Saturday, April 21, 2018

i see data dropped by

I can forgive--fairly easily because I grew up in the 80s so I know how movies were with the casual racism and sexism and whatnot--that the Fratellis feels like Italian criminal stereotypes and Data is the quintessential Asian stereotype (minus some martial arts skills, but Ke Huy Quan had already done a bit of that in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) of the 1980s. Well, East Asian. If he'd been from farther west, he would have been a villain of some sort. But anyway, I can forgive that. Because, it's 1985, and America is very racist, very sexist, homophobic, and heteronormative. (Like today, only the most bigoted of us didn't have to claim so energetically how much we weren't. We just let it flow.) But, I cannot forgive Mrs. Walsh (Mary Ellen Trainor) for her racism. I mean, seriously, Mouth is a smartass little jerk, Chunk swears constantly--and Mrs. Walsh specifically dislikes swearing, mind you--but when they are both in her house, who does she notice? Whose presence does she call out? Data's. Mouth can bullshit his way to seeming charming. Chunk is just so damn lovable. But, Data? He's just so Asian.

I mean, clearly, he'd be good at math to build all those awesome things.

(Also, now that I finally pressed play on the movie for today, I would like to say that the 007 with smiley faces for the zeroes on Data's belt buckle/dart launcher is adorable.)

(Also, separate from all the racism, I must say, If not for Chunk's specificity I wouldn't be too sure about the product placement stuff with the Jeep Cherokee in the opening sequence. Mama Fratelli, sure enough, says, "Throw her into four-wheel drive and hold on to your hats," which sounds like product placement scripting. But, later, she will also, rather than saying turn on the blender, she will say "Hit purée" and when she sees a shoe print, she doesn't say follow those footprints, she says, "Follow them size fives." SPecificity is just part of her character.)

And, to be fair, Mrs. Walsh has just walked through the ripped screen door. But, she is clearly insane in some way because she tells Rosalita, "I would really like the house clean when they tear it down." That is madness. Folks force you out of your house, you leave that place as messy as you can. Plus, she thinks you can "come down" with asthma. She probably broke her arm doing something really stupid, or being racist... Although, to be fair, I'm not sure how being racist would get your arm broken.

(Sidenote: I don't believe for even a second that Mouth and Chunk and Data have not found their way into the Walsh attic many, many times while they have all been friends. There is no way they have not explored all of Mr. Walsh' sexual torture devices many, many times. Also, Mikey being so protective of that stuff does not gel with him immediately calling for Chunk to break the glass on that map when he could just open the back of the frame.)

Also, everyone who comments on Data's broken English forgets to mention that Data still has a better vocabulary than Mikey.

But, my real thought for today, is--and I think I know the answer, but the question is still worth asking from time to time--why do we have to take one character as some exemplar of every character like them? Why can't Data just be this one kid? Named Richard, by the way. Why does every single instance of some minority in whatever film from back in the day need to be some grand proof that we thought everyone like that was like that? I mean, aside from the obvious--that we populated every film with so many white folks that obviously when we put one Asian kid in-- No. Let us be specific. Ke Huy Quan is Vietnamese and Chinese. But, I think after he got attention in Temple of Doom, we all assumed he was just Chinese because we don't like nuance. So, put one Chinese kid in a movie like this, and that affects our impression of every Chinese kid around us, and our impression of every Chinese adult around us. We see Data's broken English and his obsession with invention and we find our every thought about Chinese people not conforming with our society--because our society is the end all, be all of history and reality and whatever, Murica forever!--and should be working in some IT department somewhere, or running a factory in China making computers because those things are awesome. My family had a Texas Instruments computer (the TI-99 (released in 1980), I think) sometime early in the 80s. I don't know exactly when. We later had a Commodre +4 (released in 1984). I remember programming in BASIC on both of those machines. I remember checking out Micro Adventure novels from the library in Hastings Ranch--they were basically Choose Your Own Adventure novels but with basic (BASIC) computer programs tied to the story. The only specific one I remember produced an animated gate opening on the screen when a gate opening was part of the story. Basic stuff. BASIC stuff. I'd have an IBM-style PC somewhere around 1990. For a computer class in high school I would write an animation thing in BASIC that involved a battle between the USS Enterprise and the Death Star, and you got to choose who won at the start of the battle, and it played the theme to Star Trek: The Next Generation. Because I was into that then.

