience by having the film make fun of itself rather than creating a story true to the GotG canon.  Nothing irks me more than a comic book movie that gives a wink to the audience as if to say, “We know comics aren’t cool, but this is!”  Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord reminded me of Bill Pullman’s character Lone Starr in Spaceballs.

But in spite of my concerns, I’ll still hold out hope that Guardians of the Galaxy is a good film that both comic readers and non-comic book readers will enjoy, and that it will be successful enough at the box office to add more comic book films to the pipeline.

Guardians of the Galaxy opens in theaters August 1, 2014.

On a side note, BleedingCool.com posted this article on Rocket Raccoon co-creator Bill Mantlo.  A significant portion of my comic book collection growing up was written by Mantlo, with my favorite titles Micronauts, ROM: Spaceknight and Cloak & Dagger.  In 1992 Mantlo was the victim of a hit and run accident that caused a traumatic brain injury and he has required ongoing care ever since.  I made my donation tonight.  I hope this article will inspire other fans of his work to also make a contribution towards the cost of his care.

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The Films of 1939

Beau Geste Movie PosterGone With the Wind Movie PosterHunchback of Notre Dame Movie Poster

With awards season upon us, it’s usually this time of year that old Academy Award winning favorites are televised in advance of this year’s Oscar ceremony (thanks Turner Classic Movies!).  I’ve never really been a fan of the awards presentations, and most of my favorite films were never nominated anyway, but it is nice to turn on a channel like TCM and watch an old classic again.  I look at this year’s list of Best Picture nominees and wonder if decades from now American Hustle, Gravity or The Wolf of Wall Street could ever be as revered among movie fans as Casablanca, On the Waterfront, The Godfather or Rocky.

Each decade of the last century has produced its timeless classics of cinema, but lately I’ve been reading about how 1939 is considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest year for films.  Looking over the list of releases that year it’s a solid lineup, all of them classics to this day:

Gone With the Wind
The Wizard of Oz
Stagecoach
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Goodbye, Mr. Chips
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Love Affair
Of Mice and Men
Gunga Din
Ninotchka
The Women
Stanley and Livingstone
Destry Rides Again
Beau Geste
Babes in Arms
Gulliver’s Travels
Jesse James
The Roaring Twenties
Wuthering Heights
Young Mr. Lincoln

Whether 1939 was actually the greatest year for films is an argument that I’m personally hesitant to make since 1940 had it’s own list of classics that year including The Grapes of Wrath, The Philadelphia Story and His Girl Friday.

But when a lineup includes films like the epic Gone With the Wind, incredible performances in Wuthering Heights and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and a perennial family favorite like The Wizard of Oz, there’s no denying there was something special about the films of 1939.  And to commemorate the 75th anniversary of that celebrated year of moviemaking, Fante’s Inferno will revisit some of the classic films released that year in a four-part retrospective that will be posted in conjunction with the quarters in which they were released.

Part one of our retrospective will begin with several notable films released between January and March of 1939: John Ford’s classic Western Stagecoach starring John Wayne; George Stevens’ Gunga Din starring Cary Grant; and Leo McCarey’s twice remade Love Affair starring Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer.

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One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1970)

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich Poster

Release Date: December 7, 1970 (Sweden); May 16, 1971 (US)

Starring Tom Courtenay, Espen Skjonberg, Alf Malland, James Maxwell, Alfred Burke, Maxwell Thompson

Directed by Caspar Wrede; Screenplay by Ronald Harwood, based on the novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn

Going into this weekend, my goal was to kick back and enjoy a few movies.  The blizzard and freezing weather in the Northeast inspired me to find a winter themed movie to fit my surroundings, but this turned out to be more of a challenge than I thought it would be.  My old standby for this weather is John Carpenter’s amazing The Thing, but I had already covered this film in my retrospective of The Summer of ’82.  I looked up other films set in winter and noticed most had a holiday theme and I had seen them in the weeks leading up to Christmas.  But out of the blue I remembered the film adaptation of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s book One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and I decided to track it down.

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s classic novel about life in Stalin era labor camp was required reading for me sophomore year of high school.  It stayed with me over the years, even inspiring me to study Russian language in high school and college.  But I first learned about the film version several years ago as a result of a random IMDB search, and since then it’s been a curiosity for me because it’s extremely hard to find (except in terrible quality on YouTube – my only option) and the book hasn’t been tackled as a feature film again.  But what I find more curious was how this film could be completely forgotten in the first place.

