August 2, 2013

My Five Favorite Films From...1979

Honorable Mention – Rocky II: Sure, it is basically the first film all over again, only with Rocky winning this time. But it is still a good movie, with some of the best boxing scenes ever filmed.

5. The Jerk: Another film I grew to love through repeated viewings on HBO as a kid. Everyone has their favorite scene; mine is where Navin hurts his foot kicking Iron Balls McGinty in the crotch. That and the cat juggling.

4. Apocalypse Now: Epic in scope, the story of the film’s creation is almost better than the actual film itself. But this look at the insanity of war and the darkness of the human soul is a remarkable work of art.

3. Escape From Alcatraz: Best prison escape film ever. And it’s a true tale to boot. Frank Morris led the only successful escape ever from Alcatraz. And that escape scene down the wall and into the water. No stunt doubles; that’s Eastwood, Fred Ward and Jack Thibeau.

2. Mad Max: Awesome apocalyptic film. If you ever wondered what the world will look like when the oil runs out…

1. Alien: The most successful melding ever of science-fiction and horror. This movie still gets me to twitch and startle, even though I know every beat by heart. I can’t say enough good things about it, and it kills me that this franchise has been shit upon by the asinine AvPmovies.

Films I Like But Didn't Make The List: The China Syndrome, Zulu Dawn, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, …And Justice For All, The Black Stallion, Kramer vs. Kramer, Moonraker, Manhattan, The Muppet Movie, The Warriors, The Tin Drum, Being There, Monty Python's Life of Brian, Meatballs, The Great Santini

Guilty Pleasure – 1941: Not a great film by any stretch of the word, it still makes me crack up. The massive brawl at the USO, the AA gun destroying the house, the ferris wheel…I like it and I am not apologizing, damn it!<

Insane, Twisted Film That Must Be Mentioned – Caligula: Is it even possible to sum this film up a couple of sentences? The principal writer and the director took out ads decrying the final product. The film had people getting their heads cut off in the Coliseum by a bizarre thresher. Hardcore sex footage was inserted into the film, causing one of the female leads to sue. It was (and is) an absolute mess of a film, full of just about every sexual depravity you can think of.

Movie Review: The Dirty Dozen (1967)

You've seen a general inspecting troops before haven't you? Just walk slow, act dumb and look stupid! - Major John Reisman (Lee Marvin)

Director: Robert Aldrich

Writers: E.M. Nathanson (novel), Nunnally Johnson and Lukas Heller (screenplay)

Producer: Kenneth Hyman

Studio: MGM

Major Stars: Lee Marvin, Jim Brown, Ernest Borgnine, George Kennedy, Charles Bronson, John Casasvetes, Richard Jaeckel, Robert Ryan, Donald Sutherland, Telly Savalas, Clint Walker

Note: In keeping with my policy about movies 25 years old or more, I feel no compunctions about revealing the ending of the film. With that in mind, there are SPOILERS below. If you haven’t seen the film yet, you may want to avoid this review.

One of the enduring sub-genres in war films is the “men on a mission” style film. A group of soldiers are thrown together. They clash at first but somehow find a common bond before getting sent on a suicidal mission that most of them won’t return from. And the archetype of that sub-genre is “The Dirty Dozen.” The title is recognizable to almost everyone. And it also happens to be a pretty fun war film to boot, if a little long and uneven at the end.

To quickly summarize for the 12 people who may not know about this film, a group of military convicts are given a chance to wipe their records clean if they train for and go on a suicidal mission to kill German officers at a chateau in France on the eve of D-Day. They are led by Major Reisman, an officer who is as insubordinate with his superiors as the convicts are with him.

That’s it. There isn’t much of an overarching theme to the film. It’s a straight action flick with some humor thrown in for good measure. And that makes for a really watchable film.

Most of the actors in the film had prior experience in the military and some actually fought in the Second World War. Marvin, Savalas, Borgnine and Bronson all served during the war. That brought an extra touch of realism to a film that was – let’s be honest here – a fantasy of sorts. But it’s a good one.

