Spooky Halloween Scaretoberfest #2: Alien

For the month of October I’ll be highlighting four films that I think deserve a shout. I have a pair of classics on the list and a pair that are lesser known or a bit lost to time. I’m also showcasing films that I believe serve as companion pieces for each other. Whether it’s their sense of style, directorial flourishes, setting, or themes, I think these films would make a great quadruple feature. There will be full spoilers for each film. You have been warned. This week we take a look at the legendary 1979 film Alien.

I spent ten years in the Navy, with around seven-ish of those ten stationed on submarines. I was an auxiliary mechanic, which means I worked with life support systems, hydraulics, potable water, sewage, and a lot of other unglamorous things. It was tough, thankless work. When I watch Alien and the doomed crew of the Nostromo, it reminds me of those days. Luckily U.S. subs have a lot less xenomorphs.

Sci-fi movies, before Alien and after, tend to lean on the sexy parts of space travel: phasers, faster than light travel, dogfights in the vacuum of space, and all manner of futuristic swashbuckling. Alien eschews all the glitz for grease monkeys, ore cargos, gripes about company bonus shares, and a crew that looks a lot like any one you would see in a plant or warehouse on Earth. It’s space travel with a union rep.

The movie opens on an eerie tracking shot through the Nostromo, casually glancing over detritus just laying around. It’s not a particularly clean ship. It looks lived in, not cared for. We watch the crew wake from cryo-sleep and groggily exchange pleasantries. Everything seems normal, even boring.

When Dallas, the captain of the ship, talks to the ship’s AI – Mother – he and the crew get a surprise: they are still very far from home, and wilder still, responding to a beacon. The beacon is emanating from a rocky hellhole – LV-246 – in the middle of nowhere. The crew balk hard at this detour, but the Science Officer, Ash (Ian Holm; Bilbo to his friends), tells them that if they do not respond to the beacon they forfeit all of their shares. Money talks, so they go.

The tech in Alien is chunky and utilitarian. There are no pop-up 3D displays or J.J. Abrams-esque lens flare machines. The ship is all function and no form, yet the form of its functionality is so unique that it’s like another character in the film. As the crew is landing their craft on the alien world there are a handful of displays giving very basic data. The ship is so one-use, that when they land it practically breaks everything onboard, leaving the mechanics a ton of work to do while Dallas leads a search party to seek the source of the signal.

Some scenes are so iconic, so altogether original and perfect, that they defy description. Alien has so many of these scenes and moments strung together you would be forgiven if you thought it was simply a flawless film. It’s not, but you would be forgiven. The discovery of the alien vessel? Perfect.

Their suits are clunky and stupid and the lack of visibility on the surface of the planet, along with the howling wind, contracts the focus of the away team down to centimeters of real estate. Then the ship comes into view. Kane (John Hurt) is breathless with amazement, “We’ve come this far. We must go on. We have to go on.” I talked about this in episode one of this series: Beware the edgy, dangerous friend. Kane’s excitement could almost be mania. He seems like a person who signed-up for space travel when he read about all the exciting places he would go in the brochure. Ten years later he realizes he’s a cargo ship sailor who spends the bulk of his life in cryo, sleeping his days away one shipment of ore at a time. Now this? Fuck caution, we must go on.

What they find is staggering. Inside the vessel, which is eerily biological in construction, they discover an enormous alien corpse in some kind of command chair. The corpse is fossilized and has signs of physical trauma. The lack of backstory is crucial. We’re just as in the dark as the crew. It’s actually what made the recent sequels so weak – explaining (if that’s what Prometheus and Alien: Covenant were supposed to be doing) only weakens the terror.

Kane’s fate in the cargo hold of the alien ship is a fine example of the consequences of wanting to know too much.

Dallas and Lambert bring the lifeless Kane back to the Nostromo and some tasty character development takes place. Ripley, who is the second in command, listens to Dallas tell her Kane’s status and she says they cannot come back onboard the ship. This is the correct decision. It sucks, and it certainly won’t win her any friends, but her job is to protect the rest of the crew and its expensive cargo, not be everyone’s chum.

Ash, the Science Officer who is on his first voyage with the crew, does the chummy thing and lets them in. In a film of bad decisions and their consequences, this one ranks as the worst; but it’s not without motivation of its own, which we’ll get to later.

Let’s take a minute to talk about the crew of the Nostromo and the cast who play them. Horror films, especially in the 70’s and 80’s, tended towards younger casts. Director Ridley Scott, the producers, and casting crew went with an older (relatively speaking) cast. It’s not really that they are particularly old – Sigourney Weaver was 29 at the time of the filming – but they all look mature, grizzled. This is by design. Scott and Co. wanted the crew to be like “truckers in space.” Roger Ebert in his review of the film noted, “Many recent action pictures have improbably young actors cast as key roles or sidekicks, but by skewing older, Alien achieves a certain texture without even making a point of it: These are not adventurers but workers, hired by a company to return 20 million tons of ore to Earth.”

Yophet Kotto as Chief Engineer Parker is every rage-filled twenty year submariner I worked with in the Navy who was on his second wife, his third kid, and his fourteenth cigarette of the day; Harry Dean Stanton’s Brett is the Second Class Petty Officer I served with who had been in for fifteen years, long given-up on advancement, and was counting days to retirement. Dallas, Lambert, Kane, Ripley, hell maybe even Ash, are people who live predictable lives and probably think they’ve seen it all. They wish.

After a terrifying attempt at removing the alien specimen from Kane’s face, the crew are surprised to find that it leaves him voluntarily. Kane wakes and an uncomfortable reunion occurs. Everybody is so nervous and they just want to go home. But before they hit the deep freeze, how about dinner? I now present a live reenactment of every Thanksgiving in America since Trump was elected:

I’d like to first remind everyone to leave the politics alone this holiday season. I’d also like to broach a possibly unpopular opinion: I think the little baby alien is adorable. Look at him run on that table! He’s the cutest thing! I mean, if you ignore the viscera.

From this point forward Alien becomes a nightmare in a locked house. The crew cannot let the creature run free around the ship, but they are also ill-equipped to find it, much less fight it. Like the women from The Descent, the crew of the Nostromo are engaged with an enemy they do not understand, in an environment that is practically tailor-made for that enemy. They start with a net for crissakes. In their defense, the last time they saw the critter he was fun-sized. Now? He’s a hulking creature who is simply not to be fucked with and he kills poor Brett with the ease of a Grizzly Bear taking down a squirrel.

The creature design in Alien is one of the gold standards. Inspired by the work of H.R. Giger, all of the creature effects in the film are slimy, slick, phallic or vaginal in nature, and disturbing. 20th Century Fox execs were resistant to the idea of using Giger’s work, thinking the designs would be to off-putting for audiences, which is another case of studios not knowing what the fuck they are talking about. The creature’s design has become legend and has inspired basically every monster design since. Pumpkin Head, the Demogorgon, Slender Man, and others all owe a debt to Giger’s wonderfully fucked-up vision.

After Brett’s demise a new plan is hatched: they use a homemade flamethrower to drive the beast through the ventilation shafts, into an airlock, and then blow it into space. Great plan, aside from the part where one of them has to be in the shaft with the alien. Dallas volunteers. Cue up the next iconic sequence:

That’s 3-0 for the alien if you’re scoring at home.

With Dallas gone, command of the ship passes to Ripley. Her first move is to excoriate Ash, who she has grown to distrust, and then to consult Mother. What she finds is the final turn of the screw. The “company” redirected them to the beacon. They most likely knew the beacon existed prior to the Nostromo leaving for its ore hauling job. After haggling with Mother and trying to type her way around the security protocols, she is given their real mission:

Top Secret – Science Officer’s Eyes Only

Bring back life form. Priority One. All other considerations secondary. Crew expendable.

Ash replaced the ship’s old Science Officer at the last minute; Ash let Kane back on the ship, against every law and procedure in the book; Ash was the one who miracled the little motion scanner into existence (Micro-changes in air density, my ass.); and Ash is the one who has somehow snuck into Mother’s access bay with Ripley, placid smile on his face, saying there’s a reasonable explanation for what she’s reading.

She tries to escape, but Ash is locking her in with door overrides and his strength is incredible. His behavior is bizarre, too. He is bent on killing Ripley, though he appears to be wrestling with it in the most unnatural way. He tries to kill her by shoving a rolled-up magazine down her throat, which is, like, not efficient. When Parker finds them he tries to stop Ash and is overpowered without issue. It finally takes a series of strikes with a fire extinguisher to stop Ash and reveal the truth: Ash is an android. Or as Parker says, “He’s a robot! Ash is a goddamn robot!”

They wire Ash’s head back together to see if they can glean any new information. What they get is a smug head on a table talking through mouthfuls of whole milk. Ash admits to admiring the creature’s “purity” and he basically tells them they are dead meat.