Director Caspar Wrede’s opening shot of the film establishes the feeling of pure isolation as the camera makes its way toward the lights of the Soviet prison camp in the pitch dark early hours of a winter morning.  Prisoner C-854 Ivan Denisovich Shukhov (played by the great Tom Courtenay), serving his eighth year of a ten year sentence, wakes up feeling ill and hoping to get an exemption from work that day.  His day begins with punishment for not getting up on time, but rather than being led to “the cells” his guard orders him to clean the floors of the stark, lifeless officer’s lounge.  As Denisovich scrubs the floors with a bucket of ice cold water under a framed photo of a smiling Josef Stalin (referred to as “Old Whiskers” in Solzhenitsyn’s book), one can only imagine what “comforts” were available to the camp guards and staff, and if their tenure in the camp was as much of a sentence for them in their careers.

Denisovich is unable to get a medical exemption and is forced to work in sub zero temperatures laying bricks at a construction site.  The inmates must work if the temperature is above -40 degrees Celsius, and at 27 below zero they won’t be getting a reprieve that day.  This chapter of the book stood out the most for me (I still can’t fathom the idea of working with mortar at 27 below zero), and 25 years after reading it on the page, I finally heard Denisovich yell “Mortar!” as they worked fast to lay each course of bricks before the mortar froze.  It’s during this sequence of the film that we learn more about the inmates of The 104th (the 24 man squad of prisoners that Denisovich is assigned to) and the “crimes” that led them to the gulag.  Denisovich was captured by the Germans during World War II, escaped, but was accused by the Russian Army of obtaining his freedom from the Germans in exchange for spying.

Tthe film has a simplicity that allows the audience to look at the most mundane activity (meal time, waiting on line for parcels, bumming a cigarette, etc.) and feel the inmates’ loss of freedom and the weight of incarceration in the gulag without exaggerating or over dramatizing the day to day life of the camp.  The set design and wardrobe are stark and simple but effective in representing the bleak living conditions from the old, cramped wooden bunk beds to the filthy rags of clothes the inmates bundle together to protect themselves from bitter, unending cold.  Ronald Harwood’s screenplay has a faithfulness to the book’s tone, and the voice over dialogue taken from the book adds additional context to Denisovich’s plight and the day to day life in the camp.  Over ten years later, Courtenay would star in (and receive a Golden Globe award and Academy Award nomination) for his role in 1983’s The Dresser, also written by Harwood.

Film adaptations rarely match up to the original books they’re based on, but the film version of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is a good film in its own right and faithful to Solzhenitsyn’s novel.  Tom Courtenay’s performance is powerful and the representation of life in Stalin’s gulag is gut wrenching.  This film does not deserve to be forgotten and I hope it gets a release on DVD or streaming video soon.

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Gregory’s Girl (1981)

Gregory's Girl Movie Poster

Release date: April 23, 1981 (UK); May 26, 1982 (US)

Written and Directed by Bill Forsyth

Starring John Gordon Sinclair, Dee Hepburn, Clare Grogan, Allison Forster, Robert Buchanan

Did you ever flip through the channels and stumble on a movie that just makes your night?  Monday November 18th brought about an unexpected surprise when Turner Classic Movies played Bill Forsyth’s coming of age classic Gregory’s Girl in the 8PM timeslot (which is absolutely deserved – the film, produced in Scotland, ranks # 30 on the British Film Institutes list of the top 100 British films, and a clip from the film was included in the opening ceremony video of the London 2012 Olympics).  Gregory’s Girl has a special place in my cinematic heart and I remember watching (repeatedly) when when it premiered on cable TV around 1983.  We didn’t have a VCR at that time, so it must have been on the schedule at least 20 times over the course of one month.  I lost count of how many times I’d seen it back then.

High school student Gregory (played by John Gordon Sinclair) has his complacent life as a high school student and soccer player upended when Dorothy (Dee Hepburn) earns a spot on the boys soccer team.  He’s immediately smitten with her, and doesn’t even mind that she’s taken over his position at center forward and he’s been moved to goalie (at the expense of his best friend Alan losing his place on the team).  He polishes the ball before handing it to her instead of kicking it to her during the games and practice, and feels the pangs of jealousy (and a little left out from the other side of the pitch) when their teammates and the opposing team each kiss her after she scores her first goal.  His attraction to her reaches a fever pitch but he can’t muster the courage to ask her on a date.

