Category Archives: movies

Lance, is that you?


Seriously, how did I not know until today that the great Lance Henriksen was in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind?”

After having seen the movie dozens of times, I watched it on TCM today and was startled to see the favorite from “Aliens” and “Millennium” on screen near the end, in the Devil’s Tower sequence.

He’s even in the credits!

Nice to see you, Lance!

‘The Force Awakens’ worth the wait

force kylo ren

It’s been fun and a little frustrating, as the decades pass and “Star Wars” fandom changes, to view the movie series and everything associated with it from the perspective of an original fan.

There are millions of “Star Wars” fans who never saw the original trilogy in a theater, like I did, and didn’t know what it was like to wait three years to see if Darth Vader really was Luke Skywalker’s father. In today’s world of continually-in-production genre fare, from Marvel’s movies and TV series to now Disney’s “Star Wars” sequels and spin-offs, there’s never ever again going to be years of wandering in the wilderness, wondering what was happening with the characters and story you enjoyed. Want a “Star Wars” fix before Episode 8? Well, you can see Episode 7 again in theaters now, of course, and you’ll be able to watch it on disc and streaming in a few months and you can keep in touch with the extended Skywalker family through animated and, someday, live-action shows on TV.

So it was fun to watch as the younger crowd caught onto the saga – unfortunately for them, sometimes via the prequel trilogy – and went back and discovered what had come before and made it their own.

Thats the best thing about the strongest genre stories, of course: That with decades of history, fans of “Star Trek” or “Star Wars” or any other series or movie or book or heck, I dunno, audio drama like the newly produced “Doctor Who” audio episodes, fans can jump in at almost any starting point.

It’s also frustrating because it’s easy to get spoiled and forget (I promise this isn’t a “get off my lawn” rant) that the genre – science fiction and fantasy and horror and comic-book-based shows and movies – hasn’t always been such a huge part of pop culture. I remember well getting odd looks (not from my family, thank god) and hostile comments for my avid consumption of genre fiction going back 50 years.

Now it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t consume some kind of genre work, from TV’s highly-rated “The Walking Dead” to HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” Who that has Netflix didn’t have an opinion on “Daredevil” and “Jessica Jones?”

As I’ve said before, my son knows Batman and Wonder Woman and Finn and Kylo Ren and Captain America and Black Widow as much from their constant cover appearances on the magazines we subscribe to as much – more, really – than their source material.

So what started out as an entry about “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” which I saw last night, has turned into a rumination on pop culture and waiting and not having to wait.

While one of my first thoughts about “TFA” was that it felt like old-school “Star Wars,” almost to the point that it felt as if it had been shot back-to-back with “The Empire Strikes Back” in the late 1970s, fans won’t have to wait forever, like we did back in the day, to see it again or get at least hints of what happens next time.

That’s good, because “TFA” has me wanting more, and I’m not sure I expected it to.

Don’t get me wrong. While the prequel trilogy left me mostly cold, the original trilogy left adolescent me in high anticipation of what would happen next.

“Star Wars” (later dubbed “A New Hope”) was a high-water mark, right up there with “Jaws” two years earlier, in moviegoing. It didn’t have much contemporary competition for the love and loyalties of fans. While “Close Encounters” was released a few months later, the other genre movies of 1977 didn’t have much to offer fans. I mean, seriously: “Damnation Alley?” “Island of Doctor Moreau?”

By May 1980, my friends and I were standing in line outside a 900-seat Indianapolis theater to see “The Empire Strikes Back.” We repeated that three years later with “Return of the Jedi.”

You’ll never know how long three years could seem.

So while I wasn’t avidly anticipating “TFA,” I was looking forward to it. Not quite as much as your average new Marvel movie, to be honest. When I turned out 90 minutes early for “TFA” last night, it was less about eagerness and more about not wanting to sit someplace where people would cough on the back of my head.

That worked out pretty well and so did the movie.

“The Force Awakens” did everything it set out to do. Maybe a little imitative of the original movie – secrets hidden in a droid, family estrangements to the extreme, intercut X-Wing and lightsaber battles – but director J.J. Abrams could do a lot worse than use that same template.

(I’ll go very light on the spoilers here, by the way.)

As anybody who has read this far knows, “TFA” takes up 30 or so years after “Return of the Jedi.” I think the most interesting thing about this choice, besides the fact it lets actors like Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher play Han and Leia in totally sensical aging mode, is that the story lets us know that the events of that time – Luke’s defeat of the Emperor with help from his father, Darth Vader – have almost faded into the stuff of myth. The names Skywalker and Solo are familiar but hazily-remembered by people on isolated planets who heard stories told not second-hand but hundredth-hand.