Ripley makes the call: initiate the self-destruct sequence, get on the ship’s lifeboat, and go into cryo with the hopes of getting picked-up. Ripley will get the lifeboat ready to fly while Parker and Lambert gather supplies needed for the voyage. They are only separated for a few minutes, but a creature like this only needs a few minutes. The scene is lit perfectly as we watch Lambert’s and Parker’s shadows as they busy themselves with the task at hand…and then a third shadow slinks into view, like a clever little sneak, and Lambert sees it out of the corner of her eye. I really fucking hate this scene. Lambert has been a shrieking mess the entire film, and here at a moment when Parker might actually be able to do some damage to it with the flamethrower, SHE WON’T FUCKING MOVE. Parker can’t risk burning her, so he charges the alien and gets mauled. Once he’s toast, it turns its eyes to the STILL NOT FUCKING MOVING LAMBERT. Ripley, who has had an open line to both crew members broadcasting throughout the ship, listens to their deaths as she rushes to try and save them. Lambert’s gurgles and screams over the intercom are haunting. Maybe move next time, sister. Oh wait, you’re dead. No next time.

With only one option left, Ripley starts the self-destruct sequence. With the ship’s cat, Jones, in-tow, Ripley races for the lifeboat…but the alien is blocking her way. She tries to go back and stop the sequence, but it’s too late. It’s either get on the boat, or get atomized. She goes for the boat, and lo, the path to salvation is clear. As is movie custom, she gets on the boat and at a minimum safe distance just in time. And she’s saved! Woo! It’s Miller Time!

Oh, wait, sorry – the alien is hiding on the ship. Cue final iconic sequence:

Get roasted, bitch.

This final stand by Ripley was the culmination of a complete character’s arc. She started the film as a brassy, tough, take-no-shit kinda person. She was the type of person who has worked for years as one of a few females in a male dominated workplace and has learned to take her lumps and give ’em right back. She’s also sensitive. In the scene where she is communicating with Mother and the cold, dark truth is being revealed, she is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, tears welling in her eyes, her nose running. She’s brave, even when she’s terrified, and she thinks on her feet. Unlike Lambert WHO HAS FEET MADE OF CONCRETE. Stephen King wrote about the character of Ripley and praised Weaver’s performance and the writing, right up until she saved Jonesy the cat. He considered this a bailout by the writers, as if that act was a way for the writer’s to say, “Women? Am I right?” I just saw it as a desperate act of a person who wanted to save one life – just one. Besides, I’m a cat guy. If my kitties at home are in trouble, I’m coming, and I’m bringing the flamethrower. I’d certainly have saved Jonesy before I saved fucking Lambert.

Anywhutzle. Ripley is a fabulous character, and for my money the best science fiction/action heroine of all-time. There’s an argument to made for Sarah Connor from the Terminator movies, and I’m sympathetic to that argument, but Ripley came first and Weaver is just a better actor than Linda Hamilton. Sorry, just reporting the facts. She influenced four decades of action heroines, like Sarah Connor and the women in The Descent, and Alien lives as a classic in great part because of that.

The movie was so influential it spawned imitators and sequels and spinoffs. Some of the sequels were excellent- Aliens and Alien 3 (I will brook no argument here – Alien 3 is legit); others were mediocre – Prometheus and Alien Covenant; and one of them was a ghastly abomination that is best left unspoken of – Alien Resurrection. The spinoffs and imitators- Alien vs Predator and the like –  were never going to be anything better than “Meh.” They were always fighting an uphill battle against a superior work, a masterpiece. Ash’s final words before he gets shutoff one final time sum it up best for those who followed Alien:

You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you? The perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.

I admire its purity. A survivor…unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.

I can’t lie to you about your chances, but…you have my sympathies.

Talk at ya later.

Next Week (Sunday, I think): The Cell

 

 

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Spooky Halloween Scaretoberfest #1: The Descent

For the month of October I’ll be highlighting four films that I think deserve a shout. I have a pair of classics on the list and a pair that are lesser known or a bit lost to time. I’m also showcasing films that I believe serve as companion pieces for each other. Whether it’s their sense of style, directorial flourishes, setting, or themes, I think these films would make a great quadruple feature. Fair warning: There will be full spoilers for each film. You have been warned. We’ll start with the 2005 surprise hit The Descent.

There are some movies that have girl power. There are some movies that have Girl Power. And there are some movies that have Grrrrllll Power. The Descent definitely falls in the latter category. During its initial development the film was supposed to sport a generic mix of male and female characters; but director Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers, Game of Thrones) called an audible and went with an all female cast. We actually only see one male character in the whole film, and him only briefly. In today’s social climate this would be fussed about on social media until the movie was buried under sedimentary layers of 140 character scorn or jubilation. In 2005 a film could still be a film without being a live wire for virtue signaling.

Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) and Juno (Natalie Mendoza) are the kind of deep woods divas every guy with an outdoors streak dreams about meeting. They hike, they raft, they climb mountains, they cave dive, and they look positively fetching while they do it. Guys can look cool in their Patagonia jackets and Ray Bans, but they know they look cool and that instantly makes it less cool. Sarah and Juno – and their gang of cannonballing friends – don’t give a shit if anybody is looking. They’re getting after it and look cool because their style is a reflection of their vitality and independence. None of them are posers trying to keep their $800 hiking boots clean.

The movie opens on Sarah, Juno, and Beth finishing a pretty rugged whitewater rafting adventure. It’s joyous and fun and you immediately buy-in to the premise. These are mid-tier adrenaline junkies who aren’t going to be wingsuiting off a skyscraper, though they would definitely talk about it over beers. Sarah’s husband and daughter are waiting on them at the end of their journey and here we get our first glimpse of trouble; Sarah runs straight to her daughter to whoop and cheer and hug it out…while her husband Paul helps a strangely emotional Juno get out of the water. Juno’s emotion in proximity to Paul is the definition of a red flag.

On the drive back from their trip, a distracted Paul drifts into the wrong lane of traffic and a head-on collision with another car occurs. This scene is a little schlocky. I remember watching this opening salvo and groaning. So much more could have been accomplished if this shocking scene was handled with a bit more restraint, but this isn’t a movie that works in subtleties.

The result of the accident is the death of Sarah’s husband and daughter, then we flash forward one year.

Juno is getting the band back together for a big spelunking trip and has invited Sarah, Beth, Sam, Holly, and Rebecca. Through hugs and greetings we get the feeling that this is a tight group of like-minded adventurers. They’re broadly sketched without being caricatures. You’ve got the safety first friend, the one-person support group friend, the wild-child newcomer friend, the jack-of-all-trades friend, you’ve got the fragile friend, and you have the edgy, dangerous friend. None of the actors are hamming it up here; they are playing the group like sorority sisters with ice axes and climbing ropes.

Juno is taking them to a cave for some leisurely caving. Maybe too leisurely, as Holly (the wild-child newcomer) is perpetually whining about it being a tourist’s idea of adventure. But Juno is holding a secret about the next day’s trip, one that will spell doom for them all.

Meanwhile, Sarah is struggling. She is medicated and having nightmares. Her eyes are hazy and distant, like a person who thinks she is in a dream that can’t end soon enough. You get the feeling she regrets agreeing to the trip; but she’s here and Juno is a force of nature who drives the people around her to exceed their limits.

It’s to Marshall’s credit that he designs the movie to have a slow-burn start. Lesser films would be much more eager to rev the horror and get the audience screaming. The film takes its time, lingering on the relationships and revealing each character’s personality through dialogue and quiet action. The women are competent; they know all the gear they’re bringing; they know the dangers (or they think they do); and they’re all doing what they think is best to help Sarah. Especially Beth, who is our one-person support group friend. She’s only interested in seeing Sarah come out the other side of this trip and she’s got some real acid in her voice when she talks about Juno. It would seem that more than one person on the trip is carrying a secret.

When the women descend into the cave we get our first hint that something is off. What was supposed to be the kiddie pool of cave dives turns out to be quite challenging. This is also when we get our first look at the heroic work of set designer Simon Bowles. The caves, made entirely on the Pinewood Studios lot, are fucking remarkable. Realistic natural stone is very hard to pull off in a studio. It almost always looks like painted Styrofoam. The production notes I could find say that they developed a new method of rendering the handcrafted sets to look like actual caves. I can’t argue with the results, especially as the team gets deeper into the cave and the only available light is provided by glow sticks and helmet flashlights.

As they are traversing a dreadfully tight section of the cave, Sarah gets stuck and has a panic attack. Beth enters the narrow passage and talks her through…just as a section of roof starts to collapse. They narrowly escape, but their exit is blocked. Now the other shoe drops: Juno has brought them into an unexplored cavern and filed no itinerary to the local authorities. Nobody knows they are here and the only way out – if one exists – is through.