But, 1985. America. Racism. We could have a kid like Mikey, who could barely handle a vocab quiz but damn it, he could get sentimental about pirates because... reasons. Or because, in the crappie you cheesy dialogue of 1985, "It's our time. It's our time, down here." Because, that is what kids like me want to hear. The characters might be younger, but MArtha Plimpton was 15, Josh Brolin was 16, Kerri Green was 17. These were the oldest of the Goonies.*

(*Technically, Andy was not a Goonie at the start of the story. But, Brad declared her one, so I guess by the third act she was one.)

Adults are either absent through most of the film, or they are the villains. (John Matuszak is the exception, and there are those who say that The Goonies has us "laughing at the physically and mentally disabled" but the whole point to Sloth is that by the end of the film, we are with him. Like Chunk (and common complaints about size-shaming)--the character is so captivating that the initial distancing detail goes away and we are there with them. Data is a dorky Asian kid. Chunk is a fat kid who can smell ice cream. (And, who can't, really?) Sloth is deformed (and I would argue that he is not necessarily mentally disabled so much as he has been kept from any formal education, but then, he should at least speak as well as Madison in Splash.) but we get past that.

(Quick sidenote, and maybe it's connected: there is a guy with an eyepatch in the shower at the country club when the Goonies mess with all those pipes. It feels random, arbitrary.)

If we connect with the characters--including Data, including Chunk, including Sloth--then how offensive are they?

I mean, for white people. There's plenty of room for people of East Asian descent to complain about the characterization of Data, or for people of weight (TM Robert E G Black, 2018) to complain about the characterization of Chunk, or for physically (or mentally) deformed people to complain about the characterization of Sloth, but I do a google search and find folks that are not claiming any of those identities but, like us SJWs at our best, are denouncing the presentation in this film anyway, because fuck the 1980s, fuck casual racism, and sexism and ableism.

And, for that matter, fuck lazy scripting that has Chunk in desperate search for food but then magically has him have a Baby Ruth in his pocket when it will be useful to get Sloth going.

Oh, wait. That's an entirely different issue.

Friday, April 20, 2018

it’s good enough for me

Incompetent police force. Jeep commercial disguised as car chase, and I'll get to the racism and sexism later. But, the first moment of genius comes early--Mama Fratelli, driving the getaway vehicle for her son's jailbreak, and she's eating, casually.

And that car chase allows for some simple introductions to all of our main characters, and offers details on who they are. Andy (Kerri Green) is a cheerleader... That's all. Cheer captain, I guess. Rosalita (Lupe Ontiveros) is (appropriately, I suppose) jumpy, and maybe not that bright. Police cars have sirens so, for example, you don't get caught in the middle of the crosswalk as they come speeding through. (This characterization might actually matter regarding one of the complaints later. [Or tomorrow.]) Mouth (Corey Feldman) tries to be helpful with his father. And it is not their house, mind you--the Mad Jack's Plumbing truck is parked askew at the end of the driveway with traffic cones in front of it. But, he's easily distracted, and maybe has no attention span for being a plumber's helper. Still, he's there. That's something. Stef (Martha Plimpton)... Well, her sticking her head in water to catch a crab tells us nothing useful for later. She's the more tomboy of the two girls. I guess this covers that. Data makes crazy contraptions, but they do work. IN the case of the first one we see, it actually works too well. Chunk (Jeff Cohen) likes food so much that he is eating pizza and drinking a milkshake while standing at a arcade game. But, he's also so aloof that the distraction of the car chase causes him to smash both his food and his drink against the window without realizing until after. And, he swears.

No Mikey (Sean Astin) or Brand (Josh Brolin) in this opening sequence. But, car chase over, it's time for the movie to really get started. CUT TO: Mikey, bored in his room. Brand working out nearby. Mikey uses (wrongly) an inhaler. Brand is a fairly nice older brother. They're going to be moving. And, Mouth shows up to make it even clearer, this is their last weekend together.