So while the movie very rightly so focuses on a new generation of characters like Finn (John Boyega) and Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the “old” cast is introduced gradually. Very gradually, in some cases.

There are callbacks and references to the events of the original story, with little jokes about Han’s troubles as a smuggler and the prowess or not of the Millennium Falcon, but there’s no doubt the movie is carried by and its heart is greatly invested in Finn and Rey and Kylo Ren.

There’s a great part for Harrison Ford as Han Solo and a number of old favorite characters are back, but this is the story of the new characters and it serves them very well. The movie is a series of funny scenes followed by thrilling scenes followed by heartfelt scenes followed by huge spectacle and it all really works.

When George Lucas’ “Star Wars” came out, people commented on it’s “lived-in universe” feel. The prequels, set at an earlier time, felt too scuff-free to me. Too full of palaces and pristine rooms and opera houses where at least it seemed understandable, if not desirable, to hear about trade delegations and midichlorians.

The new movie covers some familiar geography, from a desert planet to a snow-covered planet to one that turns out not to be a moon or even a Death Star but a big honkin’ Starkiller. But it plays with the iconography. There are Imperial Walkers, those lumbering, four-footed transport vehicles, and Star Destroyers but they’re as often as not half-buried where they fell after some long-ago battle.

I wonder if some of these settings, some of these moments, will become as iconic as those from the original films have become. There’s an enormous interior, with one of those dizzying catwalks that the “Star Trek” spoof “Galaxy Quest” made fun of, that sees one of the movie’s most dramatic confrontations played out. I’m already wanting to get another chance to peer into its darkest depths but know that I won’t be able to look away from the drama being played out in the foreground.

I’ve mentioned the main characters but a quick word about some of the secondary characters. And that word is: they all feel right, from Oscar Isaac’s pilot Poe Dameron to Fisher’s General Leia Organa to Lupita N’Yongo’s mysterious Maz. The prequels stuck us with main and secondary characters that never felt right. I’d go so far to say that “TFA” has a better supporting cast than the main cast of the prequels.

Still, there’s a lot about “The Force Awakens” that remains a mystery to me after just one viewing. What’s the story of Chrome Stormtrooper Captain Phasma? What about the spooky visions in the junky little room where Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber was stored? (They made me think of the creepy Dagobah cave/tree in “Empire” where Luke confronts the Dark Side and his destiny.)

What will happen after that sad and thrilling final scene?

So many questions, or at least intriguing mysteries. I don’t know if they’ll be answered in Episode 8, which will continue this story.

I do know, however, that we won’t have to wait three years this time. Disney has scheduled the next sequel for May 26, 2017. And less than two years is better than three. After all, who wants to wait anymore?

Classic: ‘The Man Who Would Be King’

the man who would be king poster

Did you ever go back and watch a fondly-remembered movie for the first time in 20 years and worry that your memories of it were totally skewed, that it wouldn’t be as good? Or maybe even embarrassingly bad?

I was a little worried about that upon my first re-watching in a couple of decades of John Huston’s “The Man Who Would Be King,” the director’s version of the Rudyard Kipling story of two British soldiers-turned-adventurers-turned-con-men in the depths of colonialism in the late 1800s.

Huston’s film was released in 1975 and is still more than effective in telling its story of two men who start out with nothing more than a plan to get rich off tribal warlords as they leave India and journey to remote Kafiristan, a province of Afghanistan.

The idea is to sell rifles to a warlord, allowing him to more effectively kill his enemies and expand his reach.

But as Peachy (Michael Caine) and Danny (Sean Connery) put their plan into motion, they discover that while they can train a warlord’s troops and stroke his ego, it would just be easier to become the warlords themselves.

Danny – and Connery is wonderfully effective here – believes his own hype and before long is acting like the god-on-earth that his new subjects believe he is.

the man who would be king scene

The story – based by Kipling on a couple of real-life adventurers – is a jarring mix of the old-fashioned and brutal. There’s a quaint framing device to tell the story but the fortunes of war are not kind to would-be warlords and gods.

Christopher Plummer is terrific as Kipling, as is Saeed Jeffrey as Billy Fish, the loyal native who helps the pair.

Seeing Plummer, Caine and Connery so young and vital is great fun and they’re perfect in what seemed like a throwback then that’s even more so now.

