Category Archives: Genres

Scrooge Revisited Day 5-Dean Jones in Scrooge and Marley (2001)

scrooge-and-marleyNote: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: Fred Holmes

Writer: Fred Holmes, based on the novel by Charles Dickens and the book What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? by D. James Kennedy

Cast: Dean Jones, Reg Grant, D. James Kennedy, Joan Plowright, Greg Wilson, Jason Richards, Jessica Lee, Jon Freda, Al Arasim, Al Quinn

Notes: Former Disney leading man Dean Jones stars in this faith-heavy adaptation of Dickens, produced by Gospel Communications International.  Although this is relatively short film (48 minutes total), it starts earlier than most adaptations of the story, spending a long time on Marley’s death and burial. In this version, Scrooge is not only explicitly atheist, but head and sole member of a group called (I swear I am not making this up) Atheists Are Us, and directs his anger not at Christmas in general, but the nativity specifically. He tries to harangue nephew Fred into taking down the town’s manger scene, threatening him with a lawsuit if he doesn’t. (Oh yes, Scrooge is a lawyer in this version.) In fact, the courtroom scene goes on for some time before Scrooge wins, then fires Cratchit for being late. At this point we’re halfway into the movie, and Scrooge hasn’t even talked to Marley yet.

When Marley (Reg Grant) does show up, it’s not to take him on the traditional journey through Past, Present, and Future. Oh no. Instead, we get Scrooge sent to an ethereal courtroom where he’s tasked with proving his assertion that the world would be better if Jesus Christ had never been born, with the caveat that he plunges to Hell if he fails. One would think that the very confirmation of Hell’s existence would be enough to drive the atheist out of most people, but that would make this movie even shorter than it is, but that would be too simple.

This is where it gets totally bonkers, guys, because Marley calls Dr. D. James Kennedy to the stand. If you missed it, it’s the same D. James Kennedy who wrote the book this movie was based on and minister of the church that produced the movie. Once you get past the sheer absurdity of his presence, you get a kind of boring debate between Kennedy and Scrooge. He then tries to steal Marley’s boutonniere and gets an electric shock out of it. I don’t get it either.

At the end of the trial, after a speech about the nature of Hell from Marley, we see Scrooge tossed in his own grave only to wake up, back in the original court, before judge ruled against the Nativity scene. He stumbles outside, weeping at the manger, and a woman appears and tells him God forgives those who ask for it. Tearfully, he realizes the woman is the ghost of his dead sister, Fan. He returns to the court to withdraw his lawsuit, begs Fred’s forgiveness and proclaims “I’ve discovered I like Christmas.”

Thoughts: These sort of faith-based films have grown in popularity in the last few years, and one wonders if D. James Kennedy could have done his movie with a bigger budget if he had waited a decade for the era of fare such as God’s Not Dead. As it is, the threadbare budget is on constant display in this film. For example, the main characters are all wearing Dickensian costumes, but when Scrooge walks down the street he’s surrounded by people wearing contemporary clothing and 20th century American-style Santa Claus hats. The dichotomy is preposterous enough to actually be amusing. To further confuse what time period we’re supposed to be watching, Fred cites a Supreme Court decision from 1985 in the court scene, and Marley’s appearance is heralded by a ghostly ambulance.

There’s a lot of amusing stuff in this movie, and not all of it intentional. Early on, for example, we see Scrooge plopping the late Marley’s head in his soup, then later Dean Jones hammishly chokes on a wonton, at which point we learn he sued the Chinese restaurant for killing Marley, winning free soup for life. (Atheists love wonton soup, it’s common knowledge.) We see Bob Cratchit (Greg Wilson) chugging along with a wonderfully over-the-top British accent, only to crash into Fred (Jason Richards) who doesn’t even attempt covering up what sounds like a cartoonish Boston accent. He stands in stark contrast with Mayor Boz (John Sheffield) who simply sounds like a cartoon.

Although I don’t talk about it online very much, I am Christian myself, and in general I want to support culture that portrays faith in a positive way. This movie, though, is so goofy and heavy-handed about it that it’s hard to imagine it convincing anybody. It’s funny, it’s fun to watch, but not for any of the reasons the filmmakers may have intended.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Scrooge Revisited Day 4-Susan Lucci in Ebbie (1995)

ebbieNote: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: George Kaczender

Writers: Paul Redford & Ed Redlich, based on the novel by Charles Dickens

Cast: Susan Lucci, Wendy Crewson, Ron Lea, Molly Parker, Lorena Gale, Jennifer Clement, Nicole Parker, Susan Hogan, Kevin McNulty, Taran Noah Smith, Jeffrey DeMunn, Bill Croft, Laura Harris

Notes: Are there any words in the realm of cinema more exciting than “Lifetime Original Movie”? That’s what we have today, my friends – soap opera legend Susan Lucci as Elizabeth Scrooge in this gender-reversed TV production. Lucci’s Scrooge is the manager of a department store rather than a moneylender, but she still has her Roberta Cratchet (Wendy Crewson), niece Francine (Molly Parker) and a gaggle of ghosts. The Tiny Tim role is filled by Taran Noah Smith, at the time part of the cast of the hit comedy Home Improvement, while Jake Marley’s ghost is appropriately played by future Walking Dead star Jeffrey DeMunn. In an odd case, Susan Hogan – who played the equivalent of Mrs. Fezziwig in An American Christmas Carol, essential fills the same role here. The movie can occasionally be found on DVD under the title Miracle at Christmas: Ebbie’s Story, with hot property Smith cuddled up to Lucci on the cover, despite having little more than a cameo appearance.

Thoughts: I’ve seen a lot of different version of A Christmas Carol, but this one stands out as being, perhaps, the least exciting. The film is updated to the 90s and set in America, although despite that the writers tried to tweak lines from the original Dickens in terribly awkward ways, like the old “are there no orphanages? Are there no workhouses?” speech. For a version so far away from the original in its setting, it’s weird that they would ty to cling to the details, and that adherence to Dickens is actually this movie’s death-knell.

Like An American Christmas Carol, Ebbie’s ghosts play double-duty. This time, they’re all employees of the department store that she shafted in one way or another (disrespect, a crappy Christmas bonus, or a yuletide firing, respectively). I’m starting to think it was less an artistic choice and more a way to cut down on the number of actors they had to pay. This film is Dickens on a budget.