Mouth is a jerk to Chunk. It seems like Data set up the Rube Goldberg fence opener... and Chunk's excitement about the car chase sets up an interesting angle for a lot of what's wrong with the movie--the racism and sexism excepted. The car chase is "the most amazing thing I ever saw" but Chunk's claim is immediately challenged. Mikey asks, "More amazing than the time Michael Jackson came over to your house to use your bathroom?" Mouth asks, "More amazing than the time you saved those old people from that nursing home fire, right?" Brand asks, "More amazing than the time you ate your weight in Godfather's Pizza, right?" Chunk's response: "Okay Brand, Michael Jackson didn't come over to my house, to use the bathroom." Beat. Then, excitedly, "But, his sister did." Later on the phone, the Sheriff (Paul Tuerpe) will add to Chunk's tall tales--"Yeah, like the time you told me about the fifty Iranian terrorists who took over all the Sizzler steakhouses in the city... Just like that last prank about all those little creatures that multiply when you throw water on 'em?" And, never mind the play-by-play; let's just get to one side of what matters here. All the problems with the plot--and the inclusion of the octopus line when that scene was deleted--are covered if we just assume that we are watching Chunk's version of the story. And, in this case, he's an even more unreliable narrator because he didn't even see half the action himself.

There are pipes in the supposedly unexplored tunnel--no problem if this is just the story Chunk is telling.

Data's overdesigned contraptions--no problem if this is just the story Chunk is telling.

Brand should be dead from getting run off the road--you know where this is going.

And a big one, and I'll quote Robert F Mason's piece over at Ranker--"Things You Have To Ignore In Order To Enjoy Watching The Goonies"--

Forget historical accuracy (although... you guys... it would have been the Spanish, not the British, who chased One-Eyed Willy in the Pacific in 1632); the folktale itself is ridiculous. One-Eyed Willy and his crew got trapped underground by the British... and decided to spend their time and resources carving out a dungeon crawl for future D&D LARPers instead of, you know, maybe digging their way out or something? Maybe letting the British believe they were dead, and hiding their treasure somewhere nearby?

And this:

But this whole story depends on One-Eyed Willy and his crew having been trapped underground. If they built a device that could have freed them, why didn't they use it? Instead, they apparently sat around a table trying to eat all their gold or something, and all died at the same time.

Because, according to the legend, Willy killed them all to prevent them from getting to his treasure. The treasure that was sitting right in front of them when they died. Along with Willy.

Yeah, Willy died, too. Whatever he did to kill his men also proved fatal to Willy himself. Thus defeating the purpose of his elaborate plan to build a giant booby trap that could easily free him but he had chosen not to use, because it's in the script that way.

All of that--just fine if this is Chunk's version of the story. It doesn't have to make total sense. Hell, even if the events happened exactly how we see them, the we get One-Eyed Willy's story from Mikey, who we know gets things wrong. Trying to delete himself, and retroaction, indeed.

Nice visual reverse--Brand goes flying off the screen downward on that stolen little bike. CUT TO: Mikey, Mouth, Data, and Chunk come upward into frame over the edge of the hill, carrying their bikes.






Treasure maps, generally speaking, don't make sense in movies. You make a map to remember where you buried your treasure. The map is for you. So, you make it with just the right amount of vagueness, in case someone else finds it, but just the right amount of specifics so you can find your stash later. One-Eyed Willy's booby traps do the opposite of the map, basically, so if this isn't just a story, then One-Eyed Willy spread the story about the British and all that so that some other folks later could have an adventure.

Meanwhile, another great little moment--and so many pieces I found call the characters one-note--when Jake Fratelli (Robert Davi) turns on the light inside the jeep for Chunk to see him, in his moment of panic, Chunk starts reciting his Bar Mitzvah aliyot, "Baruch Adonai" and all that.






Then, I forgot to keep writing because this movie is just too fun. Nevermind its problems. The bad stuff is outweighed by the good stuff.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

if this were at all legible

The best part of Fletch is not the humor, not the one-liners, or Fletch's deliberate obnoxiousness. The best part is that the plot works, and works well. And, like many a "detective" story--

like Jonny Gossamer novels in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, "the plots, they all have this thing, this formula that was so cool... two cases that were seemingly unrelated. One's normal, and the other' some wild shit... Then you' defined out that they're connected. That it's all one case."