At first Gregory’s cavalier attitude on life is charming and brings the audience back to their carefree teenage days (he calls his father “Mike,” arrives at school as he pleases, isn’t phased by losing a soccer game and doesn’t take his soccer coach seriously when told he may be kicked off the team), but it makes you wonder how he’ll take on life as he gets older if he simply lives his life as “just happy to be there.”  Despite the toll his unrequited love takes on Gregory emotionally, it’s what he needs to begin taking stock of himself and breaking the mold of complacency.  His ten year old sister Madeline is his voice of reason (“If you don’t pay attention to yourself, how do you expect people to pay attention to you?”) as well as his stylist when he finally musters the courage to ask Dorothy on a date.

The tag line of the film says it best: “There’s a little of bit him in all of us.”  Forsyth allows the audience to feel Gregory’s ups and downs with all of the angst in between.  But what I appreciate the most about Gregory’s Girl is how it doesn’t over dramatize Gregory’s situation or the every day lives of him and his friends.  The opening scene may give the mistaken impression that the film will take a sophomoric approach a la Porky’s, but there are no pacts to lose their virginity, no plans for revenge on their teachers, or pranks that will make them legends.  Forsyth didn’t need to go down that road.  He’s crafted a beloved story and film that only needs to be about a young man trying to get a date with the girl that has his heart.

Compared to American teen films of the 80’s like The Breakfast Club (a great movie in its own right), Gregory’s Girl keeps it simple, and this simplicity keeps the characters and plot grounded in a way that each of us can pick a character and substitute ourselves.  Gregory’s Girl succeeds as a film because we can relate to the themes of the awkward teen years, unrequited love, etc. and cheer Gregory on.  Forsyth’s style of directing is understated and charming, and he is a master at making a subtle gesture pop out of nowhere and turning it into a funny moment (see his 1983 classic film Local Hero).  Several of the scenes that bring out the personalities and idiosyncrasies of the supporting characters may leave the audience guessing as to Forsyth’s motivations for including them, but each of these scenes adds a new layer to the film by showing us what Gregory has around him and how he is shaped by his friends and surroundings.

As a teenager watching Gregory’s Girl, I simply enjoyed the ending without interpreting it too deeply (no spoilers here!).  But watching it again in my 40’s, as the closing credits rolled I couldn’t help but wonder how life would have turned out for Gregory, which of his high school friends he would still be in touch with, and how he coped with the loves that would eventually pass in and out of his life (I guess I’ll have to screen Forsyth’s 1999 sequel Gregory’s Two Girls to find out).   I looked back almost 25 years since my high school days and reflected on the course my life took, and I’m still fortunate to have two of my close friends from high school in my life.  As awkward as my friends and I were back in the 80’s (okay, and maybe through the 90’s too), and with all of the ups and downs of the subsequent years, I think Gregory’s Girl’s normally silent character Charlie summed it up best in a scene where one of Andy’s dreams is crushed: “I think everything’s going to be alright.”

As I began this post, I was happy to see that Gregory’s Girl is available on Netflix, and Hulu is streaming the complete film for free!

In a first for Fante’s Inferno, it’s my honor to present (via Hulu), Bill Forsyth’s classic film Gregory’s Girl in its entirety.

Rated PG (Language, Nudity)

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The Summer of ’83: Fire and Ice

Fante’s Inferno celebrates summer movie-going by revisiting the films of the Summer of ’83.

Fire and Ice

Fire and Ice Movie Poster

Release Date: August 28, 1983

Directed by Ralph Bakshi; Screenplay by Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway based on characters created by Ralph Bakshi and Frank Frazetta

Starring Randy Norton, Cynthia Leake, Steve Sandor, Sean Hannon, Susan Tyrell, Maggie Roswell, Stephen Mendel

It’s fitting that I’m winding down my retrospective on the films of the Summer of ’83 with Fire and Ice because it was the last film I saw in theaters as that summer ended.  With that screening in the final week of August 1983, two and a half months of movies, comic books, video games and hanging out with friends segued into to the beginning of the upcoming school year.  Watching Fire and Ice again this past weekend not only brought back the memory of that last week of summer vacation, but also how the film and Frank Frazetta’s artwork influenced me at the time.