The made-for-TV credentials are evident from the first ghost. DeMunn’s Marley makes his appearance first by popping into the TV shows Ebbie is watching, then shows up in a glowing blue form complete with a giant 90s cellphone he stole from Zack Morris. We race through his point and get to the ghosts of Christmas Past – Jennifer Clement and Nicole Parker, who we saw earlier in the movie as perfume girls in the department store, looking like rejects from Hairspray. It doesn’t help that they actually use hairspray to zip back in time and view Ebbie’s past, where we literally hear her father tell her mother “I never wanted you.” If they want us to feel sorry for Ebbie, it comes across as too heavy-handed (especially with the clownish pair of ghosts) for the emotion to truly land. It gets even sillier when we see her very pregnant sister (Parker again) taking to her “little sister,” played by Lucci, looking a good 20 years older. Christmas Past is interminably long, sloughing through Ebbie’s destruction of her relationship with her boyfriend, the takeover of the department store with Marley, and Marley’s Christmas Eve death. Again, it’s hitting all the beats, but not doing so in any clever or creative way. If you’re not going to change up the formula at this point, you damn well need to execute it very well, and this movie just has all the tropes of a Lifetime movie with none of the charm of the better Christmas Carol adaptations.

Lucci is doing her soap opera best here, which is to say that she’s heavy on the melodrama, but light on real emotion. I can’t say it’s entirely her fault, of course – she’s doing exactly what you expect out of Susan Lucci, and doing it as well as can be expected. The rest of the film piles on the melodrama so thickly that it scarcely matters. By the time we reach the forced treacle of Tim singing “Angels We Have Heard on High,” you’re certain the film has been running for all twelve days of Christmas, even though it’s only been a little over an hour. Perhaps the most interesting (or maybe just the least boring) segment is Christmas Yet to Come, where Ebbie is forced to witness herself getting struck by a car, rather than succumbing to old age or whatever it is that usually takes out Scrooges.

This is perhaps one of the dullest Christmas Carol adaptations I’ve seen. Lucci is so flat that you don’t feel any transformation at all, and her climactic announcement that she’ll “honor Christmas” feels entirely by rote, without any passion to it. If you’re a Lucci fanatic, you may want to watch this. For the rest of us, there are much better versions to choose from.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Scrooge Revisited Day 3-Cosmo Spacely in A Jetson Christmas Carol (1985)

jetson-christmas-carolNote: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: Ray Patterson

Writer: Barbara Levy & Marc Paykuss, based on the novel by Charles Dickens

Cast: George O’Hanlon, Penny Singleton, Daws Butler, Don Messick, Janet Waldo, Jean Vander Pyl, Mel Blanc, Frank Welker

Notes: This cartoon was originally made as an episode of the 80s-era revival of The Jetsons. It would later be released on its own on VHS, and has been shown as its own special on occasion since then (although to date the only place to get it on DVD is part of the Jetsons Season 2 set). It logically casts George Jetson’s boss, Cosmo Spacely (Mel Blanc) in the Scrooge role, with George (George O’Hanlon) taking the Bob Cratchit part. Their dog Astro (Don Messick) fills in for Tiny Tim after he swallows a gear from his Christmas present, which somehow results in him turning green and running a temperature. What can I say, medicine works differently in the future. Hanna-Barbera, of course, also tackled Dickens in A Flintstones Christmas Carol, and at least one other time, in the Scooby-Doo cartoon A Nutcracker Scoob, which so far I’ve been unable to locate on DVD, because clearly somebody at Warner Bros hates joy.

Thoughts: This special is a nice balance between traditional Christmas Carol tropes and the puns and goofs that Hanna-Barbera cartoons do so well. After things kick off with Mr. Spacely forcing George Jetson to work overtime, we lapse into all the main beats – Spacely is visited the ghost of his old partner “Jacob Marsley” (Blanc again) followed by a trio of mechanical ghosts who show him the past, present, and future. The Past and Future are old computers, while Present is a talking gift box. It’s actually my favorite joke in the show, and my wife’s least favorite joke of 2016. Christmas Future takes a nice twist as well – Spacely isn’t dead in the future, just out on the streets after the Jetsons sued him over Astro’s death. As far as changes go, this is the most amusing one – it would be too much for the children’s cartoon to show Spacely’s death, so instead they kill off the dog.

The special adds a little interesting backstory to the characters. In the “Christmas Past” segment, we see that George and Spacely are actually contemporaries, rather than Spacely being George’s senior. What’s more, Spacely has been bullying George and jerking him around financially since they were children. I’m pretty sure this is literally the only time in the history of the cartoon that such a thing is mentioned.

Ultimately, nothing else that happens in the cartoon is terribly surprising. It’s a standard version of A Christmas Carol, mixed in with a standard episode of The Jetsons. If you enjoy either of those things, you’ll like this as well. Fortunately, I do.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Scrooge Revisited Day 2-Henry Winkler in An American Christmas Carol (1979)

american-christmas-carolNote: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: Eric Till

Writer: Jerome Coopersmith, based on the novel by Charles Dickens

Cast: Henry Winkler, Dorian Harewood, David Wayne, Chris Wiggins, R.H. Thomson, Ken Pogue, Gerard Parkes, Susan Hogan, Chris Cragg

Notes: This TV movie from 1979 cast the then-34 Henry Winker, riding high on the success of Happy Days, as Scrooge substitute “Benedict Slade.” The film transplants the events of Dickens’s novel from Victorian London to Depression-Era New England, but keeps the most important beats of the timeless tale of a miser faced by ghosts to drive him towards redemption.

As usual, I don’t want to waste time rehashing a well-trod plot, but it’s worth pointing out how the film branches out at the beginning. The first real act of Scroogery comes on Christmas Eve when Slade and his Cratchit stand-in, Thatcher (R.H. Thompson) repossess the property of an African-American farming couple, the Reeves (Dorian Harewood and Arlene Duncan). They then pull the same stunt on the headmaster (Fraggle Rock’s Gerard Parkes) of the very school he once attended, and a university shop that makes the terrible mistake of selling books instead of something profitable. By the time Slade and Thatcher arrive home with a truck full of goods taken back from people who couldn’t pay, you start to feel that Slade may actually have Scrooge beat when it comes to being a jackass. When Thatcher tries to convince him to put money into reopening the town quarry, since Roosevelt has all these plans that will require slate, he thanks him by firing him. Just as Slade destroys a first edition of A Christmas Carol he took from the university shop (this bit, incidentally, made me hate the man as much as any movie villain I’ve ever seen), the visitations from the spirits begin…

Thoughts: From the beginning, Benedict Slade is a different kind of take on Ebenezer Scrooge. For one thing, the makeup job is awful. Winkler, who again was only 34 at the time, is layered under slabs of makeup that don’t serve to make him look old so much as they make him look like he’s late for a Halloween party. (There’s an unintentionally funny bit when he encounters the first ghost and accuses him of being under heavy makeup like “that man who played Frankenstein,” while Ken Pogue is playing a ghost and yet still looks more natural and lifelike than Winkler.) The film spends an inordinate amount of time with Christmas Past, I think, largely so that we can see Winkler’s face without the ridiculous makeup. He does make up for it, I should note, by sporting a bitching mustache.

