Wednesday, April 26, 2017

My Life in Film Part 1: 1985-1989

Hello once again my dearies. There have been a few neat changes in my neck of the woods. I among several others have a whole new work schedule which so far is not only making me significantly happier, but also restoring my productivity. It's creepy how much more one can accomplish when they don't need to jack their natural sleep schedule outta whack every weekend. What this means for you all is my butt is working on a wave of new articles for here and elsewhere.
Today I'd like to start up a limited series of posts based on the “my life in film” challenge. I first encountered this years ago on The basics of the project are pretty simple. Look at every year of your life and figure out your favorite film per year. Ties are allowed in special situations but it's best to aim for one above all others.
The notion of picking a favorite flick for every year of life sounds easy, right? You'd be amazed at the range of difficulty that comes with this undertaking. Some years are nice and easy with a huge personal favorite standing out above the pack. Other years require a fine toothed comb just to find a movie you simply enjoy. Possibly the worst are those special years with tons of classics all competing for attention. Thankfully through the course of study it's easy to come across cool flicks you might have missed. With the rules outta the way let's take a look at the first five years of my life in film.

1985: Honestly......a little bit of everything but probably Silver Bullet.

Rather fittingly for the year of my birth, 1985 practically stands as a love letter to my kind of cinema. There's a crazy number of little favorites from throughout the year in damn near every genre. Classic cheesy 80s action titles like Commando, Cobra, and American Ninja. Timeless horror tales like Return of the Living Dead, Fright Night, Dawn of the Dead, Re-Animator, and Lifeforce. If you're in the comedy mood there's Clue and Real Genius, not to mention Back to the Future. There's even a few gorgeous fantasy stories like Legend and Ladyhawke.
Before starting this series I thought of making a single post about the scope of 1985. Looking at that list of titles above reveals so much of what mattered to me as a child such as musclebound action stars, gory creature features, and wild ideas. Essentially the whole year shaped my views of what entertainment should be which means picking a top dog is an almost impossible task. I mean ties are allowed but some kind of 10-way tie is clearly going overboard.
Of all the big and little classics of the year the one that I come back to more than any other is strangely, Silver Bullet. Yeah I'm talking about the Corey Haim, Gary Busey small town werewolf movie based off a Stephen King novella originally intended as a calendar. Seems like an odd pick given the range of movies available for me to choose from, doesn't it?
For the longest time I couldn't quite explain why this movie matters so much to me. There's certainly better stuff out there to watch. I think the real reason it has stuck with me for so long is that I've always been able to personally relate with the tale in some way or another. As a kid that would be looking at Marty as another kid who doesn't quite fit into regular life (it's the way ya feel growing up as a home schooled night owl with very few friends). As an adult I get to see myself as Red, a guy who does his parenting as an uncle and suffers from trouble with the ladies. Combine that with small time charm and a variety of odd side characters and it all starts to feel like home. Beyond that, this was a Monstervision favorite of mine growing up. A constant source of comfort, sort of like a baby blanket in movie form. Very fitting for the first entry on this list.

1986: Tie between Blue Velvet and Big Trouble in Little China.

Maybe it seems cheap to proclaim a tie so early in the list but in this case I really have no choice. Like 85 before it, 1986 has a fine selection of favorite flicks like Ferris Bueller, Jason Lives, and Highlander, but above and beyond all those are essentially my two favorite films of all time.
Big trouble in Little China has the nostalgia advantage as it was another tale I watched countless times on television. Every single element of this movie just works for me. I love Kurt Russel in the role of Jack Burton, a bullheaded, arrogant trucker. I love his buddy Wang as a lighthearted romantic warrior. Lo-Pan is a perfect villainous blend of sinister and sarcastic. It's pure entertainment through and through. It's hard to imagine something else competing so strongly for my affection, let alone in the same year.

I didn't see Blue Velvet until I was probably sixteen or so. I'd seen and enjoyed David Lynch's work before so the chance of catching this one Encore or something similar was impossible to pass up. From frame one I was hooked. The small town full of mysteries, the positively wacko characters, and possibly the best damn villain ever put to the screen.
While both movies are completely different in tone and style, they each illustrate a huge portion of my world view. I adore adventure, interesting personalities, secrets just below the surface of normal society. I've always held a fascination for outlandish concepts along with harsh and cruel reality. All the more, I've always had a knack for finding myself in odd situations surrounded by absolute weirdos so both stories feel comfortably real. If you ever find yourself wondering about the mindset of this odd guy whose articles you read, just blend these two films together and you might understand things from my point of view.

