Six Weeks of Halloween 2021: When Horror Came to Shochiku

There’s a chill in the air, people are breaking out comfy sweaters and afghans, gourds are being mutilated and put on display along with all manner of decorative corpses, ornamental headstones covered with ironic puns, and picturesque cobwebs adorned with plastic mutant spiders. And naturally, the (pumpkin) spice must flow. These and other nominally ghastly signifiers can mean only one thing: it’s Halloween season! Given that we’re still dealing with a worldwide pandemic and drowning in ever-encroaching partisan politics, this might seem a tad frivolous, but it’s sometimes nice to submit to the vicarious (yet safe) thrills of horror movies.

Here at Kaedrin, we celebrate the season with a lavish spread of horror movies and literature for the six weeks leading up to Halloween. Why six weeks? Well, it used to be two weeks better than most people’s horror movie marathon (which was usually confined to October), but the starting line has been creeping backwards to the point where a lot of folks officially begin their observance of the season in early September. Heck, I’d already figured out a solid 4 weekly themes for this year’s marathon in March. Seasonal creep is real… and maybe a good thing?

It’s traditional to start the marathon with a theme that’s more classy and respectable. Things like silent movies, foreign films, well curated flicks, classic anthologies, and the like. Way back in 2013, we covered Kaiju movies, including the granddaddy of them all: Godzilla. The influence of the King of the Monsters was immediately apparent with the proliferation of other Kaiju and the various sequels and versus films that cropped up over the intervening decades… right up until massive-budget multi-national blockbusters like this year’s Godzilla vs. Kong. The popularity of Godzilla and friends had long and wide-reaching influence.

Among Japanese movie studios, Shochiku was mostly known for stately family dramas, like those of Yasujirō Ozu. In the early sixties, such movies were considered “old fashioned” compared to their competitors, who were more youth-oriented. Shochiku employed various strategies to combat this perception, one of which included a brief flirtation with batty horror flicks. These films were collected together in the Criterion Collection’s Eclipse Series, and that’s our first week of the 6WH. Alas, calling these movies “classy and respectable” might be a bit of a stretch. On the other hand, they’re utterly fascinating…

Week 1: When Horror Came to Shochiku

The X from Outer Space – Dopey tale of astronauts on a mission to Mars who encounter a UFO and bring a strange glowing spore back to earth. Naturally, the spore grows into a gigantic space chicken that rampages through Tokyo, all set to lounge music. Everything about this is so silly that it almost plays as a self-parody, but you have to admire the movie’s commitment to being the kookiest entry in a sub-genre known for being kooky.

The first half plays as a sorta mild space adventure, pulling from all the ridiculous 50s SF B-movie tropes. Is everyone wearing unitards? You bet. Does the ship encounter an asteroid storm? You know it. Is there a hull breach that sucks a crew member to the hole butt first? Of course there is! Is there a flying saucer that looks more like a floating apple pie than anything else? Yes, and it looks delicious. I know this sounds like great fun, but it does kinda wear out its welcome eventually, but then…

When Horror Came to Shochiku: The X from Outer Space

The kaiju shows up around the halfway point, and then things kick into high gear. Again, it looks pretty silly. It’s clearly a dude in a rubber lizard suit, but the head has a strange beak-like protrusion, giving the whole thing a chicken monster look. Naturally, the space chicken is all about consuming energy, especially nuclear energy (as befitting Japan’s unique relationship with nuclear technology, even though it’s hard to talk about such things with a movie this preposterous). Of course he’s able to shoot energy beams out of his mouth, and his rampage through the countryside and several cities (all very clearly models populated with toy vehicles) is the best part of the movie. While clearly a low budget affair, they really pour it on with these attacks. Lots of missiles, tanks, and airplanes try to fight back, and the space chicken fends them off admirably until the end.

As per usual for this type of movie, there are some human subplots – love triangles and the like – but they’re laughably outgunned by the monster rampage sequences. If you’re a Kaiju movie fan, this is probably much more your speed. It’s quite derivative of Godzilla and other Kaiju (not to mention some of the space rocket SF movies of the 50s), but if that’s your jam, you’ll like it. I have a slight appreciation for the sub-genre, but it’s not one of my favorites and while this movie has its charms and I enjoy its bananapants weirdness, it didn’t really do a whole lot for me overall. **

Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell – An airplane flying over Japan has just received word that there’s a bomb on the plane! In their covert search for the bomb, they inadvertently spook an assassin (he recently killed a visiting politician or somesuch), who then attempts to hijack the plane. Then, because this wasn’t enough, the plane is overflown by a glowing UFO, which takes out their engines and forces the pilots to do a crash landing. And… we’re just getting started here. Now the crash survivors now have to contend with alien blobs that turn people into space vampires by crawling into slits they carve in their victims’ foreheads.

When Horror Came to Shochiku: Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell

Every bit as silly and hokey as The X from Outer Space, this one actually feels more successful and effective. There’s a bit more visual flare here, especially when it comes to the flying saucer, and the filmmakers make great use of the interior of the airplane, sometimes evoking claustrophobia or just hinting that something’s out there.

The characters are much better established here too. Sure, they’re still a clichéd bunch, but the notion of collecting varying character types and dumping them into a pressure cooker is a time honored tradition that is reasonably well executed here. You’ve got the aforementioned bomber and the assassin/hijacker, but also the corrupt politician and his crass arms-dealer crony, a psychologist who’s stirring up shit because he wants to see how people react in extreme situations (I kinda love that guy), an American war widow, and so on and so forth. It’s a good mixture that generates all manner of interactions.

It gets pretty silly at times, especially the dialogue. Perhaps its a lost in translation sorta thing, but monologues about UFOs and aliens are difficult to pull off and there are multiple here that don’t quite work. I was reminded of Boris Karloff’s string of mad scientist movies where he always monologues about the power of science to much, much greater effect – no one here can pull that sort of thing off. That said, this has the standard alien invasion tropes. Some kvetching about American misadventures in Vietnam and the bomb (fair enough), lots of criticism of politicians and war profiteering, and so on. All par for the course, but reasonably well done.

I’m not going to claim this is some sort of unheralded masterpiece or anything, but it was a great deal more enjoyable than the first film in the set, and it has some things going for it (beyond the absurd stuff). **1/2

The Living Skeleton – Pirates attack a ship for its valuable cargo and in the process, they murder a newlywed doctor and his wife. Three years later, the wife’s twin sister disappears when the ship (thought lost at sea) reappears and the pirates, each having invested their spoils and moved on, start dying in mysterious circumstances.

