1. Robin Williams sees Amanda Plummer across a crowded train station and the entire scene becomes a hallucinatory ballroom dance. (The Fisher King)
  2. Charlie Chaplin attaches dinner rolls to the ends of two forks and then makes them dance. (The Gold Rush)
  3. Our heroes draw their guns and head out into the ambush. The final shot of the film is a freeze-frame on their approach, and a viewer is uncertain whether or not they live or die. (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid)
  4. Lloyd Dobbler holds a boombox over his head and blares “In Your Eyes” as he stands in the driveway, hoping to get the attention of the love of his life. (Say Anything)
  5. Indiana Jones pulls a gun and shoots his adversary rather than waste time with a drawn-out battle by sword. (Raiders of the Lost Ark)

That was my list. My list of “Top 5 Single Moments in Any Movie Ever.” All iconic. All easily recognizable. All perfect representations of why I love those particular films in the first place. A lot of thought went into that list. It wasn’t an easy list to create.

But . . . on the afternoon of Saturday, April 27, 2019, I discovered another “moment”. And now I have to decide which of the five moments I just mentioned no longer holds a place on the list. Because this newly-discovered moment trumps everything else that I’ve already added. This moment, I gotta tell you, is a moment that I have been waiting to see for pretty much my entire life.

This is the point where I feel obligated to provide two warnings: a) I will be, from this sentence forward, discussing and spoiling plot points from The Avengers: Endgame. If you have not seen the movie yet, you may want to STOP READING NOW! b) I’m about to come across as the geekiest geeky geek that ever did geeky geek. I would apologize for that if there was anything that I could possibly do to help it. But my statement above– you know, the one about “waiting to see this moment for pretty much my entire life”?– is not hyperbolic in any way. It is, quite literally, the truth.

Avengers: Endgame Poster

I have been an avid reader and collector of comic books for almost my entire life. It started right around kindergarten with The Fantastic Four, a comic that was also read and enjoyed by my grandfather, a man I greatly admired. He had stacks of these comic books in a cardboard box next to a chair on a back porch that no one ever seemed to use. Then, it was The Amazing Spider-Man, a comic book mainstream enough that it was available at local libraries. And then . . . I was introduced to Captain America. A dear friend of mine had an obsession with Captain America comics because his father, who had served in the military, and his grandfather, who had seen combat in the Korean War, were both fans of the character. As opposed to my grandfather, who had a stack of about fifty assorted issues of Fantastic Four, my friend’s father and grandfather were collectors. They had almost every issue. They had been collecting them for years. For decades, even. They were in ratty condition from years of mishandling and abuse, but they had them. I must have read every single issue fifty times.

Jump ahead to middle school. I’m purchasing my own comics with my own allowance, so funds are tight. I can only afford to regularly buy maybe two titles a month. I get Fantastic Four and Daredevil. Another friend gets Amazing Spider-Man and The Punisher. A third friend gets The Avengers and X-Men. A fourth gets Captain America and The Incredible Hulk. You get the idea. We shared the comics amongst the group, I allowed them to read my comics in exchange for their comics, etcetera etcetera. We were able to keep up on story elements and new character introductions without having to purchase the comics ourselves. To wit: I wasn’t buying Captain America any longer, but I was still obsessed and still following the character religiously.

Jump ahead to adulthood. I still collect comics. Correction: I collect one comic. But technology being what it is, with advancements being what they are, I can still read all of the comics I used to read. The only difference is that I do it digitally on my laptop or smartphone. I currently have a digital collection that contains more comics than I can ever read in my lifetime. Don’t judge me.

At any rate . . . the point, right? I’m getting to it. All of this seemingly-endless backstory just to make clear that I love Captain America. And have since I was wee. It is not too far of a stretch to say that I learned to read in the first place with Captain America comics. It is a fiction character for which I harbor a love that is very, very real.

The afternoon of Saturday, April 27, 2019, I head to the theater to see Endgame. I post something on Facebook about how the movie starts in ten minutes. I make some snarky remark about needing a ride home if they kill Captain America because I will be too inconsolable to drive. I have my ginger ale, my popcorn. The trailers are beginning. A few minutes in, it occurs to me that I may have not turned off the ringer on my phone. I double check to make sure and see that I  have just received a text from Karen that says “message me when you get out!” Knowing that she had seen the movie the night before, I immediately know, deep in my heart, that Steve Rogers is going to die in this movie. Karen just wants to be the first say “I’m sorry for your loss”, knowing what this character means to me. Right?


As it turns out, Captain America does not die in this movie.

As opposed to Black Widow, who dies after a fight with Hawkeye over which one gets the right to sacrifice themselves. Or Tony Stark, who was the beginning of this franchise and has become its emotional core. But those two deaths didn’t make me cry. I was already crying by the time Tony Stark bites the dust, and I had been for about a half hour.

What made me start crying? Two words. Uttered by Captain America. “Avengers . . . assemble!” I started bawling. And that wasn’t even the part I had waited my whole life to see. That part was a few minutes earlier.

Thor is battling Thanos. Thor reaches out for Mjolnir, his trusted hammer. Mjolnir begins to stir and rise. Mjolnir sails across the screen . . . over Thor’s head . . . and lands IN CAPTAIN AMERICA’S HAND! I’ll repeat that: CAPTAIN AMERICA WIELDS THE HAMMER OF THOR! I don’t know what happens next because I lost my god damn mind. I did hear Thor shout: “I knew it!” I thought to myself: “I knew it, too!” And then I was just a melted puddle of nerdy goo, fourteen years old again, and I pretty much stayed that way until the end of the movie.

Captain America has wielded the hammer many times in the comic throughout the years. The very notion that it was a possibility was teased in The Avengers: Age of Ultron. In that movie, the entire team are getting their drink on at a party. Thor’s hammer, or, rather, the attempt to lift it, becomes a party game of sorts. Captain America moves it, but only slightly. He doesn’t lift it. Just sort of nudges it back and forth. Thor reacts to this. Captain America lets go. It’s never mentioned again until Endgame. You know, in that scene where CAPTAIN AMERICA WIELDS THE HAMMER.

And he doesn’t just wield the hammer, either. He goes into battle with it. He twirls it like we’ve seen Thor do. He bangs it against his vibranium shield and creates lightning. He proves that he is worthy. He is the center of the single greatest moment in any movie that I have ever seen. A moment that, as we have already established, I have waited my entire life to see.

So . . . sorry. One of the five moments on the list I already made has to go.

I maybe ought to take a moment here to apologize to Karen. She never knew that I did it, but I really did assume that Steve Rogers was about to become a great super soldier in the sky because of her five-minutes-into-the-movie text. I have since discovered that what really happened in this situation is that Karen knows my own love for Captain America and had seen the movie the night before. She knew what moment was going to stick with me. She knew– had foretold the night before, in fact– that I was going to come completely and irrevocably fanboy unhinged. She was probably, truth told, grateful that I was seeing the movie on the second day so that she wouldn’t have to keep it secret for very long.

Captain America does not die in Endgame. He’s never been more alive.

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“We come in peace! We come in peace!”

Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. Batman. Beetlejuice. Batman Returns.

All movies that I love. All movies that I have a fond nostalgia for. All movies that I can pretty much tell you where I was and who I was with when I saw them for the first time.  All movies directed by Tim Burton.

I really love Tim Burton. And, as a child, I doubt that I was cognizant enough of such matters to connect that all of these movies that I loved and was religiously rewatching were made by the same director. I connected those dots later, probably sometime after seeing and falling irrevocably in love with The Nightmare Before Christmas (which Burton did not direct, but created and produced). But I was in high school then and actually cared by that point about what movies were made by certain directors and what movies by directors whose work I enjoyed I was still yet to see.

