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150 Films #10: Back to the Future Part II (1989)

Now, as a kid, I loved the first movie, but it seemed like kids all had Year 2000 Fever. What would the future be like? The end of Back to the Future tantalized with its flying DeLoreans, transparent neckties, and devices converting garbage into fusion energy. “Roads?” Doc Brown asks. “Where we’re going we don’t need roads.” And that, to a nerdy kid (or maybe any kid), became the Maxell/Thrillhouse moment capping an already great movie.

In 1989, at the tender age of seven, 2000 seemed a lifetime away. Anything could happen. So when trailers for Back to the Future Part II showed up, promising a future of hoverboards, flying cars, Biff Tannen casino hotels, and Michael J. Fox in drag, it instantly became the must-see movie of a year that included Batman, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, and future 150 Films entry Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

I didn’t get to see it right away, of course. The details are a little fuzzy in old man Bates’s head, but I have a recollection of being grounded when the movie came out. It’s possible the delay was caused by financial constraints; I had to wait for a lot of movies to get to the $1.50 second-run theatre behind the Burger King. Nevertheless, I bided my time with the Craig Shaw Gardner novelization available through the Troll Book Club.

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150 Films #9: Back to the Future (1985)

I can’t tell you the last time I saw Back to the Future. That’s a shame, because it holds up as possibly the best blockbuster film ever made. It’s certainly my favorite. It’s the rare blockbuster that puts a half-dozen genres into a blender, and the smoothie that comes out doesn’t taste like shit. A pastiche of teen comedy, period piece, sci-fi adventure, and romance shouldn’t work—but it does! A movie that starts out with a main character getting machine-gunned by terrorists shouldn’t stay funny—but it does! It even has a musical number that’s pivotal to the plot, a skateboard chase, a fantastic Huey Lewis & The News song, and a shitload of product placement that somehow doesn’t distract from the story! Combine all that with perfect casting, great direction by Robert Zemeckis, and some truly fantastic editing by Arthur Schmidt and Harry Keramidas. I ended up watching it twice, a 150 Films First™.

As I watched (the first time), I tried to pull back and be objective. No easy task, since Back to the Future has both familiarity and an indelible link to feelings of pure childhood joy, but I knew going into it that I’d have to ask The Question: Does this movie actually work, or do I simply love it because of the good vibes?

I can’t claim true objectivity, but I do think the movie works, in a big way. It comes down to two major reasons: characters and universal appeal. Now, let me explain the latter first. “Universal appeal” is a loaded Hollywood buzzword that often means nothing; when it means something, it tends to mean “dumb it down.” Back to the Future doesn’t dumb things down, but it appeals to a wide audience by crafting a plot that hinges on a handful of thoughts I believe all American teenagers have had: I wonder what my parents were like when they were teenagers. Were their parents as clueless and out-of-touch? Were things really so different that they can’t understand what I want from life?

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150 Films #8: The Apartment (1960)

This movie used to fill me with hope.

Not long ago, I found myself locked in a pattern that seemed inescapable. I only seemed to attract, and be attracted to, what I later termed “the three A’s”: addicts, assholes, and/or actresses. At the time, I knew it didn’t make me happy, but I couldn’t see any other choice but remaining alone. I often did, but that didn’t make me happy, either. It took a great deal of introspection, not to mention psychological and philosophical learning, to realize I had a say in the matter. My attractions were not an accident of fate, and I could break the pattern—and not just with loneliness.

At the time, though, trapped as I felt, The Apartment became the sole beacon on an endless, eternally stormy shore. The story of my relationships tended to unfold very much like C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) and Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), to the extent that, yes, sometimes the meet-cute involved a suicide attempt (or several). Often, it would begin with pining for an acquaintance or friend involved with a real Fred MacMurray-style asshole. The pining wouldn’t even begin with thoughts of romance. It started with me as the sympathetic shoulder to cry on, happy to offer comfort and advice. That would turn into something resembling pity, always a great foundation for romance: “Why does she stay with this clown?” I would wonder, sometimes aloud to her. Pity would turn to thoughts of rescue, what my friend Tarini calls “White Knight Syndrome”—and that, my friends, would start a romantic attraction brewing.

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150 Films #7: American Splendor (2003)

When I first started this blog, I had no idea what it would be.