When Horror Came to Shochiku: The Living Skeleton

While the first two movies were inspired by nuclear age fears like giant monsters and UFOs, this one takes a decidedly more traditional path. It’s more reminiscent of Val Lewton’s RKO run than anything else, and thus it focuses more on grounded shadows than schlocky UFOs (also note the evocative, tawdry title that is only, like, tangentially relevant to what actually happens in the movie). It’s the only film shot in black and white, and perhaps as a consequence of that, it’s the best looking and most atmospheric of the bunch. It’s filled with moonlit foggy waters, thunderstorms, echoing footsteps, gothic imagery, ghostly visions, and a heaping helping of rubber bats. It’s got a boatload of well composed, meticulous compositions, but it still retains that low budget charm.

When Horror Came to Shochiku: The Living Skeleton

There’s plenty of twists and turns and sure, some of that does start to stretch plausibility, but I was much more willing to go with it in this case. While all the films in this set seem to be a bit derivative because Shochiku was chasing the competition, I can see this movie prefiguring future works too. I wouldn’t be surprised if Carpenter saw this before making The Fog, for instance. This is clearly the best movie in the set, and I don’t think that’s just because I tend to like this sorta story better than the others. ***

Genocide – An American plane goes down on an island populated by swarms of killer bugs. As the American military seeks to recover the Hydrogen bomb lost in the crash, scientists rush to discover why the bugs are rampaging in the first place.

Here we have another film that’s a stepping stone in a particular sub-genre. This is clearly following in the footsteps of the likes of Them! and Tarantula, but also prefigures the eco-thrillers of the 70s, like The Bees and The Swarm. There’s actually a ton of plot in this one, and the above description is only the setup. There’s so much going on here, and it’s all very nihilistic and hyper-critical of the era’s political establishment. The Americans, probably fairly, come in for the brunt of criticism, but you’ve also got eastern block spies, general Cold War paranoia, and even a Holocaust survivor mad scientist. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, Japan’s own involvement in Word War II isn’t given much thought, which isn’t great).

When Horror Came to Shochiku: 

It’s certainly a strangely potent brew of elements, but I don’t think it ever coalesces into anything coherent enough to be all that effective. It’s certainly got an angry energy to it that is never boring, but it just didn’t come together for me in the end, and was probably my least favorite of the four movies in this set. Or maybe I was just getting burned out on bonkers Japanese horror… **

So there you have it. I don’t know that any of these are stone cold classics, but I was surprised at how different each one was from each other, and while I didn’t love all of them, they were all at least interesting to watch. Stay tuned, we’ve got lots more to come, including Forgotten Gialli, Recent Releases, the Conjuring Cinematic Universe, and much, much moar! Also, if you’re looking for more Six Weeks of Halloween goodness, don’t forget to check in with Zack over at Film Thoughts. He tends to watch even more stuff than me, and updates almost daily…

SF Book Review – Part 38: The Long Winter and Moar

I’m still catching up with recent SF reading and I figure it’s best to get this out before the Six Weeks of Halloween revs up. This post covers stuff I read from June right up until last week, so we’re pretty much caught up. Naturally, we’ll cover some horror books during the 6WH, so it may be a while before returning to SF proper. Anywho, let’s get to it:

First up is the Long Winter Trilogy:

Winter World, by A.G. Riddle – A new, inexplicable ice age has descended upon earth. Desperate for answers, scientists send probes out into the solar system and discover mysterious objects disrupting solar energy. James Sinclair is a disgraced roboticist serving time in prison, but is nonetheless tapped to be on the team that will confront the forces disrupting earth. Will this team be able to figure out what’s happening and find a countermeasure? A sorta light space opera/first contact tale in the vein of Blake Crouch or Peter Clines (to name two folks I’ve read recently that operate in a similar way).

Winter World book cover

Old SF hands might not find a ton of new ideas here, but it’s well executed and entertaining. Some of the twists and turns are foreshadowed hard, so hard that maybe they’re not supposed to be twists? I mean, some things that are blindingly obvious to readers somehow surprise some characters in strange ways. As an opening shot in a trilogy, it’s just fine. Won’t blow your mind, but it’s a well told story and it’s achieving what it sets out to do…

I’ve avoided spoilers thus far, but talking about the next two books will necessarily mean a little bit of spoilers (overall, an entertaining light SF trilogy that manages to hint at some actually fascinating stuff towards the end). Alright, Spoilers aho:

The Solar War, by A.G. Riddle – This picks up where the first book led off, with earth and humanity enjoying a brief respite from the winter. They’re using this time to prepare for the return of the Grid, who will no doubt be focusing more energy on getting rid of humanity this time around. That’s not just meant as a metaphorical turn of phrase: the Grid is almost entirely motivated by the collection and conservation of energy. Their original plan was to harvest our Sun’s energy in such a way that humanity would be quickly destroyed in the process. In the first book, humanity managed a small victory, but now the Grid has returned. They’ve flung asteroids at earth, but will humanity’s defenses hold up? Eh, sorta.

Like a lot of middle stories in a trilogy, there’s a lot of water treading here, and setup for the next book. I’m of two minds as to how this all goes down. On the one hand, humanity did seem awfully outmatched and only managed success in the first book because the invaders weren’t really trying that hard. On the other, it’s not especially entertaining seeing the humans get nearly obliterated, and Riddle spends an awful lot of time on the nuts and bolts survival aspects of the story. All well and good, but the overarching narrative isn’t advanced much. Also, the deal that the Grid offers doesn’t make a ton of sense, even if the humans in the story are appropriately suspicious. In any case, the tone and pacing are pretty much par for the course here, and this is a similar experience to the first book. Nothing really new here, but well executed and entertaining enough that I wanted to see what would happen next.

The Lost Colony, by A.G. Riddle – The remnants of humanity now number in the thousands, and have settled on an eyeball planet around a low power star that the Grid doesn’t find interesting enough to harvest. This plays out like two novellas smushed into a novel. The first story is all about survival in the new wilderness, which contains deadly predators (along the lines of a T-Rex), vicious storms caused by celestial mechanics, and smaller scorpion-like threats. Like in the second book, this feels a lot like water-treading… but the second phase of this novel recontextualizes in an interesting way.

In fact, the entire series thus far is recontextualized. Riddle really swings for the fences in the second act of this book, devising an origin for the Grid that is novel and fascinating. I’ve described the previous two books as a sorta light SF that you’ve seen before (if well executed), but this second half of the third book does offer something new. Does it entirely work? Did we really need to march through two and a half books to get here? Do the physics actually work out? Does the Grid’s plan hinge on too much chance? Are the ethical implications of what’s really going on justified? Maybe not? But I can appreciate the ambition and effort. Perhaps it’s just the notion of being lulled into that feeling of a familiar, derivative story being shattered by something kinda out-there that did the trick, but I really enjoyed this aspect of the book. Overall, I enjoyed the series and I liked how bonkers the ending got, but I wish there was less water-treading throughout the series and more of that sense of wonder stuff interspersed throughout.