Marvin is great as Major Reisman, a hard-as-nails combat officer who barely tolerates his superiors, most of whom have never fought in a real battle. This mission is his last chance as well. Reisman alternates between encouraging and breaking down his charges, but always stands up for them against outside agitators, the main one being Colonel Breed (Ryan). The hatred that Reisman and Breed feel for each other make for some of the funniest moments in the film.

All the major actors playing convicts did a nice job as well. Cassavetes plays the slightly-nuts Franco (big shock there) as a man who alternates between being a bully and a coward. Savalas nails the all-the-way nuts Maggott*, a religious freak who murders people (mainly women) because they are unclean. He’s actually quite unsettling in the role. There were also two breakout roles.

The first was Jim Brown as Jefferson. At the time Brown was filming The Dirty Dozen in London, he was still the best damn player in the NFL, breaking records like clockwork as a running back for the Cleveland Browns. Owner Art Modell gave him an ultimatum; movies or football. Brown retired before the 1966 season began and became a full-time actor. It’s not a coincidence that the Browns never won another championship after Brown left**. And it was the beginning of a very successful career for Brown.

The other was Donald Sutherland, who hit the acting equivalent of an inside straight in this movie. The role of Vernon Pinkley was supposed to be played by someone else but they dropped out of the movie. Sutherland was called in to replace them. Then there is a scene in the film where one of the Dozen has to impersonate a general and inspect Colonel Breed’s soldiers. The original plan was for Clint Walker, an actor who stood 6’ 6”, to do it. But he didn’t want to. So director Robert Aldrich chose Sutherland to play the role. The cocky, breezy way Sutherland played the scene led to his getting cast as “Hawkeye” Pierce in M*A*S*H and launched his career. I don’t know who the original actor was, but I hope Sutherland sends him a nice card every Christmas.

What I forgot about this movie is that, despite its length (just under 2.5 hours), there isn’t much in the way of fighting Germans. Between introducing the characters, all the training and the mission prep, the actual attack on the chateau takes up roughly the last half-hour of the film. Granted, that last half-hour is an action-packed half-hour. But for an action-centric war film, there isn’t much of a war.

One thing I didn’t know is that, when the film was released, the violence was quite excessive by the standards of that time. Roger Ebert wrote a review decrying the fact that a burning corpse was visible in the movie. Watching it now, the violence is positively tame by modern standards.

What I find interesting is that just one of the convicts survives the mission, and it is the one who really shouldn’t have been there to begin with. Bronson’s character is on Death Row not because of rape or wanton murder. He’s there because he shot an officer who was fleeing a battle with all of his unit’s medical supplies. The only way to stop him was to shoot him.Which I think is a perfectly acceptable thing to do. And I guess Aldrich did as well since Bronson’s character is the only convict to survive, along with Major Reisman and his sergeant.

There was also some controversy in the way the Germans at the chateau were killed. They are trapped in the cellar which doubles as an ammunition bunker. The Dozen dump grenades down the air vents along with about 100 gallons of gasoline and then Jefferson throws a live grenade down each vent (just before a sniper kills him). It’s a particularly cruel way to kill, especially since there are civilians in the cellar as well. But Aldrich wanted a bit of “war is hell” in the movie.

One negative against the film is the choppy way the end of the film was edited. The cuts between the Germans caught in the wine cellar, the Dozen setting their explosives and the firefights with German soldiers trying to reach the chateau are not particularly smooth.

And let’s be honest, there isn’t a lot of heft or seriousness to this movie (the chateau fricassee aside). It’s as much an excuse to have a bunch of actors who play tough-guy roles shooting guns as anything else. Even Lee Marvin said the film was nothing but a “moneymaker.” But it’s a fun moneymaker. It also paved the way for more movies of its type; in the next year alone, The Devil’s Brigade and Where Eagles Dare would come out. And it calls out to that part of every American that chafes at idiots in positions of authority. We're a people whose ancestors came to this country because there were idiots in authority in their home country. So we're almost predisposed to cheer for a guy like Major Reisman.