This is a terrible scenario. The number of outdoor adventurers who die every year due to bad planning, poor judgment, or just unfortunate circumstances, is rather alarming. This situation is further exacerbated by Juno’s violation of trust. Nothing is more deadly in a high stress situation than scorched feelings, yet the power of Juno’s personality is overwhelming. She gives a speech to the group and lets them know the deal: be mad at me if you want, but if we’re going to live, we gotta move, so get moving. You can actually see the glint in Juno’s eyes; a part of her may have been hoping for something like this to happen. Beware the edgy, dangerous friend. With no other alternative, they move.

You should also be mindful of the wild-child. In horror movies, as in life, there’s always one jack-wagon who makes a mistake that turns a bad situation worse. For our team that person is Holly, who mistakes phosphorescent glowing within the cave for daylight and runs headlong into a catastrophic fall. Her injury is gruesome, as is its implication. The team now has to drag an immobilized cripple through the network of twisting tunnels.

Then things get really shitty.

Sarah sees something bathing at a pool in a recessed room. She tries to tell the others and they are understandably skeptical. In her defense there have been signs that this tunnel has seen occupants, past and present: strange luting sounds echoing in the distance and the discovery of a long out of date piton. The problem is that it’s hard to talk about something as fantastical as a naked person bathing in the deep when your current situation is so perilous. They should have listened. Introducing, the crawlers:

Holy Cheebus. This scene was used in the film’s trailers for good reason. Because we have watched the group persevere with wit and grit for so long, it’s frightening to witness their rising panic, and when the first crawler reveals itself via the digital camera the audience is ready to shriek, just like the women on screen.

The creature design in this film is pretty good. Neil Marshall wanted the crawlers to be very human in nature, though way off the normal evolutionary track.

“They’ve evolved in this environment over thousands of years. They’ve adapted perfectly to thrive in the cave. They’ve lost their eyesight, they have acute hearing and smell and function perfectly in the pitch black. They’re expert climbers, so they can go up any rock face and that is their world,” Marshall said. Some nerd out there is surely pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose and saying, “Well, actually, evolution takes millions of years, not thousands.” Shut up nerd. The adults are watching a movie.

In this terrifying first encounter with the crawlers our team gets totally smashed. The women are running in terror in each and every direction, away from each other and deeper into the cavern. Sarah runs and falls down a shaft, smashing her head on a rock and taking a little nap, while above Holly is killed and a mad scramble for her body ensues between the crawlers and a raging Juno. This is where things start to get spicy. See, the women are technically armed. Not with guns, perhaps, but with tools of the climbing trade. Juno brandishes her ice axe and begins an all-out brawl with one of the crawlers. On recent viewings of this film the inclusion of the ice axes has struck me as a tad dubious. Why would they need ice axes in a totally ice-free environment? It’s not a question that derails the production in any way, it’s just a question I have. If any of you have gone caving, or even better, if you’ve gone caving and fought bat-eared cave cannibals, please let me know what was in your toolkit in the comments below.

Juno wins her encounter, but in her bloodlust, she is startled and accidentally mortally wounds Beth. Beth clutches at her and tears off her necklace as she falls over, begging Juno not to leave her as the crawlers keen and whoop in the distance. Juno melts into the shadows, leaving her friend to her fate.

Meanwhile Sarah wakes in the pitch black in a charnel pit. She manages to find the digital camera, and through the night vision setting she witnesses the crawlers feasting on the corpse of Holly. It’s an ick scene with a purpose. The creature’s blindness is a weapon the women can use to their advantage.

Juno, who has reunited with Rebecca and Sam, has realized this, too. She’s also found a cave mural depicting something even more promising: a possible way out. She won’t leave without Sarah, though, so the team sets out to find her.

Natalie Mendoza does a pretty great job as Juno. She plays her with an instinctive blend of shame, guilt, confidence, balls, bravery, and cowardice that create a tasty stew of character development. She left Beth to die because she wounded her, but she has to find Sarah? Why not leave everybody? The answers are in the performance.

Sarah, through the power of Hollywood bullshit, has fashioned a torch. It’s one of those remarkable torches that never sputters and burns for infinity, too. A nice find in a cave. Crawling through the charnel pit she comes across a totally not dead Beth. She hands Sarah Juno’s necklace and spills the awful truth: Juno and Sarah’s husband were having an affair, and the necklace was a gift from her husband, so it wasn’t a one and done type of thing. They had a serious relationship.

Consider the ripples of this revelation: you have the breach of trust between one of your friends and your husband; your family is fucking dead because your husband, guilt-stricken and distracted, got into a car accident; now you’re in a goddamn cave being chased by boogiemen while your best friend bleeds-out in front of you. Bravo, Juno. Brav-fucking-o.

And ponder this: Did Juno leave Beth to die because she was ashamed of what she had done? Or did she do it because she knew Beth was privy to the affair and saw an opportunity to tie-up a loose end? It’s wicked to consider.

The crawlers are coming and Beth pleads with Sarah to not leave her with them. Sarah, wracked with sobs, kills her friend with a rock. It’s horrid. But they are coming and she has to go. Now it’s Sarah’s turn to break bad.

That’s a pretty intense scene, with shades of Apocalypse Now peeking around the edges. It ends with Sarah screaming at the ceiling as she lets the last vestiges of her sanity plume away like air from a popped balloon. For Sarah, her descent is complete. Looking back at my notes from my last viewing I only wrote one thing as the scene ended:

Sarah done gone crazy.

The remaining survivors get picked-off one-by-one until only Juno and Sarah are left standing. When they meet, Sarah – blood-soaked and dead-eyed – says nothing while Juno talks. Juno is utterly oblivious to the clear eye-daggers that Sarah is pointing at her. It almost defies logic how unaware she is. I would rewrite the scene like this:

Juno startled by a blood streaked Sarah.

Juno: Holy. Fucking. Shit. Sarah, you look like Carrie and Hannibal Lecter had a baby and never cleaned-off the afterbirth.

Sarah: *rattlesnake sounds*

Juno: I’m getting a real vibe here, Sarah. Anything on your mind?

Sarah: Hisssssssss!

Juno: Oh. You talked to Beth didn’t you? Hey, look! It’s Brad Pitt!

Juno runs for her life.

End scene.

Instead we are treated to an excellent tag team match – shirts vs. skins – and a dish of revenge served hot and cold, like a delicious hot fudge sundae.

Sarah leaves Juno to a fate worse than death – unless you believe the sequel to this movie is canon, and if you do you are WRONG – and we get our finale.

What a film. I think the influences that Marshall and Co. were pulling from – zombie films, The Thing (a film I’ll be writing about very soon), Carrie, etc. – are what I initially liked about the movie. What kept me coming back was its originality and casting. It’s a work that deserves a lot more shine when Halloween Best Of lists are printed every year. If you haven’t seen it, be sure to get the Director’s Cut. It has the original ending of the film. The American edit takes all of the sting out of the climax and I think makes for lesser a experience. I’m not sure why American audiences can’t tolerate a movie that ends on the downbeat. Sometimes shit just doesn’t work out, man.

Talk at ya later.

Next week: Alien

Updates and Other Hugger-Mugger

I love writing. Like, I really love it. I wish I got to do it more. Unfortunately my writing does not pay the bills…okay, it doesn’t pay any bills, but you get what I mean. It’s been a dream for a lot of my life and instead of pursuing that dream I dawdled and procrastinated, hiding behind work and obligations. I’ve mentioned before that I love a good excuse. The truth is that I have just been dicking around. I’m getting older now and the window to pursue this dream is getting more narrow, more closed-off to me.

A few of the obstacles in my way are my own, while others are exterior. The good news is I can control pretty much all of them. I started by quitting my current job. It’s weird typing that. To get started I had to…quit? Yeah, I guess so. I still need a job, just one that’s different from this one; someplace that respects my time a little more and better suits my personality. That shouldn’t be hard, right? *gulp*

The other stuff, the ME related stuff, I can also fix. I never planned to use this blog as a public diary for my innermost thoughts, and I’m not going to start, though I do want to lay down a foundation that keeps me honest. I don’t exactly have an audience – the most views I’ve ever gotten on a single day was 22 – but that doesn’t mean the writing I do here is without merit. In fact, writing when I’m sure nobody is looking is the most honest thing I can do. If I can keep up with it when there are no eyes on me, I can keep it up if (When) I catch on.

So, updates. I am still going to be writing the blog. Action Fridays will continue. Original content will start dropping later this year; just some short fiction, nothing fancy. And I still plan to do my Spooky Halloween Scaretoberfest (I’m, uh, still workshopping the name) beginning next week with an Action Friday Halloween spinoff. The big change will come in November when I will only be working on the blog every other week. The other weeks I will be working on my fiction. I have Feral still in the pipeline and an as yet unnamed novel that I have bigger plans for. I have a scattershot mind. I leap between things like a twitchy spaz. It’s not a conducive mindset for sticking to one project without interruption. With this structure I can focus a bit more on my job hunt and give myself a break from projects from time-to-time so that my fidgety mind doesn’t sabotage me.

All of my other projects are still on the table. I’m still interested in the podcast, and I have a few ideas that I think have legs. I also still plan to parse the blog into pages that sort my interests, though sports might be out. The damn Cowboys are going to be the death of me; why would I want to write about it? Sprucing-up the blog will be part of the work starting in November.