The film is about the war between the evil Queen Juliana of Icepeak and King Jerol of Firekeep.  Juliana and her son Nekron cover the earth with a wave of glaciers, decimating Jerol’s army as it inches closer to overtaking Firekeep.  Juliana and Nekron send a delegation to Firekeep under the guise of eliciting Jerol’s surrender, but kidnap his daughter Teegra in order to force her into a marriage with Nekron.  Teegra escapes from her captors and meets Larn, a survivor from Jerol’s army.  Teegra is recaptured by Juliana and Nekron’s sub-humans, and Larn attempts to rescue her from Icepeak with the help of Darkwolf.

There’s surprisingly little dialogue in the film’s 81 minutes, but the action is non-stop.  Fire and Ice gives life to the fantasy worlds depicted in Frank Frazetta’s incredible paintings (in one shot in the film, Darkwolf is reminiscent of Frazetta’s iconic painting of the Death Dealer), and the animation techniques used in of Fire and Ice blew me away back in 1983.  All of the character action was rotoscoped – live action was filmed, then each frame traced onto animation cels, lending a more “realistic” effect to the animation.  This film is one of the reasons I still prefer hand-drawn animation over today’s computer generated animation, and I enjoyed watching The Making of Fire and Ice for the parts of the behind-the-scenes film that show the process of rotoscoping as Bakshi directed live actors in the scenes that would be traced for the final animated sequences.

Watching it again made me wonder why Bakshi et al didn’t include more scenes with Darkwolf.  Each of his scenes brought out more of the Frazetta-esque feel, heightening the action and excitement of the film, especially going into the final battle at Icepeak.  The character of Teegra is drawn in the classic Frazetta style seen on many a fantasy novel cover.  Watching Fire and Ice this past weekend, I laughed when I remembered that during my second screening of the film in August 1983 the projectionist intentionally made one scene between Teegra and Larn out of focus because my friend Rob and I were the only people in the audience and he didn’t think it was appropriate for two eleven year olds to watch.

I was impressed at the level of talent involved in Fire and Ice’s production: director Ralph Bakshi had a strong track record of films prior to Fire and Ice (Fritz the Cat, Wizards, American Pop, The Lord of the Rings, Heavy Traffic, Hey Good Lookin’), Frank Frazetta was the absolute master of fantasy art, and writers Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway had written great comic book stories for Marvel and DC.  But the names that truly surprised me in my research were those of two of the film’s background painters: James Gurney (Dinotopia) and Thomas Kinkade.

The August 1983 release of Fire and Ice also coincided with my first attempts at picking up a paint brush.  My two favorite paintings by that time were Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and Frank Frazetta’s The Silver Warrior.  My weekly routine included checking out the fantasy and science fiction sections of our local Waldenbooks, and it’s safe to say most of my paperback book purchases were based on the cover paintings more often than by the author or story.  I can’t imagine how many hours of the Summer of ’83 I devoted to buying art supplies at the old Larchmont Art Shop and sitting at my drawing table with a set of acrylics and canvas boards trying to copy the works of Frank Frazetta and Bill Sinkiewicz in the hopes of one day painting covers to fantasy novels and comic books.  What I would give to relive one of those carefree summer days again.

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The Summer of ’83: Krull

Fante’s Inferno celebrates summer movie-going by revisiting the films of the Summer of 1983.

Krull

Krull Movie Poster

Release Date: July 26, 1983

Directed by Peter Yates; Screenplay by Stanford Sherman

Starring: Ken Marshall, Lysette Anthony, Freddie Jones, Alun Armstrong, John Welsh, Liam Neeson, Robbie Coltrane

This is a review that I’ve been looking forward to since I began this retrospective on the films of the Summer of ’83, but not for the reasons you would expect.  Most of my reviews involve revisiting films I enjoyed or may have missed in the theaters upon their initial release 30+ years ago to see if they still hold up, but back when Krull first hit theaters on July 26, 1983 I distinctly remember not enjoying  it.

By the Summer of 1983, I had been raised on a steady diet of fantasy films like Excalibur and Dragonslayer (both of which still hold up in my book) and Krull didn’t measure up to those films when I first saw it at age 11.  But since then, other nostalgic fantasy/sci-fi fans I encounter always talk about how much they loved Krull as kids.  Was there something I missed?  So I went into this week’s screening with an open mind to see if it indeed was a good film on par with its cinematic peers of the early 80’s.

