A short review of “Bird Box” (2018)

Netflix’ “Bird Box” generally pleases — I’d rate it an 8 out of 10, and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a creative and effective apocalyptic horror film.  A few reviewers call it a “high-concept” horror movie because of its MacGuffin — an invasion of otherworldly beings causes anyone who looks at them to hallucinate and become suicidally depressed.  (A handful of survivors escape the chaotic mass suicides because they are lucky enough not to lay eyes on the mysterious, mind-bending creatures which can become images of their victims’ worst fears.)

It’s a hell of a setup — it reminds many people of this year’s “A Quiet Place” and 2008’s unfairly maligned “The Happening.”  (Hey, I really liked that movie.)  For some reason, “Bird Box” reminded me of the 1985 “The Twilight Zone” episode, “Need to Know.”  (It’s a great ep.)  And the plot device pays off — “Bird Box” is genuinely unsettling, and the whole story comes across as a blackly inventive end-of-the-world tale.

Sandra Bullock is good here; supporting actors Sarah Paulson and John Malkovich are even better. (Malkovich is mesmerizing whenever he plays an intense or unpleasant character.)

The film suffers somewhat from puzzling pacing problems — sometimes the story appears to be unfolding too quickly, but by the end of the two-hour movie, it feels too long.  “Bird Box” was adapted from a structured 2014 novel by Josh Malerman; I strongly get the sense that it tries to squeeze too much of its source material into a the running time for a movie.  I honestly think I would have enjoyed it much more if its frightening plot device and interesting, well-played characters were explored in a mini-series.

There’s another disappointment too — we learn very little about the story’s antagonists, beyond one character’s hypothesis that they’re archetypal punishing figures from a number of the world’s religions.  I wanted to know more.

 

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Texas Tavern, Roanoke, Virginia

It isn’t in Texas and it isn’t a tavern.  It’s a family-owned, all-night burger joint that’s been around since 1930.  And it’s awesome.

That shot of Church Street is awful.  But I’m including it anyway, because New Yorkers simply cannot fathom how empty these streets can be — and quiet!  So often Roanoke seems like a scene in “The Quiet Earth” (1985).

 

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“Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (1982) is actually slow and will leave you feeling low.

“Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (1982) is a pop-culture sacred cow that needs to be skewered.  I’d rate it a 2 out of 10 for being a surprisingly inept and poorly scripted 1980’s “classic.”

I just don’t understand the fervent popular reverence for this movie among people in my age bracket.  It was a minor legend when I was growing up.  I was a fourth grader in 1982, and gradeschool boys could be divided into two groups: 1) those who had seen the “Phoebe Cates pool scene” and 2) those who had not, but wished they had.  When I mentioned on social media a couple of months ago this year that I’d never actually gotten around to seeing this movie, my friends were roundly astonished.

Why do they think this film is indispensable viewing?  Maybe there’s something I’m missing.  I’m tempted to group “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” together with other beloved 80’s films that just don’t resonate with me — like the understandably campy “Tron” (1982) or the unexpectedly sleep-inducing “The Big Chill” (1983).  (I couldn’t even finish the latter.)  But I can’t compare, because I know those movies are objectively good in a lot of ways, even if they weren’t to my taste.

Nor am I squeamish about raunchy sex comedies.  (C’mon.)  I pretty fondly remember “Porky’s” (1981), “Porky’s II: The Next Day” (1983), and “Revenge of the Nerds” (1984).  I mentioned “Porky’s” to the friend with whom I watched “Fast Times” — I told her that it wasn’t highbrow entertainment, but I still remember it being crudely, blasphemously funny.

This movie was just a thinly scripted small collection of vignettes, with no overall plot outside of teenagers having sexual encounters that are … awkward and bluntly sad, for the most part.  (Sean Penn’s character does drugs.)  The dialogue is terrible.  None of the characters are likable — even the story’s nerdy, well-meaning protagonist is grating.

I didn’t really laugh once at anything the director intended — I only laughed at the haircuts and the clothes.  I just can’t believe that the screenwriter here was Cameron Crowe, who also wrote what is possibly my favorite movie of all time — the widely but unfairly maligned “Vanilla Sky” (2001).  (Crowe apparently adapted the screenplay from a novel he wrote.)

There is some enjoyment to be had in watching Penn’s stoner character.  It was fun seeing a well known serious actor in an early comedic role.  Penn is a decent character actor, and it looks like he was having fun.  I do get why kids in the 80’s found him funny.

It’s also fun seeing the handful of other young actors who would go on to great careers (Judge Reinhold is always funny) but, again, this is something that the filmmakers can’t take credit for.

Hey, if you want a slice-of-life dramatic comedy about teenagers in the 1980’s, then go rent “The Breakfast Club” (1985).  It wasn’t perfect, but it was damn good movie that tackled many of the same issues as this movie, but with intelligence and effective humor.  Or, try the oddball “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (1986).  Both movies portray teenagers in the 80’s who are smart, likable and emphathetic, in varying degrees.  I myself went to high school in the 1980’s, and I assure you they were around.

