Today is National Film Score Day!

Who knew?

Not me. At least, not until I read about it thanks to one of my Facebook friends. As odd days of observance go, this one isn’t too shabby at all.

What are we talking about? According to the National Day Calendar website, National Film Score Day “recognizes the musical masterpieces called “Film Scores” and, more specifically, the very talented composers who create them.”

Sweet!

Though it’s been a while since I’ve written on the subject, those of you who spend any time here likely know that I’m a huge fan of film and TV music and love listening to it apart from the production for which it was created. It’s also my habit to listen to such music when I’m writing, as it always helps to set the “right mood” for the project-in-progress.

A well-crafted film score is a thing of beauty. The first album I ever bought with my own money was the vinyl 2-record LP score for the original Star Wars in 1977.

Since then, my library has continued to grow not just with music from newer film television and productions but also “expanded” or “complete” editions of scores from days gone by which were only made available in truncated form due to the limitations of the medium (LP records, cassette tapes, 8-track tapes, and even CDs once they took over). Thanks to companies like La-La Land Records and Intrada I’ve been able to enjoy updated, expanded, and remastered versions of scores of older films, and in some cases it’s like hearing the music for the first time EVEN THOUGH I know every note by heart.

STTMP-SoundtrackCoverWhat are some of my favorites? Well, some obvious suspects are the various Star Trek films, in particular Jerry Goldsmith’s The Motion Picture, The Final Frontier, and First Contact, James Horner’s The Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock, and Michael Giacchino’s music for all three of the reboot films. Everything John Williams has ever done for the Star Wars saga goes on the list, too, but I also must give props to Michael Giacchino for Rogue One and John Powell for Solo. 

Superman-ScoreJerry Goldsmith is well represented in my library, including personal favorites Planet of the Apes (1968), Rambo: First Blood, Part II (yes, really), Alien, Total Recall, L.A. Confidential, Outland, and 1999’s The Mummy. James Horner also had a lot going on beyond his Star Trek work, and I especially dig Aliens, Apollo 13, Sneakers, Glory, The RocketeerCommando, and Titanic (that’s right; I said it). And you can’t have a film score collection without stuff by John Williams, including stuff by John Williams that’s not Star Wars, which is good because I absolutely love the music he created for Jaws, the Indiana Jones films, Saving Private Ryan, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and…of course…Superman.

My taste in film music runs the gamut from Pirates of the Caribbean to The American President, Die Hard, or The Incredibles, or from The Shawshank Redemption to Gladiator, The Martian, or Black Hawk Down. Bill Conti’s The Right Stuff is wondrous. Old-school offerings like The Great Escape, The Magnificent Seven or The Day the Earth Stood Still are in there, too. The truth is that I’m all over the map with this kind of thing. I hear it while watching the film and know I just have to have it without everybody yakking over it or everything blowing up around it.

TV’s the same way. Yes, Star Trek gets a lot of play around here (occupational hazard, you know), but what about Lost In Space or Mission: Impossible or Alien Nation? Battlestar Galactica? Hell, even seaQuest is in there.

I could do this all day, people.

So, Happy “National Film Score Day.” I think it’s time to stick a little of that action in my ears while I continue to write.

Happy 55th anniverary to The Last Man On Earth!

“Another day to live through. Better get started.”


LastManOnEarth-Poster.jpg

At least some of you know that I rank Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend among my very favorite books. I read it for the first time when I was 11 or 12 after a chance discovery at a neighborhood library and was immediately hooked.

The story of Robert Neville, who believes he’s the lone survivor after a plague sweeps over humanity in the novel’s “far off” future of 1976 and turns most if not all people into “vampires,” is considered by many to be the first “modern vampire novel.” Additionally, there are those who’ll tell you it’s also a forerunner to the modern genre of “zombie” books, comics, films, and TV series. I long ago lost count of the number of times I reread this book just during my teenage years, and to this day it’s a story I still revisit on occasion when the mood strikes.

In addition to serving as inspiration or just flat out being ripped off for other books, comics, films, and whatnot in the decades since its publication, I Am Legend has itself been “officially” adapted for film three times: 1964’s The Last Man On Earth starring Vincent Price, 1971’s The Omega Man starring Charlton Heston, and 2007’s I Am Legend starring Will Smith. Also in 2007, The Asylum, the direct-to-home video powerhouse, released an “unauthorized” version they dubbed I Am Omega which they hoped would cash in on the hype surrounding the Will Smith movie.