On the current list, I would place The Dirty Dozen below The Bridges at Toko-Ri. It’s a well-shot, well-crafted film. It has a lot of action and some nice humor. But it’s like appetizers before the main course; nice but not satisfying by itself. The Dirty Dozen doesn’t have the heft, plot or pacing to crack the top echelon of this list. But that doesn’t mean this isn’t a good film. Any movie that stays on this list is worth watching, and The Dirty Dozen will likely stay in the upper-half when all is said and done. This is a great film to watch with friends or on a lazy weekend, maybe as a home-made twin-bill with Where Eagles Dare or The Guns of Navarone. It definitely should be a part of your collection.


* This is one of the all-time great movie names for a villain. Probably second behind Roy Stalin.

** To Modell's credit, he has since admitted this was profoundly stupid of him to do. It probably cost him two NFL titles and two Super Bowl titles (which went to the Jets and Chiefs instead when they played the Colts and Vikings in Super Bowl III and IV, respectively, before the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. Cleveland with Jim Brown at running back would've likely won at least one of those matchups.

July 31, 2013

My Five Favorite Films From...1978

Honorable Mention – Heaven Can Wait: Half the time I mention this movie to someone that hasn’t seen it, they go “Isn’t that the biggest bomb ever made?” No, that’s Heaven’s Gate. This film is a pretty good comedy, and Buck Henry as an angel always makes me laugh

5. Halloween: Outside of The Thing, this is John Carpenter’s best film. Helped to restart and redefine the horror genre. Created the concept of the unstoppable killer (I think. If I’m wrong, please let me know.)

4. Superman: The Movie: Remember when people called The Dark Knight "revolutionary"? I think that description should have been reserved for this movie. It’s a successful superhero movie with remarkable depth made at a time when SFX were positively rudimentary compared to what we have now and other superhero films were campy or outright jokes.

3. The Deer Hunter: Ah, the film that made Russian Roulette mainstream. An outstanding film about war and the psychological damage it leaves behind.

2. Dawn of the Dead: A great film in its own right, I wonder how much better it would’ve been had they kept the original ending where everyone committed suicide when faced with the end of civilization. As it stands, still one of the best zombie films ever.

1. Animal House: Thirty years later and this is still, to me, one of the greatest comedies ever made. It made toga parties a college staple along with “Shout” by The Isley Brothers. Even the ROTC/Vietnam angle doesn’t feel dated although it obviously is. Definitely the greatest ensemble film ever.

Films I Like But Didn't Make The List: Blue Collar, The Lord of the Rings, Coming Home, Revenge of the Pink Panther, Autumn Sonata, Midnight Express, The Boys From Brazil, China 9 / Liberty 37, Force 10 From Navarone, Every Which Way But Loose, Foul Play, The Fury

Guilty Pleasure – Capricorn One: This film is pure cheese. But the story of a faked Mars landing by NASA and then trying to assassinate the astronauts is one I still love. And the slo-mo ending of James Brolin running up to his own funeral to smash the win all the prizes for that one, James.

Movie Review: Saving Private Ryan (1998)

We're not here to do the decent thing! We're here to follow fucking orders! - Captain Miller (Tom Hanks)

Director: Steven Spielberg

Writer: Robert Rodat

Producers: Ian Bryce, Mark Gordon, Gary Levinsohn, Steven Spielberg

Studio: Dreamworks/Paramount

Major Stars: Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, Giovanni Ribisi, Tom Sizemore, Vin Diesel, Barry Pepper, Edward Burns

When Saving Private Ryan came out in 1998, it was a gutshot to a lot of people who had no idea what war was truly like. The opening sequence at Omaha Beach, is, in my opinion, as realistic to a real war as you can get. Over 20 minutes long, it’s visceral, disorienting, nauseating and frightening as Hell. On the basis of that opening alone, Saving Private Ryan became one of the best war films ever made.