 

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Throwback Thursday: the Indiana Jones “Find Your Fate Adventure” books!

Here’s another happy Christmas memory — the Find Your Fate Adventure  books featuring Indiana Jones.  I was happy indeed when Santa brought these.  They were first published by Ballantine Books in 1984 and 1985, and they were basically Choose Your Own Adventure books in which you teamed up with Indy in the same type of archeological adventure you saw in the movies or in his comic book series.

Like most series of this type, they were penned by different authors and tended to vary in quality.  The second book, “Indiana Jones and the Lost Treasure of Sheba,” was authored by Rose Estes, who wrote some terrific title in the Endless Quest series, TSR’s own excellent take on the format in the Dungeons & Dragons genre.  There also were several written by R.L. Stine, they were reprinted in the 90’s following his popularity with his Goosebumps series.

I had the first four that you see below.  I seem to remember one being kinda bad, but I’m not sure I remember which.  It might have been Andrew Helfer’s “Indiana Jones and the Cup of the Vampire.”  (It was whichever book portrayed the reader as Indiana Jones’ cousin, who he repeatedly addressed as “Cuz.”)  The other books were damned great fun, though.  I do remember Estes’ “Lost Treasure of Sheba” being quite good.

I never owned the fifth book you see below, and never read it.  I can’t resist including it here, though, simply because of its title — “Indiana Jones and the Ape Slaves of Howling Island.”  If that isn’t the most interesting title in the history of western literature, I don’t know what is.  I’m 45 years old, and I would snap that up right off the bookstore shelf if I saw it.  Somebody should have gotten a raise for that one.

 

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Throwback Thursday: “Streethawk” (1985)

“The man.  The machine.  STREETHAWK.”

I mentioned “Streethawk” (1985) a couple of weeks ago during that discussion of that 80’s fad where futuristic vehicles were the stars of TV shows.  This ran for a single season and depicted the adventures of a police officer riding “an all-terrain attack motorcycle designed to fight urban crime.”

This was the very height of 1980’s cheese — or the very nadir, depending on how you look at it.  (I was a pretty impressionable kid, though, and I loved “Streethawk.”)  And star Rex Smith was not an ugly man, but always seemed to have dopey expression permanently plastered to his face.

Wasn’t there sort of special signature move that Smith’s character had, where he popped a wheelie and actually spun the bike like a dradle at the same time?  So that the bullets or whatever it was firing would fly in every direction?  (Because cops typically require indiscriminate suppressing fire in every direction in order to “fight urban crime.”)  I could almost swear that was a recurring action sequence on this show.

 

Throwback Thursday: More of the WOR-9 Thanksgiving Monster Movie Marathon!!!

As I explained last year, monster movies were simply a part of Thanksgiving if you lived in the Tri-State region around New York City between 1976 and 1985.  This was due to WOR-9’s “Holiday Film Festival” broadcast, which actually also extended to the day following the holiday after the lineup’s first year.  (People just called it the “Monster Movie Marathon.”)

As a kid, I was a hell of a lot more thrilled with the monster movies than anything being served for dinner.  (Remember, video stores only began arriving the early 1980’s.  Before that, you usually had to catch a movie on television if you wanted to see it at all.  It’s why every house had a “TV Guide.”)

“King Kong vs. Godzilla” (1962) was one gem in the marathon.  (Or, at least, it seemed like an amazing film to a gradeschool boy.)  I was raised with the enduring myth that this Japanese film had two endings — an American version where King Kong prevailed, and a Japanese version where its native Godzilla was the victor.)  My Dad told me that, and I remember being fascinated that a movie could have two different endings.  I actually only learned just now, writing this blog entry, that it was a particularly widespread urban legend — stemming from an erroneous report in “Spacemen” magazine.  The American version of the film had tons of alterations, but the outcome was essentially the same — King Kong won.

There were always a few more Godzilla movies on the day after Thanksgiving, too.  “Son of Godzilla” (1967) was one of them; that was always hit with the kids.  (I could swear at some point there was a cartoon adaptation in the early 80’s.)  It was weird how 80’s kids apparently loved that ostensibly “cute” character; the adult in me today swears that “Son of Godzilla” looks like an upright, reptile-shaped poop.  (Seriously, check out the second clip below.)

“Godzilla vs. Megalon” (1973) was another one I seem to remember being pretty thrilled with.  I was even occasionally scared of the giant monsters in flicks like these.  (Hey, I was a little kid.)  Even as a first- or second-grader, though, I was smart enough to question why these movies were weirdly inconsistent.  (Why was Godzilla a bad guy who destroyed Tokyo in one movie, but the “good monster” that the Japanese rooted for in another?)

I’m learning now that “Godzilla vs. Megalon” was the target of a Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode.  I’m going to have to hunt that one down.