So that’s it. If you’re a regular reader, thank you very much, and I hope you stick around. If you’re new, welcome, and I hope you stick around, too. The next few months should be interesting. And if you like scary movies, I have a treat for you next week. Stay tuned.

Talk at ya later.

Action Friday #13: The Man from Nowhere

South Korean cinema is wild. I mean that as a compliment. If you’ve seen Old Boy or basically any movie by Bong Joon-Ho, you know what I mean. The South Korean film industry produces classically structured genre films that are so unique, so twisted and bizarre, that they can take plots you’re sure you’ve seen before and make them fresh and compelling.

2010’s The Man from Nowhere, while not as batshit as Old Boy or Snowpiercer, is still very much on brand for South Korean movies.

I stumbled on this movie completely by accident. My son and I were paging through movies on Amazon Prime and nothing was ringing the bell. It was either rent a Marvel movie (sigh), re-watch any John Wick (which would be great, but also sigh), or…what’s this? A Korean action-drama starring a beloved, but enigmatic and ultra-picky movie star? Consider me intrigued.

The plot of the film is going to sound very familiar to anybody who watched (or read Action Friday #10) Man on Fire. A reclusive man with a tragic past befriends a little girl who gives him hope for a future. It’s the story of Old Grumpy and Young Happy again.

Cha Tae-Sik (Won Bin) runs a pawn shop and mostly keeps to himself. So-Mi is a little neighborhood girl who pesters him constantly for company. So-Mi’s mother is an exotic dancer with a lot of bad habits – not being a good mother is chief among them. Most of the time when we get this setup we have to endure the swelling violin strings of schmaltz that go into building the relationship between Old Grumpy and Young Happy. The director here, Lee Jeong-beom, spares us all that saccharine bullshit. With a few lines of dialogue he introduces the audience to the pair’s relationship and trusts us to believe in it. It’s a lot of trust to have in your audience because Tae-Sik says basically nothing for most of the first 45 minutes. With most of his face hidden behind a dark mop of emo hair, and his penchant for dark clothes, Tae-Sik gives away nothing. So-Mi couldn’t care less and prattles on about this and that. For her, his presence is more important than his answers.

So-Mi’s mother, at the behest of her slimy boyfriend, steals heroin from gangsters at the club she works at. She knows she’s in deep shit, so she hides the drugs in a camera bag and pawns the bag to Tae-Sik, but not before taking a few minutes to insinuate that he is a child molester for hanging out with her daughter, and besides, why wouldn’t he just go out with her? She’s a peach.

The gangsters don’t take kindly to this theft and come looking for their product. The results are predictable, and after a messy few moments of torture/questioning, men arrive at Tae-Sik’s pawn shop looking for trouble. They find it.

A lot of our hero’s early action scenes in Man from Nowhere happens off-camera. This is a clever device; by concealing his skill-set, at least partially, the filmmakers treat Tae-Sik like the shark in Jaws or the aliens in Signs. This ratchets the audience tension as we are left to wonder – much like the antagonists – who this man is, and how badass is he? His past is revealed in snippets, some of them terribly tragic, and the answer is: Very Badass.

The gangsters discover Tae-Sik’s relationship with So-Mi and kidnap her. And away we go. There are B-plots involving a turf war amongst the gang members and another about the bumbling police tracking Tae-Sik’s rampage across the city, but all of that is connective tissue that keeps the plot held together for our hero to punch, stab, shoot, and explode.

Won Bin is an interesting actor. This is the only movie I have seen him in, aside from falling down a brief YouTube hole to watch clips from previous films, and in total he has only acted in five movies and a handful of television shows. I was stunned to discover that this was his last film credit. He has spent the last nine years as a commercial model/spokesperson, and that’s it. This blew my mind. From what I can gather this appears to be a sort of low-key scandal in South Korea with people picking sides; one half saying it’s the actor’s choice to work when he wants, and one half saying he’s not even an actor anymore, he’s a pitchman. Whatever the case, he is still one of the peninsula’s most recognizable stars.

I can say, on a personal level, that I found his performance in Man from Nowhere to be magnetic. He has a stillness about him that is like watching a beautiful viper in a suit, coiled and ready to strike.

In one of the craziest fight scenes you’ll ever see, Tae-Sik engages multiple foes with a bevy of weapons and tactics. It’s full of rage and intensity, but what I found most interesting about the fight was how graceful he is, how languid his body seems as he moves in and out of danger. Shit, he looks fucking bored.

He also has the Denzel Washington gift of Harbor Seal Eyes.

Shudder at the sight of The Void.

One thing I must confess, because I was watching with subtitles, and I don’t speak Korean, I can’t actually tell how well acted the film is; aside from Won Bin – who simply pops off the screen with his charisma – everybody else is kind of mugging for the camera, or using a lot of facial expressions to evoke emotion. I tried watching the movie with English dubbing and it only exacerbated the problem because it made the performances seem cartoonish. The only clip of the fight I could find was dubbed and I hated it because it robs the intent of the actual actors. What I do know is that this film was the biggest in South Korea that year, and the actors are earnest and unique.

It’s also uniquely Korean, with drama mixed with weirdness. The pursuit is only half the show; there are bizarre characters – like a drunken surgeon who specializes in removing eyes – and there are campy characters who give the movie flavor. It’s simply a treat.

Overall what you get is a film that has elements of Man on Fire, mixed with a Korean sense of the strange. I hope I get to see more films like this, and REALLY hope I get to see more films with Won Bin. That dude is a fucking monster, in a good way.

Talk at ya later.

Next week: An update and a big change.

Action Friday #12: Haywire

Steven Soderbergh is an odd duck. I don’t mean personally; shit, I don’t know anything about his personal life; I mean as a filmmaker. A quick look at his IMDb shows a range so vast and varied, it defies categorization. He’s worked on every platform (big screen, small screen, computer screen), across every genre, and with every kind of actor.

Soderbergh’s credits include stints as director, producer, cinematographer, editor, writer, and actor. The word is bandied about too often to describe some directorial flash-in-the-pan, but with Soderbergh it applies – he’s a legitimate auteur.

What happens when an auteur makes a spy film/action flick? Wait, let me amend that: What happens when an auteur makes a spy film/action flick starring a former MMA fighter in her first role? Wait, wait, wait, let me amend the amendment: What happens when an auteur makes a spy film/action flick starring a former MMA fighter in her first role and she does all her own stunts? Lemme tell ya: shit goes Haywire! *GUITAR SOLO*

Anywutsit. Haywire is an interesting document on an interesting filmmaker’s CV. Released in 2011 on a modest $23 million budget, it became a sleeper hit (taking in around $34 million) of sorts, while not exactly being a crowd pleaser. It’s weird to look at the reviews from the time and try to reconcile the written portion of the review with the score the same review gave the film. Critic’s like Roger Ebert, Richard Corliss, Keith Uhlich, and a few others, savaged sections of the film – especially Carano’s performance – and still somehow couldn’t bring themselves to give scores that matched their disappointment. It’s almost like they’re minds had gone…Haywire! *PICK SLIDE*

Carano stars as Mallory Kane, an agent for a private security firm who takes jobs from her boss, and former boyfriend, Kenneth (Ewan McGregor of Clan McGregor). Kenneth has the look of a worm and the moment you see that Mallory works for him, and used to sleep with him, you find yourself questioning her judgment. Which is weird because during the rest of the movie we are required to believe how capable and forward-thinking Mallory is and it’s kinda hard to balance. Maybe spies are just people like us and make mistakes in matters of love? Or the script was written that way and we should hush? Yeah, that’s it.

Haywire does a neat trick that most action movies with a female lead can’t: it presents us with a badass lead who kicks the absolute shit out of men twice her size, and we don’t bat an eye. And why would we? Carano has legit street cred as a fighter. The opening scene of the movie has her in an all out brawl with a character who clearly outweighs her, and when she wins we’re totally cool with it because we have a history of badassery to lean on.

That shit is dope. For an MMA fan like me it’s especially dope because before this scene in the movie, and for many MMA fans like me, the last time Gina Carano had been seen in a fight was her doomed altercation with Cristiane ‘Cyborg’ Justino. Carano fought like a warrior, but succumbed to the power, skill, and pharmaceuticals of her opponent. It was like watching Batman being beaten by Bane. Gina’s career was essentially ended by injections.

The movie follows a lot of spy beats that you might be familiar with, and others you will not. Mallory is a righteous fighter and expert problem solver, and yet, she finds herself in problem after problem that requires her wonderful physicality to solve. And let me tell you, Gina Carano is wonderfully physical. Soderbergh knows when to let her talk and when to let her be still. This is smart because Carano is learning to talk on camera, but she is an athlete that knows how to be a physical presence at all times.