--the two cases/stories that Fletch is working end up more connected than just the coincidence of him hanging out at the beach to look like a junkie and Stanwyk picking him because he seems aimless and disposable. And, the connections don't feel arbitrary. SPOILERS. But really, if you haven't already seen Fletch, you should just go watch it now, come back later. Stanwyk's connection the drug trade is a pretty good reason for him to fake his death and make a run for it. Also, we see Stanwyk and the Chief (Joe Don Baker) about a half hour in. The clues are there just enough that we can almost keep up with Fletch. Almost.






Fletch makes great use of underlings. He talks to nurses, secretaries, mechanics, real estate agents, drug dealers. All to get information on their higher ups, to get access to file folders and travel and deal details. He poses as a waiter in a crunch. The "help" are invisible. And they are privy to things.

He talks to parents, who are all too willing to talk about their kid.

And, he's got great asides that mean nothing. Like when he tells the mechanics that he needs "10 quarts of antifreeze, preferably Prestone" then he changes his mind, which sells the lie better; "No, make that Quaker State."

Also, I imagine that the waiter (Nico De Silva) at the club knows damn well that Fletch is not there with the Underhills. He's just tired of Mr. Underhill's mistreatment.

And being this kind of reporter (or private detective, as Fletch is effectively the same), lying to people left and right--this sounds fun. Hell, at nine-years-old, I should have been wanting to be someone like Fletch rather than, say, Luke Skywalker or Indiana Jones.






And, it only just now occurred to me that Sally Ann never actually shows up in the story. She remains on the periphery. (The police are going to pick her up at the Airport Marriott, according to Fletch's letter, but she is also supposedly connecting on a flight from Provo so shouldn't need--but could have, depending on the layover--a hotel room. Also, Fletch confirmed the booking, in Alan's name (when it should be under an alias as Alan is faking his death), on flight 441, but in the letter at the end of the film, he tells the police that it is flight 306.)You gotta wonder how much she knows about what Alan has been doing. Does she know he's got another wife? Does she know he is involved in the drug trade?

Anyway, I'm nine now. And, Fletch and his deliberate obnoxiousness is something I enjoy a lot. And all these other movies I've been rewatching this year--they're on regular repeat on video at home, and movies are infecting my brain more thoroughly, thank god, than, well, god. Despite weekly church, and bible class five days a week in school. Movies are more evocative, more fun.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

if you’re so bored, why don’t you go to utah

The Harold Faltermeyer music gets going and I'm all in when Fletch is on. We can start there.

(Even though Hollywood Reporter reviewer Duane Byrge called the "eruption of mechanical drumming and percussive bass lines, appropriate in action and triumph-type movies... Annoying and incongruous here", the music helps define this film for me in a good way.)

The titular Fletch (Chevy Chase) and his sardonic, sarcastic, deadpan disdain for everybody sat well with me when I was just turned nine and it sits well with me today.

(Sidenote: I know the "Pup 'N' Taco" line could be taken as racist and dismissive, but I think it is just Fletch playing unsophisticated because he doesn't trust Alan Stanwick (Tim Matheson) one bit. Hell, most of Fletch's character, and his unsophisticated, boorish, childish behavior, is deliberate.)

Meanwhile, in 2007, Reihan Salam, writing for Slate, calls the film "abominably bad" and I am baffled. Salam does capture a certain tone of the film, though, when he describes the era and context for this film:

Reagan has just been re-elected by a landslide when the film hit theaters in 1985, and Fletch reflects, in a strange and roundabout way, an era of wrenching liberal despair. While the enlightened bourgeoisie and their scruffy spawn were no longer running the country, they could at least laugh along with Chevy Chase as he poked fun at Reagan's America--the nouveau Richie, the pig-headed cops, the Mormons.

And there are some beautiful comedic visuals, some fairly subtle. When Fletch talks to his editor ten or so minutes into the film, he (Fletch) doesn't quite have finished the story he's working on. The editor picks up a pot of coffee and his hand is shaking and Fletch picks up a cup and purposely shakes it as he offers, "Can I help you with that?"

And silly ones like Fletch slipping after dressing like a surgeon, with the little booties over his shoes.

But back to Salam and his inability to laugh at anything.

