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Tag Archive: Stand By Me


Stranger Things cast

Stranger Things is a rare thing among plenty of series bombarding viewers of streaming services.  It would never get accused of trying too hard.  It’s good but not great.  It features no major actors.  It has developed a cult following yet it is not produced by J.J. Abrams (think Lost, Fringe, Almost Human, Believe, Westworld).  And for all these things, it’s just what we want.  We’ve had enough of CGI and big budget explosions and special effects.  Low budget is just fine–for now.  It’s that movie you are looking for late on a Saturday night, but stretched to eight episodes long.

More series like this will make Netflix survive despite all the competition from other services.  Stranger Things is good enough–good at sci-fi and horror and coming of age retro fun–to get you to sign up with Netflix for your next binge watch session.  More important than its storytelling is how the story is told, and the efforts taken to make the series, the characters, the setting, the dialogue, all look like it was filmed in the early 1980s.  Several artists have even mocked up the series marketing material into VHS tape packaging.  Were it a movie-length feature it would probably fool many.  It’s in the same vein as Disney’s Watcher in the Woods.  Like Stephen King’s Firestarter, Stand By Me and Silver Bullet it features kids in a coming-of-age setting.  Its monster/alien horror and soundtrack (available here) reflects the look and vibe of John Carpenter movies.  The marketing screams Stephen King, especially that red-on-black title font.  And it will no doubt gin up nostalgia to spur cassette tapes of its soundtrack like Guardians of the Galaxy.

Stranger Things VHS

It’s Steven Spielberg’s E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial, if the story had taken a darker turn, and very similar to Spielberg and Abrams’ Super 8 (Super 8 poster artist Kyle Lambert even created the poster for this series to further lock in the look).  Critics have picked apart odds and ends found in the background of scenes–this item didn’t exist then, etc.  But ultimately the overall feel is very right.  You’ll point to a pitcher on the table, a rug on the floor, a poster on the wall, all that you had back then.  And the season one wrap-up is as satisfying as you’re going to find in a TV series.

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River Phoenix in Sneakers

Born in a log cabin in Oregon 43 years ago this month, River Phoenix was raised much like the character he played in the acclaimed film The Mosquito Coast.  He was born into a flower child family and grew into a vegetarian, member of PETA, and supporter of saving the rain forests.  He was an activist, a creator, a musician and actor who no doubt would have been a key figure in the mid-1990s American culture had he not died from an overdose of narcotics outside of Johnny Depp’s club in L.A.  He was 23 years old and has been gone 20 years this October.

Like other famous people who died before 40, like James Dean, Buddy Holly, Jim Morrison, Brandon Lee, JFK, Jr, Chris Farley, Karen Carpenter, Andy Gibb, Princess Diana, John Belushi, and–as we revisit the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., 50 years after his “I Have a Dream” speech this week–you can’t help wonder what someone like Phoenix would be doing had he not made a wrong life turn back in 1993.

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Joyland cover

Review by C.J. Bunce

Tomorrow Stephen King’s newest novel, Joyland, hits the shelves already a pre-release #1 Bestseller.  Come back to borg.com Friday, June 7, 2013, for information on how to win copies of an exclusive edition of Joyland or canvas cover prints of the novel’s artwork from Titan Books, publisher of the Hard Case Crime imprint, as part of the Stephen King-Joyland online book tour.

As a fan of many Stephen King movies and TV series based on his books, strangely enough I never made it through a Stephen King novel before now.  Because King’s adapted visual works have been so consistent, I found the easy-going storytelling in Joyland to be very familiar.  Joyland contains themes found in the innocence of Stand By Me (based on King’s novella The Body) and Silver Bullet (based on King’s novella Cycle of the Werewolf), the supernatural of The Green Mile (based on King’s serial novel of the same name), and the Northeast U.S. town-life found in the TV series Haven (based on King’s The Colorado Kid) and The Dead Zone (based on King’s novel).  King’s storytelling is very recognizable–you’d know his style anywhere.  And Joyland is not horror, but a blend of true crime-type drama mixed with King’s signature violent/explicit/graphic accounts of not just the crime that is the focus of the story but the life of the protagonist.  Yet it is also a coming of age story for the 20s set–written in a manner similar to classic middle grade and young adult works, like S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders and Tex, and even some of Judy Blume’s works.