In 1994, Tim Burton made a film called Ed Wood that was nothing at all like anything else he had ever done before. It had the director’s trademark whimsy, sure, but it was lacking in the director’s trademark vision. Even as amusing as it is, this is a film that the director obviously intended for a viewer to take seriously. Filmed entirely in black and white, Ed Wood was a bio-pic of a real person, a film director who, more than likely, was of considerable inspiration to Tim Burton. Ed Wood, the real one, was an independent filmmaker in the 1950’s whose work is marked for all time as evidence that the filmmaker didn’t have a lick of talent for the art of filmmaking. His most famous film, an almost-unwatchable 78 minutes of D-grade schlock called Plan 9 From Outer Space, tops many internet lists as possibly being the worst film ever made. Anyone with this movie on their list has a position easy to defend.

But hold on . . . this article is not about Plan 9 From Outer Space. It’s not even about Ed Wood. It’s about the movie Tim Burton released after doing Ed Wood. It’s called Mars Attacks! and it’s awful. One has to wonder why Tim Burton would follow up (probably) his best movie with a ridiculous dumpster fire of a movie that, forty years prior, would only have been made by . . . Ed Wood.

Mars Attacks! Poster

Released in 1996, Mars Attacks! is a not-very-funny comedy about an invasion of Earth by hyper-intelligent beings from Mars. When the Martians arrive on Earth, they confuse a dove, released at the meet-and-greet by a hippie, as a sign of Earth’s hostility and all hell breaks loose. The President of France is assassinated by alien invaders. Congress is destroyed . Millions of people are decimated. People are kidnapped by vicious aliens, dismembered, and left to survive as disembodied sentient heads in jars. Jack Nicholson plays two roles (including the most ineffectual world leader possibly ever depicted on film). Vegas lounge singer Tom Jones is instrumental in the future of humanity. Slim Whitman’s song “Indian Love Call” is used as a weapon of mass destruction. It’s all pretty terrible.

And I loved every second of it.



Image result for mars attacks trading cards 1962Let’s back up a second . . . I have to explain that I had an interest in this movie beyond my love for the director. Mars Attacks! is based on a set of trading cards. That’s right. Trading cards. From a company called Topps, which most people would recognize as a company that makes and distributes baseball cards. The original cards were very innovative for their use of using individual cards to tell a single story, with each card serving as one panel of an ongoing comic book. Collect all the cards and you’ve collected the entire story. 

The original cards told a ground-breaking science-fiction saga about Martians discovering that Mars is about to explode due to internal pressure in the planet’s core. They invade Earth in attempt to colonize and move their civilization. The cards were petty graphic, depicting futuristic battle scenes, recognizable Earth landmarks being decimated, and bizarre methods of human torture and slaughter. The original cards were drawn by artists Wally Wood and Norman Saunders.

Let’s back up again . . . I’ve been a comic book collector for most of my life. My favorite comic book among all of the ones I’ve read and enjoyed over the years is a Marvel comic called Daredevil. I’m sure you’re familiar with Daredevil, if not from the recent stellar Netflix series, from the less-than-good 2003 movie starring Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner. Marvel first started printing Daredevil in 1964. When it started, Daredevil looked like this:
Image result for daredevil 1964 yellow suit
The comic struggled in sales for the first several months and was near cancellation until issue 7 when Daredevil started to look like this:
Image result for daredevil 1964 red suit wally wood
New design, new character concept, and the book began to sell again. The artist responsible for this character design, and perhaps the revitalization of a comic book that has now existed for fifty-five years, was very popular at the time. That artist was none other than . . . Wally Wood.

Okay. We’re essentially caught up. I’m a fan of Wally Wood (who is also well-known for his work in Mad Magazine). I’m a fan of the trading cards. I’m a fan of Tim Burton. This movie was high up on my list of movies I needed to see in 1996.

I saw it on opening night, and left the movie theater pondering why I was contemplating going back to see a movie that I didn’t find very funny and kinda bored me. I thought to myself that maybe I just didn’t get it. But what’s there to get? The movie is broadly-acted. The special effects (with a few exceptions) are not very good. An excellent all-star cast (including Pierce Brosnan, Glenn Close, Annette Bening, Natalie Portman, Michael J. Fox, Martin Short, and Danny Devito) is pretty much wasted with little screen time or nothing of note to do. The plot is incomprehensible. The violence is cartoonish and senseless. The laughs are juvenile and not very funny. There didn’t seem to be much here to get. This is clearly not a very good movie. Why oh why, do I want to go see this piece of trash again?

It took me quite a few years and, yes, repeated viewings to realize that I answered the question I started this entry with simply by asking the question. Why would Tim Burton follow up a brilliant, introspective, thought-provoking, Oscar-winning film (Ed Wood won two Academy Awards– one for make-up and one for Martin Landau, Best Supporting Actor for his career-defining depiction of frustrated Plan 9 From Outer Space star, Bela Lugosi) with mindless trash that looks like it might have been made by Ed Wood himself? Because Mars Attacks! looks like it might have been made by Ed Wood himself.

Mars Attacks! isn’t supposed to be any good. It was never intended to be any good. It was intended to be schlock late-night drive-in movie garbage. It was intended, in short, to be an homage to the director that inspired Tim Burton enough to make the well-received film that pretty much put him on the map in the first place. Burton was popular before Ed Wood, to be sure. But he wasn’t horribly credible. Not really taken seriously. Not really seen as a director that should be taken seriously. Certainly not an Oscar winner. Ed Wood gave movie snobs that would never deign to recommend Beetlejuice (if they ever even watched it in the first place) a reason to take notice of his work, of his visionary approach to storytelling. It gave them reason to excitedly wonder what this weird, gothic little man might be up to next. The joke’s on them because what he was up to next was Mars Attacks!

If you accept Mars Attacks! as an homage to Ed Wood, then it really works. It’s not even an homage so much as it is an imitation. For this reason, it might just be the most brilliant film in the entire Tim Burton canon.

I really do have a soft spot for Tim Burton. He’s only made one movie that I haven’t watched repeatedly (2001’s Planet of the Apes was a pointless and idiotic remake of a movie that I hold very dear to my heart). And I agree that not all of his movies are good (not a tremendous fan of either Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Alice in Wonderland either– but I blame Depp for that more than I do Burton). Mars Attacks!, as I’ve stated, is also not very good. But it’s heart is in the right place.

Ed Wood would have loved it. And I think that’s the point.


“Cheer up. The world’s gonna end in ten minutes anyway.”

When we decided to spend the month focusing our attentions on “women who kick ass”, I knew immediately what movie I wanted to write about. It’s a personal favorite of mine, and has been since I first saw it in 1995. But as discussion continued, I thought of more heroines that deserved attention (Leeloo in The Fifth Element, Lola in Run, Lola, Run, Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgement Day). I was beginning to talk myself out of writing about one of my favorite movies. But I rewatched the movie, and while I find it problematic as a recommendation (I’ll get to that in a moment), I discovered a snippet of trivia that made it the pitch-perfect choice as a movie that features a kick-ass female protagonist.

The movie is directed by Kathryn Bigelow. You would know her for her memorable action films (including 1991’s Point Break). She did an impressive independent vampire film in 1987 called Near Dark. But in 2008, she did a movie called The Hurt Locker and won an Oscar for Best Direction for her efforts. This Oscar win was a milestone in that it made Kathryn Bigelow the first woman to ever win this particular award. Actually, she is the only woman in the history of the Academy Awards (almost 90 years!) to take home a statuette for Best Director.

How’s that for women who kick ass?

Image result for strange days

Strange Days was released in 1995.  I had never seen anything like it.

I still haven’t.

(Consider this your warning that this article will contain SPOILERS!)