The Engines of God, by Jack McDevitt – Humans have expanded beyond their solar system and they’ve begun to find mysterious alien artifacts. They’ve dubbed the aliens Monument-Makers, but have been unable to discern anything about them. Each artifact is different and beautiful, but they defy explanation. Then a team of scientists discover an artifact that appears to have played a role in a lost civilization. Previously discovered artifacts can also be tied to lost civilizations, making them somewhat more ominous. Earth itself is facing ecological disaster – do the Monument-Makers have something in mind for us?

It’s an interesting spin on the big dumb object sub-genre. Instead of a giant unknowable artifact, we get lots of smaller ones. McDevitt does a good job setting all this up, perhaps somewhat less so of establishing characters and plot mechanics. Like the Long Winter books above, there’s a significant portion of this book that’s focused on episodic tales of survival or races against the clock. All well and good, but spending a bunch of time fending off throngs of crab-like monsters doesn’t really advance the narrative much. Progress is made in the end though, and the explanation makes sense. I’ll cut this a little more slack because it’s all completed in a single novel, though there are apparently additional stories set in this universe. I will probably make my way to those sequels at some point, which says something, I think. Not exactly top tier stuff, but well executed and interesting enough.

Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson – One night when they were ten years old, Tyler Dupree and his neighbors Jason and Diane Lawton were playing in the yard when the stars went out. There was a brief, bright flash, then the sky just went black. Scientists eventually discover that earth has been placed within some sort of “spin membrane”. Outside the membrane time is moving at a hugely accelerated pace – about 3 years outside per second inside, or 100 million years on the outside per year inside. How will this development affect humanity? How will we respond? What about the Hypotheticals – the aliens who put the membrane in place? What’s their endgame?

It’s a great setup, and to be sure, Wilson puts the premise to good use and develops some great, extra-crunchy SF ideas throughout. For example, the time passing outside the spin membrane is terrifying, but it also opens up some avenues that wouldn’t otherwise be available. Because time is moving so fast, the notion of terraforming Mars becomes much more feasible. That’s a neat extrapolation from the base idea, and there are others throughout the book. However, the bulk of the story is comprised of character-based drama surrounding the three kids as they group up during the spin. Jason becomes a scientist working to understand the spin and develop various strategies to work around it, but he’s also struggling under the grip of an overbearing father not to mention his own medical problems. Diane retreats from society, basically joining a cult. Tyler just sorta meanders about, eventually coming to work for Jason but still struggling to find a way to reach Diane (who he’s clearly in love with). They’re all well drawn and fleshed out, even if I sometimes had a difficult time connecting.

This is a book for those folks who like to define SF as “all about the human condition” or some such. Those of us who are in it more for the sense of wonder and idea content will have plenty to chew on, but the proportion is far more focused on character than it is on ideas. So I’m a bit torn here. I really love the SF ideas , but I didn’t quite connect with the characters enough to love all the time spent on their foibles. Your mileage may vary…

Murder by Other Means, by John Scalzi – The second novella in this series about “dispatchers”, people who are legally empowered to take a life (except in this world, anyone who is murdered survives – they just wake up in their home after being murdered. Natural deaths still occur, only murders are affected). It’s a silly premise, to be sure, but both novellas are fun mystery thriller type stories suffused with Scalzi’s usual tight plotting, snappy dialog, and light humor. For whatever reason, these were conceived as Audible originals and initially released only on audiobook. It’s read by Zachary Quinto, who does an admirable job. This particular installment involves shady business deals, a dispatching gone wrong, and a frame job on our hero. All quite entertaining and fun. I know Scalzi can rub some folks the wrong way outside of his books, but the stories themselves are almost always fun and worth checking out.

And we’re all caught up. Stay tuned for Week 1 of the Six Weeks of Halloween!

Weird Movie of the Week: Black Devil Doll from Hell

Last time on Weird Movie of the Week, we found a tale of forbidden love between people named Obama and Osama. Alas, that turned out to be a bit of a dud. This time, we’ve got a Black Devil Doll from Hell:

A woman buys a doll at a magic shop. Unbeknownst to her, the doll is possessed by an evil spirit, and it proceeds to take her over.

I know, that doesn’t sound all that weird. Par for the killer dummy/doll genre course. It turns out that the basic description leaves out some things. A review from Tony the Terror on Letterboxd gives us the goods:

An incredibly religious woman buys a doll that proceeds to come alive and pleasure her (mmhmm yep that’s right). This causes her to have a total sexual awakening, forego the lord, become a skank, and then realize that only the doll excites her.

Ah, now there’s that weirdness that makes you wonder how a movie like this could ever get made. From all indications, it sounds more bonkers than it actually is, and many mention that the 90 minute runtime is far too long, which isn’t a good sign. And yet, it’s the sort of thing I could see myself catching up with during the forthcoming Six Weeks of Halloween horror movie marathon, so you never know…

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: A Novel

While novelizations of popular movies have long existed (especially before the advent of home video), Quentin Tarantino’s novelization of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the first example I can find of a filmmaker adapting their own movie for the page. Alright, let’s not get too far into Auteur theory here; filmmaking is an inherently collaborative medium, but few would dispute that Tarantino was the true guiding force of the film. So this adaptation has an inherent hook that the usual, perhaps unfairly maligned, novelizations don’t. Given Tarantino’s infamous obsession with all things movie, it’s not surprising that he has an appreciation for the genre: “In the seventies movie novelizations were the first adult books I grew up reading … And to this day I have a tremendous amount of affection for the genre.”

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood by Quentin Tarantino - book cover

I’ve grown to appreciate the movie more with each rewatch. What initially seems like a disjointed mélange of episodic story elements is actually tied together pretty well, if not in an immediately obvious way. The book puts the movie’s plotting in stark relief. There are digressions galore here, and not all of them are strictly necessary. Authors often claim that they have backstories and other context that guides their work without ever being explicitly laid out anywhere. Your mileage may vary as to whether you like seeing that or not.

Regardless, Tarantino is able to indulge in numerous backstories here, from Cliff Booth’s war record, to his postwar years, to a few times he got away with murder, to how he came to own his exceedingly well behaved pit bull Brandy, to his film buff tendencies and how he fell in love with Kurosawa but didn’t love Truffaut. We get full chapters and backstory about Charles Manson (who is only tangentially in the film), a description of the hallowed Manson girl tradition of the “creepy crawl,” and lots more about Sharon Tate and even future fugitive child rapist Roman Polanski. There’s even a sorta novelization-within-a-novelization, as Tarantino retells the entire Lancer pilot (interspersed with the actors talking about the pilot).