Soderbergh also has another secret: his female lead is highly attractive, so instead of dressing her in scanty clothes, he dresses her like a fashion maven and lets her inner beauty shine through. Mallory wears so many clothes in this movie, and whether its a trendy jacket, hat, turtleneck combo, or a slim-fit t-shirt, she looks fetching beyond compare. And My God, when Mallory runs and jumps, you want to be her clothes. Her athleticism is its own kind of eroticism.

It’s a wonder this movie didn’t do better at the box office. The cast is absolutely bonkers. Aside from the folks I already listed, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Bill Paxton, and Michael Fassbender are along for the ride. I mean, what the fuck? This cast is out of control, and yet, a lot of them have very little to do except get bitch-slapped by our heroine or give her orders. There is a fight scene between Fassbender and Carano that is among the best ever committed to film. Take a look:

Jesus, that’s wild. But not wild enough for my son. I wrote a handful of notes for this movie.

  1. WTF is up with this cast????
  2. Gina Carano can punch me in the face whenever she wants.
  3. Soderbergh is having a lot of fun. My son? Not as much

The movie is just too art house for him. The camera work is outstanding, the editing is cool, the action is rad, but the overall effect is an action movie being held back by a plot that is too in love with itself and not its audience.

Personally, I don’t give a shit. Carano is so goddamn amazing in this movie, and Soderbergh knows how to film her; it’s like seeing a supermodel photo-shoot that breaks into a bare-knuckle brawl. The other actors in the film get it: they are there to be punching bags for the lead. It’s so cool watching seasoned veterans taking a break from higher paying jobs to do a couple of days work for an excellent director on a project like this. Soderbergh probably knew Carano was out of her depth and he called in every favor he could to surround her with talent. If true, it’s a smart move by a smart filmmaker. Odd duck or not, the man knows how to make a movie and make it his way. Hopefully he returns to the genre.

Talk at ya later.

Next Week: The Man from Nowhere.

Action Friday #11: Blade & Blade II

We live, for better and worse, as subjects of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which exists within the multi-verse of the larger, more omnipresent, Disney Mega-verse. For people of a certain age – say, younger than 20 – it’s hard to recall a time when we weren’t deeply ensconced in the MCU; whether it was during its infancy in the early-00’s, or when Iron Man took the world by storm and initiated the age of comic book movies that has dominated theaters ever since.

I get asked why I don’t write about comic book movies; after all, I was an actual comic book nerd, not somebody born into the MCU machine and spit-out a loyal consumer on the other side. I have a LOT of comic books; so many, in fact, that when my wife and I were just getting serious, I had to make a choice: continue dropping $200 a month (at least) on comics, or, you know, be an adult who drinks Old Fashioned-style whiskey and pays bills and shit. To say it was a difficult choice would be under-selling it. But I was the foundational audience for the first comic book movies that would go on to outgrow its initial fanbase and spread, virus-style, to engulf the globe.

There is some history behind the comic book movie craze that many people aren’t privy. Comic book movies had been tried before, and lemme tell ya, they sucked. The Christopher Reeve Superman movies and the first two Tim Burton Batman films were exceptions to the rule that comic books were for kids, and movies based on comic books were for nobody.

Things began to take a turn in the late ’90’s. Most people point to the 2000 film X-Men, directed by Bryan Singer. Those people aren’t exactly wrong. The X-Men franchise, in its early iterations, was a mind-blowing juggernaut, and it gave us the lovely Hugh Jackman; but Blade pre-dated Charles Xavier’s mutants and doesn’t get the respect it deserves.

Blade was released in 1998 during a period of kung-fu rebirth that was happening, in part due to Jackie Chan movies that were making it to U.S. shores, and in part because special effects were in a place where directors could trust a combination of digital and practical effects to make creations that were both fantastical and believable for audiences. Blade follows the adventures of a vampire “day walker” (a hybrid vampire who has a vampire’s strengths and none of their weaknesses, with the glaring exception of a need for blood) who hunts his own kind with a combination of silver and garlic weapons, along with the strength and speed afforded his species.

Made on a $45 million budget, Blade grossed over $131 million worldwide, which cemented it as a commercial success and opened the door for a whole host of other films to be successful in the States. More on those trickle-down effects later. Let’s stick to Blade for now.

The character of Blade is played by the great, the super-great, the amazingly-fucking-great, Wesley Snipes. Snipes was a versatile actor coming into the film, with credits in comedies like White Men Can’t Jump, dramatic roles in New Jack City, and social critiques like Jungle Fever. His early career was marked by a willingness to wear multiple hats within the same role. He could be warm, taciturn, arrogant, insane, and fragile over the run time of a single film, and he could do it effortlessly. He also had a knack for action. His IMdB is littered with films that showcased his martial arts stylings (Snipes holds black belts in a variety of disciplines) and his athletic flair. Snipes also had a way of delivering dialogue that probably looked terrible on the page, and yet in his hands worked in a corny kind of way. Blade took all the elements Snipes excelled at, stirred them in a story written by David S. Goyer (of the Dark Knight trilogy fame) and cooked-up a hard R comic book movie that was thrilling and original.

The movie opens with one of the most iconic scenes in action movie history. The Blood Rave.

Wowza. So much of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s is distilled into that scene. Young people today take it for granted that they can just go to a club and listen to EDM. Hell, you can go to Vegas now and see Steve Aoki right this minute. In 1998, that shit was hard. If I wanted to go to a club and see DJ Baby Ann, or DJ Icey, or whoever, I might be able to find them in a club that people knew about, or I might end up in some fucking dungeon of a place that had one exit and heaven help us if there was a fire. It’s also true that I rarely – maybe twice – left a club covered in a mixture of human and vampire blood. It just wasn’t as common as you’d think.

After the incredible rave scene, and Blade’s whirling dervish introduction, we’re given the plot proper: vampires and humans have been living side-by-side for millennia. The vampires are ruled by a cabal of “pure blood” fops, who talk around teeth too big for their mouth , and as a rule, make sure vampires stay in the shadows. Keeping a low profile allows them to amass wealth and power while also keeping their number at a lower, more manageable size.

If you’re not a pure blood you were “turned,” a term used to insult another vampire. Amongst the turned, Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff) is a kind of rock star. His belief is that humans are cattle that need to be tended to before slaughtering, not equal partners on the planet.

Blade hunts pure bloods and the turned without discrimination, with the help of his partner, Whistler (Kris Kristofferson- hell yeah!).

All of this sounds ridiculous on the page, I know, but it’s a fun kind of ridiculous. It’s more fun because the actors are taking the material seriously without taking themselves seriously. Dorff was having a moment during the ’90’s and his portrayal of Deacon Frost is playful, seductive, and menacing; playing opposite of Snipes he does a great job of keeping up when he can, and laying back when he can’t. Both of the main leads are chewing the shit out of the scenery, but you get over it because the scenery looks so damn delicious.

There’s a plot about resurrecting an ancient Blood God, or some such, but it’s window dressing so we can get to the next well-choreographed fight scene. There are showdowns, plot twists, and exploding bags of blood everywhere.

If you look beyond the blood you see The Matrix (electronic music, martial arts; shit, the siege on Deacon Frost’s tower is straight-up lifted by the Wachowski’s for the famous lobby shootout in The Matrix), you can see Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (the wire work, the elegance of the martial arts) and waaaaay off in the distance, you can see the MCU.

Though at the time, all anybody could see was a sequel.

Blade II

Four-ish years later a sequel finally arrived. I was personally fired-the-fuck-up. My then girlfriend/future wife? Not so much. She went ’cause she’s a gamer, loves action movies and me (swoon!), and ’cause we’re just movie freaks. Within two minutes of the opening scene, she had me in stitches in the theater:

She leans in close and asks, “Why do they make sparks?”

“Because they’re vampires,” I said, feeling helpful.

“I know….but why do they make sparks?”

Goddamn, I love that woman.

Anyway, the sequel.

Blade II brought back the whole gang from the first movie, with one notable difference at director: Stephen Norrington was out (he did damn fine work on the first movie) and Guillermo del Toro was in. Woo! I was a HUGE fan of GdT’s work – nerd that I am – and we hadn’t even seen his heady apex with films like Pan’s Labyrinth, much less is Best Picture (!) winning Shape of Water. I knew GdT from his early efforts like, Cronos and Mimic, and could tell he had a sense of flair and style. There was a lovely darkness to his filmmaking that worked for me. I figured a vampire movie with a big budget and big stars might be just the thing he needed to kick start a great career. Averil Dickerson: Talent Scout.

The movie’s plot involves Blade teaming up with the vampires he has sworn to kill to fight a greater threat. That greater threat is courtesy of our Director and Savior, Guillermo Del Toro; GdT; Gilly de T; fuck it, I’m working on a better name, but for now, let’s go with GdT and call it good.

The greater threat is a hybrid vampire that has all the strengths of the vampyr, but the only weakness is sunlight. Sound familiar? Enter Blade, ready to get deep into the vampire underworld, while also having a chance to save human lives. GdT’s style really shows through. The design of the hybrid vampires is so very H.P. Lovecraft – an unabashed influence of Guillermo’s – and the mood of the film, while leaning heavily on the first film, definitely steers closer to horror/action than action with horror elements.