Or--and let's go broad, because I'm in a mood for broad--any conservative that can't take a fucking joke. Or any liberal who can't take a joke, either, for that matter, but for the moment, let us stick with the conservatives. For example, just the other day Breitbart publishes a story: "NBC's 'Timeless' Mocks Christians: 'God Doesn't Exist'". And, for the record, I saw this story because a very conservative, very religious Facebook friend (my high school history teacher, in fact) posted a link to it. The story describes a conversation from a recent episode of the time traveling show (after being sure to point out that "not an episode passes without a major politically correct theme being infused into the storyline... They find racism, sexism, hate, intolerance, and ignorance in America of old"):

Jiya asks Rufus if he ever thought there was "something bigger out there," or a higher power in the universe. In reply, Rufus garbled the concept of prayer and mocked Christians for bothering.

Rufus calls Jiya's "visions" a side-effect of time travel and tells her, "There's no such thing as a higher power." And, he offers a variant of the classic agnostic query: "If everything happens for a reason, then what's the reason for JFK getting shot by some crazy dude with three names?" Then he gets serious. "Look," he says, "when I was a kid, my mom used to thank God for every good thing that happened. And when something bad happened, she'd say, 'Everything happens for a reason' or 'God has a plan'. I watched my mom get on her knees and pray every night, begging God to take us out of our crappy neighborhood. But, you know who did? Me. God doesn't exist." Maybe it's because I'm inherently an asshole and a long-time atheist, but I see no mockery there, and no garbling of prayer, of religion, or any of it. But, even more, this is not the show saying anything about God. This is one character with a point of view. Because, characters are better when they have inner lives and thoughts about the things they do and the things that are done to them. And, honestly, this conversation feels like one of two things in a show like this: 1) a one-off, or maybe just a recurring debate between these characters for them to talk while waiting for other things to happen, or 2) this is a setup, and God himself is going to show up at least on the periphery by the end of the season, and Jiya's "visions" will very much be proven, or at least suggested, to be sourced from that higher power.

Warner Todd Huston, author of the Breitbart piece, says, "Once again we see the insistence that because bad things happen this somehow proves there is no God." Since, I'm going broad, I will counter that it could also just prove that God is a dick. Huston cites a video produced by Dennis Prager about suffering, a basic question of which is, "[H]ow can 'suffering' exist without an objective standard against which to judge it? Absent a standard, there is no justice at all, [Philosopher Peter Kreeft] explained. If there is no justice, there is no injustice and if there is no injustice, there is no suffering. On the other hand, if justice exists, God exists."

Which--and here's some of that mockery that wasn't in that Timeless episode--that's a bunch of circular logic bullshit. You don't need an objective standard to come up with the idea of suffering. Things hurt. We have a nervous system. We have sentience and a deeper understanding of our live and our circumstances than (apparently) most of the animal kingdom. I don't recall the argumentation term for what they're doing here, but it's a bit of putting the cart before the horse, suffering is a concept that comes into being and then gets defined, not the other way around. Similarly, justice is a concept we define based on our own understanding of suffering and fairness. If we require God to define these things for us, then we don't really have as free a will as God supposedly gave us, because all these definitions back us into a corner that would then quite readily teach us about injustice, about unfairness, about suffering, because the threat of punishment will be our only reason for doing good. And, that last line there--which is Huston's phrasing and maybe not Kreeft's, which would explain how simple it is--is not a logical statement because the relationship between the two things has neither being defined or proven well enough to get through this lazy syllogism to that conclusion.

But, that is where faith gets you. Stuck on premises you cannot prove and depending on them to make conclusions that you think now have basis in proof.






And, then I get distracted laughing at Fletch's antics, and I bother to click on that suffering video. And, I almost couldn't get past this--"If there were no God there would be no absolute standard for good"--because no shit. But, the supposition that we cannot have any standard for good or evil just because some higher power didn't define it for us is, well, silly. Simplistic. And presumptuous. Kreeft says,

The most we could say about evil if there were no God was that we, in our subjective tastes, didn't like it when people did certain things to other people.

Yeah, that works for me. His premise here goes on to be that we cannot call something evil simply because we don't like it. But, that is literally how language works. Evil is something we defined after the fact. And, we've codified our standards plenty--but not absolutely, because we don't need to--in establishing and maintains our various cultures and religions and philosophies. Kreeft says,

If you do not believe in God, your subjective feelings are the only basis upon which you can object to natural suffering.