Old Joyland Amusement Park

Old Joyland Amusement Park (King’s is a fictional park)

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Of all the genre types there is one that doesn’t quite fit into any other bucket of movies.  These movies themselves are complex and rarely made, but when they are done right they tend to bridge popular audiences and critical acclaim.  They are about people who also don’t quite fit.  They are often referred to as “coming of age” movies, and with such a lame title it’s no wonder there is not a giant video header at the rental stores for “Coming of Age” movies.

Some of these are really just “teen angst” movies.  Some of the best of these for mid-teens, documenting the high school experience, are Clueless with Alicia Silverstone, 10 Things I Hate About You with Heath Ledger, The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles with Anthony Michael Hall and Molly Ringwald, Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden with James Dean, West Side Story, Tex with Matt Dillon, Crossroads and The Karate Kid, both starring Ralph Macchio, and even The Wizard of Oz with Judy Garland, where Dorothy establishes a defining piece of the genre–dreaming of “getting out of Dodge” (OK, Wichita, so close enough).

A younger teen focus subset of these films, where kids are either turning into teens or otherwise encountering adult situations at a young age, include Bless the Beasts and Children, Lucas, Stand by Me, Angus, The Sandlot, A Christmas Story, Explorers, the Harry Potter films, Super 8, and a superb superhero genre crossover called Sky High, that is one of those movies that pulls itself apart from the typical kid-centric flick by brilliantly delving into kids’ relationships with each other.

One film proves we probably shouldn’t stop with three subsets of the coming of age film, and reflects the universal nature of life in change.  A film that covers the same themes yet for the transition from college to the “rest of life” is Buck Henry and Michael Nichols’ The Graduate.  The Graduate launched the careers of Dustin Hoffman (All the Presidents’ Men, Kramer vs. Kramer, Midnight Cowboy, Rainman, Tootsie) and Katherine Ross (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Stepford Wives, Donnie Darko).  The subject is simple, yet believable and accessible, stuck in a rut, not ready to move onward, a recent college graduate needs some impetus to get moving forward.  In the 1960s of this movie, Hoffman and Ross’s characters step forward at the end, but you get the feeling the “coming of age” for them is still far outside their reach.  Similar elements of angst, alienation, and change are reflected in films of the older set, like St. Elmo’s Fire, Do the Right Thing, Lords of Dogtown, Wayne’s World, Shaun of the Dead, and even the 1976 movie Car Wash.

The subset of the genre targeted at older teens, those teens at the end of high school transitioning to “the rest of their lives” (or at least trying to) stand separately as their own class of film.  The greatest of these reach cult status, and often include all-star casts before they were to become stars.  Very likely it is these films that propelled the young actors into bigger roles as a next step in their careers because we, the audience, love these characters, and when we like characters we latch onto the actors that portrayed them.  Sometimes these themes cross into other genres that take over the film, such as the sci-fi film The Last Starfighter–where a teen must decide not whether to stay in town and work or go to college, but be a starfighter and save the universe.  Let’s look at a few of these classics that should be on your must-see list:

AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1973).  Even if George Lucas never came up with Star Wars he would have been remembered for creating this masterpiece of cinema.  All the key criteria of the genre are covered here: (1) fascination with cars, including races and chases; (2) incredible music, both as soundtrack as well as being listened to by the characters throughout the film; (3) teen rebellion, like pulling the rear axle off a police car (!), drinking, smoking, etc.; (4) alienation–one or more nerds, here exemplified by Charles Martin Smith’s Terry, who does the impossible, getting not only a girl, but THE girl, here Debbie (played by Candy Clark), and contrasted with the “cool kids,” (5) fitting in and not fitting in; (6) angst–Richard Dreyfuss’s Curt is the archetype for angst-ridden teen, not knowing his own abilities, uncertain and nervous about the next step in life: college; (7) life choices:  Go to college?  Go to which college?  Join the military?  Work in the garage at home?, (8) teens dealing with sex, and (9) an all-star or before-they-were all-star cast, launching careers:  Here that includes Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, and Harrison Ford.  Why do audiences of all ages relate to these themes?  Is it because we all continue to go through choices, decisions, and angst every day moving forward?