There’s the copious (and I mean copious) discussions about mid-century cinema and television. At times, the novel feels a little like a sorta profane non-fiction book as Tarantino recounts the various histories and anecdotes of actors, directors, movies, and television shows. Do you want to read ten pages about Aldo Ray’s alcoholism, or the general alcoholism that pervaded throughout Hollywood during that era? You got it. Do you want to know the lineage of western TV shows in the 60s? You got it. And on and on (and on!) While he mixes his fictional characters into history here, you will find out a lot more about the era than you ever wanted to know. I enjoyed this aspect of the novel, even if it sometimes takes the punch out of the pacing or plot, but some might find it a little too indulgent and distracting.

Stylistically, Tarantino isn’t going for anything highfalutin. He’s shooting for pulpy and profane, and for the most part he succeeds. Some have compared it to Elmore Leonard, but that doesn’t really do Tarantino any favors – few can stand up to that comparison and while there are times that Tarantino approaches Leonard, he doesn’t quite have that cadence down. Leonard certainly doesn’t descend into digressions and plots things much tighter, and his command of language is perhaps better suited for the medium. Tarantino is famous for his amazing scripts, but that’s a different medium. As a debut, this is fantastic stuff, but to say he got to Leonard’s level right out of the gate is perhaps too charitable. That said, I’m looking forward to more Tarantino novels. I think he could grow into the form quite well…

There’s some interesting structural twists to the plotting as well. He does this thing where he’ll suddenly flash backwards or forwards for long swaths of time. Indeed, the bombastic ending of the film is a just sorta tossed off flash-forward reference about 1/4 of the way into the book. The other big set-piece from the movie, Cliff Booth’s tension-filled visit to Spahn ranch is retained partially in-tact, and Taratino nails the atmosphere, but the sequence in the film is certainly more harrowing. The book’s end actually works surprisingly well for what it is, though I don’t know that it’s better than the film.

All in all, it’s a fascinating little book and worth a look if you liked the movie. There’s lots to chew on and plenty of differences, big and small, that make this a distinct enough experience to be worthwhile. Personally, the book made me appreciate the movie even more. The book retains the movie’s ultimate hangout vibe, so while the book perhaps isn’t for everyone, there’s still lots there to enjoy.

Link Dump

The usual spin through interesting links from the depths of ye olde internets:

… uncritical acceptance of the lone genius myth is one more cultural force among many that is making it more and more difficult for individuals to do innovative work (and last time I checked, humanity is made up of individuals). In a fast-paced world full of intense economic/scientific/intellectual competition and decreasing opportunities for solitude, it is harder than ever before to justify spending significant time on intangible work that may or may not pay off. You can’t put on your resume – “I spend a lot of time thinking about ideas and scribbling notes that I don’t share with anyone.”

I guess what I want to counteract is the same thing that Stephen Malina, Alexey Guzey, Leopold Aschenbrenner argue against in “Ideas not mattering is a Psyop”. I don’t know how we could ever forget that ideas matter – of course they matter – but somewhere along the way I think we got a little confused. How this happened, I don’t know – you can probably broadly gesture at computers, the internet, big data, etc. and talk about how these have led to a greater societal emphasis on predictability, quantifiability, and efficiency. Ideas (and the creative process that produces them) are inherently none of these things; as Malina et al. remind us – Ideas are often built on top of each other, meaning that credit assignment is genuinely hard” and “Ideas have long feedback loops so it’s hard to validate who is good at having ideas that turn out to be good”. I would also mention increased levels of competition (as a result of globalism, increased population sizes, and the multitude of technologies that enable these things) as a major culprit. For any position at a college/graduate school/job you are likely competing with many people who have done all kinds of impressive sounding things (although it is probably 90% bullshit) so you better stop thinking about crazy ideas (remember, there are no such things as lone geniuses) and starting doing things, even if the things you are doing are boring and trivial. As long as they look good on the resume…

The confounding nature of the film’s inaccessibility has to do with who currently owns its rights. Though the film was distributed by 20th Century Fox, the distribution rights fell into the ownership of pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb. At one point, the company had their hand in buying entertainment properties, acquiring Palomar Pictures International. The production company was originally a subsidiary of ABC but it severed ties in 1969, which allowed Bristol-Myers Squibb to swoop in and take up a majority stake in 1972. Along with May’s The Heartbreak Kid, some of the films produced while owned by the pharmaceutical company included SleuthThe Taking of Pelham One Two Three and The Stepford Wives. But only two years after creating this entertainment arm, Bristol Myers-Squibb dissolved it.

  • Ricky Jay Does a Card Trick – Always worthwhile.
  • Scottish distillery tour guide – I’ve never been to Scotland, but this feels pitch perfect to me and if I ever do go, I’ll be supremely disappointed if my tour guide isn’t equally disaffected.
  • Greatest Ping Pong Volley – It’s amazing and unfortunately not from the Olympics, but then someone in the comments unearthed this absolute gem about an, er, adjacent sport? (Make sure you turn on the sound on that second one, the announcer is doing some heavy lifting here.)
  • In Praise of the Info Dump: A Literary Case for Hard Science Fiction – I don’t think there’s a real rule here – like a lot of things, info-dumps are really difficult to do well, so the general rule seems to be against them. But then, folks like Greg Egan are masters at this sort of thing and his novels wouldn’t work at all if it weren’t for the info-dumps. SF readers are probably much more tolerant of this sort of thing, and there’s almost a different way of reading that encourages it.

What distinguishes this genre isn’t so much plotting, characters, or concepts, but its special relationship to information. In a certain sense, an effective piece of hard science fiction comprises one world-sized info dump. Expert discourse is simply the most efficient delivery mechanism for this volume of information.

Maligned almost universally in fiction workshops, the info dump is a device that supplies a sizable amount of background information or other narrative material in order to make a story intelligible to the reader. Egan is a master of the trick. Yatima’s birth, an enormously complicated process that takes place in the first three pages of Diaspora, may be the most magnificent info dump I’ve ever read.

  • The Coen Brother – Ethan Coen recently announced that he’s done making movies. His brother Joel will probably continue, but what does this mean for the output of some of the most original and interesting filmmakers of the last few decades? Well, I guess we’re about to find out.

That’s all for now…

SF Book Review – Part 37: Heaven’s River and Moar

I’m woefully behind on my science fiction book reviews, so let’s catch up, shall we? I read some of these in the February/March timeframe, so bear with me. Also of note, I did do full reviews for a couple important release, including Andy Weir’s Project Hail Mary and Nicole Galland’s Master of the Revels, so it hasn’t just been 1978 movies for 6 months. Anyway, let’s take a look at a few of these books.

