Mars Attacks!: adapted by Jonathan Gems, Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski, Martin Amis, and Tim Burton, from the trading card series written and illustrated by Len Brown, Woody Gelman, Wally Wood, Bob Powell, and Norm Saunders; directed by Tim Burton; starring Jack Nicholson (The President/ Art Land), Glenn Close (First Lady), Annette Bening (Barbara Land), Pierce Brosnan (The Professor), Martin Short (The Press Secretary), Sarah Jessica Parker (Natalie), Michael J. Fox (Jason), Jim Brown (Byron), Natalie Portman (The President’s Daughter), Lukas Haas (Richie Norris), Rod Steiger (General Decker), Pam Grier (Louise Williams), Jack Black (Bill Glenn Norris), Lisa Marie (Martian ‘Girl’), Sylvia Sidney (Gramma), Tom Jones (Himself), and Janice Rivera (Byron’s Busty Co-worker) (1996):
You may think Mars Attacks! is vicious until you see the insane 1950’s trading cards it’s based on. Holy crap! I wish the insanity got going a lot sooner in the film, or that ten minutes were trimmed from the first half. But it’s still a triumph of a sort, a snarky ‘FU!’ to Hollywood blockbusters and good taste. Nods and homages abound, to the spinning flying saucers of Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, to This Island Earth, to Dr. Strangelove. It’s a witty, pissy movie. No wonder it bombed. Jim Brown is terrific as a heavyweight boxer turned Las Vegas greeter, and the rest of the cast is a hoot as well. Highly recommended.
Airplane!: written and directed by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker; starring Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Murdock), Lloyd Birdges (McCroskey), Peter Graves (Captain Oveur), Julie Hagerty (Elaine), Robert Hays (Ted Striker), Leslie Nielsen (Dr. Rumack), and Robert Stack (Kramer) (1980): Airplane! established that Mad magazine’s rapid fire, kitchen-sink approach to satire could thrive in the movies. Don’t worry if a joke fails — there’s already another one on the way. The movie also retasked former dramatic actors Leslie Nielsen, Robert Stack, Peter Graves, and Lloyd Bridges as mostly deadpan comedians. For Nielsen especially, it was the start of a career resurgence. The movie also helped change NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s public image from that of a humourless, standoffish sourpuss. Highly recommended.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens: written by Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams, and Michael Arndt; directed by J.J. Abrams; starring Harrison Ford (Han Solo), Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia), Adam DRiver (Kylo Ren), Daisy Ridley (Rey), John Boyega (Finn), Oscar Isaac (Poe Dameron), and Andy Serkis (Supreme Leader Snoke) (2015): Yes, it borrows a lot of plot points from previous Star Wars films. And there are a couple of sequences in which necessary explanatory dialogue seems to have been left on the editing-room floor. But it’s still a great deal of fun. And the casting of the young leads, especially Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, is terrific.
I’d rate it far ahead of the three prequels and somewhat ahead of Return of the Jedi. And I’m optimistic that subsequent installments may be better. For some reason, I imagine J.J. Abrams breathing an Admiral Ackbar-style sigh of relief once the box office and the reviews started coming in. He’s not an original film-maker, but he’s one hell of a pastiche artist. Highly recommended.
ESPN 30 for 30: Four Falls of Buffalo: directed by Ken Rodgers, narrated by William Fichtner (2015): Often mournful, sometimes humourous re-evaluation of the Buffalo Bills NFL teams that went to an unprecedented four straight Super Bowls in the early 1990’s — and lost all four in another unprecedented feat. The movie certainly highlights the unfortunate fact that for a lot of people, finishing second is far worse than finishing 32nd. That this bizarre, heart-breaking, triumphant series of seasons happened to much-maligned Buffalo seems weirdly apt. One of the best of ESPN’s usually excellent 30 for 30 documentaries, with tons of new interviews and lots of interesting archival footage. Highly recommended.
Holes for Faces (2013) by Ramsey Campbell, containing the following stories:
“Passing Through Peacehaven” (2011)
“Getting It Wrong” (2011)
“The Room Beyond” (2011)
“Holes for Faces” (2013)
“The Rounds” (2010)
“The Decorations” (2005)
“The Address” (2012)
“Recently Used” (2011)
“Chucky Comes to Liverpool” (2010)
“With the Angels” (2010)
“Behind the Doors” (2013)
“Holding the Light” (2011)
“The Long Way” (2008)
Excellent collection of horror stories from the 21st century, with the venerable Ramsey Campbell — first published in the 1960’s by Arkham House — demonstrating that he’s still a master of both terror and poignance. Many of these stories deal with the effects of childhood trauma as remembered and re-experienced by an adult. Sometimes the antagonist is a supernatural menace, though in many of the stories, the problem could actually be a delusion. Throughout the stories, Campbell’s often near-hallucinatory descriptions of people, things, and events keep the level of unease high.
The stories also deal with children facing supernatural and non-supernatural terrors, perhaps none more acutely than the increasingly confused 13-year-old protagonist of “Chucky Comes to Liverpool.” Here, his mother’s involvement in a community campaign against horror movies — and her obsessive ‘protection’ of him from all evil media influences — causes major psychological problems. It’s a fine story that works even better if one has read Campbell’s essays on some of the censorship ‘debates’ he attended during various English campaigns against horror movies, some of them hysterically focused on the Chucky franchise.
The effects of old age are the focus of several stories, sometimes aggravated by those recurring childhood traumas, sometimes twinned with a separate character facing new childhood trauma. There are parents inflicting psychological traumas on their children. And there are trains and train stations. Seriously.
Sometimes the train is the problem, sometimes the station, sometimes both… and sometimes not being able to find a train station leads one into dire supernatural peril. Given the focus on (as the back cover says) “Youth and age,” the emphasis on trains and train stations, on arrivals and departures, seems only natural. There may be non-human and formerly human monsters throughout the collection, but they’re mostly seen only in vague half-glimpses of terrible import. Their occasional complete manifestations, when they come, can be shocking, but it’s the reactions of the various characters to the supernatural, or the seeming supernatural, that makes the stories so strong. We may not all meet ghosts, but we all know guilt and fear and regret. Or a hatred of Physical Education classes. Highly recommended.