The cast is great, with Ron Pearlman as a standout amongst the newcomers, but honestly, Snipes is still the pulse of this film, and without him nothing else works. I mean, let’s be fair here: nothing in this movie is so ground-breaking or earth-shattering that you haven’t seen it somewhere else. What I am saying is that it’s got a collection of elements that make it unique in the field of action, and that unique quality is owed to GdT and Mr. Snipes.

As an example, this scene in the movie requires the protagonist to be fierce, arrogant, and really fucking angry, without seeming silly. Behold:

If you see the movie in its entirety (and I urge you to do so) you’ll see a coherent narrative, character-wise, from scene to scene. Honestly, that’s kind of the best you can ask for from an action flick.

Some of you may be saying, “What about Blade III?” To which I would say, “I’m sorry, what?”

As far as I can tell that movie never happened, so zip it.

Anyway.

My son thought these movies were remarkable. He even went so far as to ask when a new sequel would arrive, and get this, a new Blade series is on its way…starring Mahershala Ali and sitting squarely in the middle of the MCU. Whatever. We’ll see if the guy responsible for Green Book making white people feel good about the 60’s is up to the task of filling Snipes’ shoes.

However it shakes out, Blade and Blade II are badass movies, and the world should view them for the groundbreaking efforts that they are; and the MCU should take a moment to recognize Snipes and Co. for their efforts with regards to building the MCU.

Talk at you later.

Next week: Haywire

Action Friday #10: Man on Fire

In 2004 torture was the cat’s meow, especially in movies and television. Torture, the ugly practice of maiming a human for pleasure, profit, or the extraction of information, used to be considered the tool of the bad guy; but not in 2004. No, at that point, barely three years removed from the September 11th terrorist attacks, we had decided that torture was the coolest thing since James Dean, and a force for good.

If Jack Bauer needed intel, and the only thing standing in his way was a person and their human rights, well fuckin’-A, somebody hand me the bamboo shoots and salt! ‘Murica needs defendin’!

This period around 2003-2009 (the date range varies) is often derisively called the Torture Porn Era. The movies and shows lumped into this category aren’t agreed upon, but if you watched Saw and it’s many sequels, Hostel I & II, The Hills Have Eyes, The Last House on the Left, or Catwoman, you were in on the trend. Based on the box office numbers, you were definitely in on the trend. I’m not here to make value judgments on this era of movies, I’m just saying America was in a mood, and that mood was dark.

I first noted the existence of this era of films in 2004 when somebody asked me to watch Mel Gibson’s splatter-fest The Passion of the Christ and James Wan’s Saw in the same day. I walked away from this gut-churning double feature with the distinct feeling that I had just seen the exact same movie. Both dealt with dark, fantastical subject matter, with savior figures at the center; both featured superhuman feats of moral and physical strength; and both movies made GOBS of cash, with Passion ringing the bell as the highest-grossing R-rated movie of the year. Try wrapping your head around that: in 2004 a fanatical Catholic (and soon to be revealed anti-Semite) made an R-rated movie about Jesus – the tippy-top when it comes to symbols of peace and love – and it absolutely raked in the chips. What a world.

This was also the year Tony Scott released his revenge-power-fantasy Man on Fire, starring Denzel Washington. Based on the 1980 A.J. Quinnell novel of the same name, and believe it or not, a remake of a 1987 Scott Glenn (!) film, Man on Fire would take the fledgling era of torture-as-entertainment and turn it on its ear.

Washington stars as John Creasy, a former Special Activities Division operative and Marine Recon officer who has fallen into despair and drink because of what he has done and what he has seen. When we first see Creasy he is unshaven and drinking liberally from a bottle of rot-gut liquor. His hands are a mess of scars – probably torture related – and he wears a look of puzzled despondence and sorrow that speaks to a thousand sins, real and imagined.

Creasy is in Mexico to visit his friend, Paul Rayburn, a security firm chief and colleague of Creasy’s from the bad ol’ days. Those bad ol’ days are hinted at obliquely, and when Creasy asks Rayburn, “Do you think God’ll forgive us for what we’ve done?” and Rayburn (the amazing Christopher Walken) answers in the negative, you realize you may not want to know the details.

Creasy is clearly on his last leg and Rayburn offers him a job: be a bodyguard for a wealthy (maybe) business owner, Samuel Ramos (Marc Anthony) and look after his child, Pita. In the opening shots of the movie we are told that Mexico City has a serious kidnapping-for-profit problem, and to keep his kidnapping insurance, Samuel needs to have a bodyguard on payroll to renew the policy. It’s described as a cupcake gig.

Creasy is reluctant, but accepts, then proceeds to try and sabotage the interview by revealing his alcoholism at every possible turn. Creasy tells Samuel, “You get what you pay for,” and frankly, Samuel can only pay for so much, so Creasy gets the job.

Pita is played by Dakota Fanning in her breakout role. Movies like this, where an older, cynical adult figure, is sharing scenes with a precocious, melt-your-heart child actor, have been done before. They tend to follow similar beats: Old Grumpy isn’t interested in being friends; Young Happy just wants to be friends; Old Grumpy slowly transforms into Old Happy; Old Happy and Young Happy become besties. Man on Fire follows these beats, but instead of being saccharine, the results are more bitter, like good dark chocolate. Fanning’s work in a role that could have been less interesting goes a long way towards making sure the story is believable.

Within the first days of his assignment, Creasy, guilt-ridden by his past and a recent negative interaction with Pita, tries to take his own life, but the pistol misfires. This stay of self-execution opens a door Creasy had long kept shut and he decides to peek around the jamb and see what’s on the other side. What is waiting is a relationship that is rewarding enough for Creasy to stop drinking – or at least slow it down – and pick-up his bible and start reading with what we assume are fresh eyes. Creasy also shows that he has wisdom to share. It’s the kind of wisdom an adult can share with a child who is just starting to rebel against her parents and is seeking a new voice. If the relationship between Pita and Creasy doesn’t work, what follows doesn’t work. Good for us, it works.

Creasy takes Pita to a piano lesson that is also serving as an interview with a coveted piano teacher. Her father has told her that the piano will be her primary hobby, over her preference of swimming. Creasy, who has been working with her to become a stronger swimmer, gives her advice on how to derail the lesson by burping endlessly to slowly offend the teacher’s sensibilities. It’s a cute scene, and while Creasy waits outside, you can hear the lesson going on upstairs, interrupted periodically by Pita’s burping and the teachers increasingly exasperated reprimands. It’s a quiet scene, with bright daytime colors surrounding a peaceful Creasy as he walks Pita’s dog in the park. Creasy looks content. Happy.

Then he sees a car casing the park as the lesson ends. A police car is blocking the exit to the street. And he knows. A gunfight breaks out and Creasy drops two of the assailants and is badly injured in the process. Pita, who was trained to run and never look back, does what a child would do and comes back for her friend, tears streaking down her face as her protector is sprawled on the ground, bleeding out. The kidnappers take her and the screen abruptly cuts to a heartbeat monitor and stutter cuts to show us the outcome of the assault.

It’s a jam-up. Creasy is being held in custody for killing the officers who were helping the kidnappers, and a group of slimy government operatives have inserted themselves in the ransom negotiations at the Ramos household. To protect him, Rayburn and Miguel Manzano, director of the AFI, smuggle Creasy out in the night to a veterinary clinic. Meanwhile, Pita’s ransom drop goes south, resulting in her killing at the hands of her kidnapper, a man known as The Voice.

When the news is delivered to Creasy, you are one hundred percent onboard with what he’s going to do. And what happens is a revenge-as-art master class. Creasy explains it best when he runs into Pita’s mother, Lisa, played by the suh-moking hot Radha Mitchell.

The ensuing wrath-warpath is as epic as it is disturbing. Creasy, given a taste of renewed life, now set free to be the righteous monster he once was, is a slow moving hurricane of menace and mayhem. Most of this is due to the zero fucks he gives. Are you a corrupt cop on the take, protected by a large group of criminals and public officials? Sorry, you’re fucking dead. Are you a greasy, high-level bureaucrat with an armed motorcade escort? I have terrible news, you’re fucking dead. Are you a weakling inside man who could have stopped the whole tragic affair, but were too soft and too stupid? You guessed it, you’re fucking dead. Creasy’s vengeance is Old Testament and it gives no quarter.

So much credit goes to Denzel, who is predictably awesome, with a rangy performance that is at times soft and caring, before becoming loud and ferocious, before becoming his most dreaded state: harbor seal. The man’s eyes are an abyss where all hope is forever lost.

The cast in general is spectacular. Walken and his chicken cooking deserve credit; Rachel Ticotin (meow); Giancarlo Giannini; and a breezy, boozy Mickey Rourke who plays Samuel’s lawyer. All together this is a well-tailored group that pull their weight and deliver the goods.

