TRON

By Marc S. Sanders

I was not raised on video games.  My father refused to allow us to have them in the house. While I was envious of every kid that owned an Atari 2600, dad didn’t want us to get addicted to them.  I wouldn’t know until later on how thankful I was for that rule he stood by.  I like arcade games for a once and a while escape, but once I reach the banana board (which isn’t often) on Ms. Pac Man, I’ve had my fill.

I recall seeing at least a few scenes of Walt Disney Studios’ Tron back when it was released on VHS.  Way back then, just like now, I just was never so impressed by it.  I can forgive the thin characterizations of really the only 5-7 actors with speaking roles.  Yet, the visuals and sound really do nothing for me.  What am I looking at?  Grids!  Just grids or endless squares.  A blank chess board looks more exciting to me.  The players in the film are dressed in what are presumed to be digitized armor that have carved out glowing blue and red lights.  Their human faces are grainy grays.  It all seems so flat to me, like that awful Pac Man adaptation Atari developed for their game consoles. 

Jeff Bridges plays Flynn, a game software developer done dirty by a corporate conglomerate led by a man named Dillinger (David Warner, the bad guy with the British accent).  Dillinger, along with a super computer intelligence known as the Master Control Program, have stolen Flynn’s intellectual property for dynamic new video games.  Since that time, Flynn has been making efforts to hack into the computer system and steal back what was originally his to begin with.  Master Control Program always fends him off, though.

A side story involves Bruce Boxleitner as Flynn’s colleague, Alan, working for the corporation. Alan has just developed a new security system known as TRON.  Dillinger puts a stop on the TRON program however.  Flynn, Alan and a third colleague named Lora (Cindy Morgan) break into the corporate computer lab one night, and before you know it, while attempting to hack in, Flynn is zapped right into the computer system, where he finds himself ensconced in a series of gladiator like games that were part of his original program write ups.

Master Control Program has the capability to erase Flynn from existence but insists on having him compete in the games that involve frisbees that deflect lasers and drive colorful racing cycles.  All of these games occur on this boring grid.

The actors mentioned above are utilized in the film much like The Wizard Of Oz.  They are introduced in the real world for the brief exposition portion of the film, and then later used to represent the TRON program (Boxleitner), as well as other elements that serve or perform under the eye of Master Control Program in the digital computer world.  The only real entity is known as a “user,” and that is Flynn.

I got sleepy watching Tron.  I think it is because like many video games it does not challenge me to figure things out or solve the dilemma. How can I envision Flynn escaping this world before he’s zapped out of existence?  I have no idea, because I’ve not been shown anything that demonstrates how this computer world functions.  Basic video games, at least from the early 1980s, were primarily about timing your button pushes and jerking the joystick accurately and timely.  Like the film Tron, they were never about application of the mind. 

No.  Movies are not meant for me to solve their riddles all the time.  Often, if I’m not trying to figure out how to resolve a story’s conflict, then I’m at least absorbed in the writing and performances of the cast.  The music might heighten the adventure or suspense.  The set designs will dazzle me.  Don’t get me wrong.  This Star Wars fanatic loves visual effects, but without any kind of story or suspense for the players and their outcome, what’s left to watch?  Tron is as dimensional as a blank index card for me. All these grids and lines are no more exciting than office stationery.

Tron from 1982 may seem very outdated, forty years later, but as a ten-year-old, I recall not being impressed either.  The sound design is annoying as when the digital players walk with clunk, clunk footsteps.  The objects on film are just sketched out, geometric glowing, colored lines on a black background. There is no depth, at all, to Flynn, Lora, Alan, Dillinger, or their computer counterparts.  In 1982, this might have been groundbreaking. For the Atari lovers this may have been the answer to many of their prayers.  I dunno.  Maybe I couldn’t relate or understand back then because my tyrant for a father denied me of an Atari game console.  I certainly don’t understand the fascination now. 

I have a 100-sheet pad of graph paper, here in my desk.  I’ll stand my Darth Vader action figure on a page and just stare at it for five minutes.  There!  Now, I can say I’ve watched Tron for a third time.

THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT

By Marc S. Sanders

There are good Clint Eastwood films and there are bad Clint Eastwood films. You’d probably guess where I rank 1974’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (T & L).