The film takes place on the final day of 1999 as Los Angeles prepares for the possibility that “the millennium bug” or “Y2K” is going to ignite the end of the world by the end of the night. The hot drug on the streets is “Playback”, a cyber-drug that allows the user to get high on another person’s experiences with a retro-fitted CD Discman, a machine called a Super-conducting Quantum Interference Device (or SQUID). The SQUID allows a wearer to record experiences through their own eyes. The tapes of those experiences can be played back by another user. Do you want to have sex with a beautiful blonde? Do you want to feel the adrenalin rush of robbing a bank? Do you want to know what it feels like to die? If you want it, you can probably find it on “Playback.”

Image result for ralph fiennes strange days

The movie stars Ralph Fiennes as Lenny Nero. Lenny used to be a Los Angeles police officer. Now, he’s a street hustler, dealing in “Playback” tapes. I don’t think Ralph Fiennes has ever played a character as pathetic as Lenny Nero. Unkempt and sweaty, Lenny is addicted to his own product, specifically to tapes from his personal collection, recordings of his time with Faith (played by Juliette Lewis), an up-and-coming rock singer that has left him, a direct result of Nero’s increasing paranoia.

The film is co-written by James Cameron, so I don’t think I have to tell you that the film continually winds back in on itself as the plot gets progressively more and more complicated. And it does get complicated. What starts out as Lenny receiving a secret “playback” clip that shows a woman being raped and murdered turns into Lenny receiving a “playback” clip that shows Los Angeles police executing a well-known African-American hip hop artist and revolutionary. This, naturally, turns into Lenny needing constant protection as he is hunted down by the two offending officers (played by Vincent D’Onofrio and William Fichtner).

Protection for Lenny comes in the form of Mace. She’s a limo driver, and Lenny’s best friend and bodyguard. Played by Angela Bassett, she is, for me, the heart and soul of this film.

We don’t get a lot of back story on Mace, but we see in flashbacks that her ex-husband was a loser and that Lenny was the police officer that read stories to her child while the other officers arrested him. She is protective of Lenny and very obviously loves him.

Bassett’s performance is very nuanced. Is Mace protecting  Lenny because she has to, or because she needs to? Is protecting Lenny her job, or her mission?  Consider this exchange:

LENNY: Have you ever been in love with someone who didn’t return that love?
MACE: Yeah, Lenny, I have.
LENNY: It didn’t stop you from loving them, right? Or being able to understand them or forgive them?
MACE: I guess.

I think there’s a little bit of both. Suffice it to say that, by the end of this film, Mace will have saved Lenny in every way imaginable. She fights bad guys for him. She almost drowns for him. She reminds him that friendship is “more than one person constantly doing favors for another.” She helps him love himself.

This entire movie is worth the watch for Angela Bassett alone.

Image result for juliette lewis strange daysWith that said, since I am recommending that this film get a second look so highly, I feel obligated to mention that the film is problematic in more than one regard. For one thing, the film is incredibly dated. Since we all know that the world didn’t end on December 3, 1999, the movie loses some of its impact. But that isn’t nearly as problematic as the film’s treatment of women. Despite a female director, despite how effectively drawn and nuanced the character of Mace is, the rest of the film has a pretty uncomfortable outlook on women. There are two other (admittedly, strong) female characters in this film. The first, Iris, is brutally murdered and raped before the film is halfway finished, and the second, Faith (played by Juliette Lewis) spends a good portion of the film nude. It should be said, though, that Juliette Lewis’s performance in this film is very strong. And there are two sequences of Faith in concert, where all the vocals and musicianship are recreated by Lewis herself. If I have a crush on Juliette Lewis (and I do), it’s because of this performance in this film. 

The film itself is also very frenetic, though. It’s almost a sadistic onslaught to your senses. The music is loud. The violence is brutal. The shots are edited in quick succession. And the long point-of-view sequences that depict “playback” are jumpy and may require dramamine. In direct defense of the latter, though, the camera equipment used to film these sequences was invented for use in this film and required more than a year’s worth of work before filming could even begin. That’s one more thing about this film that has been criminally overlooked.

Strange Days is nothing if it isn’t flawed. But there is a great irony in a movie that deals so effectively with memory being so difficult to forget. If you’ve seen this movie, let’s discuss it. If you haven’t, I promise you’ll want to discuss it if you do.


On “Ghostbusters”, or “You, bastard kid! Get the hell away from my god damn car!”

I saw Ghostbusters for the first time during the summer of 1984. The film had just been released in theatres, and my brother and I were treated to this film as an apology of sorts for a misunderstanding from a stranger.

We had just moved to Champaign. My parents were separated, but not yet divorced. In the fall, I would be starting third grade. My brother would begin afternoon Kindergarten. My sister would be starting high school. My mother was working a ton of hours between day shifts as a nurse at The Champaign County Children’s Home, a home for developmentally-disabled children and night shifts as a waitress at Lincoln Lodge, a restaurant that I later worked at while doing summer stock theatre.

We were renting a house in a residential neighborhood on Columbia Avenue in west Champaign. It was a nice neighborhood. There was very little traffic. And there were a lot of other children in the area, ideal for two kids such as Kipton and I, who hated being confined in the house for too long. There was a set of train tracks that passed behind our house, and many hours were wasted searching for pennies that we had left to be flattened. Kipton, in particular, had a fondness for trains.

Our neighbors to the immediate west were an elderly couple named Ted and Evelyn Jude. There weren’t dotteringly old, though, probably in their sixties. A very nice couple, the type of people who brought lemonade out to the kids who were running through their yard. They had a dog, an annoyingly yippy dog named Spaniel. Ted owned a 1965 Chevy Malibu that to this day I would swear is the coolest car I’ve ever ridden in.

That summer was a scary summer for me: it was a transition between one town where we knew everybody and another town where we knew no one. I was anxious about school starting (where I came from, being the “new kid” had a stigma attached to it). There was a lot of yelling and screaming around the house since Mom and Dad were severing the last cords of their marriage, since Dad wasn’t around anymore to interfere in the almost-constant arguing between my sister and mother, and since no one was around to keep me from bullying my younger brother. Kipton was six and didn’t quite understand what all this “divorce nonsense” was all about, this confusion only being compounded by Dad moving back in occasionally and making us all pretend that he and Mom were still married whenever my extremely-religious grandparents came to visit. I spent a lot of time away from the house, to say the least.

Ted and Evelyn had a daughter whose name I can’t recall. She was married and lived in Rhode Island and had three sons all around my age. That summer, they were visiting for four weeks and so Evelyn’s house became an escape. At my house, there was deception and noise. At Evelyn’s house, there were other kids and frivolity. I spent a lot of time there over those three weeks. But I didn’t at first…

I can’t remember the names of the boys (Christopher is ringing a bell for the oldest one), but on the day they arrived from Rhode Island, Kipton and I were in the front yard, using sticks and rocks to build shelters for our Star Wars action figures. Well, my action figures. Kipton wasn’t allowed to touch them unless I was there to supervise. Anyway, we were building shelters, planning a big battle between factions (my men and his) that in our heads had special effects that rivaled everything we had ever seen on TV. These three kids came over and introduced themselves, asked if they could play, too. We accepted them wholeheartedly and they joined in the game. But the game changed: now it was our action figures defending the house from gigantic evil robots that could turn into vehicles.

transformersYes, these kids had Transformers. Lots of them. Transformers were the big thing that summer, and Kipton and I both thought they were pretty cool. Our family, however, could not afford them. We watched the cartoon religiously and even owned some Go-Bots, but those were a cheap knock-off and broke easily. These kids, to our eyes, were the coolest. Kids. Ever!