And the ending is rock-solid as well. Attacked by superior Nazi forces, the Americans do their damnedest to hold on in the town of Ramelle until reinforcements arrive. People who don’t deserve to die buy it. And the death of Private Mellish is one that sticks with you.

Harrison Ford and Mel Gibson were both considered for the role of Captain Miller before it went to Tom Hanks.
But does anyone remember much of what came in between?

I think the biggest flaw in Saving Private Ryan is that the bookend battle sequences are so well-done that it makes the middle of the film near forgettable. The only parts that I could recall of the top of my head before seeing it again were when they fought that German squad at the radar station and released the guy who we see again at the end of the film, and when they find the wrong James Ryan. That’s it. The rest was a blank. But at least it’s a blank because the quality of the film is so high. This is no Windtalkers.

July 30, 2013

Movie Review: Trolljegeren (The Troll Hunter) (2010)

You know what I love most about Trolljegeren? It's not that it made the increasingly-stale "found footage" genre interesting again. It's not that it cleverly and impressively used CGI to make some remarkable moments. It's not that I have a soft spot for clever, well-made foreign films.

It's that this movie will be hard to remake in Hollywood.

Even with the news that Chris Columbus bought the remake rights, I can't see how this movie can be successfully remade in the US without it becoming a completely different film. Trolls are a bedrock of Norse mythology. The reason there is a troll in "Jack and the Beanstalk" is because of the Norse influence in the development of English and British culture.

We don't have trolls here. We don't really have any homegrown monsters in the US besides Bigfoot and King Kong. Americans won't be able to relate to trolls because they are not part of our cultural identity.

And we don't have the vast beautiful emptiness of Norway where one could pretend trolls live. Yeah, you could substitute Alaska for that but it isn't really the same, is it?

But there is more to like from Trolljegeren than just it's difficulty in being remade and butchered in the US. It's clever - three students follow a man they believe is hunting trolls. They eventually confront him and get him to admit he works for an unknown Norwegian government agency: the Troll Security Service. The TSS has the job of observing trolls and hunting them down if they go off their living grounds and interact with people. They also have to cover up any and all interactions, even those that end in death. The hunter, Hans, allows the students to follow and film him as he tries to deduce why the trolls are becoming more aggressive.

What we get is a incredibly fun film to watch. In many ways, the visuals and the plot framework overshadow the acting. Only Otto Jespersen, as Hans, stands out among the cast. But as he is the focus that isn't too surprising. He plays Hans well; a man who has hunted trolls for decades, seen and done things he isn't proud of, and now just wants to be done with it. He understands the trolls more than the TSS.

We see him, as the title suggests, hunt trolls. And what a variety of trolls, from the smaller Ringlefinch (about 15 ft high) to the towering Jotnar (over 500 ft high). The Jotnar is a CGI masterpiece, just amazingly done and it blends seamlessly into the cold, foreboding Norwegian scenery. Considering the budget of Trolljegeren was $3.5M USD, the quality of the special effects is doubly impressive.

We get to see how trolls are killed and why they are susceptible to that method. We get to see how the TSS goes about covering up troll activity, and just how far they will go to keep trolls in the area of myth and not fact. And all this is married to some great scenery. Norway's natural beauty is on full display here.

Trolljegeren is just really clever and fun. And that allows it to overcome some down moments in pacing and a cast that is largely generic in their roles and personality. But that isn't surprising when you have to share screen time with a 500 foot troll. It's like a Godzilla movie; you don't leave complaining that those Japanese actresses playing the little Mothra women didn't have great line delivery skills. You leave talking about how Godzilla beat down another monster and crushed Tokyo.

I called Trolljegeren a "found footage" film at the start, but that isn't exactly right. Trolljegeren belongs in the monster movie genre; it just uses the "found footage" style as a method of telling the story (a la Cloverfield). This is the first Norwegian giant monster movie (as far as I know), and director André Øvredal should be damn proud of it.

Here's hoping it's the only version of the film you'll be able to see. It's on Netflix Instant Streaming.