But hey! Only one of those flicks is celebrating its 55th birthday today, and that’s why we’re here.

Released on this date in 1964, The Last Man On Earth is, so far as I’m concerned, the most faithful adaptation of Matheson’s novel. This, despite Matheson himself not being satisfied with the finished product even though he helped with the screenplay. Produced on a very low budget and filmed in Italy, the film does deviate from the book in several respects, such as Neville being named “Robert Morgan,” and his occupation being changed to that of a scientist. Fans of the novel know that Neville begins the book as a worker at some kind of plant, largely ignorant of things like biology or viruses and related subjects, and much of the story involves him teaching himself these things so he can understand how the plague came to be and (later) to see whether a cure can be found.

Morgan’s encounter with a seemingly uninfected woman, Ruth, is the same in the broad strokes, including her real reason for crossing his path and that she’s been sent as a spy by a group of vampires who’ve learned to live with the plague and control its effects so that they can attempt rebuilding society. The movie’s ending also amps up action of the final confrontation with Morgan/Neville and the vampires as well as how said fight ends up playing out.

These differences work well enough for the film’s version of the story, though the production’s limited budget definitely shows around the edges so far as casting and production design. What does work is thanks largely to the presence of Vincent Price, one of the great genre actors of his generation. He seems miscast here, despite providing a solid if generally subdued performance. Regardless, The Last Man On Earth still feels right at home with other favorite 1950s science fiction and horror movies.

When I was a kid, the film was one of those which would pop up on Saturday afternoons on the local UHF TV channel, which is how I discovered and came to love so many great science fiction and monster movies of the 1950s and 60s. It’s conceivable I’m the only person I know who cared enough to even buy the movie on DVD when it was released by MGM in 2006. I guess it’s because I found it during that “golden age” of childhood fandom that I’m more forgiving of it than I am The Omega Man and the 2007 I Am Legend. Maybe one of these days we’ll get a proper, honest to goodness adaptation but until then? The Last Man On Earth will have to do.

Or, we could all just go and read the book again.

Tied Up With Tie-Ins: Planet of the Apes!

Yep, it’s time for another walk down Nostalgia Lane that you didn’t ask for and probably don’t need. Since that’s the running theme of this entire blog thing of mine, we can at least agree I’m consistent.

Back at the beginning of the year, I decided that I would offer up an irregularly-recurring feature that I’d use to revisit favorite movie and TV tie-in books. After taking a fond look back at novels based on The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman and knowing that I wanted to avoid talking too much about Star Trek novels (at least right away), it seems obvious to me that the next old-timey series deserving of some love is Planet of the Apes!

As is true of Star Trek and the “Bionic shows,” Planet of the Apes was another series (of movies and television shows, in this case) that I came to love very early on. Though I never saw any of the original five films in theaters, I did watch both of the subsequent television series as best I could during their original broadcasts in 1974-75. Just as I was learning about books based on the other two franchises around this time, so too did I discover the same was true of Apes.

First I found a copy of Pierre Boulle‘s original 1963 novel at the library, after which I found a paperback of Jerry Pournelle’s novelization of Escape from the Planet of the Apes occupying space on a department store book rack. Unlike the Star Trek novels and episode adaptations which seemed to be everywhere, tracking down the books tying into the other Apes films would prove to be much more challenging.

PotA-OriginalNovelCover1

(Left: the cover that seemed to dominate re-issues of the original novel throughout the 1970s and into the early 80s. Right: The cover on the edition I own.)

Continue reading “Tied Up With Tie-Ins: Planet of the Apes!”

Happy 40th Anniversary, Superman: The Movie!

Live as one of them, Kal-El, to discover where your strength and your power are needed, but always hold in your heart the pride of your special heritage.

They can be a great people, Kal-El. They wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all–their capacity for good–I have sent them you, my only son.

December, 1978: I was eleven, and my perception of Superman was as a guy from comic books, Saturday morning cartoons, and reruns of a 25-year old television show.

Then the lights in the theater dimmed, and I got schooled.

Superman-poster

Opening nationwide on December 15th, 1978, Superman (marketed as Superman: The Movie) was the first time a comic book character was given a serious, big-budget treatment for film or television. Until that point and beyond the comics which had featured Superman for four decades, the public’s perception of the Man of Steel largely was limited to Super Friends cartoons and the 1950s Adventures of Superman television show.