The battle we enacted in my front yard was monolithic. It lasted hours. It was great fun. But then the three kids (what were their names? Jesus. . .) had to go visit other family across town so they packed their Transformers into the car and headed away. Self-inflicted boredom settled in. Nothing Kipton or I could think of to do could possibly compete with the fun we had just had. I think we threw sticks at birds, I don’t recall.

An hour or so later, the neighbor kids returned. As soon as they were out of the car, they were bounding into our yard for more adventures. I’m not sure how we got to the next stage of our game: It was decided that we were going to stretch fishing line from an upstairs window down to a tree near the curb in our yard. We were then going to connect the Transformers to the fishing line and then drop them down the line. In theory, the Transformers should glide down the fishing line to the tree, where he had crafted a little Ewok village with blocks and cardboard. It would appear, to our rather cinematic imaginations, that the Transformer had flown in from the heavens and destroyed the village. This would be so cool!

I tore the house apart trying to find the reserves of fishing line or twine while Kipton helped the neighbor’s build the village. By the time I found it, I was beginning to realize that the Transformers were probably way too heavy to be supported by the fishing line, but that didn’t faze me. We could, after all, do a few test runs closer to the ground. We could experiment with different Transformers until we found one that was just the right weight to glide without breaking the string. I brought the fishing line outside (aloft, shrieking, “Got it!”) just as Evelyn’s daughter was calling her children in for dinner.

Ah, man! Plan foiled!

“Don’t worry,” the kid (Chris? Matt? Charlie?) said. “We’ll be back after dinner.”

“I’ll go ahead and get the line set up from the window. It’ll be ready to go when you get back,” I said.

“Excellent!” one of the other boys said.

Before the kids were gone completely, I asked if I could see some of the Transformers so that we could test the strength of the line. The oldest one said, “Sure. Go right ahead. They’re in the car.”

With Kipton’s help, I fastened one end of the fishing line to the upstairs window. I then stretched the line across the yard down to the tree. I was a Cub Scout, so I knew plenty about knots. I was able to wrap the other end of the line around the tree, pulling it all taut enough that the line wasn’t bowed at all. It was a straight diagonal line from window to curb. You could pluck it like a guitar. If it had been dark and you had been running across the yard, not knowing the line was there, it damn well might have decapitated you had you run into it. I was proud of myself. These neighbor kids were certainly going to think that I was the bee’s knees.

Now, all I needed was a few Transformers to test a few things out.

I walked over to the Jude driveway. Through the window of the car, I could see five or six Transformers sunning themselves on the upholstery. I opened the door. I reached into the car. I grabbed a few of the toys, being extra careful to not choose one that was clearly going to be too heavy. I got out of the car, toys in hand. I was reaching for the door, ready to close it, when, from inside the house, one of the most horrifyingly angry voices I have ever heard, screamed, “You, bastard kid! Get the hell away from my god damn car!”

I dropped those toys and took off. I don’t believe I had ever run so fast. I’m sure I haven’t run that fast since. I question if I was actually running so much as flying. I might have even just closed my eyes and psychically willed myself far, far away from that car because it was only a matter of seconds before I was in the house, hiding. I didn’t come outside for the rest of the night.

The neighbor kids, of course, told their father what had happened. I wasn’t trying to rob the car. I was only getting the toys out because they had told me that I could. Their father felt pretty bad about this (as he should have, frankly, he scared me to death) and he wanted to do something to make up for it. He came over and spoke to my mother and asked her permission to take us to a movie. His family was planning to go see Ghostbusters that afternoon and he wanted to take us along, to make up for it. My mother, thinking that all of this was pretty funny, agreed.

Kipton and I were ecstatic. With my mother, we went to movies all the time, but we always went to The Urbana Cinema, where they showed second run films for a dollar. We never got to see new movies. On the day they opened. And we were certainly never allowed to get over-priced popcorn and candy. This was going to be fun.

We took advantage of being out of the house without our mother and sat in the theatre where we had always wanted to but had never been allowed, right in the front row. The actors and special effects in this film were larger than life. And we were the first ones in the auditorium to capture the images as they rolled off the screen. By the time they had made their way back to the projectionist’s cabinet, to the people sitting in the back row, they had already been viewed by us. They were no longer new. They were second-hand, already experienced by two overly-excited kids who had never sat with their necks craned uncomfortably in the front row before.

ghostbusters-chairIncidentally, we moved a few rows back later, because the dog paws coming out of the chair and attacking Sigourney Weaver scared my little brother half out of his mind. As soon as that scene began, he moved, much as I did yesterday when I ran away from the car, to another row like he had been ejected and propelled. I went to join him, to take care of him, unable to admit that I was a little frightened myself.

I think I’ve seen Ghostbusters two hundred times. It’s still just as fresh and funny as it was the first time every time I see it. It truly is one of my favorite comedies. It’s an eighties film that doesn’t feel like an eighties film. It has stood the test of time. But I cannot watch it without thinking about those Transformers. I think about how scared I was, how unfair it was that the whole world would now think I was a thief. And I think about the glee that accompanies being allowed to see a movie “alone” for the very first time.

By the way, the Transformer sliding down the fishing line? It didn’t work.


“You don’t write because you have an idea, but because you can’t do anything else.”

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It’s a stormy night.

A shot fired from the barrel of a revolver.

Flashes of a man running frantically through the woods.

Police arresting Gerard Depardieu.

So begins A Pure Formality, a 1994 film co-written and directed by Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore, a man most remembered for writing and directing Cinema Paradiso, a breathtaking Italian film about the nostalgic power of film. Cinema Paradiso won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1990. You can easily find it on streaming services, video stores, and public libraries (and it is recommended that you do so if you can stomach subtitled foreign films). To my mind, A Pure Formality is just as compelling, albeit in a different sense, but despite winning the top prizes at multiple prestigious film festivals (including the Italian Golden Globes) is still not available on streaming services or DVD in America. I had it on VHS at one point.

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I’m going to warn you now: any discussion of this film and why it is important to me is bound to include spoilers. Ordinarily, I would shy away from that sort of thing, but the odds of any of you ever actually being able to sit down and watch this film are very poor. And even knowing the amazing twist ending would not make the film any less compelling should you be lucky enough to experience it. This is a film about dialogue, two incredibly powerhouse performances, and tension. Knowing the end does not ruin those things, but it is appropriate to warn a reader that HERE THERE BE SPOILERS.

In the film, shortly after Gerard Depardieu is arrested, we find him in a small precinct that has seen better days. The roof is leaking, the power is failing, the facility is rat-infested and understaffed. We learn that Gerard Depardieu’s character is named Onoff, a reclusive writer of considerable renown who hasn’t published anything of note in years, but he has no memory of anything other than his name. We learn that the police have found a mutilated corpse in the woods and that the police are suspicious of why Onoff might have been running in the area during a storm with an empty revolver in his trenchcoat. Onoff begins to fear that he is going to be framed for a murder that he did not commit. Onoff begins to fear that maybe he did commit this crime and does not remember it. Enter the Inspector (played by Polish director Roman Polanski). He is a skilled interrogator and he vows to get to the bottom of this unusual crime. What ensues is a tense and terrifying interrogation as Onoff begins to remember what happened.

There are very subtle nuances to the interrogation that make it far more compelling than your standard movie interrogation. Most of the conversation has nothing to do with the crime. I told you that Onoff is a writer of some acclaim. Well, The Inspector is an intellectual whose favorite novelist happens to be. . . Onoff. The Inspector can quote entire passages of Onoff’s most obscure works verbatim. At first, The Inspector is dubious of his suspect’s identity, but as the two men talk– about art, the beauty of the written word, the machinations of inspiration– the tables begin to turn and it becomes unclear if The Inspector is trying to solve a murder or convince his suspect to do him a favor and write one more novel before he retires. As the film progresses from there, we will learn that the time for one more novel has long since passed. The Inspector’s work is complete: Onoff accepts the power of his creative legacy and begins to confess. It turns out that he does, in fact, remember everything that has transpired this evening.