The History of the RPG: Might and Magic Book One (1986)

Last Installment: Tales of the Unknown: The Bard's Tale

Up to this point, the two big computer RPG fantasy franchises were Wizardry and Ultima. As great as The Bard's Tale was, it never quite reached the heights of those two stalwarts.*

But in 1986, New World Computing released Might and Magic Book One. And there was another major player in the field. Largely the work of Jon Van Caneghem**, Might and Magic became a fast fan favorite.

The trappings were old-school fantasy. You had six characters in your party and there were six classes. You assigned each character an alignment, gender and race. But here is where it got interesting. These choices actually mattered, in how you character fared or even where they could go.*** This was a new step in the evolution of the RPG.

It was also non-linear. Not to the level that we have today in Skyrim. But you could go around and do other things without concentrating on the main plot, which was another step forward. Add that to the depth of the world and it is easy to see why it was so popular.

There was one other aspect to Might and Magic that set it apart: it had a sci-fi undercurrent. The bad guy in the game (Sheltem), is an escaped alien from a spaceship that crashed. It was an interesting twist to the genre.

The actual mechanics were similar to the RPGs of the mid-80s. First-person view, color 3D graphics and text-based/turn-based combat. So it wasn't inventive in that area. But considering the other things Might and Magic brought to the table, they can be forgiven for that.


Introducing a nascent "open-world sandbox" idea to the RPG. Making alignment, gender and race affect the progression of a game.


Any RPG that allows you to do what you what and to take your time in completing the main plot.

Next on the list: Starflight


* That said, I always like it more than Might and Magic. I never really took to this franchise the way I did with The Bard's Tale. I have no explanation why.

** Van Caneghem went on to develop the Heroes of Might and Magic series and is currently heading up the Command and Conquer franchise for EA. Not too shabby.

** Hell, there was one city (Portsmith) where if you were a guy, you could be injured depending on where you walked in the city. Who thinks to do something like that? It was brilliant.

Movie Review: Von Ryan's Express (1965)

You'll get your Iron Cross now, "Von" Ryan! - Major Eric Fincham (Trevor Howard)

Director: Mark Robson

Writers: David Westheimer (novel), Wendell Mayes and Joseph Landon (screenplay)

Producer: Saul David

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Major Stars: Frank Sinatra, Trevor Howard, James Brolin

Note: In keeping with my policy about movies 25 years old or more, I feel no compunctions about revealing the ending of the film. With that in mind, there are SPOILERS below. If you haven’t seen the film yet, you may want to avoid this review.

One of the standard sub-genres of the war film is the “escape” film. Our heroes are captured and held by the enemy. They plan a clever breakout, thwarting the enemy’s attempt to get them back. Freedom is attained. Huzzah!

To that end there is Von Ryan’s Express. And while it isn’t in the league of The Great Escape or Stalag 17, it’s still an enjoyable romp and a really good film.

“Von” Ryan is Colonel Joseph Ryan, an American pilot shot down over Italy and sent to an Italian-run POW camp. The camp’s prisoners are led by a Brit, Major Eric Fincham (Trevor Howard). He’s a real hardcase engaged in disobedience towards the camp commander, a fat Italian bozo named Battaglia. Since Ryan is a colonel, he assumes command of the camp and tones down the disobedience so medical supplies and food is given to the POWs. This pisses Fincham off to no end.

Shortly thereafter, the Italian government surrenders to the Allies. The POWs hold a trial for Battaglia; Fincham wants to hang him, but Ryan orders him left in the punishment box. With the help of a sympathetic Italian officer, the POWs make for the coast and eventually, Allied lines.

Up to this point, it’s a standard escape film. Then it takes a twist; they are recaptured by the Germans. They are loaded onto a train for northern Italy, where Mussolini and the Fascists are still in control. Their wounded are shot out of hand in front of the train. And as Fincham hears their cries from the boxcar, he turns to Ryan and utters the famous phrase “You'll get your Iron Cross now, "Von" Ryan!” It looks hopeless; the train is heavily guarded and moving almost constantly.