Bad makeup aside, though, Winkler’s performance is actually pretty good. He’s got a nasty, bitter tone in his voice that fits in with all the Scrooges we’ve loved before, and you definitely get the impression right off that this is a man who keeps rage close to his heart. As we get his backstory, he comes across as a much more rounded Scrooge than many other incarnations – as a young man he seems earnest and sincere. His first steps down a bad path come not out of greed or spite, but because he is trying to look forward for the sake of his business while his mentor (Chris Wiggins) insists on miring himself in the past. Wiggins’s character owns a woodshop, making furniture by hand, and Slade leaves him for the sake of a company that is progressing in the direction of automation and mass production. By the time he does anything that could legitimately been seen as corrupt, he’s already gone quite far down the path of trying to do what he thinks is best for his business – and what’s more, history proved him right.

That goes a long way to selling his redemption – when he approaches Thatcher during the “Christmas Present” segment, asking forgiveness for not knowing that Thatcher’s son was sick when he fired him, you believe his contrite nature. The final scene with the Thatcher family, when Slade hands young Jonathan (Chris Cragg) one ticket after another to get him to the clinic in Australia that can cure whatever it is he’s suffering from, Winkler is nailing it. Even when Mrs. Thatcher hugs him, he pulls off a wonderful little beat where he gets anxious, not used to physical contact after all these years, that fits the character marvelously.

Writer Jerome Coopersmith picked a good time period to set the story – placing in during the Depression makes it easy to show the rich/poor gulf between his version of Scrooge and… well, everybody else. What’s more, it allows him to play a little on racial tensions in a way that Dickens never does. Although the film doesn’t make it explicit, it can’t be a coincidence that the first nasty thing Slade does is to a black family struggling to survive the Great Depression.

The film makes some interesting choices in regards to the ghosts. Rather than trying to make the ghosts creepy or ethereal, Slade is visited by spirits who take the form of the people he screwed earlier in the day. Christmas Past is the bookstore owner (David Wayne) whose copy of A Christmas Carol bit the dust, Christmas Present is Parkes, and Christmas Future is Harewood. I’m honestly not sure what the thought process is here – to give it a bit of Wizard of Oz flair? To make the interaction between Slade and the ghosts more personal, since he personally wounded each of them? Harewood in particular is odd, dressing him up in 70s-era clothes complete with a shirt open to his bellybutton and gold chains. While using “future” radio broadcasts to herald his arrival is an interesting touch, the clothes he wears would be enough to make any reasonable person fight against such a horrific future.

In the end, this is a pretty good iteration of the story. It recontextualizes Dickens in a different time and place in a way that fits the new setting, while still maintaining the spirit of the original. Although it keeps most of the skeleton of the story the same, there’s just enough of a change to the set dressing to make it feel like a different experience. It’s not my favorite version of A Christmas Carol, but it’s not a bad one at all.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Scrooge Revisited Day 1-Walter Matthau in The Stingiest Man in Town (1978)

stingiest-man-in-townNote: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Directors: Jules Bass & Arthur Rankin Jr.

Writers: Romeo Muller & Janice Torre, based on the novel by Charles Dickens

Cast: Walter Matthau, Tom Bosley, Theodore Bikel, Robert Morse, Dennis Day, Paul Frees, Sonny Melendrez, Debra Clinger, Bobby Rolofson, Steffi Calli, Eric Hines, Dee Stratton, Darlene Conley

Notes: Rankin and Bass, of course, were the kings of Christmas animation in the 60s and 70s. They’re the people who gave us the timeless versions of Rudolph and Frosty, several definitive Santa Claus specials, added the Heatmiser and Snowmiser to our holiday menagerie, and so on. It’s no surprise that they would eventually tackle the most famous Christmas story of them all. What is kind of interesting is that this animated special was not quite an adaptation of A Christmas Carol, but rather a remake of a musical TV special of the same name from 1956 starring Basil Rathbone. The live action version apparently made it to DVD in 2011. Great, now I’ve got something else to look for.

Thoughts: From the beginning, this adaptation attempts to put a little coat of fresh paint on an old story, with the story narrated by Tom Bosley as “B.A.H. Humbug,” a character I’m sure children of 1978 took to like kids take to the Pokémons today. He’s largely a superfluous character, though, with some weird family history thing he has with the Scrooges that’s never really developed and you don’t really care. The film is almost operettic, with very little spoken dialogue. Nearly every line is sung, which isn’t a bad thing, except that the cast isn’t necessarily the most musical. Neither Bosley or Walter Matthau, as Scrooge, were Top 40 crooners in their day, and as a result, the songs don’t exactly land. Matthau’s singing in particular is stilted, over-enunciated, the sort of thing that sounds like somebody doing a parody of an over-the-top Broadway performer. That would be fine if this film was intended to be a parody. In a serious adaptation, though, it’s a problem when your Scrooge’s voice is the weakest part of your Christmas Carol. In truth, some of the best singing in the special comes from Robert Morse as young Scrooge in the scene where the miser is rejecting Belle (Shelby Flint).

It doesn’t help that none of them are particularly memorable in their own right. Even when it’s not Matthau singing, the songs just aren’t catchy. The best is probably “There is a Santa Claus,” sung at the Cratchit’s house, which is a nice enough piece if you can forget the fact that this is ostensibly Victorian England, where nobody called him “Santa Claus” and the practice was largely abandoned anyway. This odd version of the story not only throws in a superfluous Santa Claus song, but follows that up with the Humbug singing a song about the Nativity. I’m not about to complain about a Christmas special that actually has the guts to talk about Jesus, but it feels very out of the blue, out of place with the rest of the story. The song tries to make an equivocation between Jesus and Tiny Tim, which is the sort of allegory that probably sounded great on paper, but just doesn’t gel in practice.

When he’s not singing, Matthau is adequate as Scrooge. His voice has emotion laced through it, but it’s a little too obvious, a little too much like he’s “acting” instead of delivering the lines naturally. He’s better at the end of the cartoon, after Scrooge’s redemption, when he’s sounding joyful instead of terrified, although his “happy” singing voice is no less bombastic or forced than his stingy one. Matthau is a bit outshined, as well, by Paul Frees as the Ghosts of Past and Present. Frees was one of the usual players at Rankin and Bass, and responsible for a few of their legendary characters – Jack Frost, the Burgermeister Meisterburger, a few turns as Santa Claus, as well as performing Ludwig Von Drake and other voices for Disney. His Christmas Present in particular is good, a nice, loud, round-sounding voice that’s perfect for the mountainous spirit.

I’ve got to give Rankin and Bass credit, though, for not toning down the story. The story shows Scrooge in his bed being menaced by an apparition before the opening credits even roll, then cuts back to show the traditional visit with Fred (Dennis Day) in the counting house When Scrooge goes home to see Marley’s face in the door knocker, it’s a rather gruesome sight – mouth wide open and dripping, about as grotesque as you can imagine a cartoon from the 70s ever being. I was hoping for something similarly chilling from Christmas Yet to Come, but instead the character essentially made a cameo, appearing in the traditional robe and vanishing in less time than it took to sing the Jesus song.