Earlier in the film, when the two characters are introduced, there is a line of dialogue that becomes key to the entire film:

ONOFF: I am Onoff.
THE INSPECTOR: Right. And I am Leonardo Da Vinci.

And then the final two lines of dialogue:

ONOFF: I did not catch your name.
THE INSPECTOR: I already told you. I am Leonardo Da Vinci.

It turns out in the end that this almost-defunct and decrepit police station is, in actuality, a purgatorial waystation for artists who. . . have committed suicide. Despondent over his lack of productivity, Onoff has taken his own life. As he says in the film: “You don’t write because you have an idea, but because you can’t do anything else.”

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This is an incredibly gripping film, made all the more powerful by the strength of its two leads. Gerard Depardieu is clearly one of the great actors of our time, but Roman Polanski steals this show. Interestingly, Mr. Polanksi is not know for his acting. He is a skilled director, known for classic films such as Chinatown, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Pianist. The last film in that list earned him a 2003 Academy Award for Best Director, a move by the Academy that was highly controversial. Controversial because Roman Polanski is also, unfortunately, well-known for being a fugitive of the United States criminal justice system after fleeing the country in 1978 while awaiting sentencing in a sexual abuse case where he pleaded guilty to statutory rape.

Is this why Sony Picture Classics has not made this film available on DVD in America?

I should admit, at this point, that I have always actually been quite a fan of Roman Polanski’s work and did not find out about his questionable morality and lack of accountability until the controversial Oscar win. I recall watching those Oscars and wondering why such a large amount of the assembled audience refused to stand and applaud the win. I recall as well that The Pianist‘s lead actor (Adrien Brody, who also won Best Actor that year) accepted The Oscar on his director’s behalf as Roman Polanksi could not enter the country without being arrested on those long-ago charges. Learning what I now know put me into quite a tailspin: it seemed that my admiration for the work of such a despicable person said something untoward about me.

I suppose there’s an entire discussion to be had about the notion of whether or not it’s okay to support the art without supporting the artist. Is it even possible to support the art without supporting the artist? I think it is to a certain point and I have compromised with myself by not gravitating toward his recent works. I can choose to not support him now while still having affection for his prior genius. And nothing that I know about him now can change the effect that the first viewing of A Pure Formality had on me.

It really is a shame that you can’t see this movie.

“What’s This?”

My favorite Christmas movie isn’t really your stereotypical Christmas movie. It’s pretty dark and gothic, definitely creepy, and it doesn’t really evoke the sense of “peace on Earth, goodwill toward men” that we’ve come to expect from the truly great Christmas films.

Except that it does.

The Nightmare Before Christmas was released in October of 1993. From the moment I first saw the trailers for this clay-animated movie, I wanted to see it. I loved the notion that someone could be dark and twisted enough to make a movie that served as both a great pick for Halloween and a great pick for Christmas. And that song in the trailer (What’s this? What’s this? There’s color everywhere. What’s this? There’s white things in the air. What’s this?) had been stuck in my head from pretty much the first moment I heard it. There was a snafu, though, in my plans to see this movie. Two of them, in fact. I knew no one in my circle of friends who had any interest whatsoever in spending an evening watching a cartoon and I had no driver’s license, so I could not drive myself.

Yes, it’s true. I was a Senior in high school and I had no driver’s license. My step-father had made this tyrannical and humiliating decision because he did not want his insurance to go up just because I had my license. Especially since he had no intentions of ever letting me drive any of his cars. If I wanted to go places or do things with my friends, I had to rely on them to drive me, to pick me up, to take me home. And since we lived six miles out of town in the country, the chances of people agreeing to that were fairly slim. It happened, but it was rare.

For this reason, among others, I was pretty depressed and lonely through most of my Senior year of high school. Yes, I had friends. Lots of them, in fact. But my license-free, no-car existence excluded me from most of the social gatherings. In addition, there was an ex-girlfriend involved here, a girl who had become friends with my friends and always seemed to be hanging around. Sometimes, admittedly, the decision to stay home on Friday night and catch up on movies I had missed was a conscious choice to avoid any further heartbreak. High school romance is the pits and I can’t blame that on my stepfather.

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So. . . okay. Gibson City. 1993. I was a Senior. My younger brother was a Freshman. He had a girlfriend. Her name is, at the moment, escaping me (but I will never forget that she had a pick-up truck that we referred to as “the screwdriver truck” because you had to, you know, jam a screwdriver into the ignition to start it). They were going to see this movie at the Wings Cinema in Rantoul. Naturally, I did not want to be so lame as to tag along and (oh, the shame!) BE A THIRD WHEEL to (someone please kill me!) MY YOUNGER BROTHER, but I was desperate to see this movie. We do what we have to do.

Let me pause for a moment and explain that my younger brother has always somewhat accused me of being an elitist snob when it comes to movies. “Overly critical” are the words he often used. And to a certain extent, he was right. I was young and a good writer. I was hyper aware of the latter fact, and definitely pretentious about it. I had designs on working in the film industry and was almost 100% completely incapable of watching a movie for fun, for sheer entertainment value. To that I will just say that, now that those dreams of being a famous screenwriter never came to fruition, I have watched the entire Mission: Impossible catalog at least six times and stop pretty much everything I am doing when I realize that Tremors is on television. I’ve gotten better, that’s all I’m saying.

Where was I? Oh, yes. Me, my brother, his girlfriend. Depressed. Lonely. Third wheel. Date night. I’m an overly critical, elitist snob. And . . . wait for it . . . we both loved this movie.

That’s right. We both LOVED this movie. Immensely. And I do believe that this might have been the first time in our entire lives that this had EVER happened. Whenever I see this movie, I always think of that awkward evening. I think of my brother in the theater parking lot: “If you hated that, I don’t even want to know you anymore.” I think about trying to be contrary and play it off like this was the worst god damn movie I had ever seen. But I couldn’t do it with a straight face. Because the movie, let’s be honest, had for pretty much the first time in my entire Senior year, made me feel so ridiculously ALIVE. I’ve already told you my Senior year was rough, and this clay-animated (!) Christmas movie (!!) had given me a reason not to, I dunno, hate myself for a couple of hours. Which is somewhat ironic, I guess, given how dark and gothic the movie actually is.

I won’t speak for my brother now, because I’m not sure how this movie has held up for him over time, but it still holds up for me (as I’m sure it probably does for his wife, who loves this sort of thing more than I do). This is, without question, my favorite Christmas movie ever. There is, admittedly, some nostalgia thrown into that assessment, but even without that, it’s a damn fine film.

Well-written. Well-plotted. Visually breathtaking (I’m still floored by how they animated, with clay, the spotlight in the “Sandy Claws” musical number and how the tree spins in one direction while the ornaments spin in the other). Unbelievable music. Jaw-dropping villain (Oogie Bogie is horrifying and adorable all at the same time). The absolute creepiest depiction of Santa Claus I have ever seen in any movie before or since.

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The Nightmare Before Christmas isn’t just a Christmas movie for me. It’s a macabre reminder that there isn’t any good reason that the feelings and compassion and friendliness that overtake us this time of year can’t exist all year long. That’s really all Jack Skellington wanted, right? To feel this good all year.

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“…a deeply-nuanced and thoroughly-functional understanding of human behavior…”

I have a friend who has a completely illogical disdain for Bill Pullman. He can’t stand him, thinks he’s the worst actor ever, and refuses to watch things if he discovers that Bill Pullman plays a role, no matter how small. “He’s almost a non-entity,” he once said. “They might as well have filmed a cardboard cut-out for all the emotion present in his performance.”

