Category Archives: Genres

Spider-Man: No Way Home – A review

At this point, movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have sort of a unique task. They not only have to work as standalone movies, or installments in their individual franchise, but they also need to feel as though they contribute to the greater narrative of the MCU. They’ve struggled with that a bit this year. Black Widow wasn’t a bad movie, but it felt like an extended deleted scene with backstory they forgot to include to set up what’s coming next. Shang-Chi was a great standalone adventure film, but the elements that connected it to the larger MCU felt somewhat forced. Eternals… well, I haven’t actually seen Eternals yet. 

But then there was Spider-Man: No Way Home, a film that had the unenviable task of advancing the MCU, closing off the first Tom Holland Spider-Man trilogy, and providing a sense of closure for the entire Spider-Man movie franchise to date. It sounds almost impossible. But it succeeded almost flawlessly. 

First, the MCU stuff, since that’s quickest. Since WandaVision, Loki and What If? worked to solidify the concept of the Multiverse, and since we know that’s where the next MCU movie (Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness) is going, this film feels like a crucial element. It shows us the consequences of messing around with this stuff, shows us how dangerous it can be, and that’s necessary for what we know is coming, especially since the show that previously drove this point home the most (What If?) is probably the one that was viewed by the fewest people, as some snobs would dismiss it as “just a cartoon.” 

I’ve been a fan of Tom Holland’s Spider-Man from his first appearance in Captain America: Civil War. He’s got a youthful energy that perfectly fits the character in his early days, and after the way the previous two iterations of the character both fizzled out, I was ready for a new take. And we got it – this was a novice Spider-Man in a world of seasoned superheroes, something we hadn’t seen before. We got Tony Stark to serve as a mentor, which made a logical sense, but also positioned Spider-man in a place unlike any other version of the character. And we got new versions of characters we’ve known for years that fit this new version. I was really glad, back then, that they did not see the need to start with yet another origin story. (We all know how it happens, people. There are three things I never need to see again: Krypton exploding, Thomas and Martha Wayne getting gunned down, and Peter Parker getting bitten by a spider.) With this installment though, I realize that we have gotten an origin story. Everything we’ve seen from this character so far has been about shaping and assembling the Spider-Man of the MCU into the person he truly must be. 

Homecoming was about learning to be a hero. Peter had to accept who he was and learn that tools and powers are secondary to the person inside, that it’s the person who must be the hero and not the suit. Far From Home was about learning to be your own kind of hero. With Tony Stark dead, Peter struggled with this urge the universe seemed to have to use him as a replacement, before ultimately rejecting it and realizing he needed to be his own man.

No Way Home is about the cost of being a hero.

Spoilers begin here.If you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want it to be spoiled, stop reading secure in the knowledge that I thought this movie kicked ass. 

After the events of Far From Home, Peter’s identity has been revealed to the world. In an effort to get that genie back into the bottle, he turns to Dr. Strange for help. Strange attempts to cast a spell to wipe the knowledge of Peter’s double identity from the world, but when Peter starts trying to pick and choose who gets to remember him, the spell is mangled and disrupted, allowing incursions from the multiverse of other people who knew Peter Parker is Spider-Man. It starts with villains who faced other versions of the hero in the Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield films, and it’s here that the film really starts to shine.

I won’t get super detailed here, since if you kept reading past the spoiler warning I’m going to assume you already saw this movie and know what I’m talking about. The best thing with the villains was Alfred Molina’s Dr. Octopus. Back in Spider-Man 2, he was painted as a tragic villain, a good person corrupted by technology gone wrong. In this film, Peter not only repairs the damage, but allows the good man that was Otto Octavius to return and redeem himself. Jamie Foxx’s Electro similarly gets an arc – not exactly one of redemption, but of realization that he sorely needed. Sandman and Lizard don’t get as much development, but each is at least afforded an opportunity to go home as normal humans and potentially live normal lives.

Willem DaFoe’s Green Goblin remains the nastiest, bloodthirstiest villain in any Spider-Man movie, and is responsible for the most sincerely shocking moment of the film: the death of May Parker. While presumably this universe still had a Ben Parker (there are moments in the previous films that allude to a tragedy that we have to assume was his death), it is May who grounds Peter and gives him that famous lesson that Stan Lee first wrote back in 1962. (You know which one, I’m not gonna repeat it here… but it’s worth pointing out that this is the first time that they actually got the wording right). It’s May’s heart and compassion that fuels Peter Parker. And it is May’s death at the hands of the Goblin that sets up the magnificent ending of this film and this trilogy.

We’ll come back to Tom Holland, but let’s not forget our other two heroes: Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield. Maguire’s series ended relatively peacefully: he and Mary Jane were together and the villains were defeated. This film blessedly chooses not to hit the reset button on this: although things haven’t always been easy, Tobey/Peter tells us that they’ve managed to make it work. His moment of redemption comes when he saves his younger counterpart, Tom/Peter, from killing Norman Osborn. Tobey/Peter has failed twice to save someone from dying on the point of that damned Goblin Glider, and in preventing Norman’s death this time, he gets the closure he needs.

Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man, however, ended at a point of anguish, trying to get back in the saddle after the death of Gwen Stacy, a death he blames himself for. Since his last film he’s grown darker, he tells us he “stopped pulling punches” and doesn’t have time for “Peter Parker stuff” anymore. In the scenes where the three Peters interact (which, by the way, are some of the most wonderfully comedic, heartfelt, and sincere scenes in the entire film) it’s Andrew/Peter who is the most self-deprecating, but in a way that feels like he’s truly torturing himself instead of just cracking wise like he did in his own films. 

But he, too, is saved by this movie. When the MCU MJ topples from the Statue of Liberty and the Goblin stops Tom/Peter from saving her, it’s almost exactly the same thing that killed Gwen, it’s the death he caused, it was all his fault… but where before Andrew/Peter suffered the most tragic moment of his life, this time he saves the day. The look on his face when he lands holding a living, breathing MJ instead of a dangling corpse says everything – the pain, the anguish, the self-hatred is finally being released. It’s magnificent, it’s a moment where you break down with joy because finally, finally, he can forgive himself.

Then there’s Tom Holland. His Peter Parker started all this because he was trying to have everything, trying to make his life perfect, and that’s not possible. After suffering the most tragic loss of his life, he accepts his mistake and makes the greatest sacrifice – wiping the knowledge of Peter Parker from everybody. MJ, Ned, Happy Hogan, Nick Fury, the Avengers, even Dr. Strange who is casting the spell now has no memory of Peter Parker. He is utterly, completely alone, There is literally “no way home.” And he knows this before he makes the call, because it’s the only way to save everyone.

“Because that’s what we do.”

This movie hits almost every beat. The performances are great, the dialogue is witty, the themes are strong and the construction is magnificent. And somehow, despite the tragedy, it ends on a point of hope, with Peter making his own suit – not one whipped up by Stark Tech or upgraded by Otto Octavius – but a simple suit that takes cues from his “brothers” and, consequently, is the single most comic book-accurate Spider-Man costume ever used in a live action film, finally showing us who he is. No more apprenticeship, no more Stark tech, no more relying on other people. He may be all alone now, but his adventure is just beginning.

And my goodness, we can’t wait to see where it goes. 

Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure series Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. He is not, strictly speaking, capable of doing “whatever a spider can,” but he DID learn how to reheat french fries in his air fryer.

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