Unseen Movie Reviews

I review movies occasionally on this blog, but there’s one type of movie review I’ve been anxious to try: an analysis of a film I haven’t seen.

The impulse comes from the large impact cinema has on American culture. Movies influence the words we use, the conversations we have, the shape and movement of our dreams. They can reach us even when we try to avoid them; I will never, ever watch a particular film from 1986, mostly because I have always wanted to punch the face of the lead actor from the film’s movie poster, but I still know that insufferable punk stops a Chicago parade by singing Danke Schoen.

I embrace the cinema’s influence, which is why I find it unusual to have missed certain films. From professional reviews and anecdotes related by friends, I know their most memorable scenes, and can recite many of their famous quotes. And while I could rent most of these movies from the library or an online rental service, I like being able to convey my appreciation for these films that I’ve never seen.

Some ground rules. First, and most important, these are films that I want to see; disappointing sequels, enigmatic foreign films, renowned movies from a genre I don’t appreciate, and the just plain bad are all exempt. Second, movies that remain on my must-see list, like this one, will be exempt from my irony. The films to be reviewed in these posts are ones that I have no good reason for seeing any more, as they can have no greater influence on me than they already have.

Four films come immediately to mind; I’m certain to think of others. But every series of movie reviews has to have a countdown.

#4: Dracula (1931)

Why I Can’t Believe I Haven’t Seen This Movie: All those weekend evenings watching black and white Creature Double Features on grainy UHF channels, and I somehow never saw this classic. I am completely enthralled by Bram Stoker’s novel, and many critics consider Bela Lugosi’s performance as the Count to be the best.

The One Time I Came Close To Finally Seeing The Movie: About a decade ago, I saw a DVD edition of the film on a shelf, and checked it out. It sat on the entertainment center for months, collecting late fees, until I got annoyed with myself and returned it.

Why I Probably Won’t Ever See It Now: The film’s nearly a century old and apparently wasn’t particularly well-made even by the standards of its time. Forty years ago, the fanboy in me would not have noticed the lack of quality; today, the film would probably inspire me to check my phone for Facebook updates.

The One Image I’ll Never Forget, Even Though I Haven’t Seen It: Bela Lugosi, hands raised to shoulder level, ready to pounce on his victim.

The One Line I’ll Always Remember, Even Though I’ve Never Heard It: “I don’t drink… wine.”

I Haven’t Seen This Film, But I Have Seen: The Lost Boys (1987), a distinctly modern American take on the legend of vampires, and a film that is both scary and genuinely funny. “Attack of Eddie Munster!”


Bound for Somewhere

[I’m currently taking a writing class that in all honesty has been pretty disappointing. Yet I liked what I wrote for one of the assignments, so at least I got something out of it.]

My high school guidance counselor was a big-city tough woman who, after four decades in Philadelphia, fled the chaos of urban life for the chaos of small-town living. She had broad shoulders, thick arms that looked like they could crush you if she wished (and given her temper, this often did seem to be her wish), and a voice gravelled from cigarette smoke. She did not suffer lack of effort gladly, and would call you out if you didn’t perform up to her standards. Yet for all her brusqueness, students at our school knew she had our best interests in mind, and would fight anyone on our behalf. Which is why none of us ever reported her for using the f-word in class.

I was one of a handful of students who got along well with her, so when my time came to discuss college applications during the fall of my senior year, I actually looked forward to our meeting. At that time, I wanted to attend one of the small liberal arts colleges my father and I had visited over the past month, each of them far removed from my hometown in rural Maine, but no more than a day’s drive away from my family. A good, but comfortable distance.

As I entered her office that afternoon, she was leafing through papers on her desk. Without looking up, she commanded me — “Sit.” I obeyed. “Where are you applying?” I gave her the names of three colleges in New Hampshire.

For the first time that afternoon, she looked up at me. “No,” she said. “Not good enough.”

She leaned back in her chair, and pulled a college guide from the shelf, a book thick enough to cause blunt trauma should it be used as a weapon. She tossed the book onto her desk, and glared across the table at me. “Major.” I stared back at her blankly, and she replied by barking my last name, and asking “What are you going to study?” When she called you by your last name, she was done joking with you.