Me, I don’t get it.

And it’s not that I’m a big fan of Bill Pullman either. I don’t run out to see his movies. I don’t have a “Top 10 Performances of Bill Pullman” list tucked away in a notebook somewhere.  But I don’t hate the guy. If I consider him a “non-entity”, it’s because I barely ever even think about him. He’s never struck me as bad in a film. But I tend to not even remember he was in certain movies until I am reminded in conversations with friends. I guess the best way to put it is thusly: I am decidedly lukewarm about Bill Pullman.

Or was. Until I saw Zero Effect.
zero effectAnyone who doesn’t appreciate Bill Pullman should sit and watch this movie. Because his performance is awe-inspiring. It’s the sort of performance that bigger names (like Jack Nicholson or Al Pacino) would have won Academy Awards for, and if Zero Effect had been a bigger film, as opposed to a small, independent film, then Pullman just might have an Academy Award nomination on his own resume. He’s that good in this movie.

Zero Effect was released in 1998. It is written and directed by Jake Kasdan (whose father Lawrence is well-known for writing The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Return of the Jedi, among other timeless nostalgia films). It’s a very promising debut.

But it’s also difficult to write about it without ruining many of the film’s surprises. I’ll try my best…

Ryan O’Neal stars as a shady tycoon named Gregory Stark. Stark has lost a set of keys. This set of keys contains the entry card for a safe deposit box that holds incriminating evidence against him. Soon, he begins being blackmailed by a clever con artist who leads him on elaborate goose chases. Seriously, he’ll receive notes that say things like (I’m paraphrasing) “Get on the #9 bus at such and such corner at 1:21 pm, take the bus seven blocks, get off the bus and get into a cab, go six blocks east and nine blocks west and three blocks south, go into the building right in front of you and ask to use the restroom.” In the restroom, he’ll find a note (again, paraphrasing) that says “Stay tuned Wednesday for the next list of commands.” Stark is frustrated and exhausted, so he hires private detective Daryl Zero.

zero4Daryl Zero (played by Bill Pullman) bills himself as “the world’s most private detective” because people who hire him never get to meet him. Zero is agoraphobic, living every moment of his life disheveled in pajamas behind six deadbolt locks. He subsists almost entirely on canned tuna and room-temperature cans of Tab. Sometimes, he jumps on the bed while he composes awful folk songs. Potential clients must first be screened by his associate Steve Arlo (played by a very subdued Ben Stiller). Arlo takes whatever information he can get from clients back to his boss. Usually, most cases are solved without Zero ever having to leave the apartment. But this time is different: to follow the list of commands back to their source, Zero is going to have to shave, brush his hair, and effectively disguise himself to go out into the world and face polite society for the first time in years.

This is where Pullman’s performance really begins to shine. He’s quirky and amusing up to this point. But driven to solve this case (especially when the keys are found in a most-likely place, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that his client is, most assuredly, not on the level), he must pose as an accountant. He becomes suave, sophisticated, charming– the polar opposite of what we have seen up to this point.

I can’t tell you more than that. Suffice it to say that this is one of those winding films that keeps turning back on itself so many times that you’re continually forced to rethink everything you think you already know. You’re forced to question how fallible your own objectivity and observation might be (or, “the two obs”, as Zero credits them in one of many expansive monologues about his process throughout the script). If you saw the ending coming, you cheated.

It is estimated that it cost $5,000,000 to film Zero Effect. The gross box office for its month-long theatrical run was a pittance in comparison: merely $1, 980, 338. How does a movie this clever, innovative, and downright entertaining fly so criminally under the radar? Is it about marketing it correctly? Had you heard of this film before I recommended it?

One thing is certain: Bill Pullman getting the Oscar nomination he so richly deserved for a riveting performance this many miles from his normal “type” would have helped. Zero Effect is available on DVD and can be streamed on Fandango Now, Vudu, and Amazon Prime. Check it out. I quote Ben Stiller when I say you’ll be “fucking flabbergasted.”

“This is Jack Burton in the Pork Chop Express, and I’m talkin’ to whoever’s listenin’ out there.”

I’ll be honest: I had a difficult time deciding what movie I wanted to write about this month.

I came very close to just opting for the easy way out, picking another horror film, and waxing nostalgic about Poltergeist, which stands the test of time of being my personal favorite horror film. But I know Greg is taking genre as his cross reference, so I wanted to be a little more creative than that.

A look at the cast list of Halloween gave me a few options to consider. Donald Pleasance is, after all, not only a featured character in The Great Escape, but he recurs often in James Bond films as Blofeld, the arch nemesis of the titular hero. I could honestly write ten or fifteen pages on each of the separate Bond films alone, I love those movies so much. I could do at least eight or nine pages even on the crappy ones.

But as I looked through the filmography of John Carpenter, one movie in particular kept calling out to me. It’s not a great movie, but it’s one of my favorites. And like Stardust, which I always automatically equate with my wife, I have a love for this movie because of who I saw it with and the circumstances under which we saw it.

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In the summer of 1986, my father took me to a movie theater to see an adventure fantasy entitled Big Trouble In Little China. The more I thought about it, the more the movie called to me. I knew I needed the catharsis of writing about this film.

The trouble is that it’s always difficult to write about my father.

My relationship with him was always tumultuous at best. I can divide my relationship with him into four distinct eras. There’s youth, before my parent’s divorce, where I knew him as my father and loved him because you’re supposed to love your father. There’s youth after the divorce, up through adolescence, where I knew him as my father, but had very little contact with him. Essentially, he had abandoned us, had little time for us, and resentment began to foster and grow. The third era is adulthood, from 18 to almost 30, where resentment turned into legitimate hatred. I had no illusions about the sort of person my father was and was given plenty of reason, in almost every interaction with him, to decide for myself that I didn’t need that sort of negativity in my life. The tables had turned: I was actively choosing to not see him, rather than him making that decision for me. In the last ten years or so of his life, the fourth era, my father and I actually became very close. I was learning forgiveness as I got older, and coming to terms with the importance of it. My father was ill, I was maturing, and I didn’t want to harbor any ill will any longer. We became friends, if not friendly, learned that we actually had a lot in common, and his death in August of 2012, two days before what would have been his 64th birthday, was a crushing blow.

Even writing about the myriad conversations we had about baseball– or the frequent trips to go fishing or play pool– that we enjoyed at the end of his life, there’s still some bitterness that tends to rear its ugly head if I think too deeply or too hard about what this man has meant to me over my life. I don’t want to remember him this way, and so I try not to because, in the end, I loved him very much.

One of my favorite memories of my father is a trip to see Big Trouble Little in China in July of 1986. This memory being positive is ironic because it falls staunchly two or three years into the aforementioned second era. At the time, Daddy was a truck driver, making long hauls in a semi from state to state. This occupation was used, quite often, as an excuse to not come visit. But once or twice, he took my brother and I on a trip with him. A vacation of sorts with his children. As a child who desperately wanted to relate to his absent father, the trips in the semi were about as good as it can get. What child doesn’t want to ride in a semi? See the country from the comfort of a big rig? This quality time with my father was so much cooler than the quality time other peers were getting, right? It was easy to naively forgive his absence when his presence meant a trip in the truck.

What’s interesting about the trips in the semi is that they were actually, in retrospect, quite boring. Its not like we actually stopped and saw the touristy sites in any of the states we traveled to. We drove through cities that we never actually stopped in. Quite often, my brother and I had to hide in the sleeping berth, so that Daddy wouldn’t get in trouble when he stopped for weight stations or inspection depots. I read a lot of books and sang along to Daddy’s vast collection of country music cassette tapes.