GREASE (1978).  The PG-13 rating really reflects components of all the films on this genre list: “sexual content including references, teen smoking and drinking, and language.”  Showing that you can successfully deal with the transitional phases of life in musical version like West Side Story (who doesn’t like music at any level in these movies?) here the 1970s portrays the 1950s again (this time 1959) as did American Graffiti.  Social strata, growing up rich or poor, from the south or west or north or east side–it all has meaning in the genre.  Like Rebel Without a Cause and West Side Story this is focused on high school teens–yet Sandy is thinking about college and Danny and Sandy each need to figure out who they want to be when school is out.

FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH (1982).  With American Graffiti documenting the American teen experience of the 1950s in the 1970s, Fast Times reflected the day.  Who is more of a classic rebel than Sean Penn’s Jeff Spicoli?  Full of both nerds and chock full of household name actors to-be, like Penn, Phoebe Cates, Eric Stoltz, Nicholas Cage, Forest Whitaker, Anthony Edwards, Judge Reinhold and Jennifer Jason Leigh.  Fast Times included another piece of the genre, generational slang.

THE OUTSIDERS (1983).  Probably the biggest film to launch careers of teen actors is The Outsiders. Francis Ford Coppola was harassed by a high school class to make this film and finally agreed to do it.  Socs vs. Greasers.  Literally kids from opposite sides of the tracks.  Matt Dillon plays Dallas, the ultimate teen anti-hero.  C. Thomas Howell and Ralph Macchio again, the poster actor of the genre, play the alienated unlikely rebels with heroes within screaming to get out.  This one launched the careers of Tom Cruise, Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe, and Diane Lane.  For teens who think they are alone, that the crap piled on them only happens to them, like the other films on this list, The Outsiders illustrates that everyone is an outsider sometime.

FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF (1986).  Although it is Matthew Broderick’s character Ferris Bueller’s sister Jeannie, played by Jennifer Grey, that really shows the teen experience in the high school of 1986, it is Bueller and his girlfriend Sloane (Mia Sara) and best friend Cameron (Alan Ruck), that are soon moving away to separate colleges.  Bueller rebels differently than most characters in this genre, yet is he really any different from Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times or Curt in American Graffiti?

SAY ANYTHING (1989).  You don’t have to have an ensemble cast to make your point and here a small cast illustrates dealing with adult issues early, struggling with who you want to be and what you want to do.  If you don’t want to make something bought or sold, sell anything made or bought or buy anything made or sold, John Cusack’s Lloyd Dobler feels your pain.  Cusack, Ione Skye and Lili Taylor form a great team to reflect angst and confusion.  Dobler standing at the Gas and Sip with a bunch of “losers”–and Dobler leaving them behind, is what the genre is all about.  And blaring your stereo from the street so the girl of your dreams hears you to apologize outside her window–again, music is key to a classic like this one and made that single image iconic.

DAZED AND CONFUSED (1993).  Here the 1990s plays the 1970s, almost cementing the cyclical nature of these themes as a part of the genre.  The highs and lows of partying, friendship, and rebellion.  Every bit as much a classic film as American Graffiti, with authentic (not so cool) clothing and very cool cars, this movie probably doesn’t get the credit it deserves from a huge cast of good young actors.  Like some of the other films above, this one was an early film for later big names, like Milla Jovovich, Ben Affleck, Matthew McConaughey, and Parker Posey.