It’s worth noting that Rankin and Bass’s animation style had evolved considerably from their classic specials. Unlike the earlier traditionally animated films, like Frosty the Snowman or ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, which were more or less on-model with the stop motion characters, the character designs in this film are much closer to their 1977 production of The Hobbit – less perfectly round and more bulbous, globular, and wrinkled. Scrooge himself looks like he would be perfectly as home in their version of Bilbo’s shire.

This, frankly, is not one of their best specials. It’s not terrible, but when you inevitably compare it to Rudolph and Frosty, it’s going to fall in the pack of lesser works. The same goes for when you compare it to other renditions of A Christmas Carol. It may not be as painful as An All Dogs Christmas Carol, but it’s nothing to write home about either.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Learning the Wrong Lesson From Deadpool

(Reblogged from All New Showcase…)

Deadpool Movie PosterIn case you somehow missed it, the Deadpool movie was released last weekend and immediately began shattering box office records: best February opening of all time, best opening ever for an R-rated movie, best opening ever for a first-time director (that’d be Tim Miller), and it came in third in the swimsuit competition. And of course, as always, the movie industry began to thoughtfully and meticulously scrutinize the film’s success to determine what qualities helped it reap the bounty, then implement carefully-considered strategies to create new content that may also be prosperous for the studios.

Ha! I’m kidding, of course. No, the movie studios immediately concluded that the American public wants superhero movies to be full of F-words and Ryan Reynolds’s ass. So today, in what could easily be the first in an infinite series of columns, I would like to discuss how 20th Century Fox – and probably every other major studio – has completely missed the point of what made Deadpool kick butt.

Let’s start with what is probably the least significant part of its success: the timing. Like I said, Deadpool’s $135 million broke the record for the highest February opening of all time. But look at the competition: Zoolander 2, the sequel nobody asked for, and How to Be Single, a movie built around Rebel Wilson playing the only character she ever plays, and who wasn’t even entertaining the first time she did it. That’s not to say Deadpool wasn’t a good movie – in fact, that’s my whole point. January and February, traditionally, have been cinematic graveyards where studios try to bury movies they don’t think anybody will want to see in a season where they don’t think people want to go to the movies. I’ve long believed this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s not that people don’t want to go to the movies in February, it’s that the studios don’t give them movies worth watching. Deadpool demonstrates that if you make a movie people want to see, they’ll come out to see it no matter when it is released.

WolverineAnd that brings us to the second question: why was Deadpool a movie people wanted to see? The blood? We have the news for that. The nudity? We have the Internet. The profanity? We have public high schools. All of these are easy answers, and all of these are wrong. And yet, when Fox immediately followed the box office number announcement by saying the third Wolverine movie will be rated R, they’re essentially saying that’s the reason that Deadpool worked. This is incredibly small-minded.

(To be fair, making an R-rated Wolverine was at least under discussion as far back as the first solo movie starring the character. It’s not a new idea. But man, they made sure to let everybody know that after the weekend box office closed, didn’t they?)

The reason those elements worked in Deadpool is because all of the hyper-violence and irreverent dialogue helped to create a tone that is faithful to the character. We didn’t want to see violence, necessarily, we just wanted to see the Deadpool we love. In fact, I’m going to be a little controversial here: I don’t even think Deadpool needed to be an R-rated movie. I don’t mind that it was, I very much enjoyed it, but despite what a lot of people seem to think the majority of his comic book appearances have not been full of F-bombs and boobs. (Sure, the violence is there, but the MPAA is way less concerned with violence than sex or language. Chop off all the limbs you want, but God forbid you show a nipple.)

What are they going to do in an R-rated Wolverine movie that will make it better than the first two? Curse more? The word he’s most associated with in the comics is “bub.” Bury him in naked women? Wolverine’s romantic relationships are classically tortured. Sure the fighting may be more explicit, but does anybody really think X-Men Origins: Wolverine would have been a good movie if only they showed more blood when Hugh Jackman cut off Ryan Reynolds’s head?

Superman the MovieThe best superhero movies (and in fact, most of the best adaptations of any kind) are those that maintain the spirit and feel of the source material: Richard Donner’s Superman, the first two Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies, and most of the Marvel Cinematic Universe work for precisely this reason. People who have read about a character for years – decades even – don’t want to see a version of a character whipped up by committee, they want to see the version they love. (This, of course, will cause debate when a character has been around long enough that there are multiple valid interpretations, but that’s a discussion for another time.)

Compare that to the most epic failure of recent years, the 2015 Fantastic Four. The movie takes a comic whose best stories are about a family of explorers and turns them into a militarized unit who barely share any screen time. Director Josh Trank maintains that studio meddling sank his movie. I tend to think that when the director reportedly tells his actors not to read the comics the movie is based on, there isn’t much more a studio can do to screw it up.

Batman-The Killing 1Let’s not forget that tone is dependent on the individual story as well. There was a lot of buzz last year when the producers of the upcoming Batman: The Killing Joke animated movie announced they were given permission by the studio to go for an R-rated film. It doesn’t have to be, but this is the story that forever entrenched the Joker as a true icon of evil. Gone was the bank robbing clown of the Silver Age – now he was a horrific, unhinged psychopath acting out on a twisted fixation with Batman by torturing his friends. It would be hard to tell that story faithfully and still maintain a PG-13. But that doesn’t mean a Ben Affleck Batman movie or an animated version of the first appearance of Bat-Mite should suddenly be rated R.

All of this is to say that, yes, you probably could make a good R-rated Wolverine movie, but it won’t be good because it’s rated R. The other elements need to be there too.

But what about all of the people who enjoyed Deadpool but don’t read comics? They don’t know if the depiction on screen is faithful to the comic book, and most of them wouldn’t care if they did. So why did they come out in force to see this movie? For one thing, of course, the marketing campaign was as brilliant as the marketing for John Carter was abysmal, but good marketing will only get you so far. People also liked the movie. Why? Obviously, the answer for each individual person will differ, but if I were to venture a guess for the majority, I would say it’s because it’s something different. Look, I would be perfectly happy all day long if they just took the scripts of my favorite comics and put them on screen in front of me, but I also know I’m a 10th-level nerd and what I want probably doesn’t apply to the public at large.

Spider-Man BittenWhat does apply, however, is that people get tired of seeing the same thing. Origin stories, for example. Not just comic fans, but viewers in general are done with origin stories. Nobody needs to see Krypton blow up, Thomas and Martha Wayne gunned down, or Peter Parker bitten by a spider ever again. We get it.

Even with less iconic characters, origin stories are largely unnecessary at this point. If a character in a movie is a cop, a firefighter, or a baseball player, people don’t demand we spend half the movie explaining how we get to that point before the real plot begins. Granted, superheroes follow a less conventional path than those other occupations, but at this point the public is familiar enough with the tropes that all but the most convoluted of origins can usually be dealt with in a quick flashback or a few lines of expository dialogue.