1987: The Lost Boys

Now this is something of an easy year to pick. Granted 1987 did bring us such glories as Predator and Evil Dead II, but for this guy, nothing beats the bright neon board walks and overstylized vampires of The Lost Boys.
Another childhood TV fave, Lost Boys never fails to impress me with it's sheer bounty of style, comedy, drama, gore, greased up saxophonists, motorcycle races, big hair, loud music, classic lines, and I could go on for quite a while at this. Every element of the story is so simple, family moves to mysterious new town, boy meets girl, other boy makes friends with eccentric comic store employees, it just keeps layering on itself like a perfectly balanced horror sandwich. In essence, it's a spooky tale for all seasons or moods.

1988: Another tie Akira and Bloodsport

That's right, it's another tie already. Give me a break, the 80's are looked on fondly for a reason. Consider that a hardcore action junkie such as myself can look at the year that gave us Die Hard and pick not just one, but two other films. Such was the bounty of that decade. I assure you there will be far less ties once we hit the 90's.
Akira has a history to it. Back when my family first got cable we made fast friends with the Sci-Fi channel, which was spelled correctly in those days. Every so often the network would showcase anime like Robot Carnival, Vampire Hunter D, and of course the heavy hitter that was Akira. The first time I saw it I didn't like it. Sure everything looked cool but the story made zero sense to me, the voice acting was lame (the original dub with ninja turtles mind you) and damn was it ever gross. Even so I viewed the movie many more times over the years still coming away dissatisfied yet willing to watch again for whatever reason. One day I was lucky enough to catch an airing with the second dub and suddenly something clicked. I somewhat understood what was going on for once and I loved it.
For what it lacks in character development or sensible storytelling, Akira makes up for with pure balls. It's a massive tale of science run amock, political intrigue, warfare, human evolution, and disillusioned youth that somehow squeezes into just over two hours of screen time. Many have song the praises of the original manga's larger scope and more concise ending but I say nay. For those guy, the movie is all that truly matters.
On the other end of the spectrum yet equally important is one of the essential entries in the Cannon Films library. We're talking about Bloodsport. A film with narrow focus, low class, and more fun than a kiddie pool full of jello.
I see no reason to attempt to defend Bloodsport. It's a delightful experience each and every time. However, I do want to mention an observation of mine and ask that you fine readers test my theory on your own time. During a moderate sized gathering of friends or family, settle in and start watching Bloodsport. Eventually someone will walk by and comment on what a dumb movie it is only to then sit and join you. Slowly but surely, more and more folks will join in much the same manner and before you know it, there's a whole room of people watching and having a great time. Everyone on the planet knows this movie is silly, yet deep down they just want to watch Van-Damme scream and kick ass.

1989 Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure

The end of the 80's was undoubtedly the decades weakest offering movie wise. From Batman, to Ghostbusters 2, and even Star Trek V, 1989 was full of movies that could be a part of your life, just not towering classics. One feature slowly wormed its way into my bloodstream over the years. One that happened to mix the time traveling antics of sci-fi with pure Californian stupidity.
Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure was never that big of a deal to me as a kid. I sort of liked it, would watch it once in a while though I was more likely to catch the second on TV. Much like Akira something eventually clicked as I entered my twenties.
For whatever the movie lacked in strong narrative, or decent production it more than made up with heart. Bill and Ted were heroes in a time when heroes didn't need to be smart or good at anything. Such was the brilliance on display in their adventures. Where other movies will focus on the best and brightest, this was a story of how humanity would one day be lead into a golden age thanks to two good-hearted dimwits. It's a movie to watch when you need reassurance that you don't need to be smart, strong, or even sensible on your path through life. You just gotta rock on and be excellent to each other.

And that was the first five years of my life in film. Next time we'll move on to the 90's and a few really unexpected favorites. Other than that I plan on having another post up before the week is out. Until then I'd love to hear some of your favorites. What was the best movie in the year you were born? Drop a comment. It'll make ya feel good and maybe earn you a cookie.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Musings On the Opening of Night Court

Growing up I watched a ton of TV. To a certain extent that statement is still true but as a kid, the glowing cyclops might as well have been an extra parent. More important than just the amount of time I spent combing the airwaves was the sheer breadth of content I consumed. Most kids would merely be satisfied to simply ingest the programming of Nickelodeon, Fox Kids, and Cartoon Network, all of which were part of my diet yet I also made the time for adult dramas, classic comedies, horror, and frankly far too many shows that weren't intended for me in any way. At least I don't imagine there were many eight-year-olds who religiously viewed Roc. All shows were welcome...except for Touched by an Angel, I know a shit sandwich when I see it.
Obviously the massive amount of TV helped (or hindered) in shaping my world view. Everything from race, religion, history, was largely pieced together thanks to Mr. Ed and Captain Kirk. I even gained a few life skills while I burned my retinas out. No shit; I learned how to slow dance thanks to every sitcom episode where some nervous kid has to learn how to dance.
Still; it's the more specific influences from TV shows that I find interesting. It's one thing to gain a love for trashy cinema thanks to Monstervision and USA's Up All Night. It's another thing entirely to shape ones opinion of a location from ten seconds of footage, which is exactly what happened to me in regards to New York City and the opening of Night Court.