It started when a friend offered a coveted LiveJournal invitation, back when that was the place to be if you were a young narcissist wanting to share your thoughts with the world. I’m not sure if it still works this way, but at the time you had the option of either paying a fee to acquire a LiveJournal—or a friend who had an account could invite you for free. As LiveJournal grew in popularity, I remember coveting friends who had received invitations. When I finally got one, it seemed like a big deal.

It went downhill very quickly. I treated my LiveJournal like, well, a journal. Random thoughts and quotes were fine, but when I started telling long-form stories about my life, the friend who invited me started yelling at me. “If you’re going to write such long entries, you have to put in a cut.” A “cut” was the same idea as the “jump” in a newspaper (or blog). Cuts bothered me, because LiveJournal had a rudimentary social-networking function where friends could follow each other, and as a user you could look at a custom feed of all your friends’ entries. At the time, the majority of my LiveJournal friends were actual, flesh-and-blood friends from high school and college. The only place my posts showed up was on my LiveJournal page or on my friends’ feeds. I kept thinking, “Why wouldn’t my actual friends want to read actual stories about my life?” Which led to the thought, “Why aren’t they putting any effort into journaling?”

In short, I think I didn’t really “get” LiveJournal.

It wasn’t too long before a friend of mine decided to start a web-hosting company and gave me a friendly discount. When he set up my space, he asked me if I wanted a blog. I could be misremembering, but I think it was the first time I’d ever heard the term before. I didn’t know what it meant, and he had to explain that it was short for “weblog,” a relatively new type of website that was little more than a self-hosted LiveJournal. Since I felt myself chafing under the restrictive etiquette of LiveJournal, I said, “Sure,” and imported my LiveJournal entries to my new blog.

But I still didn’t know what it would be.

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150 Films #6: All the Right Moves (1983)

My path to All the Right Moves began with Rosie O’Donnell.

Back in the ’90s, she had a phenomenally popular daytime talk show. O’Donnell used to have a sense of humor—a great, quick wit, in fact—and as a kid, she was one of my favorite stand-up comics. In fact, I remember during the late-’80s comedy boom, Stand-Up Spotlight on VH1 was appointment television for my sister and me, not because of all the great comedians but because Rosie O’Donnell hosted and did little jokes between each act. Then, she became the standout in A League of Their Own, which I feel like must have run on HBO 400 times a day. In our house, she was beloved by the whole family.

During the summer, the TV would invariably be on channel five at three o’clock. Even though I was at an age when it was wiser to act too cool for O’Donnell’s schtick, it was never a coincidence that if I was bumming around the house, I’d end up in the living room, pretending not to pay attention to her show.

One of the more memorable quirks of the O’Donnell persona was her near-obsessive crush on All the Right Moves star Tom Cruise. On an episode where Lea Thompson joined O’Donnell to promote Caroline in the City, O’Donnell played an eye-opening clip from the film and demanded Thompson dish on the experience.

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150 Films #5: All the President’s Men (1976)

The truth matters.

The news media drives me nuts, because I want every reporter to be a Bob Woodward or a Carl Bernstein. I want every editor to be a Ben Bradlee or a Harry Rosenfeld. Because, at the end of the day, what sets All the President’s Men (both the film and the book) apart from many tales of cover-ups and corruption is that it’s a story of the work, not what the work uncovered. It’s a story about the importance of a free press, and what it can accomplish when all the players want the same thing: the truth, the objective facts of the all-important five Ws.

Journalism has declined since the advent of cable news and, especially, the internet. It’s getting worse, too, as the social media electro-din gives meaning to the meaningless and spins stories before journalists even get their hands on them. Social media can be used as a tool, and so can cable news, and so can any other method of communication. But people tweeting are not journalists, and democracy doesn’t mean the truth becomes what the majority says it is.

All the President’s Men is the story of reporters pulling a string that, once unraveled, brought down the President of the United States. It’s the story of an editorial board keeping in check their exuberance, which at times bordered on irresponsibility. It’s the story of criminals who believed they were above the law, but perhaps not so above the law that they could get away with “disappearing” the only two reporters pulling at their string.