But this doesn’t faze Ryan. He develops a scheme to seize the train and drive it through Milan and into Switzerland. The remainder of the film follows this plan with the Nazis in hot pursuit. And for the most part, it’s an enjoyable romp.

The acting isn’t top notch (it’s not like you have Holden, Preminger and Don Taylor here)* but it’s still pretty good. And the action is great. Seizing the train, bluffing their way towards Milan and the massive final battle near the Swiss border are all well-done. This isn’t surprising since the director was Mark Robson. One of his previous films was The Bridges at Toko-Ri and he’d go on to direct Lost Command, both solid war films with good battle scenes.

July 29, 2013

The Worst Movies I've Ever Seen: Escape From L.A.


I hate bringing this film up. Not because I have fond memories of it. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be here.

I hate bringing this film up because I genuinely like John Carpenter as a director. He has given us some of the best action and/or horror films of the past 40 years, including Escape from New York. So it feels a little bad mentioning one of his films here.


The year is 1996. I was single and living in Boston. I was riding the dot-com boom, working odd hours. So I had a lot of free time (and cash). So I indulged my love of movies on a regular basis. I was living in the Allston section of Boston, so the closest theater was at Cleveland Circle where Boston and Brookline meet at the end of the “C” track on the Green Line. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time there.

So one night, my roommate and I decide to go and see “Escape from L.A.” It was a no-brainer. Snake Plissken, more dystopia, another US city gone to seed, lots of gunplay. A good time sure to be had by all.

Um, sorry, no.

It was a painful film to watch. In 2013, the US has become a cross between PETA and the Family Research Council’s idea of Heaven*. No cursing, no eating meat, no pre-marital sex and so forth. Anyone who doesn’t conform to the President’s moral code is exiled to LA, which has become the latest city/prison. Unlike New York, there is no return. Once you go, you’re gone.

Into this insanity the president’s daughter (aptly named Utopia) has fled, carrying a doomsday device that can shut down all the power sources on Earth. Why? Because a terrorist has somehow, over 3000 miles away, brainwashed her into doing so.

Oh, and the terrorist’s name? Cuervo Jones. So already you can see a couple of problems here. The main one being how we’re supposed to take seriously a terrorist named after a bottle of tequila.

Anyway, in order to retrieve the device, Snake Plissken is brought in. He’s supposed to go to LA, get the doomsday device and bring the President’s daughter back for execution for committing treason. As usual, he is persuaded to do so by imminent death. This time, it’s a virus that will kill him in nine hours unless the President gives him the antidote.

After some ominous quotes, Snake goes into LA. Insanity ensues. He (of course) escapes with the girl and the doomsday device. And, if you remember how New York ended, you’ll know the President doesn’t get what he wants.

Now, from what you’ve read it sounds decent, right? But there were two things against it.

My Five Favorite Films From...1977

Honorable Mention – Annie Hall: It’s not my favorite Woody Allen movie, but Alvy Singer is my favorite Woody Allen character. Plus, the scene in the movie line with Marshall McLuhan is a classic.

5. Smokey and the Bandit: Yes, this film is pure cheese. But I must have watched it a hundred times as a kid when it first came out on cable. So I didn’t even understand the whole bootlegging angle. But it had fast cars and lots of chases. Worked for me then and still does.

4. Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The more intellectual sci-fi hit of 1977. The final scene with a peaceful exchange between humans and aliens was a landmark moment in film at the time. In some ways it’s sad to see that the pendulum has swung back the other way (ID4 as one example).

3. Slap Shot: I love this movie. Definitely a Top 5 All-Time for sports movies. Everyone thinks about the Hansen Brothers, but the best scene for me was when Reggie Dunlop goads the opposing goalie into a brawl by telling him his ex is a lesbian.

2. A Bridge Too Far: One of the greatest war films ever made. Probably the most accurate war film ever made. It did poorly in the US, which is inexplicable to me, but did great business overseas. Just a top-notch film across the board with a cast you just wouldn’t see the likes of today.