I’m amazed. Director Michael Cimino, at the time, was really only known for polishing Eastwood’s Dirty Harry flick Magnum Force into a great crime drama of cop vigilantism. Then he does this picture, and how did anyone at Warner Bros trust him with The Deer Hunter a few years later? Sure, that film won Best Picture, but should anyone really have been surprised when the box office nuclear bomb, known as Heaven’s Gate came along, and bankrupted Orion Pictures? You think the producers of that turd said, “Fellas, we never considered Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. Hindsight 20/20. We shoulda known better.”

Back to the subject at hand. T & L is mindless of any coherence. Two criminals just happen to find each other randomly on some out of nowhere highway while running from the law (for Lightfoot) and a couple of bumbling henchmen (for Thunderbolt). Their respective crimes are unconnected. Eastwood’s quiet, familiar, tough guy demeanor (Thunderbolt) meets up with wild boy Jeff Bridges (Lightfoot) and then they eventually get to a plot of devising some kind of money heist with early adversaries George Kennedy and Geoffrey Lewis, former crime pals of Thunderbolt. However, they need to arrange to acquire a cannon, get on a job digging water lines for housing properties, work as ice cream delivery guys, hitch a ride in a redneck’s Dodge Challenger, and have Lightfoot dress in drag. There’s also a schoolhouse, no longer located where it once was, with a secret stash hidden behind a blackboard.

Doesn’t this seem like much too much effort for an ordinary bank heist in 1974? Security personnel and systems were probably not as sophisticated back then, no? Eastwood made an easier time of escaping from Alcatraz then all the work put in here.

The movie is sweaty, dirty, stupid, and it just doesn’t make sense really. Bridges actually got an Oscar nomination in the supporting actor category, up against nearly the entire cast of The Godfather Part II, for this film, and I’m…well…perplexed. How was that possible? Best guess, Cimino, who also wrote this dreck, decides to have Lightfoot die at the end. (There!!!!! I ruined it for you!!!!) Problem is I don’t know why or how. He’s not shot or wounded. There’s never an indication that he is ill. The script is too dumb to consider any kind of foreshadowing of his demise. The guys are just driving along with the money in backseat, and Lightfoot appears weak all of the sudden. Thunderbolt pulls over to the side and his partner just quietly dies in the passenger seat. Cimino cues up the Paul Williams music and the end credits appear. Bridges had a death scene. So, Bridges has to get a shot at Oscar glory. The math ain’t pretty but it’s the best logic that I can come up with.

VALERIE

By Marc S. Sanders

Stacey Souther’s short documentary, Valerie, explores the colorful life of Valerie Perrine. 

I must confess, up until I saw the film, the most I knew about Ms. Perrine was as “MISS TESCHMACHER!!!!!,” the adorable sidekick dame of Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor from the first two Superman films.  Yet, in just 36 minutes, Souther offers a wealth of knowledge about the famed star that only motivates me to uncover her other accomplishments and films.  I already have her Oscar nominated turn in Bob Fosse’s Lenny, with Dustin Hoffman, cued up on my Roku.

Having watched Valerie twice, it stands to reason that this life could be covered quite well in a full-length biographical film adaptation.  I petition Souther to direct if that ever comes to light.  He provides a large selection of pictures and video footage that cover Perrine from childhood through her late teens and early twenties as a Vegas showgirl, on through her prime of adulthood in Hollywood films and then finally reaching her most recent years as she bravely lives with Parkinson’s disease.

On top of the photos, testimonials are weaved into the movie from co-stars like Jeff Bridges (The Last American Hero), directors like Richard Donner (Superman) and George Roy Hill (Slaughterhouse-Five), friends like David Arquette, Loni Anderson, Angie Dickenson, George Hamilton and Howard Hessman.  All have nothing but celebratory words of their experiences with her.  The comments are provided over film footage and photos of smiles and non-stop energy.  Souther makes it seem as if you could never be in a bad mood if you are standing next to Valerie.  Just watch her own the stage on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.  She belts out a scream of absolute fire that Johnny and Ed can’t help but applaud and cheer for. 