All the acting talent in the world doesn’t work if the direction is garbage, and we’re spoiled rotten here as the direction is upper crust. Tony Scott doesn’t get the critical credit his brother Ridley gets, even though by 2004 Ridley’s fastball had long fled him. Tony was considered a pop-director, with his best known efforts being popcorn flicks like Top Gun, Days of Thunder, True Romance, Beverly Hills Cop II, and a host of others. Ridley got all the respect for his austere, serious work, while Tony made forgettable crowd pleasers. At least, that was the perception. The reality is that Ridley made a lot of bullshit outside of Alien, Blade Runner, and Gladiator, while Tony worked with Hollywood’s best and brightest on a variety of projects (Denzel worked with him five times). Tony Scott’s style was kinetic and experimental. He used rapid fire cutting, dreamy colors, and bizarre choices like using subtitles, even when the character is speaking English, to further highlight the importance of the dialogue. Here’s a lovely example from Man on Fire, as Denzel explains the C-4 suppository. You can’t bargain with the Harbor Seal.

Tony Scott’s unexpected, and still shrouded in mystery, suicide in 2012 hurt my heart in a way I find hard to explain. He was the voice of my youth, and an absolute original artist. His energy is still missed.

As for Man on Fire, it ends with an emotional twist. I usually don’t give a shit about spoilers – most of my Action Friday selections are at least a decade old – but for this one I’m going to respect Scott’s vision. This is a good movie, a damn good one. My son watched the film in near silence, a very good sign. His only remark throughout the film’s run time was, “If you were in a room with Denzel, would you just admit to anything?”

Yes. Anything.

Which brings us back to the beginning. Torture. Creasey’s tortured past, his tortured present, and the lack of a future for his tortured foes. Was it all worth it? Possibly. In the original ending, Creasy is supposed to go out with a crowd-pleasing bang, but Scott and Denzel worked on a different version; one where the hero did the wrong things for the right reason, and paid for his choices. How much life is one life worth? Even the Harbor Seal knows that sometimes the cost is too much to bear.

It makes you think.

Talk at you later.

Next Week: Get your glowsticks and garlic – Blade I & II.

Update: Clearing the Shoals and Ready to Go

Ahoy! We’re back, M-fers! Or I’m back! Whatever! How long’s it been? *consults calendar* Yikers – two and a half months? Welp. Nothing to it, but to do it. So, in my last post I lay down the path: day job was gonna get ruthless (it did); while that was going on I was going to de-emphasize the blog and work on the new book (I…did); then when I got in the clear, the blog would resume with a planned series of posts, including an October Halloween Extravaganza, plus new original material. In reality, this was the epitome of “Close, but no cigar.”

What really happened was, the job got ruthless, I DID work on the book, but not nearly to the extent I wanted. I’ve complained about my job on this blog before. It did not get any better. It, in fact, got much, much, worse. During this period of struggle a realization came clear: I can’t write a novel when my head is full of scorpions.

Now, I’m not going to bore you with how shitty my job is; so many people work garbage gigs, it would feel like whining to go on about it. Besides, who fucking cares? I wanna be a writer/creator, so I have to figure this shit out on my own. And guess what? I have a plan, bitches!

And here it is.

The blog will resume with new Action Friday content next week. And I am so fired up about what I have on deck: the Blade series; Pacific Rim; Collateral; the John Wick franchise; The Man From Nowhere; The Last Samurai; and a host of others. It’s going to be dope AF.

In addition, Halloween, last I checked, is still happening this year and I have five horror movies lined-up that will make your bladders leaky. My poor son is going to need a diaper.

Looking towards the future, I have decided that while work on the book will continue, I need to express myself in ways that my current circumstance will support. The book will progress at a slower pace until I can change my day-to-day life (more updates on THAT shit will come at a later date), but I love writing, and the blog comes easy to me, no matter my mood. With that said, I have plans to expand the blog to multiple pages. I don’t have a timeline set yet, but the goal will be to follow my interests. I am a sports fiend (Go Cowboys!) and plan to build a sports page this year that will follow the highs and lows of the NFL season. I also plan to create a book specific page, where I review what I have read and what I am reading. I also may create a horror page which might house movies, books, and other media. The overall goal will be to have enough pages that fill a full month worth of content across a broad spectrum of genres.

I also have tentatively decided to create a podcast. Hilariously, I have no recording equipment and no solid idea what the pod will be about (though I have 4-5 nebulous ideas), but otherwise it should be great!

What I’m trying to say is, I’m a creative person, and I have oodles of ideas and stories I want to share. I want to be a full-time author eventually. Until then, I’m going to work on what I can work on until I change my own circumstance to realize my goals.

I hope you come along for the ride.

In other news, I have discounted the eBook of Despair for this extended holiday weekend. From August 30th – September 2nd you can get Despair for $0.99. If you’ve purchased it already, thank you. If you haven’t, it’s kind of hard to beat $0.99, right? A Starbuck’s coffee that gives you explosive diarrhea cost four times as much. I promise Despair won’t mess with your guts. Probably.

More information on the blog’s transformation will be forthcoming. Until that time, gird yourself for next week’s Action Friday: the Denzel Washington vehicle, Man on Fire. I am beside myself with excitement. It’s fucking good to be back, ye scurvy dogs.

Talk at ya later.

Action Friday Special Edition: Predator

In 1987 it had all gone wrong.

I grew up redneck in the thick, rolling hills of West Virginia. Coal Country, they call it. For the most part my childhood was pretty standard: youth sports, school, sibling rivalries, and other average fare. All told, it wasn’t a bad way to grow up. There were ups and downs, just like any childhood. But in 1987, at 10 years old, three things happened that set the river of my life on a different course:

  1. My parents, after a really rocky decade, finally got a divorce.
  2. I realized, at age 10 I will remind you, that I – like everyone else – was going to die…and I had a suspicion that the stories I had been told about an afterlife were not true.
  3. And I saw Predator.

Obviously, Predator was the big event here, so we’ll save it for last.

My parent’s divorce was as inevitable as the tides. It started with little disagreements, which morphed into arguments (and not private ones), that evolved into physical altercations at the local hole-in-the-wall bars scattered around our county. It was embarrassing, not at all uncommon amongst other families where I was raised, and for my siblings and myself it was cataclysmic.

A lot of truths were revealed during the final death spiral of the divorce. Many of those truths shook me so violently to my core that I began to question everything in my life, like the permanence of existence, and whether or not anything was waiting for us on the other side of death. I know it sounds absurd, but Hell was a place I could wrap my head around. Fire? Endless suffering? A dude with a tail and some heavy metal horns on his head? I get it. But endless nothing? Infinite blackness? The simple fact of no longer existing? That shit haunted the fuck out of me. Truth be told, on dark nights when I’m not sleeping so well, it still does.

And so I spent my days watching and listening to my parents have their marital meltdown, trying to keep my brother and sister shielded from it, and I spent my nights laying in bed wondering what everlasting nothing looked like. Eventually I started to have very emotional, very public meltdowns of my own as my anxiety ate me alive. Panic attacks, really. When my mom would ask me to tell her what was wrong, I couldn’t put it into words. How does a 10 year old explain existential dread? I’m four times older now and I still can’t quite put my finger on it.

My mom, to her credit, didn’t just ignore my distress. She noticed that I was getting very excited about a new Arnold Schwarzenegger flick – the aforementioned Predator. Probably looking for an excuse to get out of the house, and definitely looking for something that would distract her apparently crazy eldest son, my mom loaded my awfully young brother and sister, and my still pretty damn young self into a car and trundled us to the cinema in Charleston, WV to see a R-rated action film that promised buckets of blood, piles of curses, and a million bullets per corpse. I was fucking stoked.

The setup: an elite team of soldiers are sent into a remote jungle to rescue government officials being held hostage by guerrillas. Led by Dutch (Schwarzenegger), the team is a swaggering, veiny, testosteroni with cheese pizza of manliness. Once in the jungle, things start to go pear-shaped pretty quickly. They find the skinned remains of another team that preceded them, strung-up like slaughtered deer after a hunt. Then the details of their mission come to light, and they realize they’ve been boned by the chain of command. Finally, it is revealed that they are being hunted by a 7-foot tall alien with dreadlocks, a Wolverine claw, and a damn plasma cannon that punches salad-bowl-sized holes in people. Oh! And the son of a bitch uses some kinda light bending camouflage! Goddamn, is there anything cocaine and the ’80’s couldn’t dream up?

I can still remember sitting in the theater, staring at the screen in amazement. It was as if the whole world had fallen away, leaving me alone to witness the spectacle. It’s hard to describe how enormous Arnold was on the silver screen. His biceps were like planets circling his hulking galactic core of a torso. Shit, his jaw had muscles!

There’s a scene near the beginning of the film where Dutch and Dillon (the always dope Carl Weathers) do a badass bro handshake. You can practically taste the steroids. Seeing it with my teenage son about a year ago, I could have sworn this scene made him grow a mustache.