“But Blake,” you say, “Deadpool was an origin movie. Doesn’t that contradict your point?” Man, you can be kind of a jerk sometimes. But no, it doesn’t contradict my point. I said that origins are unnecessary, not that they can’t be done well. Audiences – myself included – will accept even the most tired premise if the execution is entertaining and original enough.

M Payoff 1shtAnd that brings me to the most important part of Deadpool’s success. It didn’t matter that it was an origin, because it still felt different from any other superhero movie of the last 17 years. (I consider the modern era of superhero movie to have begun with 1999’s Blade. You know, that other R-rated Marvel movie everybody seems to have forgotten about.) Look at the major successes since then. After the first few years, when superheroes were still a novelty, the biggest movies all brought something new to the table. Iron Man was cocky, witty, and did away with that secret identity jazz right away. It was unique at the time. What’s more, the after-credits stinger (another novelty in 2008) opened the doors for the then-revolutionary Marvel Cinematic Universe. That eventually led to Avengers, another mega-hit, because we had never before seen six superheroes from four different movies come together as a team. The best movies of the eight years since Iron Man all bring something different to the superhero. Guardians of the Galaxy was a space opera. Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a political thriller. The Dark Knight was an epic crime drama. And none of them – even the ones that were sequels to other movies – felt like anything else we had ever seen.

SuicideSquadPoster-181c2In an odd way, this actually makes Suicide Squad the most interesting superhero movie for the rest of 2016. I’m the most die-hard Superman fan you’ll find, and I’ve been waiting to see him on screen with Batman and Wonder Woman since I learned how to read. I couldn’t be more excited for that movie. But Suicide Squad is the first time, as far as I can remember, that a superhero movie has actually starred the villains. (You could make an argument for Magneto and Mystique in the most recent X-Men movies, but the moral ambiguity in those films is so thick that nobody could hear you anyway.) We’ve seen villain-starring comics plenty of times, but it’s never really happened on screen. That means the success or failure of this movie will be one for the books. The trailer was very well-received and people seem to be excited about it.

Which means the weekend after it comes out, expect Fox to announce a new X-Factor movie, starring the classic line-up of Sabertooth, Omega Red, Lady Deathstrike, Toad, and Galactus. Because they just don’t seem to get it.

Wes Craven: Thanks For the Nightmares

cravenAs I mentioned here a long time ago, I was not a fan of horror movies growing up. My parents didn’t watch them and didn’t let me watch them either, which was probably for the best, as I was a child with a terribly overactive imagination and a recurring nightmare involving Sweetums from the Muppets. When a friend of mine finally got me to start watching horror movies with him in college, he didn’t start me off with a classic Universal monster, or the demons of The Exorcist, or even the slashers of our 80s childhood. He started me with what was, at the time, the hottest horror movie going. The first horror movie I ever watched all the way through was Wes Craven’s Scream

screamOne of the reasons I’d resisted horror, even after I was old enough to make my own movie choices, was because of the well-known, well-trod tropes of the genre. The idea of the girl running up the stairs when she should have been running for the back door, of the jump scares, the fact that committing certain sins was pretty much a death sentence, the fact that there was always a damned root for them to trip over when they finally did start to run… it was just so… stupid. And Scream, from what I could tell in the trailers, was just more of the same.

Then I saw it.

Yes, it was full of the same tropes as the movies I’d berated, but unlike those other movies, Scream actually recognized it. It used those tropes to its advantage, it reveled in them. Now this was 1996, people didn’t throw around the word “meta” like they do nowadays, but the Scream movies are, in large part, responsible for the popularity of self-aware fiction today. Much of the credit, of course, must go to screenwriter Kevin Williamson. But a lot of it must also be given over to the late Wes Craven, who died this weekend.

nightmare1Even in my embryonic movie awareness, I knew who Wes Craven was – the Nightmare on Elm Street guy, right? But that meant that, in Scream, he was making fun of many of the same movie tropes he helped to create.

Could he do that?

So I went back and started watching the classic slashers – Jason, Michael, and of course, Freddy, and I saw how much fun they could actually be. A Nightmare on Elm Street in particular was a great experience, because Freddy Krueger was not simply another horror slasher. You could, in theory, escape the likes of Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers – just don’t go to Crystal Lake, or turn around and run the hell out of Haddonfield. Those guys were slooooooow. But despite the title of his movie, Freddy’s realm wasn’t as locked in as those of his contemporaries. Freddy’s stomping ground was your dreams. The one place where you should be the most safe, the most secure… and where you are the most vulnerable… your own bed was where Freddy Krueger attacked you. How do you run from sleep?

I also started to notice how the tropes in the early slashers started to evolve and change – how those things I considered silly had once been terrifying, and only were less so due to years of use, overuse, deconstruction, and inversion. I started to understand how different stories could react and respond to one another, not just in horror, but in all genres. I saw Shakespeare in science fiction, Sherlock Holmes in superheroes, Oz and Wonderland in Ender’s Battle School, and I realized everything was connected to everything else, and I loved that. In a very real way, Wes Craven is responsible for everything I’ve written since that realization, whether it’s my own fiction or my analysis of somebody else’s.

Whether he should be thanked or condemned for that, I leave up to history to decide, but it meant a hell of a lot to me.

This is not to say he was a perfect filmmaker. The Last House on the Left, his debut, is a film whose intensity is hard to take, and made even harder when he tries to break it up with a goofy scene straight out of the Keystone Cops. And I know this is sacrilege in some circles, but I’ve always found The Serpent and the Rainbow to be kind of…well… dull. Still, it’s no coincidence that when I did my very first movie study, I counted not one, but three of his films among the most significant horror movies ever made, more than any other director.

He’s also responsible for what I consider one of the most underrated horror movies of all time, one that breathed new life into a franchise thought dead. So to cap off my little tribute, let me tell you what was so damn good about Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.

A Nightmare on Elm Street was effectively dead. The first movie – written and directed by Craven – was great. The second one – which he had no involvement with – was terrible. They brought him back to write the third film and it was really good again. From there, the law of diminishing returns set in, and each installment was a little weaker than the last, until 1991’s mediocre Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare seemed to put a pin in the iconic boogeyman once and for all.

Nightmare7Then, in 1994, Craven hit us with New Nightmare, and he turned the entire legend of Freddy Kruger on its ear. Set in the “real world,” the world in which A Nightmare on Elm Street is a film franchise and Freddy Kruger its blade-wielding star – the movie reveals an ancient evil given its power and form through human dreams and imagination. The Nightmare movies trapped it in the form of Freddy Kruger and kept it from preying on the real world. But with the movies over, the demon was getting free, and a far nastier version of Freddy was being unleashed onto reality.