How fortunate that Stacey Souther was able to recover old interview footage and glimpses of times where Valerie offered up a comment on her philosophy of life.  In one televised interview, Valerie answers a question with “I have no worry about tomorrow…the fact that I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, I’ve grown up with (it).”  Once the film concluded, this observation stayed with me.  Souther depicts Valerie in the past and her present time, as only being concerned with the now and never focusing on the unpredictability of what’s to come.  It takes real strength to approach each day you awaken with a purpose.  One time in her younger years, she’s captured answering a question with “It’s karma…look at the good things in life…”  Things like that are said to us all the time in fortune cookies or greeting cards, maybe.  When Valerie said it, I believed her.

Tragedy has also crossed paths in her lifetime having lost two boyfriends to violent and unexpected deaths.  Jay Sebring was one of the victims of the infamous murders committed by Charles Manson’s followers, which also included actress Sharon Tate and her unborn child.  According to the film, Valerie was actually meant to be at that gathering.  Yet was called away at the last minute for work.  These incidents are hard for her to recall, but it also opened a transitional door for Valerie to move on from Vegas and go to Hollywood for acting.  She may not have had any formal training, but that didn’t stop her from trying, and she succeeded.

Valerie is quite debilitated by the year 2014.  Her Parkinson’s wants to upstage her life and dominate her with uncontrollable shaking.  Still, she puts on her makeup and Souther inquires about her daily routine.  By this point it takes her a good forty-five minutes before she can finish applying.  It’s involuntary to notice her shaking before anything else, yet that doesn’t ever stop Valerie from maintaining a proper appearance. 

We see her eating a salad and her fork shakes in her hand as she brings it to her mouth.  Valerie comments on how this is not so easy when trying to eat soup.  Her delivery offers a sense of humor to this annoyance.  For my own attempt at empathy, I found it annoying for Valerie.  For the camera, Valerie will never admit it is annoying.  It’s just what she is living with today.

Valerie is described and admits to never having any inhibitions when she was a Las Vegas Showgirl, wearing revealing outfits or appearing topless.  She was also comfortable with the well-known Playboy shoot she did.  From this film, I learned that’s a skill of hers.  Because she does not carry insecurities, she is able to offer up the unglamourous life she endures today as a woman with Parkinson’s.  Souther captures moments where health professionals are getting her comfortable in bed and she may not be completely dressed.  There are times where she is lifted in a harness and it looks anything but graceful.  Often, she is responding to interview questions and her voice is raspy and shakes.  The film shows that Valerie Perrine does not carry one bit of bashfulness.  She has never been shy.  So, whether she’s breathtakingly beautiful or physically unhealthy, she does not perform for the camera.  She only shows herself. 

I have to praise Stacey Souther for an especially telling moment in his short film.  Valerie goes in for surgery in an attempt to alleviate the shaking and tremors she’s experiencing.  Like always, she welcomes Souther’s camera in the hospital room just before she’s to go under.  Soon after the procedure is completed, we learn that Valerie is suffering from a Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA).  Blood was not flowing properly to her brain and thus she was dealing with neurological issues like poor vision, confusion and frequent unconsciousness.  To get an idea of this moment, Souther fades his film in and out of blackness.  At one moment, Valerie is tasked with simply saying her name and counting to three, but she just can’t do it.  As best as a film medium can provide, we get a sense of how lost Valerie must be during this period.  It’s a frightening moment, but again I went back to how she was described best; lacking any inhibitions.  Other subjects would have insisted that sequences like this be removed from the final cut of the film.  For Valerie Perrine, if a film is going to cover her life of ups and downs, then it’s going to cover everything.  This is quite brave of both Valerie and her director, Stacey, to cover.

Valerie’s younger brother, Dr. Ken Perrine, recollects memories of a vivacious childhood, as well as accompanying her to the Oscars, and then witnessing the health challenges she’s been facing since before 2014.  He’s as forthright as his sister.  A hard moment to watch is when he describes what it’s like to leave her home on any given day.  He wonders will this be the last time he ever sees her.  The film explores the beginnings of her illness in 2014 and goes through 2018.  Now, in 2022, Valerie is still with us and this feeling has likely never escaped Ken’s subconsciousness.  Illness of any kind is hard on the victim, but it’s also so trying on the loved ones as well.