Heaven’s River, by Dennis E. Taylor – The fourth book set in Taylor’s “Bobiverse”, where a man named Bob was turned into a Von Neumann Machine and duked it out with competing Von Neumann programs. The original trilogy was very enjoyable and came to a satisfying conclusion, but of course there were some dangling threads that could be pursued in sequels, so here we are.

Heaven's River book cover

At the start of Heaven’s River, original Bob and his closest descendants want to seek out their old friend Bender (one of Bob’s replicants that had gone off exploring in the previous books), but the issue of replicative drift means that future generations of Bob are becoming less and less Bob-like, so internal strife is on the rise. Especially with an internal faction that refers to itself as Starfleet. Things get so bad that a civil war is brewing, and meanwhile, other external threats are emerging.

It’s all par for the Bobiverse course. Which is to say, it’s quite entertaining and involving and Taylor continues to put these ideas through their paces. It’s episodic but not completely disjointed, and I generally enjoy spending time with the various incarnations of Bob. This is certainly not a place to jump into the series (start with the first book), but it’s a solid way to continue the series. Looking forward to the next installment.

Colonyside, by Michael Mammay – The third book in Mammay’s series about Colonel Carl Butler and the various mysteries and conspiracies he gets embroiled in, usually from some military angle. This time Butler is brought on to find the missing daughter of a CEO, and naturally there’s more here than meets the eye. I’ve generally enjoyed this series, but it’s never quite delivered on the potential of the premise. A sorta mixture of Military SF and Hard Boiled Detective fiction should be more fun than this… which is not to say that this is bad, per say. As I mentioned, it’s enjoyable, but the mysteries never quite give you the rush that great detective fiction manages, and while the action is solid, it’s not quite Military SF grade action. I’m on the fence about reading the next installment (assuming there is one), but if Mammay can wrangle the two genres better, it could be really something.

Fugitive Telemetry, by Martha Wells – The sixth Murderbot story is actually a pretty good example of what Mammay is trying for. Murderbot gets embroiled in a mystery involving human trafficking in a space station around her friends’ planet. Good characters, a well drawn mystery, great action, propulsive pacing, and a satisfying conclusion. The only real complaint is that it’s perhaps a bit too short, but that’s one of those “leave them wanting more” good things. I actually didn’t realize that this would be a novella-sized story when I got it. I just assumed that because the last entry in the series was a novel, this one would be too. Anyway, that’s not really a complaint. If you’re not on board the Muderbot train, it’s worth purchasing a ticket (or, uh, the first novella in the series, you know what I mean).

Year Zero, by Rob Reid – Hey look, it’s a book that isn’t part of a series! Low level entertainment lawyer Nick Carter (not that Nick Carter) is visited by aliens desperate to license music. The problem? The entire universe, teeming with life, is terrible at music… except Earth. When our music is discovered, aliens enjoy decades of pure joy… and also wind up committing the biggest copyright violation in the history of the universe. The resulting fines and penalties would bankrupt the entire universe several times over.

It’s a great premise, and in case you can’t already tell, this is a SF Comedy owing much to the likes of Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett. Big shoes to fill and for sure, Reid isn’t operating on that level. It’s not terrible or anything, and I quite enjoyed the novel, but the beginning is the best part and as the novel progresses and the silliness of various characters and concepts start to compound, it gets to be a bit much in the middle. The ending works well enough, though, and if you can stomach the constant Pop Culture references, you’ll have a good time with this. Personally, I’m not really a music expert, so I’m sure some of the music references went over my head, but I enjoyed it all well enough. It’s not going to change your life or anything, but it’s a fun time.

The Assassins of Thasalon, by Lois McMaster Bujold – The latest Penric & Desdemona story is longer than usual (technically it’s novel-length, though it’s short by today’s novel standards), but that doesn’t matter because this series is great. Penric’s brother-in-law (General Arisaydia) has been enduring various assassination attempts as a result of political turmoil in his homeland (I’m simplifying a little here – events in previous Pen & Des novels flesh this out a bit), so Penric and General Arisaydia attempt various hijinks to deal with the issue. The usual sorcery and intrigue abound, and Bujold’s ability to introduce new side characters that you can immediately connect with is on full display (plus, the series has been going on long enough to have a regular stable of well-established side characters to draw upon). As usual, the series as a whole is highly recommended.

Still have a few books to go, but this is a start at least…

The 1978 Project: Closing Remarks

Around two years ago, I embarked upon the 1978 Project, a film-based resolution to watch as many movies made in 1978 as I could. As of this moment, I have seen 87 movies that were made in 1978 (full list on Letterboxd, which is what I used as the system of record for determining a 1978 release), though I had already seen approximately 25 of them before starting this exercise. After the traditional Kaedrin Movie Awards, Arbitrary Awards, and a Top 10, it’s time to do a more general retrospective on the experience.

The Numbers

As mentioned above, I’ve seen 87 movies made in 1978. When I look at my All Time Stats, there’s an obvious bias towards recent years, but 1978 sticks out like a sore thumb.

Movies I have watched by year

Of all years before 2005, I’ve seen the most movies from 1978 (though 1988 is currently at 86 and I’m guessing it’ll surpass the 87 number at some point). From 2005 onwards, I’ve seen more than that 87 number. Availability certainly plays a role here, but we’ll get into that later.

In terms of genre, I spread things around a bit, though there are some biases at work here:

Number of 1978 films I've watched from each genre

Naturally, the catchall Drama genre leads the pack. Horror is not far behind, clearly driven by the 6 Weeks of Halloween horror movie marathons I engage in every year (Thriller, another leading genre, probably also falls into that bucket). Action is also high, thanks in part to the boom of Hong Kong martial arts flicks that 1978 is safely nestled within. Other mainstay genres like Adventure, Comedy, Science Fiction, and Mystery also put in a good showing. The only thing I’m particularly surprised by is the relative paucity of Romance, though looking through recent years shows a similar proportion, so maybe I’m just bad at seeking that out.

In terms of Country of Origin, I don’t have an easy way to break it down, but there’s an obvious USA bias, with a bunch of Hong Kong (again driven by Martial Arts), Italy, Anglosphere (i.e. UK, Canada, and Australia), and probably a ton of one-offs. Not the most diverse for sure, and at least part of this is driven by availability.

Other Trends

One of the things I’ve noticed about focusing in on a specific year for movies that is far enough in the past is that you get a better feel for people’s careers. You see a lot of bit parts starring young actors who wouldn’t become famous until later (sometimes much later). Kevin Bacon, Tommy lee Jones, Brad Dourif, Steve Guttenberg, and Jamie Lee Curtis all come to mind there. You also see some young folks who put in good work, but whose career never quite took off the way you might have thought in 1978, like Brad Davis or Theresa Russell.