Like Scream two years later, New Nightmare was meta before meta was cool. But it tackled the idea of metafiction in a much more direct way than Scream, giving us a darker tale that not only reflected the line between fiction and reality, but blurred it entirely. Robert Englund plays Movie Freddy, “Real” Freddy, and himself in this film. Heather Langencamp, star of the original, came back one more time to show us why she was the greatest Final Girl this side of Jamie Lee Curtis. And Craven himself wrote, directed, and acted in the movie, all to create this odd sense that the division between truth and fantasy was not so clear.

It’s easy to scare someone for a moment. A loud noise, a flash of a blade when you aren’t expecting it, a well-placed musical sting… they all provide a visceral jolt of terror that can be fun. But that sort of terror fades, and quickly. To create something that clings to a person and haunts their very dreams is far more difficult. That’s what New Nightmare was about. It wasn’t just another slasher film, it was a meditation on fear and how we give our fears life. It is, in my opinion, Craven’s greatest movie… and when you consider how many great movies he made, that’s saying a lot.

The amazing thing about Wes Craven, appropriately, is how good he was at keeping you awake at night. I don’t think anyone who loves horror would want it any other way.

Goodnight, Mr. Craven. Sweet dreams.

Your Turn to Pick Episode 3: Dragonslayer

It’s time for a Your Turn to Pick movie episode! This week it’s Erin’s turn, and she’d pulling out a film from her childhood, the 1981 fantasy film Dragonslayer. How does it hold up to an adult pair of eyes? And will Blake (who’s never seen it before) enjoy it without the filter of nostalgia?

Your Turn to Pick Episode 3: Dragonslayer.

At the Movies Episode 48: Ant-Man

Summer Series 2: The Karate Kid

Unlike the first franchise in this summer’s experiment, the Karate Kid is a franchise I was intimately familiar with as a child. I don’t know if anyone my age couldn’t recite the first movie by rote, and I know I watched the second one dozens of times over the years as well. I don’t quite remember the third one, although I’m sure I saw it at least once, and I’ve never seen The Next Karate Kid at all, so that will be an adventure. I know there was a remake a few years ago starring Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith. I’m not counting it, as it’s obviously a total reboot and therefore not part of the original series, and also Jaden Smith is the most pretentious thing outside of a cologne commercial I’ve ever seen.

Karate KidThe Karate Kid (1984)
Director:
John G. Avildsen
Writer: Robert Mark Kamen
Cast: Ralph Macchio, Pat Morita, Elisabeth Shue, Martin Kove, Randee Heller, William Zabka

Thoughts: As I said, I watched this movie a lot when I was a kid, but I haven’t seen it in years. When the opening credit sequence began, with Daniel Larusso (Ralph Macchio) and his mother Lucille (Randee Heller) loading up a station wagon in New Jersey to move across the country to California, I didn’t remember it at all. I was a bit taken aback, but once the dialogue started it all started clicking back, I found myself anticipating the lines before they started. There’s something great about watching an old movie for the first time in a long time. It’s kind of like coming home.

Anyway, the story is pretty universally known at this point – Daniel moves to a new town and falls for a girl named Ali (Elisabeth Shue). Ali’s creepy ex-boyfriend Johnny Lawrence (perennial 80’s movie douchebag William Zabka) beats him up using the skills he learned from his Karate sensei, John Kreese (Martin Kove). Just when things seem darkest, Daniel meets his apartment complex’s handyman, Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita, in a genuinely iconic performance), who reluctantly takes Daniel under his wing and begins teaching him to defend himself.

I forgot just how long the build-up was in this movie. Daniel’s troubles take up an enormous chunk of the beginning, and in fact, he encounters Mr. Miyagi several times before he finds out the old man is a Karate master. Until that point, it’s about building the relationships between Daniel and his mother and Daniel and Ali, both of which work well. Maccho and Heller have great mother-son chemistry, with her gentle nagging and his quiet frustration rubbing each other just the wrong way. It’s also a more honest relationship than you see in a lot of movies – it seems like most of the time parents and children in cinema either have a flawless connection or are at each other’s throats with nothing in-between. Here it’s clear that Daniel and Lucille love each other deeply, but at the same time, the move west has caused undeniable and unavoidable friction between them. Ali is kind of a typical 80s teenager, at least for a PG movie and not a slasher flick, but part of that is due to Elisabeth Shue. Between this movie and Adventures in Babysitting, she was every 80s boy’s childhood crush at some point.

As this is going on, we see Daniel and Miyagi starting to bond. Miyagi helps him several times, teaches him how to trim a bonsai tree, makes him a disguise so he can go to the Halloween dance without being pulverized… and then the ass-kicking begins. Morita’s performance here, even 30 years later, is absolutely flawless. He’s a good man, a kind man, but a man who has seen enough violence and doesn’t want to see any more. Even when he sees Daniel practicing karate from a book, even when he sees the results of one of his beatings, it’s not until he has to step up and defend Daniel from nearly getting killed by a whole mob of Cobra Kai that we get any hint of the fierceness he’s capable of. And it’s only when Daniel practically begs him that he agrees to teach his young friend to fight for himself.

Plus he was more than capable of holding his own against the youngsters. Morita was 52 when this movie came out, but he played the character as that sort of wizened, ageless Asian character that seems to carry around an age that transcends his body. That’s why it’s so awesome to see him beat the crap out of William Zabka in such a convincingly choreographed fight scene.

Speaking of Zabka, it’s funny how time can change your perspective on a movie. When I was a kid, I always thought of Johnny Lawrence as the bad guy in this film. And while he’s certainly not a good guy, watching it again for the first time in years, I’m starting to see that Martin Kove’s John Reese is the real villain here. Johnny and his buddies are thugs, to be certain, but they learned to be thugs from Reese. This man is supposed to be a teacher. A mentor. Instead, he’s taken something that’s supposed to be about discipline and control and turned it into a weapon. He refuses to tell his attack dogs to leave the new kid alone, he tries to pick a fight with an old man, and he orders a teenage boy to lay a brutal and illegal hit on another one. That’s way more insidious to me now than some high school punk who beats up the new kid.

Again, because it’s been so long since I saw the movie, I’d forgotten just how 80s this soundtrack is. Virtually every song pumped in the background evokes feelings of elementary school for me, some of them going so far as to cause me to wistfully remember Kids, Incorporated. If you know what I’m talking about, I assume that you, like me, are currently being bombarded by Facebook posts by former classmates talking about an unpcoming reunion and making you feel about a million years old.

We all know how Daniel wins, taking out Johnny Lawrence in the final battle (which is technically illegal, as he hits him in the face, but the judges seem to ignore that – I’m going to assume because they all know John Reese is a jerk). When you’re a kid, this is wish fulfillment at its finest – the boy takes down his oppressor. He proves himself the better man. Every boy my age wanted to be Daniel, every one of us wanted to be trained by Mr. Miyagi. And yeah as an adult it’s easier to look back and see that in the real world a confrontation of this sort probably wouldn’t solve the problem. Johnny wasn’t going to be nice after being taken down in the ring. The Cobra Kai kids weren’t going to leave you alone after you beat them. If anything, it would probably simply escalate the problem. But in Movieland it doesn’t matter, in Movieland Daniel wins and the rivalry is settled for all time. Hell, in Movieland the defeated Johnny actually hands Daniel the trophy.