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We’ll Always Have Paris

“Jews invented spark plugs to control global traffic.”
Four Lions (2010)

I’m going to be a little bit of a dick here, because I don’t like a lot of what I’m seeing here on social media, which I’m too dumb to ignore at a time when I know I should. Don’t get me wrong, the outpouring of sympathy is nice; guilt-tripping memes, renewed calls to prayer and/or arms, and victim-blaming is not.

Prayer will never work. People need to take action, but not the kind of action that has been taken thus far. The western world’s fourteen years of Whac-a-Mole® in the Middle East has not worked. Call me cynical, but I don’t believe diplomacy can succeed, either. The U.S. has been secretly and not-so-secretly backing political coups, most of them leading to tightly controlled dictatorships, for more than half a century. This form of “diplomacy” is unacceptable from a country that is supposed to value freedom of choice.

But even diplomacy in a more honest fashion, in which we step back and try to talk to Middle Eastern leaders like grown-ups, will not work. When Muslim extremists gain political power through legitimate means, they do not talk to anyone like grown-ups, not even the moderate Muslims—their alleged brothers and sisters—stuck under their thumb. When they gain power through conquest, they talk even less like grown-ups.

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150 Films #4: Aliens (1986)

Here’s the thing about Alien: it doesn’t really have characters. It has charismatic actors with a ton of personality, who bring things to the characters that have little bearing on the story, but the closest it comes to “character” is in making Ash (Ian Holm) seem vaguely untrustworthy. Horror tends to get away with this lack of character more than other genres; the mark of a great “line ’em up and knock ’em down” slasher story often has less to do with the writer(s) making the audience care about the characters and more to do with the actors leaving a memorable impression. Nobody wants Harry Dean Stanton or Yaphet Kotto to die, but what do we know about their characters?

They’re blue-collar grunts in charge of keeping the ship operational, and they want even shares. That’s it. Why do we care about them? Because they’re Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Kotto, and they just will that type of good energy.

In most ways, Aliens merely ups the ante of its predecessor, adding horror to an action-movie template by giving us more aliens, more firepower, and more fighters—and having them still get their asses kicked. But in important ways, James Cameron’s screenplay deviates from the “raise the stakes” mentality by playing with the slasher convention of “memorable actor over deep character.” Playing on our collective memories of Ash, he casts professional scary motherfucker Lance Henriksen as the android Bishop, whose gentle calmness is made into a potential threat just because of the actor playing him. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Paul Reiser radiates kindness and decency as Carter Burke, Company man and eventual turncoat.

More importantly, though, Cameron gives Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) an arc. Granted, the arc was largely removed in the theatrical cut, but it informs Weaver’s performance throughout. After returning to Earth after 57 years floating in deep space, the first (and only) thing Ripley wants to know is what became of her daughter. Burke tracks her down and informs Ripley that she died a few years prior. This pivotal scene, restored in the director’s cut, lets the audience know three things: (1) Ripley is mourning both the loss of her daughter and the loss of her motherhood, (2) Ripley really has nothing to live for, and (3) Burke isn’t all bad (casting his eventual deception into a more interesting shade of gray).

Cameron adds much subtler character moments to the ensemble of Space Marines, as well: the intense bond between the otherwise depthless Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) and Drake (Mark Rolston), Hudson’s (Bill Paxton) occasional moments of seriousness and competence, Lieutenant Gorman (William Hope) straining to prove himself after realizing early on how out of his depth he is… As the body count rises, this small (sometimes very small) amount of texture enhances characters beyond mere memorable performances. When Drake, who can’t have more than ten lines of dialogue, is among the first to die, Vasquez’s anguish says everything about their bond; because she cares, we do.

This, more than anything, is what elevates Aliens among the original in my book. It’s not about Cameron following the beats of the first film while relentlessly upping the ante, or the decision to shift the genre from “a haunted house in space” to an action/war film. It’s the small touches that enhance this film. Cameron is wise enough to know he lacks the element of surprise, so he shifts the focus from, as Gene Shalit might say, scares to care. Also, lots of guns and shit blowing up.

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150 Films #3: Alien (1979)

Let’s get this out of the way off the top: I haven’t seen every Ridley Scott film, but I’ve seen most of them, and I only like three: Kingdom of Heaven (the director’s cut), White Squall, and Alien. Some directors do very little for me, like Martin Scorsese, but at least I can see why others like him. Ridley Scott’s most highly regarded films—like Blade Runner and Gladiator—have mystified me. Why do people like these movies? How did Thelma & Louise get so huge? Why hasn’t anyone noticed the patchwork of garbage he pumps out between the hits are the rule, not the exception?