The same goes for directorial debuts in 1978. People like Robert Zemeckis (I Wanna Hold Your Hand) and Errol Morris (Gates of Heaven) were just getting started, and while their respective movies didn’t light the world on fire at the time, they’re both fantastic. Their later work would go on to completely overshadow their debuts, for understandable reasons, but it’s interesting to see this sort of thing in its larval form. Of course, some directors had been around for a few years, and fully hit their stride in 1978, like John Carpenter (Halloween).

On the flip side of the coin, it’s also easier to see the waning years of people’s careers. Ingmar Bergman collaborated with Ingrid Bergman in the waning years of both of their careers (Autumn Sonata). One of Billy Wilder’s final films (Fedora) was perhaps a bit repetitive of his earlier work, but still well done.

Then there’s the genre trends. I’ve already done a deep dive into the Martial Arts boom that was in full swing, but there were some other trends that were emerging. 1978 was only one year after Star Wars, but already you could see several movies looking to cash in on that success (similarly, Jaws had inspired animal attack movies). While we’re still safely ensconced in the infamous 1970s era of New Hollywood artistic freedom where there were few sequels or franchises and original drams could pull at the box office, we’re also seeing the beginnings of the end of that era. Several of the top 10 box office films of 1978 would go on to spawn sequels and long franchises, some of which are still shambling along to this day (i.e. Superman, Halloween, etc…)

The Italian exploitation boom was starting to wind down as well. After Spaghetti Westerns reinvigorated a moribund genre in the 60s and early 70s, they were running out of gas by 1978. Same goes for Giallo flicks and WWII epics. This was at least partly due to the evolution of cinema in Italy. As home entertainment and other activities became more popular in the 80s, the Italian genre machine trailed off. 1978 was towards the beginning of that decline.

Miscellaneous Thoughts

It’s fun to have a movie-based project to work your way through. A few years ago, I did 50 Under 50, a resolution to watch 50 movies made before 1950 in one year. The 1978 Project was a deep dive into a single year, which is obviously something I could easily repeat with a different year. But perhaps I should try a different tactic. I’ve always thought about doing a 50 from 50 challenge, in which I watch 50 movies from 50 different countries… but then, I almost do that by accident every year (I’d have to research more and see if there are some other constraints I could put around it to make it more meaningful).

As with the 50 Under 50 project, Netflix and Hulu were almost useless. Netflix did have a few of those martial arts flicks, but was otherwise not much help (their DVD service also supplied a few things to watch, even if that service is in decline these days). Amazon Prime was, by far, the most useful streaming service for watching these older movies. The quality of the transfer might not always be the greatest, but you could at least watch it. Amazon was also my go to for streaming rentals as well. Kanopy had a couple things too, but they’re always sorta hit or miss.

Availability in general was not especially great. Streaming has been getting better, but there’s still lots of stuff that is seemingly unavailable anywhere. Occasionally, I could fill a gap with physical media, but not always (and even then, a lot of stuff is out of print, so you’d have to buy a used copy and sometimes even those can be exorbitantly expensive.) I have to assume doing a similar exercise for an even older year would be even worse.

One of the other things I noticed was that I had already seen a pretty large proportion of my Top 10 for 1978 before starting this effort (i.e. I’d already seen 6 out of the top 10 before I started). This makes a certain sort of sense, as the best and most popular films tend to be more prominent and available in general, but that presents an interesting bias. On the other hand, there’s probably some form of recency bias at work too. It’s interesting how these sorts of perceptions get distorted by a concerted effort to focus on a single year, and it’s an exercise that I found worthwhile.

All in all, it’s been a fun little exercise and I’m glad I embarked upon it. I don’t have any additional projects planned as yet, but I’m sure I’ll come up with something…

1978 Project: Appendix 1 – Martial Arts Movies

As I explored the cinema of 1978, one thing I couldn’t help but notice was the abundance of excellent martial arts movies released in that year. You may have noticed that there were several examples of the genre in my Top 10 of 1978 list, but one of the challenges of such a list is to ensure some sense of diversity. I wanted to make sure the genre’s prevalence was represented, but I couldn’t very well list all of the martial arts films I loved without crowding out other films worthy of inclusion. It’s a balancing act and I think I did well enough on the list proper, but I figured we could use a little appendix of 1978 martial arts movies, because they’re worth a deeper dive.

Already Included

As mentioned above, I’ve already discussed a few of the most important entries in the genre in my top 10 list (and earlier). That said, it’s worth giving them an additional curtain call, because they’re great. If you’re looking to dip your toes into martial arts cinema, these are a great place to start.

Top 5 Additional 1978 Martial Arts Movies

Warriors Two – While my top 10 selections leaned heavily on Jackie Chan’s breakout flicks where he was finally allowed to embrace his comedic skills, there was another famed comedic martial artist breaking out at around the same time. Sammo Hung directed this excellent movie starring Casanova Wong (also known as the “Human Tornado”) to great effect.

Casanova Wong in Warriors Two

Hung himself plays only a small role in the film, but would later emerge as a key player in the scene. While perhaps not as lauded or referenced as other examples of the genre, this one is absolutely worth seeking out. [Kaedrin Review]

The Avenging Eagle – This Shaw Brothers programmer doesn’t get a ton of love and it’s the sort of movie that I’d probably never have seen if it werent’f or an exercise like the 1978 project forcing me to find more obscure movies (or not – I’m sure there’s some martial arts movie expert reading this right now and shaking their head mournfully). As such, I was surprised by how much I loved this movie. As per usual, the story isn’t particularly distinguished, but the action is fabulous and the villain memorable. Well worth seeking out… [Kaedrin Review]

Flying Guillotine II: Palace Carnage – One of a long line of sequels (there are numerous official and unofficial entries in the series) that leverage the fanciful Flying Guillotine concept, a deadly weapon that can decapitate with the flick of the wrist. In case you can’t tell from my various writeups of martial arts movies, the story is rarely a selling point and this is not really any different, but I like how well they put the rather absurd concept of a Flying Guillotine through its paces here. Certainly one of the better sequels out there. [Kaedrin Review]

The Five Deadly Venoms – I watched this a few years ago because I had heard good things and found it slightly disappointing, but it’s reputation in my mind has only grown over time. Perhaps it’s because it takes a while for the action sequences to rev up, and perhaps it’s that the plot actually is a selling point here (one of the few examples of such things), but it’s a genuinely great movie. Plus, you can see its influence all over if you look for it, and not just in the obvious Tarantino homages in Kill Bill. [Kaedrin Review]

Crippled Avengers – Probably the more controversial entry on this list, this movie has quite a bonkers premise. This initially dissuaded me from the movie, but I’ve kinda turned a corner on this one, and it’s a memorable experience if nothing else. This one probably has the most qualified recommendation of any on this list, but if you’re up for it, it’s a fascinating little flick. [Kaedrin Review]