The film begins with a mountain-like vessel traveling through space and landing on the planet Krull.  “The Beast” leads his army of Slayers in conquering the planet.  Prince Colwyn (Ken Marshall) and Princess Lyssa (Lysette Anthony) are about to be married, merging their fathers kingdoms in order to fight The Beast’s army, but the ceremony is broken up by the Slayers, their armies killed and Lyssa is kidnapped.  Left for dead, Colwyn is healed by Ynyr (Freddie Jones) and retrieves a weapon known as the Glaive before he can attempt to rescue Lyssa.  Colwyn recruits a group of escaped convicts on his journey to find the Black Fortress and Princess Lyssa.

The opening credits of the film had me impressed with the level of talent that collaborated on Krull, particularly director Peter Yates and composer James Horner, but the excitement I felt during the opening credits slowly turned into disappointment once the opening line of the film was delivered, and continued as the film progressed.  The main source of disappointment for me was with Krull’s script, which is a pastiche of elements from successful fantasy/scifi films that came before it.  Prior to Krull, screenwriter Stanford Sherman wrote for the 60’s classic television series Batman and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and later one of my favorite movies as a kid, Any Which Way You Can starring Clint Eastwood.  Unfortunately Krull’s weak story has a ripple effect on the rest of the talent involved with the production beginning with director Peter Yates.

Yates’s drama The Dresser (also released in 1983) is a film I enjoyed particularly for actor Tom Courtenay’s performance in the title role.  Going into Krull, I had expected Yates to bring out impressive performances in the cast as he had with Albert Finney and Courtenay in The Dresser, but Sherman gives the characters little in terms of depth, and his uninspiring dialogue gives the actors little to work with.  Yates’s use of the camera for the location shots is surprisingly static, and the imposing  mountains of Cortina in Italy fall flat with shot compositions containing little action.

I was very happy to see James Horner’s name as the composer of the film.  His distinguished career includes the incredible score for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and his score for 1991’s The Rocketeer is one that I break out on occasion when I need a burst of inspiration.  Beginning with the opening credits, his score for Krull is powerful and heroic but unfortunately it keeps that same tone throughout most of the film and there are moments the audience needs a breather.

And so, 30 years later I now realize why I didn’t enjoy Krull back in 1983: in my opinion every line of dialogue, every effect, fight scene, etc. overachieved and subsequently fell flat in the attempt to create an epic fantasy film.  The individual parts just didn’t gel, and instead of an epic story Krull plays out as more of an introductory level Dungeons & Dragons module.

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The Summer of ’83: National Lampoon’s Vacation

Fante’s Inferno celebrates summer movie-going by revisiting the films of the Summer of ’83.

National Lampoon’s Vacation

National Lampoons Vacation Movie Poster

Release Date: July 29, 1983

Directed by Harold Ramis; Screenplay by John Hughes based on his short story Vacation ’58

Starring: Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Anthony Michael Hall, Dana Barron, Imogene Coca, Randy Quaid, Jane Krakowski, John Candy, Christie Brinkley

National Lampoon’s Vacation is one of the films that I looked forward to the most going into this retrospective.  Even though I tend to concentrate on fantasy, sci-fi and comic book films I have to include a classic comedy now and then.  There are movies that you enjoy, there are movies that you watch many times over, but every so often there’s that one movie that you just seem to empathize with.  National Lampoon’s Vacation is one of those movies, and 30 years later it still gets an audience to laugh at its classic scenes and cringe at the memories they bring back of our own summer family vacations.  I’m sure most folks over the age of 40 hear a few bars of Lindsay Buckingham’s Holiday Roads on a long distance drive.

Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) plans a cross country drive from Chicago to California with wife Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo) and teenage kids Rusty and Audrey (Anthony Michael Hall and Dana Barron).  He’s convinced himself (but not his family) that a road trip to Wally World (a theme park based on Disney World) will allow them to experience the bonding and quality time they wouldn’t experience by flying.  The trip starts on the wrong foot when the Antarctica Blue Sport Wagon they ordered from the car dealership hasn’t arrived and the only car available for them is the frumpy, olive green, wood paneled, eight headlighted Road Queen Family Truckster.  Along the way their car is vandalized in St. Louis, they’re stuck with Ellen’s annoying Aunt Edna in the back seat, money runs out and a wrong turn totals their car.  But, as the ever patient Ellen says, “With every day there’s new hope.”