RIP “Night Stalker” creator Jeff Rice

jeff rice night stalker

I’m kind of heartbroken right now.

Earlier today I saw a random tweet about the passing of Jeff Rice.

If you ask, “Who is Jeff Rice?” you’ll either not give a damn about his death or – hopefully – you will care after I lay a little information on you.

Jeff Rice, who died in Las Vegas on July 1 at age 71, was a talented writer who peaked way before he should have and struggled – and failed – to reach the same height of success again.

You see, Jeff Rice created Carl Kolchak and “The Night Stalker.”

If that rings a bell, and it should, you might remember that “The Night Stalker,” a TV movie from “Dark Shadows” creator Dan Curtis and starring Darren McGavin as Kolchak, aired on ABC on Jan. 11, 1972.

The movie – what might now be called a procedural, as Las Vegas newspaper reporter Kolchak tracks a serial killer in Vegas and ruffles the feathers of cops, politicians and his boss at the paper – was one of the most successful TV movies of all time, with 54 percent of TVs in use and 33 percent of all TV homes tuned in the night it aired.

That’s in part due to the funny, action-filled script by “I Am Legend” and “Twilight Zone” screenwriter Richard Matheson and Kolchak’s way of staying one step ahead of everyone else – and rubbing their noses in it. (I’m betting he influenced almost as many would-be newspaper reporters, like me, as did Woodward and Bernstein.)

But “The Night Stalker” also did as well as it did, I believe, because Vegas serial killer Janos Skorzeny was a vampire.

I’ve written in this space before about my love for the movie – and my great fondness for the follow-up movie “The Night Strangler” and the “Kolchak: The Night Stalker” TV series that aired from September 1974 to March 1975.

As writer Mark Dawidziak noted in his book “The Night Stalker Companion” and his online obituary for Rice, the author’s work and the adaptations of it were enormously influential.

Not just on “The X-Files,” which captured the spirit of the movies and TV series and even paid tribute to Kolchak, but also a host of series that, like Rice’s work, brought “creatures of the night” out of the Victorian era and shook off their gothic trappings to introduce them to the modern world, like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and pretty much every recent movie or series that used “The Night Stalker”‘s mix of horror, humor, sarcasm, pessimism and, ultimately, bravery.

There had been little like “The Night Stalker” before but there was plenty to come.

As Dawidziak notes, however, Rice’s story was in many ways as dark as his story “The Kolchak Papers,” which eventually saw paperback publication as “The Night Stalker” in December 1973.

night stalker books

(The book cover photos that accompany this post I took today of my copies of Rice’s books. I’ve had them since they were published. They’re terrific.)

Dawidziak notes that Rice – himself a Las Vegas Sun reporter in the 1960s, and nobody’s pushover – based his fantastic yarn on his own experiences in Vegas, running up against corrupt politicians and criminals. Rice didn’t encounter any vampires, as far as we know, but anyone who remembers the movie knows that the most dangerous antagonists in the movie aren’t the age-old vampire but the forces of politics and the law, who lower the boom on Kolchak just as he triumphs.

As Dawidziak tells it, Rice’s downfall came after the “Kolchak” series was approved. It seems like somebody neglected to get the rights to the characters from Rice. The author asked for a piece of the action and, when the studio thumbed its nose at him, threatened to sue.

Rice was barred from the the production of the series and felt like his career was greatly diminished.

Rice never caught the huge break that his talent deserved.

And as Las Vegas Review-Journal writer John L. Smith reported, Rice lived out a “troubled” life until his death a little more than month ago.

I’ve seen “The Night Stalker” countless times and I’ve read Rice’s books several times. From the first page, Rice grips the reader with his portrait of Cheryl Ann Hughes, a casino worker in one of Las Vegas’ darker sidewalks on the wrong night.

A series of bullet points – a style best appreciated by those of us in the newspaper business – sums up Hughes in less than a page. Then this:

“Cheryl Ann Hughes: a girl with less than fifteen minutes to live.”

If you seek out and read Rice’s book – and you should – you’ll realize how much the TV movie owes to Rice not just because of characters and plot but also tone and voice. You can hear McGavin’s voice as you read Rice’s story.

I was 12 and a horror film fanatic when I first saw “The Night Stalker.” I greedily sought out more of this world, snapping up Rice’s novels when I found them and watching the sequel movie and series.

After hearing the news about Jeff Rice today, I’ll be stepping back into Kolchak’s world again soon.