1. Star Wars: This is the first film I remember seeing in a movie theater. I was five years old. Up until then, I had only gone to the drive-in during the summer. It is still my favorite movie-going experience.

Films I Like But Didn't Make The List: Allegro non troppo, Padre Padrone, The Hobbit, Kentucky Fried Movie, Cross of Iron, The Late Show, The Car, Suspiria, The Rescuers, The Gauntlet, Oh, God!, Soldier of Orange

Insane Film I Have To Mention – Eraserhead: I didn’t even see this film until the late 80s when I was in high-school. Wow. Lizard babies, brains for erasers and that’s the tip of the iceberg. I’m still not entirely sure what was going on. But it was very watchable. And without it I’d have never gone on to rent Blue Velvet a short time later, which just blew me away.

Movie Corner: The War Game (1965)

The War Game is not a movie per se; it was a docu-drama produced for the BBC in 1965 and was intended to be shown to the general public. Peter Watkins, who had been hired by the BBC in 1963, fought for almost two years to get The War Game made. And it is easy to see why he had to fight for it.

The War Game, very simply, shows how England would prepare for, endure, and start to recover from a nuclear war. Focused on one area (Kent), and using existing manuals, plans and documents, Watkins created a movie that brought home in stark terms that England was woefully unprepared for a nuclear war and would collapse should one come about.

And Watkins showed this in scripted scenes that would be shocking even today. A young boy blinded by a nuclear explosion. Children and women with third-degree burns. Victims who have no hope of survival and in extreme pain being mercy-killed by police units. And at the end, food rioters and looters being executed by firing squad.

Watkins made none of this up. He used, as I said, existing government information for how to survive an attack. He also took accounts from other cities that had either suffered nuclear attack (Hiroshima and Nagasaki) or massive destruction in war (Dresden, Tokyo) and, very fairly, applied those results to Kent.

The movie is, frankly, terrifying. Anyone watching this and then still thinking we could survive a nuclear war, let alone wanting to fight one, would be certifiably insane. It's no surprise that the British government and the BBC pulled The War Game from being broadcast in the UK before it ever came on air. In fact, it was banned from the airwaves until 1985.

That's no misprint. And that is how powerful a film The War Game happens to be. It won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1966, and rightfully so.

The War Game was on Instant Netflix but is now only in their DVD service. Regardless, I would recommend it to anyone who wants to see a stark, unflinching look at the consequences of a nuclear conflict. Or simply to see how to make an extremely effective documentary.

July 28, 2013

My Five Favorite Films From...1976

Honorable Mention – Midway: It’s slightly bloated and occasionally inaccurate , but I love military history. And this film is pretty good at depicting how the critical battle in the Pacific theater went down. If you can ignore the stock footage of German planes.

5. The Bad News Bears : If you’re only familiarity with this movie is the tepid re-make with Billy Bob Thornton, you have to go see the original. It ostensibly may be about Buttermaker, Amanda and Kelly Leak, but the real star to me will always be Tanner. His rants wouldn’t make it past the censors these days.

4. Marathon Man : “Is it safe?” A great thriller made even better by the acting of Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier. It’s even more amazing to watch Olivier in this film when you realize he had almost died from dermatomyositis – a degenerative muscle disease – less than a year prior to the film’s release and was suffering through it while making the movie.

3. Taxi Driver: One of Scorcese’s best films. The one that most people think of when they think of Robert DeNiro. And while it builds to an insane climax, the epilogue is what makes it for me. A very thin line exists between being the hero and the villain.

2. The Outlaw Josey Wales: Such a kick-ass western. Another step in Eastwood’s deconstruction of the genre. Not only are the Union soldiers the bad guys, but at the end he avoids fighting the Indians and instead shoots it out with the Red-Legs. And that final fight with Terrill, as he cycles on every empty chamber of his revolvers…classic.

1. Rocky: The Little Film That Could. Stallone held out against making this movie until he got the studio to let him play the role. An iconic movie, probably the best “rags-to-riches” movie in recent memory and, alongside Raging Bull, the best boxing movie ever made.