Again, works for me. And, that is why we discover and study things like medicine. This is why we create police and other organizations set to help people in trouble. "There's just nature doing what it does," Kreeft says. And, again, no shit. But, that is why we rein in nature, that is why we build houses and make clothes. That is why we have vaccines. Kreeft is correct when he says that us not liking bad things happening is not evidence that God does not exist. But, his presupposition that God is the only basis for judging good and evil is flimsier. So, I am okay with that.

And circling back to Rufus in Timeless--and weirdly ignoring Fletch--that is his problem with his mother's religious beliefs. She thanked God for the good things and assumed a plan for the bad. Rufus' understanding of religion, of God, may be simplistic. But, that doesn't make it unreasonable. And, I take offense when Kreeft says "You're private standard [for unjust suffering], means nothing." My private standard means everything.

And then I got bored. I think there were a few more minutes left. Huston claims--inaccurately--"Timeless assumes you are a fool to be a Christian." And, I swing back around to Salam:

Watching Fletch again, I experienced the shock of recognition: The film perfectly captures the rise of the ironically detached hipster sensibility. Chevy Chase... dons a seemingly endless series of "comical" disguises in the haphazard pursuit of a big scoop on the Los Angeles drug trade. And yet he always radiates the same genial contempt. Fletch is handsome, self-confident, and he certainly sounds affable. Listen closely, though, and you'll find that his pleasant demeanor masks the condescending jackass within.

That is the thing, though. As much as far too many of us are still Christian--or claim to be--we love a jackass, we love an asshole, we love a scoundrel. And, Fletch is careful to show us that Fletch is effectively (almost) always in disguise. He keeps everyone on their toes, because it makes them more likely to tell him things that they shouldn't.

Salam continues:

Fletch has no time for squares. He's happy to charge many a Bloody Mary and steak sandwich to some rich asshole while he's infiltrating a posh country club.

And, this:

He claims to stick up for the downtrodden. But like the uber-educated hipster kids clamoring to secede from "Jesusland," his disdain is directed against the God-fearing, hard-working rubes of the Heartland.

Like that's a bad thing.






And, who hasn't wanted to charge a meal to the Underhills now and then?

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

you have been recruited by the star league to defend the frontier against xur and the ko-dan armada

The thing is, despite some of what I said yesterday, it's a good thing that Alex's college plans are not too specific, that his goals are not too concrete. That the skillset that gets him recruited by aliens for a universe-saving adventure isn't that impressive.

Like Centauri's previous recruitment practice on Earth involving a sword called Excalibur. (Note, of course, that the Starfighter logo includes a sword with wings.) All one had to do was be chosen enough to pull it out of a stone and/or have some lady in a lake toss it to you. And, by the way, strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.

Or from video games.

Alex's problems are deliberately pretty universal.

(And, really vague. I realize watching the early scenes again now, they don't even specify that it was a college loan that Alex didn't get. A Mr. Brenner brought the notice by the diner so Alex's mom could bring it home right away. This is not how college loans work. This is a loan from the local bank. Was Alex going to start a business?)

His lot in life ain't much, is the point. And we can all relate. Even if, relatively speaking, our lot is better than most, dissatisfaction is pretty fundamental to the human condition, especially in America.

He's got problems with his future, just like anybody. Doesn't matter what the future is, just that he wants out of his present.

Similarly, his girl is dealing with the same. Maggie (Catherine Mary Stuart) has her granny to take care of. Even Alex's little brother Louis (Chris Hebert) is basically dreaming of something far from home and his usual lot in life with those Playboys and "Yolanda, baby". I actually think it's interesting--and either a lazy bit of characterization or a brilliant one--that when Louis sees Alex and Maggie kissing, he says "Diarrhea," and looks away. If I'm Louis' age--and I'm just a bit over two years younger--and I see anybody kissing Catherine Mary Stuart outside, flesh and blood, I am watching that action.

But, maybe that's just me.