I found out about this film from Valerie’s Facebook page.  I was only following her because she was a member of the Superman cast.  When she posted about the completion and upcoming release date for this picture, I jumped at the chance for an advance screening so that I could offer up a review.  The fact that Valerie still connects with her fans by means of social media with pictures and anecdotes inform me that she still lives life to the fullest.  The Parkinson’s never pushed her into hiding.  She stays out front with her makeup applied, adorable headpieces to wear and with her friend Stacey by her side, a camera pointing right at her.  Valerie Perrine is nothing less than an exceptionally triumphant woman.

Valerie is available now to stream on Amazon, iTunes, Appletv, google play and Youtube.   

IRON MAN

By Marc S. Sanders

It’s fair to say in 2008, a new pop culture phenomenon occurred and that was the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). The first of a collection of highly successful crossover films was Iron Man featuring a Robert Downey Jr that was offering little promise in box office and commitment following stints in prison for his personal drug addictions. Director Jon Favreau felt that Downey was right for the title role, also known as brilliant, genius, wealthy playboy Tony Stark. Favreau’s confidence, as it turned out, was right all along.

Iron Man is an origin film. Tony Stark is a man with everything, but because of a lack of surviving family following the deaths of his parents, really, he sadly has nothing.

After being captured by Afghan terrorists, Stark, the world famous weapons manufacturer, has an epiphany and opts to take his billion dollar company in a new direction by halting production on all weaponry. Stark’s partner, Obadiah Stane played by Jeff Bridges, tries to contain Stark’s new campaign, and in turn becomes an adversary to contend with.

This is a summary of a great story, and even better, I have yet to discuss the main attractions of the film, the Iron Man suits. Sci fi and adventure movies work best when the highlighted visuals are not the story, but rather what accompanies the narrative. Iron Man is not so much about the suit. Moreover, it’s about the guy who built and wears the suit.

Downey is perfect in the role. Sure, his sarcasm and impulse to perform off script can get a little tiresome, but Downey also stops to give Tony Stark some heart as he bashfully pines for Pepper Potts played by Gwyneth Paltrow as his adorable sidekick in business. Also, his maturity comes into focus following his will to undo what he’s wrought prior to his captivity. It’s a great character arc of dimension and change.

Jeff Bridges plays one of my favorite MCU villains. At least I think so, because I understand where Stane is coming from. He’s gotta answer to his stockholders. Stark and Stane are in the money business regardless of the products they market and manufacture. He’s not all about global domination. He’s a man of responsibility. Bridges went with the comic book iteration of Stane from the late ‘80s publications by going bald with a devilish goatee. His height and broad shoulders plus his age match well against Downey. Bridges’ stature is intimidating opposite Downey’s reckless lack of care and immaturity through the first half of the film. Stane puts an arm around your shoulder, and you know you’re in trouble. So, it works really well here. Jeff Bridges really ranks as one of MCU’s most overlooked gems, now over 10 years and over 20 films in.

Favreau depicts some all too real and scary moments of terrorism and violence. This is all a step above the fantasy actions later to be seen from the likes of other Marvel villains like Loki, Ultron or Thanos.

It’s sadly ironic. One terrorist kicking a local in the head is harder for me to watch than a godlike giant who eliminates half the world’s population. Still, Favreau takes advantage of Downey’s comic timing and playful chemistry with Paltrow as well. Plus, there’s Terrence Howard as the no nonsense army colonel and friend “Rhodey” Rhodes (played in later films by Don Cheadle). Had Favreau not found that balance of heavy and light, we might not have seen the longevity of this continuing franchise.

The action scenes work well too. The Iron Man and Iron Monger (Stane’s costume) engage in a well edited and choreographed fight scene in the streets and evening skies of Malibu. Stark is plagued with weaknesses to add some “yikes” moments as he faces off against the hulk size Monger with Stane in control. These scenes are not blurry. It’s really what the action scenes of the Transformers films needed.

“Iron Man” foreshadowed a lot of fun material we were meant to see in later films. Blink and you’ll miss a certain patriot’s shield and stay for the first of many legendary end credits scenes that introduces an important character, leading to an eventual hit television series as well as becomes instrumental for all of these fun crossover moments.

Iron Man is an important film in cinematic history. It blazed a trail in big box office that’s given audiences lots of escape. The success of this franchise has attempted to be matched, but no other franchise has yet to come close. Sorry Star Wars and DC Comic films.