Films I Like But Didn't Make The List: Silver Streak, Assault on Precinct 13, Network, Noirs et blancs en couleur, The Shootist, The Omen, All the President's Men , The Pink Panther Strikes Again, Carrie, Silent Movie, Robin and Marian

Insane Film I Have To Mention – Sebastiane: What do you do with the historical tale of Saint Sebastian? A captain of the Praetorian Guard and secret Christian, the Emperor Diocletian had him tied to a tree and shot with arrows. Well, if you are Derek Jarman, you turn that tale into a homo-erotic nudity fest on screen. I just don’t see how you can rationally explain a entire Roman outpost constantly walking around in the nude.

Reoccurring Note: As always, my list is not what I consider "the best" films of a particular year. If that was the case, Network would be at the top of the list. These are the films I enjoyed the most. Your mileage may vary.

The History of the RPG: Tales of the Unknown: The Bard's Tale (1985)

Last Installment: Telengard

Up to now, the computer RPGs I have listed I played, at first, on the computers of friends. For all too brief moments of time. But then I got my Commodore 64. And the very first RPG I bought for it was Tales of the Unknown: The Bard's Tale.*

And it was awesome.**

It was a major step up from Ultima and Telengard. Animated character portraits. 3D color graphics. Party-based combat with multiple classes available.*** And then there was the Bard.

The Bard was unlike any other character in a computer RPG up to that time. Hell, it was even relatively rare in the table-based Dungeons and Dragons versions of that time.**** He was a singer, obviously. And he was critical to your ability to complete the game. As in "You cannot solve this puzzle without a Bard" critical. The Bard also gave your party various benefits with songs he sang, like increased armor. Something that was totally revolutionary to the computer RPG at the time.

The game also had a sense of humor, which has thankfully remained in computer RPGs going forward.

And it was a total time suck. I remember staying up really late, trying to grind out just one more level of the sewers beneath Skara Brae, praying I didn't hit a Darkness square or get trapped in a spinner. And woe to you if you find the room of the 99 Berserkers without a magic user with the right spell.*****

While the plot wasn't what one would call "complicated" (hey, an evil wizard to destroy!), The Bard's Tale represented a huge step forward in playability and style. And the Bard was a completely new idea that added a whole new dimension to computer RPG playing.

The Bard's Tale would go on to spawn two sequels and something of a reboot in 2004's The Bard's Tale. I have to say, I wouldn't mind seeing the original trilogy get a reboot in the style of Baldur's Gate II. It was really fun and I think it would be a big hit if done in a modern style.


The Bard's spells, which improved party stats, could be considered the first "buff". That concept is now fully expressed in games like World of Warcraft. The Bard class, although somewhat present in tabletop D&D games, was a unique class that broke the "wizard/fighter/thief" box.


RPGs with a sense of humor. Which, thankfully, is a long list. But The Bard's Tale wasn't so much a progenitor as it was the next step in the development of the fantasy RPG.

Next on the list: Might and Magic, Book One


* That is the real name of the game. But they printed the "Tales of the Unknown" part way too small at the top of the box. Everyone took to calling it The Bard's Tale and the name stuck. Which goes to show that font size was, and still is, important.

** It really was. I still think of this as one of my Top 10 games of all time. That is likely a view tinged with a healthy dose of nostalgia. But I think The Bard's Tale still holds up quality-wise as a superior game.

*** Hunters are still my favorite class of all time.

**** Yeah, I am a total gaming nerd. What of it? And yes, I know that you could become a bard if you jumped through enough statistical hoops. But you didn't have to do that here. And who wants to waste their time dual-classing twice? Eff that with a chainsaw.

***** "You see 99 Berserkers, 99 Berserkers, 99 Berserkers, and 99 Berserkers. Will your stalwart band choose to (F)ight or (R)un?" Without the right spell, (R) was the only choice to make.


Site of Future Awesomeness

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Site of Future Awesomeness

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