The real world doesn’t work that way. But man, it’s nice to look back a movie like this one, where it does.

Karate Kid Part IIThe Karate Kid Part II (1986)
Director:
John G. Avildsen
Writer: Robert Mark Kamen
Cast: Ralph Macchio, Pat Morita, Martin Kove, William Zabka, Yuji Okumoto, Joey Miyashima, Danny Kamekona, Tamlyn Tomita, Nobu McCarthy

Thoughts: The Karate Kid Part II begins with a brief prologue that takes place right after the first movie ends. Right after the tournament, Miyagi encounters Kreese berating Johnny for losing, and winds up humiliating him in a fight by only acting defensively, then refusing to strike a killing blow. This was actually an unused ending written for the first movie but not filmed until production began on part two. I don’t know if it was changed at all, but it works very well to bookend the film, providing Daniel’s first lesson in his second adventure.

After the prologue we fast-forward six months to the end of the school year, where Daniel’s life is crapping out on him again. Ali has dumped him and his mother is being sent to Fresno for two months, so Miyagi decides to help him focus by having him build what turns out to be a guest room so he can stay in town. His relief is almost immediately derailed though, when Miyagi gets a letter from Okinawa telling him that his father is dying.

There’s a great moment early in the film when Miyagi is about to board the plane to go back to Okinawa only for Daniel to come running up behind him, having emptied his savings account to buy a plane ticket. This scene demonstrates two things. First, it shows just how deeply the affection these two characters have for one another runs. Second, it flips things from the first movie. In Part I, Daniel was the one who needed help from Miyagi. Here, Daniel is asking Miyagi to let him become the helper. The role reversal becomes plainer later on, but this helps show how Mr. Miyagi mostly takes the protagonist role from Daniel this time around. Later, when Miyagi’s father dies, Daniel tells him a story about the death of his own father, and Morita squeezes out very convincing tears. The student has become the teacher, and it’s done very smoothly.

Miyagi’s arc continues nicely from the first movie. When Daniel was first in trouble, it took an extreme situation to draw him out and you could tell there was a reason he didn’t want to fight. Here we find that reason. Again no matter how much Sato and Chozen provoke him, he doesn’t decide to fight back until it’s necessary to defend somebody else. The first time it was Daniel, this time it’s his entire village in Okinawa that’s in jeopardy. I doubt Kamen and Avildsen (who wrote and directed both movies, respectively) planned things quite this far when they were working on the first script, but the pieces come together very well.

That said, this movie does share a bit too much of the DNA of its parent, almost making it a clone. Miyagi’s former friend Sato (Danny Kamekona) takes over the Kreese role, Sato’s nephew Chozen (Yuki Okumoto) is the new Johnny Lawrence. Miyagi’s lost love Yukie (Nobu McCarthy), the woman who came between him and Sato, has no analogue… but there’s her niece Kumiko (Tamlyn Tomita) to take over as Daniel’s love interest. And just like the original the climax of the film boils down to a fight scene in which Daniel uses a “special move” he picked up from Miyagi almost as an afterthought in order to win.

Chozen, however, is more than just Johnny Lawrence redux. While Johnny was a bully, everything he did in the first movie was easy to chalk up to teenage bravado. Chozen is brutal and far crueler than Johnny ever was. He beats Daniel severely more than once, trashes Miyagi’s father’s house and garden, scams farmers in the town who rely on his family business for their livelihood… he’s an outright criminal. And while it may have been a bit of a stretch for Johnny to hoist Daniel’s trophy and proclaim, “You’re all right, Larusso!” it would be simply inconceivable for Chozen to do such a thing. Even after Miyagi saves Sato’s life and he relinquishes his vendetta, Chozen still carries around that chip, that blow against his “honor.”

But there’s enough that’s unique to this movie to make it compelling. It builds on the characters, particularly fleshing out Miyagi’s backstory, in a very pleasing way. For example, Miyagi tells Daniel that his father took him fishing as a child in 1927. Morita wasn’t even born until 1932, validating my feelings during the first movie about the ageless quality they tried to give the character. The final fight, this time between Daniel and Chozen, is also markedly better than the Daniel/Johnny fight. In fairness, though, in the first movie the fight was a strictly regulated battle for points, except for the judges letting Daniel get away with that kick to the face. This time, Chozen fights to kill and Daniel fights for his life. It’s a more brutal fight, with some pretty good choreography and a finale that bounces back to Miyagi’s defeat of Kreese at the beginning of the movie.

The first Karate Kid would have stood perfectly well without ever having a sequel but The Karate Kid Part II was a pretty good sequel to have.

Karate Kid Part IIIThe Karate Kid Part III (1989)
Director:
John G. Avildsen
Writer: Robert Mark Kamen
Cast: Ralph Macchio, Pat Morita, Martin Kove, Randee Heller, Robyn Lively, Thomas Ian Griffith, Sean Kanan

Thoughts: I only vaguely remember The Karate Kid Part III, but I find it amusing that – like Part II – it kicks off with a montage of moments from the first film. This montage also picks up the Part II prologue, where Kreese wound up with a pair of bloody fists after Miyagi refused to fight him. Did the 80s really have that big a problem with people forgetting what happened between installments of a film series? Is that simply something I don’t remember?

Anyway, after ignoring the rest of Part II, Part III jumps ahead in time to show us Kreese, now a broken man with an empty dojo and no students left. He goes to his old army buddy Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith), a millionaire businessman who he owes back rent on the dojo. Terry isn’t mad, though, far from it. No, he wants to plot with Kreese to get revenge on Daniel and Miyagi for humiliating him. Our dynamic duo, meanwhile, are returning from Okinawa only to find that their apartment complex has been sold and Miyagi is out of a job. Oh, and Daniel’s mother has gone back to New Jersey to tend to a sick uncle and he’s been dumped again. I don’t know what this kid was doing between movies to drive these girls away, but he had to knock it off. In fact, when he meets this film’s love interest, Jessica (Robyn Lively), she preemptively breaks up with him by saying she’s got a boyfriend “back home” that she’s going back to after Thanksgiving. Before I met my wife, I always thought I had the worst luck with women in the history of the planet, but watching these movies back-to-back has made me realize I can only play for the Silver in this competition.

Anyway, Daniel again blows his college money for Mr. Miyagi’s benefit, this time helping to open a store selling bonsai trees. This is the same money he just brought back from Okinawa, mind you which means that all three of these movies take place in less than the space of a year. Ralph Macchio was 23 when the first one came out, and still capable of passing as a teenager. By 1989 he was pushing 30, and while he still had a babyface (and does to this day, honestly), it was getting harder for him to pull off playing the “Karate Kid.”