For those of you who've never had the pleasure, Night Court was a nine season comedy on NBC that focused on the antics a Manhattan municipal courts night shift. There was a cast of goofball employees and a rotation of strange cases to judge along with the occasional bit of drama. It all still holds up quite well to this day, but I'm not here to sell you on the show. No; I'm here to talk about the opening credits. Primarily a choice few seconds of them. See, while most of the opening was made up of the usual character footage, the first chunk of footage was all about NYC. These shots always enthralled me yet also strangely convinced me that the big apple was a place I never needed to see in person.

What better way to kick off than the classic skyline shot? For decades this was the angle to showcase New York, that is until two rather notable elements went down. Back in the 80's however, few shots better summed-up the character of the city. The bridge, the towers, pollution both light and environmental. Shots like this are what made me such a sucker for cityscape photos. I can't help but wonder about every little point of light in those buildings. Somebody's in there. What where they doing at that precise moment in time? Yeah, I get a little meta about photography.

Next we hit the streets with what is possibly my favorite shot of the whole thing. This group of people socializing, and being that it's the 80's they're naturally smoking. Everything looks sort of run-down and cold yet they seem to be having a good enough time. 90's sitcoms like Friends often made the mistake of romanticizing New York far too much. What's on display here is so much better. These people obviously aren't rolling in cash or sipping lattes. They're just having a good time with some smokes.

Then we have the subway. Being someone who was raised and still lives in prairie country, subways have always fascinated me. It's one thing to even have public transit but these are so much more than the buses you might find around here. Whole interconnected mazes that comprise their own mini-world beneath ours. Doesn't help that I'm a sucker for lighting so the fluorescent tubes draw me in.

Another classic portrayal of the roughness of NYC was this guy. Just this brief glimpse of one man introduced so much detail and mystery. Guy's got a bag, possibly full of his earthly possessions. He's properly equipped for the shitastically cold weather, and let's not forget the bagged bottle. The basic assumption is that he's plowing through a fifth of whiskey, vodka, or whatever. I've always had this odd feeling that he's chugging cough syrup. Also gotta point out the tacky sign for chicken and sausages. Standard issue crap street food.

There's plenty to unpack with this shot of the street vendor. Never could tell what the bald guy was buying but seeing as there's a selection of candy, road maps, and skin mags on display, he was probably in for a solid night.

Having firmly established the spirit of the city, the editors finally kick in that one shot that brings in the theme of law and order. Two beat cops, lazily strolling down the sidewalk. What makes this part so special is that there's nothing special about it at all. It's just a perfect example of bored guys doing their job. You'll notice the short one is actually checking his reflection in the metal siding.

Later seasons added some more footage in between actor credits. Most of this isn't anywhere near as dear to me as those opening seconds but here's my favorite of the bunch. Once again it's a newsstand, and yes it has that lighting I love so much. These were another fascination of mine due entirely to my location. The only time I'd ever see something like a newsstand was at an airport or hospital. The idea of just strolling past these tiny stores on the sidewalk further cemented my notion that big cities may as well be other planets.

These tiny bits of footage convinced me early on in life that large cities while infinitely fascinating, simply weren't for me. The sheer honesty of the photography showed a place that was eccentric and sometimes fun while at the same time rough, messy, and sometimes downright ugly. My experiences in places like San Francisco or Chicago have only further cemented that outlook for me. I'm not a country guy by any measure mind you. I still need streetlights, neighbors, and a place to buy late night beef jerky. Simply put I'm a middle of the road type. Places like New York City will always intrigue me yet if I ever feel the need to visit all I have to do is turn on some Night Court.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Star Wars Book Club: Bloodline Review

A few years back I decided to finally embrace the idea of April Fools Day albiet with my own twist. Instead of basic pranks and gags I aim for something closer to public art. We're talking the kind of thing that will make someone stop in their tracks and scratch their head. Something of both a perk and issue with this is that it may take weeks or months for the project to be discovered. This makes it so the day itself isn't necessarily so important though the usual advent of good sprin weather tends to spur me on. Sadly this past week has been something of a rollercoaster veering wildly from sunny and pleasant to snowy and wet. Unable to set up my projects thus far I've taken time to catch up on some reading which means it's time to tell yall about more Star Wars.