While the first two seasons of the George Reeves series attempted to tell stories aimed as much at adults as children, that faded as the show grew more popular with younger kids. Still, there are some who would argue that Superman had it better than his comics colleague, Batman, who also was a fixture of Saturday morning cartoons as well as the classic 1960s campy TV series starring Adam West.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed the cartoons and TV shows as a kid, and in some ways George Reeves is still “the” Superman of my youth, but all of that got knocked down a notch with the arrival of this new retelling of his classic origin story, which continues to influence Superman tales in comics, television and film 40 years after its premiere. Further, it remains a benchmark by which most other superhero films are judged.

Directed by Richard Donner (The Omen, and who later would help to refine the whole “renegade cop on the ragged edge” trope with the Lethal Weapon films) and working from a story by the great Mario Puzo (The Godfather) and a screenplay by Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, Robert Benton and Tom Mankiewicz, Superman is a sweeping coming of age tale in the true sense. The film takes its damned sweet time unspooling its version of how baby Kal-El, son of Jor-El and Lara, is launched in a spaceship from the doomed planet Krypton and sent to Earth.

There, he is found and adopted by Jonathan and Martha Kent. Growing up in Smallville, Kansas, it is this upbringing which will provide him with his moral and ethical foundation as he learns of his true heritage and the immense power he possesses, until one fateful night in the great city of Metropolis when he reveals himself to the world and becomes known as Superman.

(And yes, if you think you’re noticing any Christ-like parallels, go with that feeling. Dialogue spoken by Jor-El might have you reaching for your Bible. And if you think it’s overt here, try 2006’s Superman Returns or 2013’s Man of Steel. Boy, howdy.)

Superman‘s cast is big and filled to overflowing with all sorts of names you know or should have at least heard of at some point if you’re any sort of movie fan, starting with Marlon Brando as Jor-El and Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, and including solid supporting turns from the likes of Glenn Ford, Phyllis Thaxter, Jackie Cooper, Ned Beatty, Valerie Perrine and Marc McClure just to name the first bunch. Margot Kidder is the sassy, self-made reporter Lois Lane, but the whole smash would rest on the shoulders of the man cast to portray Kal-El and his Earth alter-ego, Clark Kent. It was the selection of a relatively unknown actor that would provide future movie and comics fans the Superman against which all others are still measured: Christopher Reeve.

superman-reeve

Simply put, Reeve is Superman. More importantly, he also is Clark Kent, a wholly separate character acting as a counterbalance to the larger than life hero who is his “true identity.” Reeve infuses the perfect blend of humanity, compassion, determination and even anger into his portrayal of the Man of Steel, then offsets it with the gentler, more humble and more than slightly bumbling facade of the “mild-mannered reporter.” It is this dual performance that grounds the entire film and gives it just the right amount of realism to help the viewer “believe a man can fly.”

Costing more than $50 million dollars–an enormous sum in those days–Superman spared little expense when it came to bringing its story to life. Extravagant sets, gorgeous location shooting, all manner of model and miniature effects and, of course, the numerous flying sequences which (for the most part) really do hold up rather well when compared to modern-day CGI-stuffed FX techniques. Legendary film composer John Williams provides a wondrous score, including a main theme which I’m fairly certain just about anyone can name in three notes.

Superman would be followed by three sequels: 1981’s Superman II, Superman III in 1983, and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace in 1987. The production of the first sequel is a tale known to many a movie buff, as the film was shot largely in tandem with Superman, and that director Richard Donner was fired before the second film could be completed. A large portion of the sequel was reshot by another director, Richard Lester, who changed the film’s overall tone away from what Donner had intended. A version of the film which attempted to showcase Donner’s original vision, Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut, was released on home video in 2006.

Elsewhere, Superman also paved the way for other projects tying into at least some aspects of its mythos: 1984’s Supergirl starring Helen Slater, and the syndicated Superboy television series which ran from 1988-1992. Superman Returns, released in 2006, is a sequel as well as something of a tribute to the 1978 film and–to a much lesser degree–Superman II while discarding the events of Superman III and IV. Personally, while I think the “tribute” aspects of the film ended up working against it, there was a lot of potential in this updated version of what Donner gave us. I would’ve liked to see another film (or two) showcasing the best of what the setting had to offer without getting bogged down in sending too many valentines to the original movie. However, the Superman franchise has since been rebooted (again) with the aforementioned Man of Steel. It and the “DC Universe” movies which have followed it have charted a completely different direction for the character while leaving us to wonder what might’ve been.