Anyway, little else to say about the film itself. Visual effects that were awesome at the time but don't hold up well; some wonderfully realized trailer park folks, mostly background players but feeling like real people; and a simple wish-fulfillment story that works in the universal, lacks in some of the specific. For eight-year-old me, it's a nice idea, like many an adventure story, young kid recruited to do something awesome. And, it's nice space story that isn't set in the future, because there ain't no future as far as I'm told in school and church.

Anyway, moving on to 1985.

Monday, April 16, 2018

save the whales but not the universe, huh?

So, I was listening to the soundtrack to the stage musical version of The Last Starfighter today. I only even learned of its existence today, actually. And, it starts off a little goofy, I'm not particularly liking it--production notes online about how they use the trailer park and a picnic table in particular for the trailer park denizens to act out the story, without much else actually seemed like it could be fairly cute, but the music felt immediately wrong in tone for a film that starts so casually, with the sleeping dog and the cat in the mailbox, awnings raising, Otis (Vernon Washington) scraping foot off a plate. Maybe it would be different on stage... I assume it would be different on stage. But, the songs alone don't quite get that same sense that this is a small-knit group of folks who all know each other and are used to passing messages from person to person all the time like they do early in the film when Elvira's (Peggy Pope) power is out and she's gonna miss her soaps.

An annoying detail as well, the musical mentions the zandozan being in the video game, but the game is clearly all about gunstar fighting, and the zandozan has nothing to do with that. Not that I've seen the movie many, many times... Except that is exactly why I'm writing about in this blog today. The Last Starfighter is my last film in this childhood deconstruction for 1984.

But, the thing that I wanted to write about today is actually an improvement, in my opinion, on the film version that arises at the climax of the musical. See, movie Alex (Lance Guest) is basically the handyman of the trailer park, and obviously he's good at playing that videogame, but aside from that there is no real indication that he should be escaping the trailer park. He wants to, but what is he doing about it? Early in the film, right after that on-the-nose shot of the weather vane, we see Alex in his room, and a gust of wind sets his planets mobile in motion and he stares at it, and we can imagine he's dreaming of flying away from the trailer park, maybe flying into space, dreaming of doing all the stuff he's going to actually get to do later. But, what does he do to earn it?

He plays a video game.

That's it.

Every videogame-playing kid's dream--that sitting there playing is going to mean something.

(That scene in which he breaks the record on the game is a great one. The excitement among the trailer park folks is palpable, and it feels real. You really get a sense that this group all care about one another.)

But, even after Alex has that call to adventure in Centauri (Robert Preston) arriving, he rejects it. (Almost twice.) As the hero often does--just check your Joseph Campbell. But then, he only returns because 1) he's in danger and 2) the rest of the starfighters are dead.

Alex gets rejected for his loan. For... some university, I guess. He's got a Save the Whales sticker, and the Beta Unit comments on it later, but otherwise, we aren't told what Alex wants to do. Just that he wants to do... something. His mother says he can still go to city college and he has himself a little tantrum. This is our hero. He happens into an adventure (though Centauri, in passing, suggests it was fate because that particular Starfighter game was supposed to be in Vegas), but his actual skill set--the handyman stuff--has nothing to do with any of it. Even when he decides to hide in a cave, that is a deus ex machina kind of detail that comes out of nowhere; the film has not previously established the hide and seek with his brother. It has established Alex's ability to fix things.

The musical, though--it does a better job. In the film, the death blossom is the big weapon, the thing that wins the final battle. At first, I thought it was cheap that the musical made the death blossom be not quite enough. Like the adaptation had to one-up the original. But then, I thought of what the death blossom was--a deus ex machina to win the unwinnable. In the musical, they have another weapon, the Target Z, and it will surely win the battle except for one thing--it has been damaged in the prior fighting. So, to win the final battle, Alex doesn't just get lucky that his gunstar has some special attack mode. He has to repair an alien weapon console on the fly. He has to actually use the skills that he has been shown to have, in order to be victorious. (In the film, Grig rewires something, sort of.) The video game leads to the gunstar, sure, but the film's final victory is not based on Alex's skill. The musical's final victory is.






Also, Alex's change to deciding to be a Starfighter, even after that conversation with Grig about their families, is cheesy 80s sudden. In the musical, he responds to the offer to go home again with an immediate sense that his family would be in danger.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

have we not met before, monsieur?