On this particular trip, we actually got stuck at a truck stop near St. Louis. Daddy had made good time with his haul and the recipients were not ready for him when we arrived. So we had to wait while they found time and people to unload the trailer. I remember playing arcade games in the truck stop’s small “game room”. We took the time to shower and eat a meal. One hour turned into two hours turned into three turned into “We might not get to this tonight.” Daddy had to find something to entertain us.

All of the truckers we encountered at the time had been talking about Big Trouble In Little China. The main character (played by Kurt Russell) is a truck driver, so it was popular among this set. I had seen commercials for the movie and really, really, really wanted to see it, but it was rated PG-13, and so I had not yet been allowed to go. Daddy was torn: he needed to entertain his sons, but he didn’t need our mother killing him for taking us to see a movie that might potentially turn us into sociopaths. He asked another truck driver how appropriate it was for children (I vividly remember the answer: “Well, there’s a bare ass in it and some nipples through a wet shirt”). He bought a newspaper and read a review. Ultimately, he decided to take us, quipping “I’ll tell you later if you can tell your mother or not.” We bought snacks at the truck stop to smuggle in order to keep costs down.

We loved the movie. We all three did. It was a bit more violent than my mother usually allowed my brother to see (he was two years younger), but I seem to recall him falling asleep halfway through, anyway. After the movie, walking back to the truck stop, I commented to my father that it’s too bad that real-life trucking isn’t full of adventures like what we had just seen Jack Burton overcome. Without batting an eye, Daddy said, “Wait until winter time. I don’t take you on trips in the winter because I’m afraid I can’t protect you from the ninjas.” My brother and I had a long discussion later about whether our father ever really encountered any ninjas. How did he handle them? Did he fight them? Or just put the rig in gear and run them over?

It’s funny as I think about it that I don’t really remember my father watching too many movies. Most of the pop culture phenomena that I connect to him are television shows he liked (The Dukes of Hazzard, Mike Hammer, Three’s Company) or music that he listened to (Merle Haggard, Ronnie Milsap, and more Merle Haggard). He wasn’t really one to watch movies. I recall him loving The Bridge on the River Kwai, Smokey and the Bandit, and Convoy. I believe I may have watched Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein with him, but I would have been much older when that occurred. I don’t connect him to movies the way I do other people in my life. Except for Big Trouble In Little China. . . man, that movie makes me think of him.

While cleaning out his apartment after he died, I discovered that he had a VHS tape of this movie tucked in with other VHS tapes, a small collection that was mostly home videos and Grand Ole Opry reruns. It made me wonder if the movie evoked the same sort of nostalgia for him as it does for me. Somehow, I doubt it. For me, it’s an incredibly pleasant memory often overshadowed by how horrible a father he was back then. I’m sure he remembered the trip to see it, but I doubt he was prescient enough to see that his fatherly behavior at the time was shockingly out of the ordinary.

When my father died, I mentioned to my wife that I felt it unfair that he was taken from me just as he and I were becoming so close. You know what my wife said? She said, “At least when he died, you weren’t mad at him anymore.”

And she’s right.

I’m not mad at him anymore. And I believe that no ninjas ever killed me because my father got to them first.

Pampaw Polk and babies                                 Richard Gale Polk (August 5, 1948-August 3, 2012)

Blaze of Glory

On the first day of August, in 1990, the summer between my 8th-grade year and high school, Morgan Creek Productions released Young Guns II, a (perhaps) unnecessary sequel to Young Guns, which had been released two years prior. As a fan of Westerns, I was also a big fan of the original. I was anxiously awaiting the release of this movie, in no small part to the fact that the sequel was rated PG-13 (as opposed to the R-rating of the original), which meant that I could actually get into the theaters and see it.

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Alas, I was unable to get to the theaters and see the film for many, many weeks into its theatrical release. And my anticipation for seeing the movie was at an “I’m about to burst” level of excitement by the time I actually did. Mind you, this had nothing whatsoever to do with anything I had heard about the film (in fact, many people had already told me that it wasn’t as good as the original– those people are wrong). It had nothing to do with the time I had spent psyching myself up for the experience with an interminable wait (it might have gone second-run dollar show before I actually found the time). My excitement for this particular movie was because the original soundtrack had been released and made available several weeks prior. It was awesome. And I had pretty well already worn out the cassette tape I had purchased from incessantly rewinding my Walkman just to hear “Bang A Drum” again.

The soundtrack album (entitled Blaze of Glory) was the first solo project for the lead singer of rock band Bon Jovi. At this particular stage in my life, my love for Bon Jovi had no boundaries. We didn’t really listen to rock music as I was growing up because my father was opposed to it. Radios in our home mostly played country and gospel. But, in 1984, my parents divorced, Dad moved out, and my mother, who was not such a prude about rock-and-roll (provided it wasn’t tasteless, or vulgar) broke out the good records. The things she liked: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Journey, doo-wop from the 1950’s.soundtrack

At this time in music history, pop metal acts like Bon Jovi were ubiquitious on the radio. There wasn’t a single radio station in town that wasn’t playing Bon Jovi. Or Def Leppard. Or “Oh, my God, look what the cat dragged in…”, a song which prompted pre-adolescent air guitarists to jump on the couch with arm pinwheels that would put Pete Townshend to shame. This music was popular. It was everywhere. It was Heaven.

I was in fifth grade when I fell completely in love with “Living On A Prayer”. I’m still not sure why, in retrospect. It’s not as if a ten-year-old really has the life experience to get a whole lot out of the anthemic blue-collar call to forget everything but love that this song represented. But that song caused me to spend meager allowances on a cassette tape of Slippery When Wet instead of comic books, and that was HUGE! In school, I actually now had a musical interest that my peers shared. All the boys liked Bon Jovi because they wanted the cute girls to talk to them. All the cute girls liked Bon Jovi because Jon was pretty (though I was privy many times to arguments that claimed Richie was the prettier one). I liked them because “Living On A Prayer” made me feel something that I didn’t yet understand, but somehow knew was important nonetheless.

New Jersey followed, and I bought that, too. I was now more interested in Appetite For Destruction, which was tasteless and vulgar and had to be enjoyed in secret, but I still had a soft spot for good ol’ Bon Jovi. I actually saw the tour for that record (my first rock concert in an arena) and witnessed with my own two eyes, a stage platform get jammed at the show’s beginning, causing Jon to fall backwards into a hole in the stage. He was suave about it. Just climbed right out and started the first notes of “Lay Your Hands On Me” without missing a single beat. It was the very definition of “cool.”

There have been moments when I have been accused, even by my own wife, of being a music snob. To that, I say: I own way too many Bon Jovi records to be considered a snob of anything. And so we’re clear: I do own every record they have ever recorded (including that shitty one they did after Richie Sambora left and they didn’t have a regular guitarist yet). I’ve seen them live six times. I can quote, at will and verbatim, every lyric they have ever put on tape. I. Love. Bon Jovi.

If you’re waiting for an apology, you have come to the wrong place. I will begrudgingly admit that falling into a hole and climbing back out again is a damn fine metaphor for Jon’s entire career, but it doesn’t change how much I adore Keep The Faith.

I seem to have digressed.

The point is: the soundtrack to this movie is awesome. It is my personal pick for the greatest single movie soundtrack of all time. I love the movie, but I’ve only watched it once or twice. I’m not compelled to watch it like other westerns that I love and watch repeatedly. That soundtrack, though? I keep it in my car. So that it’s always within reach, should the need to hear “Miracle” arise.