Meanwhile, the family and I attended a screening of Superman here in Kansas City a couple of weeks ago, and I have to tell you: 40 years after that awesome December afternoon in 1978, I still got goosebumps when John Williams’ music blew through the speakers and that big red “S” warped onto the screen. Movies like this exist to be seen this way. All things considered, the film holds up remarkably well and remains one of my very favorite movies.

40 years old, and still looking good. Happy Anniversary, Superman.

Happy 65th Anniversary to The War of the Worlds!

In the First World War and for the first time in the history of man, nations combined to fight against nations using the crude weapons of those days.

The Second World War involved every continent on the globe and men turned to science for new devices of warfare, which reached an unparalleled peak in their capacity for destruction.

And now, fought with the terrible weapons of super science, menacing all mankind and every creature on the Earth comes…The War of the Worlds.”

Oh, it’s on now.

Released on August 26th, 1953, after premieres weeks earlier in Atlantic City and New York, The War of the Worlds was a then-contemporary updating of H.G. Wells’ classic 1898 tale of Earth’s invasion by aliens from Mars.

As was done with the infamous 1938 radio play created by Orson Welles, Howard Koch and Anne Froelick and performed by Welles’ Mercury Theater, legendary producer George Pal updated the novel’s Victorian-era trappings. Instead of the story unfolding in upstate New York as was done for the radio play, this time the action was moved from England to “present day” California. The enormous tripod walking machines from the book are replaced by floating “war machines” that emit hellish energy from ray cannons mounted atop curved, metallic necks. Rather than feeding on humans as is shown in the story, the Martians of the film simply annihilate everyone and everything in their path, carving wide swaths of destruction as they proceed with their conquest of Earth.

The film unfolds in fairly straightforward fashion, opening with a narration that subtly updates what has to rank among the greatest opening passages in the history of the written word:

No one would have believed in the middle of the twentieth century that human affairs were being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than Man’s. Yet, across the gulf of space on the planet Mars, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic regarded our Earth with envious eyes, slowly and surely drawing their plans against us.

Once the aliens make their presence known, the story kicks into gear as the Martians begin their terrifying campaign, with war machines spreading out from landing sites around the world and obliterating everything they encounter. We hear frequent updates about losing contact with cities and countries across the globe, and how the Martian machines are unstoppable. In the finest tradition of 1950s science fiction films, the specter of nuclear war even rears its ugly head as American military forces attempt to destroy a trio of war machines with an atomic bomb.

Missed it by —> <— that much.

Gene Barry, a popular actor of the time, portrays Dr. Clayton Forrester, a scientist who’s among the first to realize the truth of the Martians and their deadly potential. Ann Robinson plays Sylvia van Buren, whom Forrester meets while on a fishing trip near the small town where she lives. As is typical of the films of this period, Robinson is given little to do except scream and be frightened by the Martians. Les Tremayne, already a veteran of film and radio, is the no-nonsense General Mann, the military officer responsible for devising a defense against the invading aliens.

All seems lost and the Martians are poised to wipe out humanity, until….

The Martians had no resistance to the bacteria in our atmosphere to which we have long since become immune. Once they had breathed our air, germs, which no longer affect us, began to kill them. The end came swiftly. All over the world, their machines began to stop and fall. After all that men could do had failed, the Martians were destroyed and humanity was saved by the littlest things, which God, in His wisdom, had put upon this Earth.

Yep. The Martians succumb to our planet’s bacteria and other nasty little housewarming gifts. With the aliens and their machines now inert, survivors emerge from shelter into the sunlight, faced with rebuilding the world which nearly had been taken from them.

And…scene.

The War of the Worlds is and remains one of the best of 1950s cinematic science fiction films, sticking with the relevant plot points of H.G. Wells’ original novel while successfully updating it for a “modern” audience. It’s an approach which continues to serve the material, with several adaptations (and even a few continuations) of the original book being published as recently as last year. Alien invasion stories in every medium owe something to the novel.