Believe it or not, this is not your typical 1980’s shoot-em-up. There’s a real film happening here, and that’s thanks in large part to one of the greatest action directors of all time, John McTiernan.

McTiernan’s IMdB from 1987 to 1999 is a freaking marvel to behold. Die Hard, Predator, The Hunt for Red October, Last Action Hero, Die Hard with a Vengeance, The Thomas Crown Affair. My goodness. You may be wondering why you’ve never heard of this man, and that’s because he got his dumbass tossed in the slam for violating a host of federal crimes and was essentially blackballed from Hollywood. Cool.

But before he was a dumbshit wire-tapper and serial perjurer, he was an exciting, innovative director who turned masculinity and mayhem into art. Don’t believe me? Fine. There’s a scene at the mid-point of the movie where the team is getting picked apart. Two men are down and one man sees our badass alien for the first time. Sort of. Check this shit out:

Okay, so that was fairly awesome. If you had watched the movie up to that point you knew that this was a tight knit unit. When Mack started going HAM with the minigun, nobody stopped to ask questions. Not a single guy said, “Hey, Mack, what we shooting at?” No, they were like, Oh, we’re shooting the forest up. Got it. End of story. Sitting in the theater, at 10, my life a maelstrom of confusion outside of the Cineplex, all I could think was, I want friends who look at me and know when it’s fucking GO TIME. I wanted a Gatling gun. I wanted to fight aliens. I wanted life to be simple and make sense.

You know what? Life ain’t simple. Arnold’s team gets mashed by the Predator and he ends up alone after telling folks to get to da choppa! A tense chase follows and our muscled man of muscles finds out his alien nemesis has a weakness. He exploits it while treating the audience to one of those dope-ass 80’s montage deals where he makes weapons out of sticks and shit, while the Predator shines his trophy skulls. It’s rad.

Then, just when you think it can’t get any more masculine, Arnold requests the alien’s presence, per chance to hash-out their mutual disagreements via civil discourse:

At least, that’s how I interpret it.

The fight is spectacular, and you know, it’s telling that this movie stands out from a lot of its contemporaries, mostly because the fight, while tense, is a bit one-sided. Dutch gets in a lot of potshots, but once the Predator has had enough, he just freight trains our hero. This is smart storytelling. Arnold was an unstoppable war machine for most of the 80’s and 90’s; putting him on the wrong side of a whuppin’ put the ending of the film in doubt for 10 year old me. Death, the specter who had haunted me all that lonely year, had slipped into the theater and was about to blow out the candles on my favorite action star. Or so I thought as a kid.

In the end, we get the conclusion we’ve been waiting for, and a mic-drop moment from the Predator as he literally laughs himself to death. And the movie ends with Dutch in the choppa, only he looks like a hollowed-out shell; like a man who has lost everything, including his sense of what is real in the universe, and is riding away from an ashen past into an uncertain future. I could dig it.

And that, more than anything else, is the point. Movies are often amazing because they teleport us to a particular time and place. They’re important to us because we watched them in our formative years, or when we were dealing with tragedy, or some personal victory. They’re like unevenly spaced mile markers on life’s interstate.

Predator isn’t a perfect movie. There’s a pretty mediocre stretch in the middle that was shot by the second unit and not McTiernan. Some of the effects haven’t aged well, or the homophobia that was all too common for the time. But the movie didn’t need to be perfect in execution, just perfectly timed for me to see it when I needed it. And I really needed it. It’s also why I was forgiving of the sequels – it still holds a warm place in my heart.

My mom, brother, sister, and I moved to Wisconsin that summer. After ten years of relative stability, we were moving 13 hours away to live near some of my mom’s family and maybe get a fresh start. It would be the first move in a series of many that would bend, fracture, and eventually break our family apart. My siblings and I would start to split time between my mom and my dad, and away from each other. Our family’s bond suffered because of it. My brother and father are dead now. My sister is a mess and we rarely speak. Mom and I talk a handful of times each year. In 1987 it all went wrong.

But for a couple of hours in June I didn’t think about it. For a couple of hours I was transfixed by a fiction that would stay with me forever. I can’t thank my mom enough for that. For a spell, I was free of fear, and in the Summer of ’87 nobody needed Predator more than me.

Talk at ya later.

 

Action Friday #8: The Expanse Season 3

Later this year Amazon will release Season 4 of The Expanse, my favorite current television show, and a series that is rapidly becoming my favorite sci-fi show of all time. A release date for Season 4 has not been announced yet, but my son and I have spent the past several weeks knocking out 4 episodes every Friday, so that when it is released we’ll be ready to light the Epstein Drive and go.

Uncertainty can breed a lot of things, like stress, and it can cause a show to overreach or sell-out its premise for the sake of securing one more season. It’s scary when a show doesn’t have the promise of a follow-up season. Some shows go crazy and add tiny, unnecessary children to the cast or go down the weirdest, most out of character rabbit holes you can imagine.

Season 3 of The Expanse had the look and smell of the end of a property: expensive show, with a viewing rights deal that did not make the parent network happy, and first view ratings that were not exactly blowing the socks off execs over at SyFy. It looked grim. Under these circumstances it would have been understandable if the brains behind the show got spooked and threw a Hail Mary to try to attract new viewers and buy one more season at the expense of their soul. Thankfully the writers, producers, and show runners captaining The Expanse are not fearful men and women.

Season 3 resumes with Avasarala, Bobbie, and Cotyar still stuck onboard Jules-Pierre Mao’s space yacht, while a UN ship sent by Errinwright stalks them down; the crew of the Roci are cleaning-up the ship after their duel with the proto-hybrid and are living with the consequences of Naomi’s lie; and Fred Johnson has cut a deal with his old nemesis Anderson Dawes to combine the protomolecule sample he secured with Naomi’s help and the scientist Dawes kidnapped last season.

So, a lot’s going on.

Bobbie has mostly secured the ship with her dope-ass power armor, but the victory is ceremonial as the yacht they are on has no way to escape the UN ship that is firing torpedoes on them. A decision is made for Avasarala and Bobbie to escape on the racing vessel the Razorback, which you will remember was the ship that belonged to Julie Mao from season’s 1 & 2. Cotyar and a crew member they pressed into service will escape on a battered life raft. To accomplish this Bobbie has to go for a little walk, then she gets to utter the best quote in the episode, or the season, shit, maybe even the entire show:

“Hitch your tits and pucker-up, it’s time to peel the paint!”

Bobbie Draper forever.

The first half dozen episodes go on like that as story lines that have arced over the past two seasons, including the search for Prax’s daughter Mei, are concluded. Some characters we have grown to care about are not going to cross the finish line, either. On the flip side, new characters are introduced, including Doctor Annushka “Anna” Volovodov. Anna is played by Elizabeth Mitchell and is a real standout in a season full of great performances. Her role as unwilling, yet not hard to convince, speech writer for UN Secretary General Esteban is pitch-perfect, and the dynamic tension between her and Errinwright is downright amazing.

I don’t want to spoil too much. This show works hard to earn its surprises and unlike an overstuffed show like Game of Thrones it tries not to waste the viewer’s time with throwaway episodes. I will say that shit gets weird as the season progresses and some characters who were thought to be gone – who should, in fact, be long gone – suddenly reappear and make the characters question what they know about the universe. Again.

My son, a teenage boy, spent that latter half of the season asking me with increasing urgency if everything was going to turn out alright. You know you’re ratcheting the tension if you can make a teenager get emotional; they’re basically biologically engineered to pretend that there is no such thing as cool and nothing bothers them.

What he, and every viewer, is treated to is an ending so jaw dropping, so rewarding, and so goddamn bizarre, that it might have been okay if the show ended right then and there. If this was it and this were the last we would see of Holden, the crew of the Roci, Bobbie, Avasarala, and all the rest, it might have been fine, because the show didn’t panic and sell it’s self short. It went out the way it came in – on its own terms, speaking its own language, telling its own story without compromise. It might have been okay.

But it didn’t have to be.

It started with a petition.

Then there was a banner that flew over Amazon HQ.

It ended with Jeff Bezos, lover of vests and hater of chatty brothers of his girlfriends, stepping in and saving the day. Season 4 lives. Long live Season 4.

How long will it last? Who knows and who cares? One more season will do, ten more seasons will do, I just want to see these characters again. I want to see Avasarala dropping F-bombs, and Naomi spitting belter slang, and Holden with his weird, watery eyes, and I wanna see Bobbie get aggro.

And I especially want to see Amos.

“He was my best friend in the whole world.” Sniff. Oh, I’m sorry, there’s something in my eye. Gimme one second.

If you’re a fan of The Expanse you can rejoice in its return. If you’re still on the fence about it, I don’t know what else to tell you. Come and see it for the great and diverse cast. Come and see it for the drama. The badass soundtrack by Clinton Shorter. The epic story. Just come and see. You won’t be disappointed.