The film has great cast led by Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo, but it’s the supporting actors in their cameos that add the extra layers of humor that keep the laughs going: James Keach as the highway patrol officer that goes from threatening to crying in a scene that is both hilarious and just wrong at the same time, John Candy as the Wally World security guard dragged into Clark’s breakdown, and Randy Quaid as Ellen’s ne’er-do-well cousin Eddie that suckers them into driving Aunt Edna from Kansas to Phoenix.  It was a treat to see comedic icon Imogene Coca as Aunt Edna in Vacation, but her role provided only a fraction of the comedic gold she brought to TV viewers on Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows in the 1950’s and I wish there was a little more written for her.  But the scene stealer throughout the film is Clark’s muse of the road played by Christie Brinkley.  Is there anything more 80’s than Christie Brinkley and a red Ferrari?

In under two hours, director Harold Ramis is able to pack in urban plight, teenage drug use, underage drinking, animal cruelty, death and a midlife crisis on the Griswold family’s road trip to Wally World.  John Hughes’ screenplay was based on his short story Vacation ’58, and soon after his career as a director would explode with 80’s teen classics like Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

The running gag in the subsequent three Vacation films (European Vacation, Christmas Vacation and Vegas Vacation) was the casting of different actors to play Rusty and Audrey.  Anthony Michael Hall and Dana Barron will always be the Rusty and Audrey movie fans will remember, and it would have been fun to see them reprise their roles in European Vacation.  Barron was supposed to return as Audrey in the second film, but when Anthony Michael Hall had a conflict starring in Weird Science (also directed by John Hughes), the role of Audrey was re-cast as well.

I wasn’t able to see National Lampoon’s Vacation in the theater back in 1983 due to its R rating (although the film is very tame by today’s standards), but it’s a film I watched on many a Saturday night with my friends and cousins throughout the mid-80’s.  Back then we appreciated the humor at face value, but 30 years later we now approach the film with a sense of empathy.  Back then, the farthest my family ever drove on our vacations was Montreal, with most of our summer trips taking place in Lake George, NY.  Our version of the Road Queen Family Truckster was a midnight blue 1977 Ford Granada with burgundy pleather interior.  But as fun as those trips were, without fail, just before putting the car in gear for the drive back home, my father would end the trip with, “Next year, I’m taking a vacation by myself!”

This year, my faithful sidekick and I flew out to Colorado and spent a week and a half driving through Wyoming, South Dakota and Nebraska before flying back to New York.  It was my first time in that part of the country, and the most surreal part of the trip was the lack of cars on the road compared to the Northeast.  Highlights of our trip included Devils Tower, Custer National Park, Mount Rushmore and the Badlands with a few roadside attractions along the way like the giant Campbell’s Soup Can in Colorado, Dinosaur Park in South Dakota and a giant coffee pot in Wyoming.  This was our first real road trip together, and after 30 years of watching Clark Griswold experience everything short of locusts in National Lampoon’s Vacation I couldn’t help but wonder what lay ahead of us on the road.  But along the way, a miracle happened: nothing.  No broken down car, no bad weather, no short fuses (okay, there was that one time I missed a turn and went nuclear a la Clark in the classic “Can we go home” scene).  But it went as smooth as can be and it was one of the best vacations I’ve ever had.  Coincidentally, next up is a road trip in Europe…

Overall National Lampoon’s Vacation was as I remembered it, although the pace felt a little slower this time around.  And while each scene made me laugh and gain a greater appreciation for the Ramis and Hughes’ style of humor, my older self began to see Clark in a different light.  He was no longer just that nerdy dad who’s best intentions tend  to make everything worse.  At the end of the day, Clark goes through each of those great lengths, much to the chagrin of his family, just to bring them all closer together and have them experience a little bit of fun that they might remember when they’re older.  And watching National Lampoon’s Vacation again 30 years later, I simply smiled and looked forward to the day I’d be behind the wheel of my own version of the Family Truckster, family in tow, on a quest for fun.

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The Summer of ’83: WarGames

Fante’s Inferno celebrates summer movie-going by revisiting the films of the Summer of ’83.

WarGames

WarGames Movie Poster

Release date: June 3, 1983

Directed by John Badham; Written by Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes

Starring Matthew Broderick, Dabney Coleman, John Wood, Barry Corbin, Ally Sheedy

See the trailer here.

Shall we play a game?

30 years later, these words spoken by Joshua still have a chilling resonance.