The film even spawned a sequel of sorts. After an aborted attempt in the 1970s to adapt the story to television, a syndicated War of the Worlds series was produced beginning in 1988. Using the 1953 film as a springboard, the series puts forth the notion that the invading aliens weren’t killed but instead forced into a state of deep hibernation that resembled death. Thirty-five years after the “1953 invasion,” all evidence of the aliens (no longer called “Martians”) and their technology has been scattered and buried by the world’s government and military powers. When a group of the aliens are accidentally revived, they begin a campaign to rescue the other surviving members of the original invasion armada and to make contact with their home world so that a renewed attack might one day commence. The series lasted for two seasons, a constant victim of thin plots, thinner budgets and mediocre production values.

And yet…I still kind of dig it. Even as it attempted to convince viewers that the entire planet somehow managed to forget an alien invasion, and the first season showed us no overt evidence of the attack, the show still managed to find ways to weave in bits of continuity and homage not just from the film but also the original novel as well as the 1938 radio broadcast. It was an interesting experiment, and I actually like the first season a bit more than the second year.

Other film versions of The War of the Worlds have been created in various media over the years, including Steven Spielberg’s big-budget 2005 take on the story. While that’s a serviceable film, I tend to enjoy the 1953 version more. Even as I write this, the BBC is developing an all-new adaptation of the original novel, set to air later in 2018, and October 30th will mark the 80th anniversary of the Mercury Theater broadcast. I have no doubts that there will be other attempts to re-imagine the material at some point…assuming they don’t just go with another Independence Day sequel or something, but for now? I can watch this one any day.

Happy 65th Anniversary, The War of the Worlds. You don’t look a day over 50.

Happy 30th Anniversary, Die Hard!

Come out to the coast, we’ll get together, have a few laughs….

Christmas Eve: A group of terrorists seize control of a 40-story office building in downtown Los Angeles. They’ve taken hostages, they’re well-armed, and they’re dug in like ticks. The local police and even the FBI seem powerless to stop the terrorists, or even to figure out what it is they want.

The only hitch in the terrorists’ plan? One off-duty cop, in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Oh. Hell. Yeah.

Thirty years ago today, moviegoers were introduced to John McClane, a New York cop who’s in L.A. to visit his estranged wife and their kids for Christmas. Things are supposed to be low-key, right? McClane meets his wife at her office within the impressive Nakatomi Plaza, after which they’ll drive to her house and enjoy all the various yuletide traditions and so on and so forth.

Of course, everything goes completely to shit, which is why we end up having a movie.

Released on July 15th, 1988, Die Hard remains a benchmark for action movies, redefining the whole “one man against a bunch of bad guys” trope into its own subgenre of films. Masterfully directed by John McTiernan (Predator, The Hunt for Red October), the movie presents nothing less than a clinic on how to lay out a perfectly paced, well-plotted and well-acted action thriller. It has been endlessly imitated, parodied, homaged and just flat out ripped off. To this day, similar projects of every sort often are pitched as being some variation of “It’s Die Hard on/in a ________.”

Speed? “Die Hard on a bus.”

Under Siege? “Die Hard on a battleship.”

Paul Blart: Mall Cop? “Die Hard in a shopping mall, but not as funny.”

As for the actual film? It elevated its star, Bruce Willis, to A-List action hero status where he has — more or less — remained since then. Willis does a fantastic job selling us on McClane, the wise-cracking, acerbic cop who’s in way over his head, facing off against the smooth stylings of the late Alan Rickman’s delicious turn as Hans Gruber, supposed terrorist with a secret agenda. Indeed, the whole cast is superb from Willis and Rickman on down, including solid performances by Reginald VelJohnson as LAPD Sergeant Al Powell and Paul Gleason playing yet another in a string of dickhead authority figures with his singular aplomb. But it’s Willis and the very much missed Rickman who carry the load here, pitting sarcasm against sophistication in a battle of wills for all the marbles.

Thirty years after its release, Die Hard remains my very favorite Christmas movie. It even has its own holiday-themed book, so I know I’m right and the haters are wrong. Nyah.

Based on the 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp, Die Hard might well have ended up being a sequel to the 1968 film The Detective, itself based on another Thorp novel and starring Frank Sinatra. When ol’ Blue Eyes declined the opportunity to reprise his role from that movie, the idea next was reworked into a possible sequel to the 1985 Arnold Schwarzenegger flick Commando. After Arnie passed, the idea then was modified again, becoming a standalone story but still retaining much of the plot from Nothing Lasts Forever.