So there you have it. I probably watched about 10 other 1978 movies that could be considered martial arts flicks, which I think warrants this separate list. Almost done with the 1978 project, so stay tuned for some Closing Thoughts, coming soon…

Favorite Films of 1978

After almost two years, we finally come to that hallowed tradition of a top 10 list for my favorite films of 1978. For the uninitiated, the 1978 Project is a deep dive into the cinema of the year of my birth. This sort of annual appraisal is normally reserved for current releases, but I’ve found the process of exploring the past quite enjoyable as well. I’ve been doing the current release thing for a while now though, so if you’d like to take a spin through the last fifteen years, feel free: [2020 | 2019 | 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006]

At this point, I’d usually try to identify some overarching themes to represent the year in question, but I think I’ll be leaving that for a separate post. I’ll just note that the added perspective of time plays an interesting role here. In some cases, this can boil down to nostalgia, in others, a film’s influence my be the kicker. As of this writing, I’ve seen 87 films that would be considered a 1978 release. Probably more that most folks and I’d wager more than a lot of critics, but not necessarily comprehensive.

I suppose I should also mention that a lot of the above lists often feature a movie that originated in the previous year but did not become available until later (often times a film’s premiere happens at a film festival or is only available in one country, etc… before a true wide release). All of which is to say that there are probably some 1977 movies that could be considered for the below list (or some films below that might better fit a 1979 list), but I just went by the dates on IMDB and Letterboxd. Anywho, standard disclaimers apply, let’s get this party started…

Top Ten Movies of 1978

* In roughly reverse order

Heaven Can Wait – This Warren Beatty vehicle begins with a seemingly silly, screwball premise that is slowly transformed into something deeper and more sophisticated. Elaine May is co-credited as screenwriter, and I think her influence is apparent. The whole effort is bolstered by a strong supporting cast, including Charles Grodin, Julie Christie, and James Mason, amongst others. A heartfelt comedy that has seemingly disappeared these days.

More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Review]

Animal House – It’s a comedy rooted in its time and place, but I can’t help but see the entertainment and influence, and its dated nature kinda fits why this whole exercise is worthwhile. Comedies often get short shrift in lists like this, but not so here. Of course, it helps when you have someone like John Belushi just dominating the screen, not to mention bit players like John Vernon as the Platonic ideal of the crusty old dean.

More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

The First Great Train Robbery – Michael Crichton wrote and directed this underrated Victorian train heist flick. Sean Connery stars and is excellent, but it’s Donald Sutherland that steals the show as a knuckle-cracking pickpocket. It’s got everything you could want out of a heist film and it’s supremely entertaining.

More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

I Wanna Hold Your Hand – Robert Zemeckis’ debut directorial effort is one of the better examples of the “one crazy night” sub-genre in which four young women attempt to sneak into seeing the The Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show. Zemeckis captured the perfect tone to tell the story, which manages to personalize the teeming throngs of Beatle-mania and provides a cohesive core for the episodic story (something this sub-genre often lacks).

More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Review]

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin – A classic martial arts tale in its purest form, a pinnacle of the Shaw Brothers catalog, and a clear influence on future films (and, uh, music). Most of the movie is just an extended kung-fu training sequence, and yet this somehow manages to carve out its own distinct identity, even if it’s a common story and somewhat predictable.

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin

Great choreography and expert use of the zoom (a shot not in favor these days, but it’s perfectly deployed here), just hugely entertaining stuff.

More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

Invasion of the Body Snatchers – Philip Kaufman’s stylish remake of the 50s paranoid classic somehow holds its own. I’m usually hard on remakes, but this movie ably clears the high bar set by its predecessor. Another great performance from Donald Sutherland (rockin a bitchin porno stache) here, as well as supporting turns from Leonard Nimoy and a young Jeff Goldblum, all anchored by Kaufman’s canted angles and visual boldness.

More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Review]

Gates of Heaven – Errol Morris’ first documentary feature film is ostensibly about pet cemeteries, but that’s kinda like saying that Moby Dick is about a whale. Through a loosely connected series of interviews with people surrounding a particular pet cemetery, Morris subtly reflects upon philosophical concepts of human nature and death with pathos, compassion, and humor. It’s an unlikely trick he pulls off here, so much so that Werner Herzog famously ate his own shoes because he made a bet with Morris that he’d never make it work.

More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

Blue Collar – Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, and Yaphet Kotto are all phenomenal as the down-on-their-luck workers seeking a big score, only to find themselves ensconced in a convoluted machine that they can’t escape in Paul Schrader’s bleak directorial debut. It’s a difficult movie to recommend, but it’s quite good if you’ve got the stones for it.

More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Review]

Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow – The first of two 1978 collaborations between Yuen Woo-ping and Jackie Chan, I’m giving this one the slight edge for preceding Drunken Master, and also just because Chan’s character is more likable here. The intricate choreography is exceptional, of course, and Chan was finally allowed to incorporate his comedic persona into the martial arts form in ways that would have a lasting impact. The story isn’t particularly special, but everything else about this is great, not to mention featuring the greatest death scene of all time.

More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Review]

Halloween – The #1 slot just has to go to this movie. Of course, it’s expertly made in every facet, ranging from John Carpenter’s direction, Debra Hill’s writing, great acting from Jamie Lee Curtis and an unhinged Donald Pleasance, Carpenter’s score, and the list goes on.

Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween

But this really takes the top slot because it’s the movie that got me into horror as a youngin, and it’s the one movie on this list that I watch every year, without fail. Is it a nostalgic and personal pick? I guess, but it’s perfect and these lists would be boring without such influences.

More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

Honorable Mention

* In an order I dare you to discern

Autumn Sonata – “The Meeting of the Bergmans”, Ingmar directs Ingrid in the waning chapters of both of their careers. It’s a talky, melodramatic film with great performances from Ingrid Bergman as a cold, distant mother and Liv Ullmann as the mousy but justifiably angry daughter. This sort of wallowing in emotional angst isn’t normally my thing, but I couldn’t help but fall into the rythms of the movie.

More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Review]

The Deer Hunter – It’s overlong, indulgent, ham-fisted, and a little obnoxious at times, but it’s filled with great performances and while some of this stuff is a stretch, it’s nonetheless incredibly effective at times. It’s got too many issues to really make it into the top 10, but it’s one of those movies you should watch at some point…

More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

The Silent Partner – A rock solid 70s thriller about bank robbers playing a game of cat and mouse with a bank teller who gets in the way. Nice performances from Elliot Gould and Susannah York, a good villainous turn by Christopher Plummer, and plenty of twists and turns. Not the best example of this sort of thing, but definitely underrated and underseen.