For nearly the entirity of this feature one book has sat comfortably atop the quality rankings. Of course I'm talking about Lost Stars by Claudia Gray, the star crossed lovers epic of the new expanded universe. Despite the books own flaws such as some overdrafts and a flabby ending no other novel in the franchise has found such a solid a balance of scope, world building, characterization etc. It didn't seem like anyone stood a chance of dethroning that work, until the same author took another shot at the galaxy far far away. I mean who better to take down Claudia Gray than Claudia Gray?

The setting for Bloodline is six years before the force awakens. Our focus is Princess Leia and her service for the new republic senate. Things aren't so good in the senate as very little is accomplished other than bickering between the two primary political parties. Leia belongs to the populist party, a group that believes in individual planets rights to oversee their own affairs. On the other side is the centrist party that hopes to restore a more centralized powerful government that impose it's will throughout the galaxy. Does that sound familiar?
Summing up the story cleanly would prove to be something of a challenge though the core of it revolves around Leia's growing yet difficult friendship with centrist senator Ransolm Casterfo. Initially disgusted by the man when she discovers his hobby of collecting Imperial artifacts the two soon forge a bond while investigating a large criminal organization with deeper ties to something far more sinister. The scenes between these two characters are easily the strongest element of the book with Casterfo proving to be one of the finest new personalities from these books. He's a completely three-dimensional being whose flaws are never too outlandish nor are his positives too garish.

On that aforementioned investigation into the criminal underworld, it really kickstarts a story unlike most others in the franchise so far. There's bombings, assassinations, secret armies, and since it all plays out from a political perspective it comes across as a more unique adventure than the usual planet hopping antics we're accustomed too. Frankly it's a nice change of pace from the basic adventure tales that have so far made up the majority of new cannon. Think of it this way. If novels like Heir to the Jedi and Ashoka equivalent to Flash Gordon or Zatoichi than this is The Pelican Brief.

Two other key characters throughout this tale are Joph Seastriker and Greer Sonnel both of whom are decent additions though neither can match up to Leia or Casterfo. Greer in particular sticks out like a sore thumb due to a strange health subplot that doesn't show up until late in the game. Joph on the other hand is more of the typical Luke Skywalker stand in. He's young, craves adventure, blah blah blah. He's not a bad character by any means, might even qualify as good if he weren't sharing the spotlight with more interesting personalities.

One odd problem through this book comes from the writers background as a young adult author. By nature of her usual genre, Claudia Gray is used to inserting small bits of overemotional asides. In a book like Lost Stars where the cast was made up of teenagers this was acceptable. Bloodine however is about a middle aged politician so such outbursts come across as odd. It's an issue that fades away as the book goes on but a notable problem all the same.

There is another annoying element to this book that probably isn't the fault of the author. Obviously by this point in the timeline Leia has given birth to her son Ben. At this point the kid is off training with his uncle but that relationship between mother and son which would seem pretty important is hardly touched on. I'm thinking this is most likely due to the higher ups in the Star Wars story group advising Gray to steer clear of this major plot until more of it has been properly hashed out during the movies. It's just sad to read the first book about adult Leia and have it largely ignore one of the biggest developments in her life.

One more weakness is the villains. Simply put, they're not the best though that's not as big an issue here as it is in a book like Ashoka as this is more of a character driven drama than that more outright adventure.

Cutting to the chase, was Claudia Gray able to topple her long standing winner? No, not at all, but she did give it a damn fine shot. Having read so many of these books, there are very few I would call out as quality reading, but this is a legitimately good book. There's so much information about the state of the universe and the formation of the resistance to make this a must read for Star Wars nuts. Beyond that, there's enough quality storytelling to make it a worthwhile venture for more casual fans. Let's put it in the rankings.

1. Lost Stars by Claudia Gray
2. New Dawn by John Jackson Miller
3. Bloodline by Claudia Gray
4. Ashoka by E. K. Johnston
5. Tarkin by James Luceno
6. Battlefont Twilight Company by Alexander Freed
7. Moving Target by Cecil Castelluci and Jason Fry
8. Before the Awakening by Greg Rucka
9. Smuggler's Run by Greg Rucka
10. Heir to the Jedi by Kevin Hearne
11. Aftermath by Chuck Wendig
12. The Weapon of a Jedi by Jason Fry

That's all for today, folks. I'm trapped in yet another extended work weekend. On the downside that means you won't hear from me for a few days, on the upside it gives me time to work through the next novel in the series. While on the subject, how many of you out there are keeping up with these books? Any major favorites thus far? Are my rankings absolutely crap? Drop me a line, it'll keep me company at the guard shack.