The film did huge bank in the summer of 1988, earning nearly $150 million after a $28 million budget. A sequel was inevitable, and Hollywood didn’t disappoint, with Die Hard (so far) eventually spawning four sequels. Though each successive film has its own things going for it, all of them fail in varying degrees to match the quality and unfettered — dare I say it — fun of the original:

Die Hard 2 (Die Harder), 1990, based on the 1987 novel 58 Minutes by Walter Wager

Die Hard With A Vengeance, 1995, adapted from the unproduced screenplay Simon Says by Jonathan Hensleigh

Live Free or Die Hard, 2007, inspired by the Wired magazine article “A Farewell to Arms” by John Carlin

A Good Day to Die Hard, 2013, written by Skip Woods

Only Die Hard With A Vengeance really comes close, owed perhaps in no small part to John McTiernan once again occupying the director’s chair. Will there be another one? Hard to say. Though critics ripped the latest entry in the series without mercy, it still did major box office business. There have been rumblings about a potential sixth installment, and even the dreaded “r word*,” but so far those seem to be nothing but rumors.

In the meantime, we still have the first — and the best — Die Hard, who still looks mighty fine at 30.

“Yippee-ki-yay, Mister Falcon!”

(* = reboot, yo)

Happy 20th Anniversary, Armageddon!

This is the Earth, at a time when the dinosaurs roamed a lush and fertile planet. A piece of rock just 6 miles wide changed all that.

It hit with the force of 10,000 nuclear weapons. A trillion tons of dirt and rock hurtled into the atmosphere, creating a suffocating blanket of dust the sun was powerless to penetrate for a thousand years.

It happened before. It will happen again.

It’s just a question of when.

DAMN, Charlton Heston. Way to be a buzzkill.

Released on July 1st, 1998, Armageddon is basically Die Hard 3.5, or A Rock and A Die Hard Place In Space, with John McClane….sorry, “Harry Stamper” fighting the most Hans Gruberest of Hans Gruber asteroids that’s bearing down on Earth and looking to ruin everybody’s day.

Let’s get a few things out of the way up front:

1 – Armageddon has one of the most ridiculous premises ever committed to film, even for disaster movies, and we’re talking about a reality that includes The CoreThe Day After Tomorrow, and Sharknado.

2 – If all of the scenes presented in slow motion were instead run at regular speed, the movie would be over in 35 minutes, give or take.

3 – Bruce Willis chews scenery with the absolute best scenery chewers ever to grace the silver screen.

4. I will shamelessly and unapologetically watch this flick Every. Single. Time. I find it.

That’s right, I said it.

The United States government just asked us to save the world. Anybody want to say no?

For those of you who’ve somehow missed out on seeing this thing in all its slo-mo, uber jingoistic glory, it’s like this: a giant asteroid is on a collision course with Earth. If it hits, the rock is large enough and moving with such velocity that it spells doom for every living thing calling this place home. The finest scientific minds on the planet, in the form of the always likable Billy Bob Thornton and a very pre-Harry Potter and Star Trek: Discovery Jason Isaacs, determine the best course of action is to drill to the center of the asteroid, drop a nuclear bomb, and detonate it in the hopes of splitting the giant rock with enough force to send the two halves careening around Earth rather than ass-hammering it.

In the finest disaster movie tradition, enter everyman Bruce Willis as Harry Stamper and an all-star cast of oil drillers – Ben Affleck, Will Patton, Steve Buscemi, Owen Wilson, Michael Clarke Duncan, and Ken Hudson Campbell. These blue-collar astronauts are the only ones capable of undertaking the desperate mission in the very limited time available. They’re assisted by actual astronauts portrayed by the always underrated William Fichtner and Jessica Steen, and with Liv Tyler as Harry’s daughter helping Harry to keep it real all through the hyper-accelerated training and preparation phase of the crazy mission. Favorite character actor Keith David is on hand as General Kimsey, the man with the president’s ear and his finger on the nuclear button, ready to step in the instant he thinks Harry and his crew are about to screw the pooch.

After a very rushed mission prep and a launch of not one but two super top secret Air Force space shuttles (a precursor, perhaps, to President Trump’s Spaaaaaaaaaaaace Forrrrrrrrrrrrrrce?), a brief visit to the “Russian space station” which may or not be Mir, which they end up destroying because of course they did, Harry and his merry band race out to meet the asteroid, pulling something like forty bazillion Gs when they slingshot around the Moon and try to sneak up on the rock from behind. And **that’s** when things finally start to get weird.