I’ve seen John Badham’s Wargames at least 20 times since my first screening at the Larchmont Theater in June 1983.  It’s one of my favorite films of that particular summer and a perennial favorite since.  Watching it again this week reminded me not only of what a great film WarGames is, but also of how it coincided with my Golden Age of computing in the 80’s.  Back in 1983 the green text on the black monitor of my school’s TSR-80 was as high tech as it got for me (until I moved up to the Commodore 64 and its Royal Blue start screen), but I really enjoyed the days of playing the Infocom classics (Zork, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Planetfall, Ballyhoo), Montezuma’s Revenge and Trolls and TribulationsWarGames is a time capsule of early 80’s computing, but the film still keeps me on the edge of my seat down to the final minutes.  Even with a young Matthew Broderick as the protagonist WarGames doesn’t feel like a teen adventure and holds its own as a well made Cold War thriller.

WarGames begins in the bunker of a nuclear launch site as two launch technicians (played by  actors Michael Madsen and John Spencer) arrive for their shift.  Their arrival at the launch facility is no different from any two average Joes arriving at the office for a day’s work.  But once the alarm sounds, they methodically go through the launch procedures, checking and confirming codes until they learn they must deploy the nuclear warhead.  Spencer’s character hesitates, and the scene ends with Madsen’s character holding up his revolver to get his partner to comply with their orders.  It’s soon revealed that the launch sequence was a test by higher ups to gauge the success rate of the crews following through on their orders to deploy their missiles.  Chief engineer John McKittrick (played by Dabney Coleman) uses this as an opportunity to install a supercomputer (the WOPR – War Operation Plan Response) to take the place of launch technicians and provide a failsafe against the possibility of human hesitation.

I recently took a trip to South Dakota with my faithful sidekick, and coincidentally one of our stops was the Minute Man Nuclear Missile Site near the Badlands national park.  Unfortunately the tour of the launch site was booked for the day, but we got to see a picture of it in the visitor center.  It looked exactly like the launch facility in the opening scene of WarGames so I asked the Park Ranger on duty that day if any films were shot there after it was “retired.”  She advised that the site has never been used as a movie location, but launch facility set created for WarGames was accurate and identical to Minute Man.  With the exception of Michael Madsen pulling out a gun on John Spencer, even the launch sequence in the film was accurate.

Enter David Lightman (played by Matthew Broderick), a high school student and computer whiz who would rather use his talents as a hacker than apply himself in school.  He purposely gets his teachers to send him to the principal’s office so he can look up the passwords to their network and hack into their system.  During dinner with his parents, he learns that computer game company Protovision will be releasing a new line of games.  David can’t wait for them to be released, so he attempts to hack into their network and get early access to the games.

After days of research and long nights trying to crack Protovision’s network through a back door in the system, a benign remark by his friend Jennifer (played by Ally Sheedy) provides David with the logon and password he needs to break in.  But instead of hacking into Protovision, David has unwittingly hacked into the WOPR (also known as Joshua).  He is greeted by Joshua, who thinks that David is his creator Dr. Stephen Falken, and suggests a game of chess.  David insists on playing Global Thermonuclear War, however the “game” is actually the program used by the WOPR to simulate nuclear attacks.

David and Jennifer’s game sets off alarms at NORAD, and the staff headed by McKittrick and General Berringer (played by Barry Corbin) believes they are under nuclear attack by the Soviet Union.  The “threat” disappears when David shuts off his computer, and NORAD quickly learns that it was only a simulation.  They track the break in from David’s hometown of Seattle.  David quickly realizes the gravity of the situation when the simulated attack makes the evening news.  He disposes of the evidence but is still being contacted by Joshua.  The FBI takes David in for questioning at NORAD, but despite his insistence that he thought he was simply playing a game, McKittrick doesn’t believe his story and has him detained on suspicion of espionage.  He uses his tech savvy to sneak out of NORAD (which requires a little suspension of disbelief) and sets out to find Dr. Falken (played by the great John Wood) and prevent Joshua from starting a nuclear war.

What still makes the story accessible despite the dated equipment is Badham and Broderick’s representation of the fun and blank slate of the early days of home computing without dumbing it down with unrealistic graphics.  One of the caveats I’ve always had with computer/tech themed films is how the functionality of computers, networks, etc. are “jazzed up” to make computers more cinematic.  There’s a little bit of that with regard to David’s conversations with Joshua, but the simple typed lines of text typed onto an old school monitor ensure that WarGames doesn’t overachieve with regard to the functionality of early computers.

I already had a DVD copy of WarGames when the 25th Anniversary DVD was released in 2008.  Normally I would have been happy with my first copy, but this new edition had a Making Of featurette that made the purchase a no-brainer.  Despite my appreciation for WarGames and its rank among my all time favorites, I hadn’t actually researched the making of the film.