There are a lot of great soundtracks. The soundtrack to The Crow comes immediately to mind. Pulp Fiction. Empire Records. Some of these soundtracks are even better than the movies they represent (like the Tom Petty soundtrack for She’s The One). But Blaze of Glory actually transcends the movie. A great honor since most of the record’s tracks don’t even appear in the film. This soundtrack does what others cannot: It functions as a great album when separated from the film. It simultaneously doesn’t sound like anything else Jon Bon Jovi has ever recorded while still managing to perfectly capture what Bon Jovi would sound like if they just said “to hell with this rock and roll nonsense, we wanna make concept operas about cowboys”. I do believe that, with enough repeat listens of this record, you don’t have to watch the movie at all. This soundtrack captures the movie and its spirit effortlessly.

It cannot be argued that a great soundtrack, the exact perfect choice of song in a particular scene or moment, can make even the most mediocre movie memorable. And I am aware that an entire discussion could be had on moments in movies like that alone. “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” in The Big Lebowski. “Stuck In The Middle With You” in Reservoir Dogs. “Time Is On My Side” in Fallen. “In Your Eyes” in Say Anything. All I’m saying is that, for me, this soundtrack does it better than most.

If I’m watching Young Guns II and I don’t sing “Well, I’ve seen love come/I’ve seen it shot down/I’ve seen it die in vain” right along with Jon, then it’s because the kids are sleeping and my TV is on mute.

About this author
Aaron walks these streets. A loaded six-string on his back. He’s playing for keeps, because he might not make it back. He’s been everywhere. He’s been standing tall. He’s seen a million faces and he’s rocked them all. He’s a cowboy. On a steel horse he rides. And he’s wanted, wanted, dead or alive.

On “Stardust” (sort of)


I dunno, man. You still have a stack of ten or twenty movies you’ve purchased that you haven’t even watched yet. You could build a sizable mancave with the books you have piled up next to the bed. And what about your comic books? You’re way behind on reading your comic books. Do you really need more stuff? 

These were the thoughts that went through my head as I stood over a $5 Bargain DVD bin at my local Wal-Mart with a copy of Stardust in my hand. I asked myself the typical questions, trying desperately to justify it:

Have you seen this movie? (Yes.)
Did you enjoy it? (Yes. Quite a bit.)
Will you ever watch it again? (Maybe?)
Are you sure about that, because you have expressed no desire whatsoever in watching it since you saw it for the first time back in 2007? (No. No, I have not.)

I ended up buying it.


Because Stardust is one of those movies that I have such a deeply- and emotionally-profound connection to that I would probably purchase it even if I had hated it. I have movies like that. Movies that I liked, but didn’t love, but own anyway because nostalgia, in all its varied incarnations, tends to drive me. A good chunk of the movies I have ever really loved are not just important to me because of how they made me feel, but because of the nostalgia that surrounds having viewed it for the first time. For example: I have anecdotes, a personal history, connected to seeing Ghostbusters for the very first time. Also, Poltergeist, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her LoverStrange Days made me stop pursuing a girl upon whom I had a back-breaking, boundary-less crush because I feared that she would think that I was a rapist (since I enjoyed the movie as much as I did)!

There are movies that I connect to people I no longer spend time with (The Red Violin). Movies I connect to loved ones who have died (Cool Hand Luke). Movies that I didn’t even finish that evoke such blissful memories of bygone days that I can speak of them like an expert during casual conversations (I’m looking at you, Gone With the Wind).

To me, “nostalgia” is a genre shelf in the personal video store in my mind. There are, obviously, shelves designated to specific genres, but there are also shelves devoted to movies I watch over and over and over, so that I can readily find them when the need arises. There are numerous shelves devoted to the movies I want to see and haven’t gotten around to yet. And a big shelf (perhaps, if I’m honest, the biggest), easily cross-referenced with all the others, where I store the movies that my bond with is more personal than just “I loved it and want to watch it again”. I gave in and bought Stardust because it was one of those films. On that latter shelf.

Have you seen Stardust? It’s a good movie, if not a little muddied in its attempts to be more than it is, but I would venture to say that it wouldn’t hold up as well on a second viewing. I did see it. And I did enjoy it. But I could tell you very little about it now, other than that it starred Robert DeNiro (as a cross-dressing space pirate, right?) and Michelle Pfeiffer (she was a witch?) and was adapted from a graphic novel by Neil Gaiman. It was a movie that I wanted to see when it came out because of those names attached to it (Gaiman is a favorite writer, DeNiro is a favorite actor, and Michelle Pfeiffer is– bar none– the most beautiful woman to ever walk the face of the Earth), but this was not the reason I had opted to see this film in theaters. There were ulterior motives at play. I had chosen this movie because Amanda wanted to see it as well.


Amanda was a girl that I had been spending quite a bit of time around, but mostly in the presence of others. My crush on her was more than a little embarrassing, and I was unsure if she liked me as well because I have never, ever, ever been very good at that sort of discernment. This outing, this trip to see this movie, was going to be the first time that her and I had been out in public by ourselves with no other motive than to keep each other company. It was our first date, so to speak, and it was a long time coming.

I had met Amanda four months prior. I had been hired to direct a stage play; she was hired as part of my backstage run crew. I thought she was adorable, but never acted on that impulse because it was a) completely unprofessional and I am b) inept. We talked quite a bit during the run of that show, but it ended with us going our separate ways to our individual lives. A casual “Maybe we’ll work together again sometime”, and then it was on to the next show and the next newly-hired stage crew. Four months later, she contacted me with a brief two-sentence message through MySpace (remember MySpace? LOL). Back-and-forth idle conversation for a couple weeks. Some exchanges of a more “getting to know you” variety. Next thing I knew, we were working on the same shows with the same people again and becoming fast friends.

Eventually, the notion of going to see this movie together came up (she doesn’t devour movies like I do, but a fantasy comedy in this vein is right in her wheelhouse) and our first date was set. Though I had to try to not think of it as a date lest I completely screw it up and never be allowed to see her ever again. Things were a little rocky at first– I had chosen a restaurant that she was too polite to tell me she wasn’t fond of. I had also viciously torn into a band I really didn’t like at the time, only to discover later that said band was her favorite band since music was only a bunch of caveman hitting rocks with sticks and more rocks. Despite this, we went to the movie and we enjoyed ourselves.

Halfway through the movie, she took my hand– a sign that even I could not misinterpret– and, later, we took a walk in a city park that we weren’t even supposed to be walking in (as it was after dark and the park was closed). During that bout of trespassing, I was helping her out of a swing on the playground and took the plunge with a kiss that she did absolutely nothing to protest against. Not a big, romantic end-of-movie-backed-by-swooning-orchestrals kiss, but a kiss just the same. As quick as that, I was vindicated in my thought that maybe, just maybe, she liked me, too.

Stardust came out in 2007. It is now, as you read this, August of 2018 and, three months ago, Amanda and I had our seventh wedding anniversary. We have two children together– incredibly clever six-year-old twin boys that I hope will one day be as obsessed with Star Wars as I am.


I don’t write as much as I used to. For years, writing, and the creation of alternate realities, was an escape from my own depression. My own (perhaps, in retrospect) alcoholism. My own tendency to self-destruct if I wasn’t doing something creative with my mind and the very act of holding a pencil in my hands. I’m happier now than I used to be, so my need to rely on that creative control in my own existence has waned. I’m happier now because of every second of everything that has transpired since seeing Stardust for the first time.

I do plan to watch this movie again. And even if it doesn’t hold up over the eleven years that have passed, I’m going to be able to justify the purchase. It will remain in its well-earned spot on the giant shelf of nostalgia films. Because without it, I might right now have nothing.

About This Author
Aaron can always justify one more movie in his collection. But Wal-Mart really needs to move that bargain bin to a section of the store he has no need to frequent. Home And Garden, perhaps?