Directed by Michael Bay from a script by Jonathan Hensleigh and J.J. Abrams (yes, that J.J. Abrams), Armageddon is utterly, unquestionably over the top in pretty much every way. I thought it was hard to make a movie like 1978’s Meteor seem smart in comparison, but here we are. But, where Meteor failed to entertain us or grip us with anything resembling suspense despite its story and roster of top-shelf Hollywood talent, you just can’t say you’re bored with a movie like Armageddon. It starts with a literal bang and doesn’t let up for most of its two and a half hour running time.

All right, let’s set aside the characters and the plot and talk for a minute about the science fueling this story.

Sorry, I almost got all of that out with a straight face.

Eighteen days from the point of detection to launching a daring mission to save the Earth? The Air Force just happens to have not one but two top secret bad-ass military space shuttles with armor like Captain America’s shield, but which conveniently turns to the consistency of toilet paper when it’s crunch time? Rover vehicles that are part ATV and part tank, to include packing their own Vulcan machine guns? A space station that’s part gas station?

Did I say this movie is ridiculous? Yes, perhaps unabashedly so, reveling in its brutal reviews while racking up a $550 million dollar box office take in the summer of 1998, which was pretty dang good for any movie not named Titanic at that point in time. And yet, it’s this delightful absurdity that I think is one of the things that makes it so damned entertaining, at least to me.

For those precious few moments when things aren’t being launched, blown up, crashed, or blown up again, there are jokes and “drama” galore. After all, Ben Affleck’s A.J. is in love with Harry’s daughter and wants to marry her, and naturally Harry would rather shove an oil drill up his own ass rather than let that happen. Good times for all involved, and that’s before the shooting starts. This movie already seems to have it all, and just when you think there can’t possibly be enough characters and wise guys in this film for us to juggle, Harry and the gang pull a Russian cosmonaut from the ill-fated space station. Played by Peter Stormare, I kept waiting for him to stuff Buscemi’s character into an airlock in lieu of a wood chipper.

Everybody get that who’s gonna get it? Okay, then, moving on.

I’m not a movie snob. I like all kinds of films, including crazy and completely bonzo action movies, and Armageddon is right there in the mix. Further, it absolutely cracks my ass up that this film has a Criterion Collection edition, which is the only way to watch the director’s extended cut. That’s right, there’s a version of this flick that’s even longer than the one you point and laugh at. Suck it, haters.

“Come on, God, just a little help. It’s all I’m asking.”

“I think we’re close enough, He might have heard ya.”

Happy 35th Anniversary, Blue Thunder!

“This ship is equipped with a forward-mounted, twenty-millimeter electric cannon. Its six barrels are capable of firing four thousand rounds of ammunition per minute. And that, gentlemen, is one hell of a shit-storm in anybody’s language!”

BlueThunder

Frank Murphy, helicopter pilot for the LAPD and former Army chopper pilot during the Vietnam War (and whom we see suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of his service during that conflict), is selected as a test pilot for a brand new helicopter packed to the gills with state of the art armaments and quasi-futuristic stealth and surveillance technology. It’s supposedly intended for use during large scale civil disobedience operations, but that doesn’t ring right with Murphy, particularly after the helicopter, nicknamed “Blue Thunder,” blows the shit out of a simulated city street setting with mocked-up vehicles and human-sized targets. That a former rival of his from the war, Colonel “Catch ya later” Cochrane, is in on the whole thing doesn’t sit well with him, either.

Murphy, along with his rookie partner, Richard Lymangood (aka “JAFO,” or “Just Another Fucking Observer”), uses Blue Thunder’s sooper seekrit peeping tech to follow Cochrane to a clandestine meeting, and collects evidence that the colonel and a group of government douche nozzles are behind the death of a prominent city councilwoman. Her murder is part of a larger conspiracy put into motion by this wannabe cabal, who plan to use the helicopter to assassinate political enemies. After Lymangood is killed, Murphy steals Blue Thunder and it’s a race for him to get the evidence to someone who can expose the conspiracy before the bad guys get to him, culminating in a helicopter chase between Murphy and Cochrane in the skies above Los Angeles.