More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Review]

The Inglorious Bastards – Italian revisionist World War II flick that is positively infused with chaotic 70s energy mixed with who-gives-a-shit grimy exploitation panache. It’s easy to see why Tarantino would take inspiration from something like this, and it’s certainly much less straightforward than most WWII flicks you’re likely to encounter. Stars Bo Svenson and Fred Williamson keep things lively, while director Enzo Castellari deploys plenty of Italian style. A solid, bombastic flick that’s well worth checking out.

More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Review]

The Medusa Touch – British thriller about a man cursed with “a gift for disaster”, this is a great, strange little slice of late 70s paranoia. Oddly, it’s one of two 1978 movies about comatose men using psychic powers to wreak havoc (the other being Richard Franklin’s stylish Patrick, which should probably also be on this list so I’m just mentioning it here). I discovered this just before beginning the 1978 project in earnest, and it unlocked some of Amazon’s algorithmic gremlins, recommending a bunch of strange, obscure thrillers that I quite enjoyed exploring.

More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Review]

Drunken Master – That other Jackie Chan vehicle directed by Yuen Woo-ping, and probably the more famous one, it’s basically the same cast and crew making another excellent martial arts movie, this time centered around the rather amusing concept of Drunken Boxing. It was followed by sequels and remakes, but this original is the best.

More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Review]

Big Wednesday – John Milius is more famous for bombastic fare like Conan the Barbarian and Red Dawn, but he also made this small-scale episodic drama about a trio of surfers living through the 60s and 70s. Not my usual thing, but I’m glad I caught up with it for sure.

More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Review]

Dawn of the Dead – I don’t get nearly as much out of this as your typical horror fanatic, but even as someone who’s not a particularly big fan of zombie flicks, I have to admit that this is wildly effective and entertaining to watch. I think people make way too much out of its thematic power, but it does have plenty to chew on if you go below the surface.

More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

The Fury – Brian De Palma’s follow up to Carrie also concerns a psychic teenager, this time a boy. It’s interesting, if a bit derivative, but it has some of De Palma’s trademark bravura visuals and an eye-opening ending that’s really something else.

More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Capsule Review]

Magic – It’s a ventriloquist vs killer dummy tale directed by Richard Attenborough, written by William Goldman, and starring Anthony Hopkins, so it’s much better than the premise would imply. This was a big surprise to me during a Six Weeks of Halloween marathon a few years ago, one of the better underrated flicks from 1978.

More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Review]

Superman – Richard Donner (RIP) directed this movie that basically set the stage for the current superhero boom. The first hour or so of this movie is absolutely perfect, and Christopher Reeve gives a great performance. It’s also nice to see an earnest take on Superman; one that is not steeped in cynicism or embarrassed by optimism. There’s no ironic winking and it all just works.

More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

The Last Waltz – Martin Scorsese directed this concert documentary about The Band’s final show, featuring a cavalcade of amazing musical guests including Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Ringo Starr, and plenty of others. Concert films are always a bit of a drag for me – it’s great that there’s a document of a show like this… but it’s clearly a document and you can’t truly capture the experience of being there. That said, this one kinda got to me, so if you’re into this sort of thing, it doesn’t get much better.

More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Review]

Grease – I’m not a big fan of musicals, but I can definitely see why this has such a devoted following. It rides the wave of 50s nostalgia that ran through the 70s and features two starmaking performances by John Travolta and Olivia Newton John. Not really my thing, but it’s pure, enjoyable fluff.

More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Review]

The Driver – Walter Hill’s entertaining flick about the best getaway driver in the business has never had a great release and it would be great if one of those little boutique physical media companies (i.e. Shout, Arrow, Vinegar Syndrome, Twilight Time, etc…) would pick this up and give it proper treatment.

The Driver

Anyway, great cops and robbers stuff here, and excellent car chases.

More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

Midnight Express – Look, don’t try and smuggle drugs out of Turkey. Just don’t. If you do, you might end up living in a jail with hellish conditions and a legal system that continually dangles freedom in front of you, only to snatch it away at the last second. Harrowing stuff, and a well executed take on the story that served as the basis for the movie…

More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

Just Missed the Cut

But still worthwhile, in their own way. Presented without comment and in no particular order:

Should Have Seen

Normally this would be the end of an annual recap, but there’s at least two more posts to go before we wrap up the 1978 Project, so stay tuned!

The Two Kinds of Movie

I was listening a Bulwark Goes to Hollywood podcast episode in which three movie writers talk about their favorite film books, and I couldn’t help but think of what I’d put on such a list. In the spirit of arranging my interests in parallel, I’ve been reading a lot of books about movies over the last few years, and the one that immediately leaps to mind is Which Lie Did I Tell?: More Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman.

Which Lie Did I Tell book cover

As an example of the book’s insights, here’s Goldman on the two kinds of movies:

There are really two kinds of flicks – what we now call generic Hollywood movies, and what we now call Independent films.

Hollywood films – and this is crucial to screenwriters – all have in common this: they want to tell us truths we already know or a falsehood we want to believe in.

Hollywood films reinforce, reassure.

Independent films, which used to be called “art” films, have a different agenda. They want to tell us things we don’t want to know.

Independent films unsettle.

A little reductive, to be sure, and we could quibble about the details all day if we want, but it’s at least an interesting dichotomy he’s suggesting, and the way he spins it out contains one of the better explanations for why Independent Films tend to do poorly with audiences:

Famous cartoon from fifty years back. A couple are at the original run of Death of a Salesman. The man turns to the woman, here’s what he says: “I’ll get you for this!”

The point is that most of us work all day, often at something we don’t much love anymore but we do it till we drop. At the end of our average days, we want peace, we want relaxation, maybe a bite of food, a few kind words.

We do not want to watch Willy Loman’s suicide.

What we are really dealing with when we talk of the two Hollywoods is audience size.

… Most people want to be told nice things. I cannot repeat that too often to anyone who wants to screenwrite for a living. You can be Bergman if you have the talent, you can tell sad human stories – but do not expect Mr. Time Warner to give you $100 million to make your movie.

Again, plenty to quibble with here. I’d argue that there are lots of crossover flicks, whether it be what Goldman calls a “Hollywood” flick that manages to tell us something we don’t want to know or an “Independent” movie that tells us something we want to believe in, that somehow manage to find a huge audience. Goldman would later touch on this topic again in a famous essay called “Who killed Hollywood?”

I’m not talking here about the difference between entertainment and art. Hollywood films can be, and often are, art. And many, if not most, independent films are boring.

I suspect many would like to upgrade their “quibbles” to something stronger at this point, but I can appreciate this point of view. Goldman’s books are highly recommended and would be number one on my list of great books about movies. I can save the full list for another post, but I should probably get to finishing off the 1978 Project, shouldn’t I?