ORANGE COUNTY (2002).  Orange County is one of those films you can watch over and over, with Colin Hanks’s Shaun Brumder a wanna-be writer whose high school guidance counselor (Lily Tomlin) sends the wrong stats to his college of choice.  His girlfriend wants him to stay home.  His brother (played by Jack Black) chose to stay home and shows Shaun what he doesn’t want.  A mentor emerges in the form of a professor played by Kevin Kline at just the right time.  Like Ron Howard in American Graffiti, Shaun makes a different choice from his friends, a different path than he’d originally planned.

SUPERBAD (2007).  Christopher Mintz-Plasse takes Charles Martin Smith’s alienated nerd full circle in Superbad as the self-named “McLovin.”  Despite being the third wheel in the film, he manages to conquer all the roles of the myriad of characters throughout all the above films.  Speeding along with Van Halen’s “Panama” blaring as he buddies up with two local police officers, McLovin practically gets arrested trying to buy beer, and ends up setting fire to a police car in a near parody of the genre.  And he gets the girl.  Future Academy Award nominee Jonah Hill and pal Michael Cera show what good friends will and won’t do for each other as Hill’s character learns Cera’s character will be rooming with McLovin at college.  Yet it all works out somehow, after the “quest for beer” and obligatory party, and Hill’s character giving his girlfriend an inadvertent black eye.  Superbad proves the genre stays strong, and that the themes of life in transition remain universal and accessible to movie audiences.

C.J. Bunce
Editor
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Review by C.J. Bunce

Back in June, Super 8 was in theaters and Jason McClain discussed it here and noted the split in the film between the focus on the kids’ story vs. the focus on the adults.  I didn’t see this one in the theater and after viewing on video I wish I had, but only for the spectacular train crash.  Other than that, the film makes a great rental.  For me, this film was a cross between Goonies, Cloverfield, E.T., the Extraterrestrial, and Close Encounter of the Third Kind.  I found myself viewing this and questioning whether this was more of a J.J. Abrams movie or more of a Steven Spielberg movie.  And I found it to be a lot of fun.

I agree with Jason’s review, that this could have been a film focusing totally on the kids’ story—kids trying to make a zombie film.  Joel Courtney in the lead role, in his first film appearance, was cast perfectly as Joe Lamb—as every little kid who doesn’t get into trouble, tries to do the right thing, tries to be friends to everyone.  The film inside the film didn’t need to be a zombie film, but zombies was as good a subject as any, and something the director could use because of the humor zombie make-up adds to the picture.  And maybe because the film also wants to be a monster movie of the alien variety.

I also agree with Jason that you could cut all the adult themes and probably end up with a better picture.  I find it puzzling that every film about differing genres that includes kids must have a one-parent family at the core.  It used to be that all movies had two parents and two kids, and I understand over time why the change to more diverse families makes sense.  But I can’t remember the last time a two adult, couple of kids family was pictured on film.  They exist in real life so I’m not sure what the draw is for the barrage of broken families.  You’d think Hollywood would mix it up a little.  I expect filmmakers think it gives the film some weight.  I usually find dwelling on family in this kind of film unnecessary and irrelevant to the plot–the father-son and father-daughter reunion pieces of the film here included.

But back to the good parts.  The themes of young teens mimic the superb, classic kid film Goonies so much you could draw parallels through the whole movie.  Young boys’ crushes on the older girl.   Rescuing a friend.  The desire for adventure and the decision to go off and “just do it.”  The same themes were also addressed more seriously in Stephen King’s Stand By Me and less so in E.T., the Extraterrestrial.  If Goonies was better at being a kids’ film it was probably because the adults only played the enemies and barely served another purpose in the plot.  After all, in the context of a fictional adventure film, why not play into that natural tension between parents and kids?  In E.T., the adults were primarily the enemies, too.  In Stand By Me, again, no parents, just kids being kids.  The change-up is Close Encounters—where the little boy in the film is kidnapped by the aliens.  But even there the little kid parallels the real little kid story in the film–the little boy trying to get out, trapped inside the lead character played by Richard Dreyfuss.  Close Encounters is the ultimate kids film about grown-ups.  Dreyfuss wants to believe in aliens every bit as much as Elliott and Gerty in E.T.   The kids in Super 8 aren’t longing for this kind of connection, they just want to be the kids they are.