For now, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is as bulletproof as the Iron Man.

NOTE: Stan Lee cameo salute….Was that the real Hugh Hefner?!?!?!?

THE LAST PICTURE SHOW

By Marc S. Sanders

Peter Bogdonovich’s classic adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show is a display of the ends of things that perhaps at one time had life.

The film opens on the main street of the fictional town of Anarene, Texas in November 1951, just as the Korean War was occurring.

A strong gust of wind blows while a mute, mentally handicapped boy fruitlessly sweeps a dusty street, and a junky pick up truck careens down carrying Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges) and Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms); both on the brink of adulthood with no future in sight. Anarene is a town that has a past and only a few remnants of a present represented by a pool hall, a diner and movie house. All three are owned by Sam “The Lion” (Ben Johnson in an Oscar winning performance). Sam is old and wise. The town speaks through Sam, who is well aware nothing of promise is offered here anymore. So it’s no surprise that all the remaining townsfolk can occupy themselves with are their televisions and sexual conquests.

Variations of perspectives that are sexual in nature continue to symbolize what is dying in Anarene. Cybill Shepherd in her very first role portrays Jacy, the pretty girl. Her innocence will be lost as soon as she gives away her virginity. It matters little to her how that happens. Bogdanovich offers a great scene where Jacy attends a swimming pool skinny dip party. Jacy is pressured into standing on a diving board to undress in front of the revelers. I looked at this moment as a teetering balancing act. Jacy is bordering saying goodbye to her youth forever. She does undress all the way only to almost trip off the board. For the moment, Bogdonovich saves the character’s present state as she narrowly avoids falling in the water.

Later, on a whim during New Year’s Eve, Sonny and Jackson go off to Mexico with little money in their pockets and no plan in mind. When they return, an unexpected turn of events has occurred. The fate of this town is withering away with the breeze that’s always intruding. The mute boy will occasionally sweep the street again but accomplish nothing from it.

The films in the movie house represent those that were once celebrated but are now almost never noticed as these families are becoming more glued to the next common household appliance, the television with variety hour shows.

The music never changes or grows up. Hank Williams Sr, occupies the minds of folk who maintained this town at one time and are slowly dying off. The next generation does not have much appreciation for it.

I could go on. Every scene in The Last Picture Show brings about another example of an ending. Bogdonovich was meticulous in his symbolic method of McMurty’s story.

I love that the film, released originally in 1971, was shot in black & white because it shows the story in a historical context; this is what’s left of what once was. The sexual situations don’t hold back in nudity. It’s wise as I thought the nudity clashed with the black & white; it was almost intrusive. The nudity is overcoming the home life heartland that small towns like Anarene used to be remembered for. Sadly, the characters have a hard time accepting this fate.

Cloris Leachman portrays Ruth Popper, the wife of the high school coach who she suspects of being gay. She engages in an affair with young Sonny and her big moment comes when she frustratingly throws a coffee pot at the wall in a rage. She’s terrified that Sonny could never retreat to her pace of life. He’s apt to move on from her. She’ll be stuck with a closeted gay husband in an unstimulating environment. Time has become stagnant for Ruth within the confines of a lifeless marriage and a dead town.

A new way of life awaits. Destiny for Jacy, Sonny and Duane do not include Anarene in their plans.

Eventually Sonny and Duane attend a showing of John Ford’s “Red River” featuring John Wayne. The next morning, after the movie house has closed forever (no one buys tickets anymore), a new fate awaits, maybe even death. Worse yet, maybe for one of them, there is no fate. Maybe, for one of them all that’s offered is an absence of life while residing in Anarene, Texas.

I didn’t realize how much material I absorbed until after The Last Picture Show was over. Peter Bogdonovich provided more for me to think about then I was aware of. The initial slow pace of the film seems mundane at first until you understand that people like Ruth and Sam have memories they experienced but will never carry forward. It’s sad. Their history had meaning at one time. The legacy of their past, however, has no future.

The Last Picture Show is on AFI’s 100 best movies from 2007. It deserves to be as Bogdonovich deftly shows how a past withers away from a nowhere future. His set pieces and direction of characters show the suffering they endure with an unsure end they can not escape.

I haven’t stopped thinking about The Last Picture Show since it ended.