The first time I saw Alien, I had no idea who or what a Ridley Scott was. I was an innocent lad of perhaps 12. I had a friend at school who had somehow finagled his way into the “cool kid” crowd despite his passionate love of Star Trek: The Next Generation and soccer (shudder). We were both late to the TNG party, so when WPWR started playing reruns every day after school, we’d race home to watch the episodes and call each other to discuss what had happened. Conversation often lingered on Counselor Troi’s costuming and whether or not Ensign Ro was hot without the weird Bajoran nose ridges, but we were into it more for the sci-fi than the babes at that point.

This friend moved away at some point and we lost touch, so I’ll call him Sean since I can’t solicit his permission to talk about him on the blog. Sean came from an increasingly popular ’90s fad: the broken home. His dad had disappeared long before we were friends, his mom had remarried, and he had the misfortune of suddenly having an older stepsister that every guy in school wanted to bone. Wait, maybe that’s why the cool kids liked him. I remember him getting distressed more than once when he found out a “friend” had used him to get in good with his sister. The point of bringing this up isn’t to rehash 20-year-old gossip; the fractured family unit and older stepsister allowed him a gateway into things my parents would not approve.

That’s how I ended up seeing Alien—eventually. One afternoon, riding bikes around town, we were talking Trek when he brought up a more mature variation on the space opera. “Have you ever seen it?” he asked.

Seen it? I’d barely even heard of it. My dim awareness came courtesy of repeated viewings of Spaceballs. My mom had explained to me that John Hurt’s cameo was a parody of the movie Alien, the only movie my dad ever walked out of (because he was totally grossed out by “that scene”). So I kinda had that ruined for me, ultimately, but I didn’t realize it at the time.

Sean described it as “like Star Trek, only more realistic.” He also told me it was incredibly violent and full of action, and the sequel Aliens was “even better, because it has more action.”

The very thought excited me. Plus, I knew my parents had seen it, so they’d know whether or not I was old enough to see it. When I got home, I asked if we could rent the movies.

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150 Films #2: Action Jackson (1988)

Thanks to the magic of the alphabet, 150 Films kicked off on what I hope is an unusually serious note. Above the Law has the gloss and intensity of a straight-ahead action movie, but level-headed Andrew Davis tempers it with gritty Chicago locations and a serious political thriller story. This gave me license for both short-form political ranting and exalting both Davis and Steven Seagal to what I believe are their rightful places among the cinematic firmament. Together, they made a truly great action thriller, high above the dumb fun Seagal would later make.

But I like dumb fun, which is why I’m glad the alphabet blessed me with an immediate follow-up as sublimely stupid as Action Jackson.

Joel Silver, one of the few contemporary über-producers who has become a household name, does not get his proper due. Because he cut his teeth on early Walter Hill collaborations (48 Hours, Streets of Fire, Brewster’s Millions) and made himself a household name through blockbuster action films (the staggering run of Commando, Predator, Lethal Weapon, and Die Hard), he often gets lumped into the Jerry Bruckheimer/Don Simpson camp of hyper-masculine, coke-fueled insanity.

It’s my contention that Silver has both a better eye for quality and a much better sense of humor about his work than other action producers. Almost from the instant he became an “overnight” success, Silver became almost perversely dedicated to satirizing a genre he helped popularize. While putting his offbeat authorial stamp on relatively serious action franchises, as well as modestly successful one-offs like Ricochet (1991), he was also producing subversive mockery of his own work via Road House (1989, same year as Lethal Weapon 2), The Adventures of Ford Fairlane (1990, same year as both Die Hard 2 and Predator 2), Hudson Hawk (1991), and The Last Boy Scout (also 1991).

What is Action Jackson, then? Is it the first self-conscious satire of the Silver brand, or is it merely an absurd, ragingly stupid film enhanced by Silver’s twisted authorial stamp? Let’s call this a rhetorical question, because I don’t think the answer matters. Regardless of intent, Action Jackson, from moment one, fills the screen with over-the-top bombast and cartoonish silliness.

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