It's remarkable sometimes how the silliest of films can work just as well as the best of them to bring me back to long ago, you know, happier times, when I was a cute little kid without a care in the world except for, well, the second coming of Jesus, Armageddon, the apocalypse, and everything* that I've ever cared about ceasing to be.

(* except for my loved ones, of course, but damn it, what about my toys? What about these movies I loved? What about books? Games? The important stuff in life.)

No cares but the biggest.

And, Top Secret!, in particular, plays on some of that biggest stuff. Late in the Cold War...

And then I got to wondering about exactly when this film takes place. I mean, Nick's music is very Elvis. So, I paused on the Billboard Top 40. Nick Rivers has #1 #2, & #4, with "Skeet Surfin'", "Skeetin' USA" and "Skeet City", respectively. He also has #3 in a duet with Tammy Wynette on "You're Skeetin' Heart". Then Eric Clapton has #4 with "Sloe Gun Blues" but #4 is a real song: Duran Duran's “Is There Something I Should Know?" which came out in 1983. Putting Top Secret! roughly in 1984 when it was filmed/released.

But, there are more jokes. #12 is The Rolling Stones with "Enough Already". #14 Aretha Frankling with "Boy Is She Great". #15 Barbra Streisand with "Theme from The Nose".

And then I got curious about the magazine covers. None of them seem to have dates, but the Guns & Bullets cover is interesting, because there's the cover story on Nick Rivers, but also some other story (ALSO INSIDE the cover screams)--or maybe it's part of the Nick Rivers story and we just aren't privy to it--that says: MY DAUGHTER IS DEAD... BUT SO IS THE BURGLAR.

I meant to be talking about the Cold War and how weird it is to reminisce about a time when I was regularly being told that the world would be ending soon. But now, I'm imagining some backstory involving Nick Rivers, his daughter's death, that left him reeling and running off to tour Europe, including behind the Iron Curtain because he's got nothing else to live for anymore.

But, maybe the point is that "What phony dog poo?" sits right next to the idea of a nuclear winter in my head.

Then again, there are odd details like the not-very-funny bit of the restaurant making Nick a whole new suit right next to the idea that Reagan was a great president... Not an idea I had. I don't think. Jokes that don't make you laugh. Nonmedy, as Rich Evans would call it.

Hillary's uncle escape America in a balloon during the Jimmy Carter administration--that's funny.

And the little German joke is a classic. But, that runs right up against the food--"pork bellies marinated in diced pig entrails or the roast swine knuckles poached with flaming hog balls"--which I think is supposed to be funny. But, I don't get it. Germans eat a lot of pig, I guess.

And then the brilliance of "Some things are better left unsaid?" "Like what?"






Why does the Rare Swedish Books shop have a book called Lesbian Bars of North Carolina, and why is it displayed so prominently?

Meanwhile, so many jokes about sex. Irreverence all over the place. But, at school, it's all follow God's commandments, follow the school rules, and I think I held the record every year for the most swats--we still had corporal punishment--because I was apparently having none of it. But, look back at the movies I've covered this year, so many films about rebels, about irreverent heroes who didn't follow the rules, and we had these on video, we watched them often. And, the Bible could never keep my attention the way that all these movies could.

And, that's really it, isn't it?

The Bible, and church, and Bible class--those were boring, those were telling me all these rules about what I should and shouldn't do, without every explaining why. Meanwhile, movies would actually offer up commentary on the rules. You break the rules when it helps people. You don't get a great respect from the rules from mainstream movies.

Cue religious parents dragging their kids away from the movie theater, except no, that's a good thing. Fuck reverence. Fuck rules without explanation. Even in Top Secret!, Nick has no reason to do what's right, except he meets a cute girl who has sex with him, and East Germany is about to kill a bunch of people. And the guy who turns out to be a traitor gets fucked by a bull because that is American justice in the 1980s. Of course, Nigel had already made that face when he talked about the sailors who "took advantage of [him] in ways that [he] cannot describe." They were foreigners, of course, and he is coded queer, despite his island romp with, and immediate re-attachment in the present to Hillary.

And it occurs to me during "Straighten Out the Rug" that this movie is basically framing 1980s East Germany as 1950s America but with Nazis... Or really, that's just 1950s America. INSERT: rim shot.