As a “horror-light” film, viewers will see similarities to the alien/monster pursuit in Cloverfield, and the alien/monster images from Cowboys & Aliens.  I thought this was a fun genre-bending exercise and it worked better here than Cowboys & Aliens but not as well as in Cloverfield.  I include Cloverfield in the discussion here because of the similar vibe throughout the last half of the movie, undoubtedly based on Abrams participation in both productions.

Super 8 should be looked back on later as a big film for Abrams.  Where Star Trek 2009 was J.J. Abrams’ big-budget sci-fi feature, Cloverfield was his Blair Witch-type horror film, and Mission Impossible III was his post-Alias spy movie, Super 8 is Abrams’ take on Spielberg–it’s his Spielberg homage of sorts.  I expect to see a boxed DVD set coming—Close Encounters (directed by Spielberg), then E.T. (directed by Spielberg), Goonies (written by Spielberg), War of the Worlds (directed by Spielberg) and then Super 8 (produced by Spielberg).  Not so much a set of coming-of-age films as a set of solid kids-being-kids films.  Although written and directed by Abrams, anyone would believe it was a Spielberg creation, were it written and directed by Spielberg.  Looking back on Abrams’ short list of films, it’s as if Abrams is a director mimicking the style of others.  As style goes, he certainly doesn’t have an established niche yet.  The only exception is those lousy lens flares he can’t seem to avoid.  You have to wonder if he sees something in those glares we don’t see, as we are blinded multiple times mid-film.  But it seems to be his signature.  A lens flare is even in his poster for the film shown above.  Bizarre.

If you pulled Goonies out of our fictitious boxed set, you have a nice series of alien films—Close Encounters, about meeting aliens, E.T. about befriending aliens, Super 8, about fearing aliens, although you have to empathize with the alien in Super 8, as with past Spielberg aliens, and then War of the Worlds at the other end of the spectrum opposite E.T., where the aliens are entirely and unquestionably our enemy.

Team Fanning also follows through again with a gaggle of teen actresses who only seem to get better with each new sibling to take the stage.  Here, Elle Fanning plays the tough teen with a chip on her shoulder, a role done before several times in films, but usually by male characters played by the likes of like Heath Ledger or Matt Dillon.  In one scene she switches from playing a kid character to playing an actress practicing for a scene to be filmed on the Super 8 camera, and the switch is as well done as you could hope for with any performer.  Ryan Lee in a small role as Joe’s friend Cary was a notable stand-out, playing the future pyromaniac who looks like a mini-Tom Petty.  The rest of the characters are a motley mix of typical honest, good, nerdy kids.

Reflecting back on the films about kids mentioned above, I have a note for the current onslaught of child actors, especially those playing lanky, skinny, fat, odd, etc. kids:  Just check out what happened to the child actors in the above films.  Drew Barrymore who was Gerty in E.T. is now a Cover Girl model and was a Charlie’s Angel.  The chubby kid, Jerry O’ Connell, in Stand By Me ended up as the leading man-looking guy who starred in Sliders and several later series.  Jeff Cohen who played Chunk in Goonies became an L.A. lawyer.  Sean Astin who played the lead in Goonies ended up as the beloved Samwise Gamgee in Lord of the Rings.  And the oldest teen in Goonies played by Josh Brolin, was nominated for an Academy Award.  My point?  Awkward teens take note:  Life gets better.  The old child actor’s curse doesn’t exist anymore.

As science fiction goes, Super 8 stands up as a good film, as a horror film it’s a little light, as an adventure film it’s better than good, but as a film about kids, Super 8 is a solid, entertaining picture that will keep the attention of viewers of any age.