The Daniel/Miyagi stuff is strong, but Silver as a villain is comical. With his greasy, slicked back hair and his casual racism (I never noticed the ethnic slur Kreese used in the prologue of Part II when I was a kid, but I caught it this time, and when it showed up again in the recap in Part III, and again when Silver says it a few minutes later), it’s as if he plucked all the bits and pieces of his existence out of a Bad Guy Catalogue and turned into a generic jerk. He’s constantly turning up in bubble baths or saunas while he wheels and deals, recruiting a ringer named Mike Barnes (Sean Kanan) to fight Daniel as he defends his tournament title. Of course, he doesn’t know that Miyagi has no intention of sending Daniel out to fight again. After all, a big part of Part II was Daniel learning the lesson of what real Karate is, and how it should be used for defense, and that fighting for the sake of a trophy would be stupid, which is why Silver exists in the first place. There needs to be some reason for Daniel to do Karate, or neither of the words in the title would make sense.

Aside from the plot, the dialogue in this film is painful. When Barnes and his flunky harass Daniel and Jessica, the best insult she can muster up is “slimeball,” and the best retort he can summon is “Did your mother teach you that?” I was in middle school when this movie came out, and evidently, so was whoever wrote these lines. (To be fair, Robert Mark Kamen wrote all three movies, but claimed this time his script was warped so much that he walked away from the franchise.) Silver’s plot – which involves him pretending to train Daniel while his hired goon threatens him – is bizarre and pointless in regards to his actual goal. He makes a speech at the tournament about training people with “values,” then sends out his student to beat Daniel around and take cheap shots in full view of everybody, which seems somewhat counterproductive. The metaphor of a bonsai tree standing for Daniel keep turning up over and over again, growing beyond merely strained to obnoxious. And Jessica, frankly, is pretty worthless as a character. This isn’t a knock against the actress – Robyn Lively is actually quite charming – but she doesn’t do anything. She’s not even a damsel in distress, which may be a trite and outdated cliché, but at least it’s a role.

Oh, and Daniel wins thanks to a casually-learned “secret move” yet again.

A great original film, a decent sequel, a weak part three. Now for the capper, the Karate Kid movie I’ve never seen. Is it possible that it could dip from here?

Next Karate KidThe Next Karate Kid (1994)
Director:
Christopher Cain
Writer: Mark Lee
Cast: Pat Morita, Hilary Swank, Michael Ironside, Constance Towers, Chris Conrad, Arsenio Trinidad, Michael Cavalieri, Walter Goggins

Thoughts: Mr. Miyagi is in Boston to get one of those military decorations that the previous movies clearly established were meaningless to him. While there, he drops in to visit Louisa Pierce (Constance Towers), widow of one of his old army buddies. Louisa is having a tough time – not only is she a widow, but she’s raising her teenager granddaughter Julie (future Oscar winner Hilary Swank, but man, you never would have guessed it from this film), who has carried around an anger with the world since her parents died in a car accident. We know this because Julie announces it in some of the most forced dialogue ever written. She could have easily ended the speech by screaming, “THERE! Is THAT enough exposition for you, GRANDMA?” and I wouldn’t have been surprised in the slightest. At any rate, after approximately twelve seconds of movie time Miyagi tells Louisa to go chill at his house in California for a while so he can straighten Julie up.

Julie resists, of course, because there wouldn’t be much of a movie if she didn’t, and she gets mad enough to bolt into the street and almost get plowed over by a pizza delivery guy, which she avoids by jumping on the hood of the car. Miyagi recognizes the “tiger jump” she did, and gets her to admit she learned it from her father. They strike a bargain for him to teach her karate, which comes in handy after she gets suspended for fighting in school – although she was actually just trying to protect a hawk that’s kept in a cage on the roof… look, I know it doesn’t make any sense when I explain it but it doesn’t make any sense when I’m writing it either, so we’re on the same page. With her time off from school, Miyagi takes her to a Buddhist monastery where she learns to respect all life, which frankly doesn’t really seem like it was her problem in the first place.

And that’s the major problem with this film, friends. The writing in this movie is just plain sloppy. Aside from the awful dialogue, there’s the fact that Julie’s early exposition enunciation comes after her grandmother accidentally calls her “Susan,” her mother’s name. That would be a stretch in and of itself, but Louisa and Julie have the same last name, implying that it is Julie’s father who was Louisa’s offspring, not her mother. What’s more Julie’s dad learned karate from Louisa’s husband, who learned it from Miyagi… that feels like a father/son thing to me. More and more, Louisa shouting “Susan!” feels like lazy writing. This is the point where people in the comments will start saying things like, “well, maybe her parents weren’t actually married” or “what if Louisa had known Susan since she was a small child and thought of her as her own” or somesuch. My response to that is: if the movie intended for that to be the interpretation, then damn it, they should have said it somewhere. Otherwise it is sloppy damn writing.

Then there’s Michael Ironside, the bad guy in this movie, as Col. Dugan. Dugan is… it’s actually not clear what the hell he is. Is he an ROTC instructor? A really intense coach? Whatever. The point is, he teaches physical education by verbally brutalizing students, then punching one. Granted, I’ve never been in the military and I know they go to extremes to break their cadets down and bring them back up, but I can’t imagine a school in this country where a teacher who clocks a student in the jaw is going to have their job come seventh period. Not only does he stick around, but he’s training his students to be criminals with absolutely no coherent reason or motivation behind it.

I try to give screenwriter Mark Lee at least a little credit for winking at the fans’ expectations. When Miyagi agrees to teach Julie karate in exchange for doing all the homework she’s missed, he immediately tries to pull the ol’ “wax on, wax off” routine again, but she’s having none of it. Okay, clever. But then his alternative solution for teaching her discipline is having her babysit the hellions next door. Nineties-era feminism, ladies and gentlemen!

I’ll give him this too – although Dugan’s thugs are the antagonists here, the fights don’t really get physical until the end. Julie isn’t learning karate because she’s getting the crap beat out of her like Daniel did, she’s learning it as an anger management technique. (The real violence doesn’t happen until they attack her date after he has the audacity to point out that they nearly killed themselves when they bungee-jumped into the prom.) That, at least, is something different. And there are a few nice moments with Miyagi learning how to deal with a girl, including one rather charming moment where she thinks he’s giving her a karate lesson, but he shifts it into a dancing lesson to get her ready for the prom. Again this is not a great moment for women in cinema, but it feels nicely in-character for Mr. Miyagi, which is sorely needed, as nothing else in the entire movie feels even remotely like the original.

The weird thing is, despite the many, many flaws with this movie, I still think it’s better than Part III. This is different and is trying to do something new, which isn’t a bad thing, whereas Part III was pure rehash and really added nothing of substance to the mythology of the franchise. It’s not as good as the first two, but after Part III, The Next Karate Kid was at least a step up before the series died.