Released on May 13th, 1983, Blue Thunder made a point of letting potential audiences know that all of the surveillance and weapons technology stuffed into the helicopter was real, if not used in this particular configuration. Of course, we look at it today and think, “Pffft. That’s all he’s got? Drones, dude. Drones.” Thirty years ago, however, Blue Thunder was bad-ass.

Personally, I still think the helicopter looks pretty slick.

The plot of Blue Thunder is so thin that it makes Smokey and the Bandit seem like Inception, but a lot of what makes the movie work can be credited to actor Roy Scheider, who offers up yet another of his “every man” performances which served him so well throughout his career. Malcolm McDowell chews every scene with relish as the dick antagonist, Cochrane, and a young Daniel Stern provides much of the film’s early humor (both as instigator and target) as Lymangood the JAFO. Obviously, the hardware and the flying stunts take center stage, especially in the movie’s latter half, but Scheider is there to anchor things and keep them from going too far into the realm of absurdity.

Don’t get me wrong: I dig this film. It’s one that’s an easy candidate for a rewatch on a rainy day, and it’s interesting to see how some of the ideas it proposes stack up against our pervasive “conspiracy theory culture” and our “surveillance society” with cameras everywhere, expanded police powers, and even those drones we mentioned earlier.  How much of the stuff that seemed “far out” in 1983 is now at the disposal of law enforcement, or even has been surpassed by current technology?

Things that make you go, “Hmmm….”

The movie was successful, both critically and financially. A spin-off series aired on ABC the following year, which wasn’t a sequel but rather a reworking of the premise, in which the helicopter is used by a special unit to hunt down the baddest of bad guys, and so on and so forth. The show was cancelled after eleven episodes, ceding the helicopter action show bragging rights to the other 80s AwesomeChopper, Airwolf, which premiered that same year.

(So far as the helicopters go, I’ve always preferred Blue Thunder to Airwolf, even though I think Airwolf would win in a head-to-head contest. Yes, I’m a geek, and I put some thought into that particular battle royale.)

Blue Thunder seems like the perfect choice for a remake, doesn’t it? I’m sure someone’s thought about it, or is thinking about it, and they’ll eventually get on with dicking it up. Meanwhile, we still have the original. I may have to spin it up tonight.

“Catch ya later.”

Time Lords and the Truce: Doctor Who at the National World War I Museum!

wwimuseum-entranceThose of you who follow my irregularly recurring blatherings here or on Facebook might recall that I volunteer here and there at the National World War I Museum and Memorial here in Kansas City. It’s one of those things I decided to do last year as part of my “Dayton, Chapter 2” bit upon hitting my 50th birthday.

In addition to possessing what has been called the world’s most comprehensive collection of artifacts from the First World War, the museum is also home to a number of, exhibits, events, and activities designed to heed its mission statement of “remembering, interpreting and understanding the Great War and its enduring impact on the global community.”

I’m really rather proud to be associated with it, even in this small way.

I also like that the museum continues to try new and different things in its ongoing quest to further engage the community. Sometimes that means thinking a bit outside the box, or mixing a bit of entertainment with our history. The museum has its own auditorium which plays host to concerts, lectures and symposiums, films, and other performances with some connection to the war. All Quiet on the Western Front, Doctor Zhivago, Paths of Glory, and other films set during the war have screened at the museum.

However, this is the first time I can recall something like this happening there:

timelords-wwi

Awwwwww, yeah. From the museum’s website:


Thursday, Feb. 15, 6:30 p.m.

The 1914 Christmas Truce is cleverly intertwined with Doctor Who – but we don’t want to give spoilers. Come with your favorite companion and discover new WWI facts and how clever that madman in the blue box can be with a viewing of the last episode in the 2017 season.


So, here I am, a student of the war and a fan of the Doctor. What to do, what to do?

I know! Ima gonna hafta go to this thing.

Those of you living in the Kansas City area (or willing to haul buns to this part of the country) who might also be fans of the Doctor while also having a free evening on Thursday, February 15th at 6pm, should think about heading to the museum to check out this special screening of “Twice Upon A Time,” the last episode to star Peter Capaldi as the 12th Doctor, and featuring the introduction of Jodie Whittaker as Doctor #13.

As the website says, the event is free. All you have to do is RSVP at the event’s page (click on “Free with RSVP”).

Maybe I’ll see you there!