‘Mr. Holmes’ a bittersweet look at the legend

mr holmes

If I actually get around to writing all of this, the blog will seem very Sherlock-centric for a while. I’m reading a Sherlock Holmes book now – the second in a row – and I’m mightily tempted to watch some early “Sherlock” episodes on Netflix.

And then there’s “Mr. Holmes.”

I didn’t know quite what to expect from the Bill Condon film, starring Ian McKellen as an older, retired Sherlock Holmes, and I haven’t read “A Slight Trick of the Mind,” the 2005 book by Mitch Cullin. I had an impression the story was about a mystery deep in the retirement years of the world’s greatest consulting detective.

Holmes’ retirement years have been fertile ground for writers, most notably Laurie R. King, whose “Beekeeper’s Apprentice” books featuring Holmes and Mary Russell, his younger love interest and deducting equal, have thoroughly explored this world in a dozen books.

(I can’t help but wonder if writers like King aren’t ticked off when they treat an idea with such care and originality and see others’ treatments get turned into movies.)

“Mr. Holmes” unfolds in 1947, when 93-year-old Holmes – long after the death of everyone important in his life, including his brother Mycroft and companion John Watson – is living in his house in Sussex and keeping bees. His only companions are his housekeeper (Laura Linney) and her young son Roger (Milo Parker).

Holmes, in failing health, struggles to remember the case, decades earlier, that prompted him to quit detecting. WIth some prompting from Roger, he remembers the bittersweet circumstances. The realization affects him in a couple of ways, including his dealings not only with his surrogate daughter and grandson but with a Japanese businessman who seeks answers that only Holmes can provide.

If you’re expecting a version of Holmes that’s like the aging astronauts of “Space Cowboys,” that’s not what Condon’s movie is about. It’s a low-key affair, more bitter than sweet, about a legendary figure fighting with the loss of his greatest tool: his mind.

But it’s also about how Holmes, notoriously aloof and superior, comes to realize – too late, tragically so in one instance – that the need for companionship is felt by everyone. Even him. The bitter realization, played out in one of the film’s flashbacks, stems from a moment that seems out of the blue but is ultimately understandable.

McKellen is wonderful, of course. We’ve seen so many decades of good work from him that we shouldn’t be surprised that he can play at least three different versions of Holmes here – at his deductive peak, at his most confused and vulnerable and at his saddest as he realizes what might have been and attempts to solve the mystery of his life.

Forty years later: ‘Jaws’

jaws

I’m pretty much dumfounded to realize that it’s been 40 years since “Jaws” debuted in theaters.

I still remember vividly the day my friend Jim and I saw the movie.

We were early-to-mid-teenagers and movies were a passion of ours – horror movies, science fiction movies, action movies, classic movies – so we went pretty regularly.

Summer movies were different before “Jaws” was released in 1975 and much less blockbuster-oriented. “Jaws” has been credited – or blamed – with creating the summer movie season as we know it: Action movies, sci-fi movies and mass-market fare.

If you think back to the summer of 1974, the last summer before “Jaws,” that theory makes sense. In May 1974, the big releases were “The Lords of Flatbush” and “Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry.” In June 1974, it was “Chinatown,” decidedly adult fare.

But the two of us were there, during opening weekend, to see “Jaws” in June 1975. We were primed for it. I think I had read Peter Benchley’s novel by that point and kind of knew what to expect.

A twist of fate spoiled the movie for us even further.

We’d been dropped off at the theater by his dad or my dad and discovered the showing of “Jaws” that we wanted to see was sold out. We bought tickets for the next showing and decided to kill time until it began at a nearby ice cream shop.

Little did we know that the kids working behind the counter had seen “Jaws” the night before.

As we sat there, eating our ice cream and feeling increasingly stupid, one of the ice cream jockeys proceeded to spoil most of the big moments in “Jaws.”

“And then the head pops out of the hole in the side of the boat …” You know, things like that.

We still saw the movie and the “head scene” still made me jump. But still.

I saw “Jaws” several times in theaters, many times on home video and, to this day, if I come across it on cable TV, I will put down the remote control and watch from whatever point in the movie I’ve tuned in.

There’s little point in my recapping the plot or the high points of Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece. If you’ve read this far, you probably know the movie by heart like I do.

The amazing John Williams score. The high seas adventure. The moments of incredible suspense and fright. The “Indianapolis” scene. The intensely human nature of the characters. The cast!

“Jaws” is perhaps the ultimate summer blockbuster. It is also perhaps the ultimate movie experience.

Forty years on, nothing’s changed that. And I can’t believe anything ever will.