I didn’t know that John Badham had replaced Martin Brest (director of Scent of a Woman and Meet Joe Black) early in the film’s production.  Badham had received acclaim for the era defining 70’s classic Saturday Night Fever and had another hit film, Blue Thunder starring Roy Scheider released one month prior to WarGames.  Brest had Broderick and Sheedy initially playing their roles with a darker tone, but fortunately Badham lightened it up.  The beginning of the film needed the infusion of teenage innocence and cluelessness in order for the story to unfold more effectively.  The playfulness in Broderick and Sheedy’s early scenes really add to Broderick’s performance when McKittrick’s mistrust and threats hit David in the gut.

But one piece of information about the production that truly blew me away was how the producers had originally considered John Lennon to play the role of Dr. Stephen Falken.   While I think WarGames was near perfect as is, it would have been amazing to see how Lennon would have played the role.  Screenwriters Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes’ tight story combined with Badham’s direction and a fantastic, believable cast takes the audience on a great ride down to the final moments of the film.

WarGames made me and my brother beg our father to buy our first computer.  I still remember the day he drove us to Caldors department store and completely trusted us to make that purchase without balking at the price.  The Commodore 64 required a keyboard and disk drive purchased separately, and your TV would be the monitor.  The salesman asked if we also wanted the modem to go along with it.  I instantly thought of David Lightman using his modem to hack into Protovision.  Fortunately we didn’t add the modem to our purchase and we stayed at Defcon 5.

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The Films of the Summer of ’83

I had such a great time revisiting the films of the Summer of ’82 last year that I actually experienced withdrawal when I completed the retrospective.  Each week I looked forward to screening an old classic from an amazing summer, allowing me to not only revisit each film with a fresh perspective, but also to relive the excitement of many a weekend spent in the local movie theater with a large coke and a pack of Twizzlers.

I wanted to write another summer movie retrospective but wasn’t sure I would be able to find another lineup of films that could compare to what is considered the greatest movie summer for fantasy and sci-fi fans (I can’t think of another summer that had anything close to the number of fantasy and sci-fi films we were blessed with that year).  I then decided not to approach a new retrospective in comparison to last year’s on the Summer of ’82, but rather as a nostalgic celebration of summer movie going as a whole.

A glance at the films of the summer of ’83 shows a mix of classics and cult favorites in equal parts sci-fi, thriller and comedy.  Unfortunately there were several clunkers in the mix that summer, but overall it’s a lineup of films that I enjoyed in 1983 and continue to enjoy today:

Return of the Jedi (5/22/83)
WarGames (6/3/83)
Trading Places (6/8/83)
Krull (7/29/83)
National Lampoon’s Vacation (7/29/83)
Risky Business (8/5/83)
Rock & Rule (8/12/83)
Strange Brew (8/26/83)
Fire & Ice (8/26/83)

My reviews will focus mainly on the scifi, fantasy and thriller genres.  First up will be the classic 80’s Cold War thriller WarGames!

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Movies for Memorial Day 2013

The Big Red One Copyright 1980 Warner Bros.

The Big Red One
Copyright 1980 Warner Bros.

With Memorial Day coming up on Monday 5/27, I would like to thank all veterans and active members of the armed forces for their service and sacrifice.

Every Memorial Day Weekend my ritual is to check the TV listings for the war movies I grew up watching, classic war films I haven’t seen before, and a Band of Brothers marathon.  Judging by this weekend’s TV schedule, most of the films I’ll be watching this weekend will be on Turner Classic Movies and streaming video.

Here’s a list of notable movies this weekend (all times listed are EST):

On Turner Classic Movies:

Saturday, May 25:
Sergeant York (1941) 10:30 PM

Sunday, May 26:
Back to Bataan (1945) 11:00 AM
They Were Expendable (1945) 1:00 PM
The Green Berets (1968) 3:30 PM
Battleground (1949) 8:00 PM

Monday, May 27:
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) 6:15 AM
The Best Years of Our
Lives (1946) 5:00 PM

On Netflix:
The Battle of Britain (1969)
Von Ryan’s Express (1965)

On Amazon Instant Video:
The Big Red One (1980)
Gallipoli (1981)
Sahara (1943)
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
We Were Soldiers (2002)
Band of Brothers (2001)
Fixed Bayonets (1950)

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