“J — journalism.” I swallowed. “I want to be a journalist.”

She pursed her lips, evaluating my career choice. She then nodded, and as she opened the college guide, I exhaled.

She leafed through several pages, until finally stopping. “North Carolina. Good journalism school.” She looked up, and pointed a gnarled, nicotine-stained finger at me. “You’re applying there.” She returned her attention to the guide, and was about to turn the page when her eyes found another entry. “Northwestern. I don’t know if you have the grades to get in, but that’s your reach school.”

I raised my eyebrows upon hearing, for the first time, the name of the university which would be at the center of my life for the next two decades. My initial reaction was to the distance. “You really think I want to go to Seattle?”

She looked at me as if I’d asked her if I could apply for college on Mars. “It’s in Chicago, for Christ’s sake. My God, we gotta get you out of this damn town.”

Wagon Tales

Every winter, I like to abstain from alcohol for a brief period, 10 days or so. It’s a way to break the momentum of consumption that begins over the holidays, gathers momentum over my tropical vacation (have I mentioned lately how fortunate I am?), and turns into a runaway train as my favorite professional football team marches towards the championship game. A bit of sobriety around this time helps keep me from going off the rails.

In an instance of literary karma, in my second day back on the wagon I stumbled across an intriguing personal essay on sobriety. Thomas Cochran writes with integrity about himself and his year-long break from alcohol. His self-deprecating wit prevents him from either pitying or congratulating himself, and he relates the discoveries he’s made without being preachy. His voice is of a man you can’t help but root for.

I can’t see myself riding this wagon for a whole year, but having my head clear for a couple of weeks lets me reassess why I choose to use. And that type of self-assessment is never a bad thing.

Review: Five Rings

I have two requirements for sports books:

1. Tell me something I don’t know

2. Don’t tell me something I know is false

Neither rule sets the bar too high, but on both counts, Jerry Thorton’s history of the New England Patriots over the last two decades falls short. It’s really disappointing, as I hoped to pass the interminable wait for New England’s latest trip to the Super Bowl with an engaging read. The experience, however, was more like watching the Patriots waltz through a desultory November game against an opponent who had already packed it in for the year.

I found no information in this book that wasn’t either common knowledge among Patriots fans like myself, or could be discovered through a simple Google search. As far as I could tell, the author conducted no new interviews, did minimal additional research, and scanned a couple DVDs from his entertainment center to perform his “analysis” of key Patriots games. It’s a disappointing performance, the equivalent of a wide receiver jogging through his route, and particularly upsetting when you consider the opening scene: the author roaming through the White House as part of the media team covering the Patriots’ perfunctory presidential visit. (The support for The Fraud among the quarterback, coach, and owner of my favorite professional football team is at the top of my Things I Don’t Like To Talk About list.) I fully expected some revealing anecdote or observation — a funny offhand comment, an unusual portrait hanging in the hall perhaps — but, nah. To use yet another football analogy, the lack of any memorable information from the White House visit was like having your quarterback overthrow a wide-open receiver in the end zone.

Moving on to my second rule, I found a disturbing number of factual errors. To give one example, the author states that after the Patriots lost the 2017 AFC Championship game to Denver, Tom Brady’s playoff records against Peyton Manning fell to 2-2. Because I devote far too much of my memory to meaningless sports statistics (a malady I share with 95% of sports fans from the New England region), I know Brady and Manning have actually met five times in the playoffs, with three of those games won by (and I’m forcing myself to complete this sentence) Manning. Call them trivial errors, but for someone who claims to be a dutiful fan of the team, they’re just not excusable.

His dust-cover biography claims the author is a stand-up comic, so I was even more disappointed to discover very few laugh lines (although I must admit, “there are two things I know to be true: Witches don’t exist. But witch hunts always manage to find them” is as insightful as it is funny). It’s odd, because Thorton at times can be a clever writer, with a gift for metaphor; when describing Tom Brady’s cool response in a high-pressure situation, he writes: “his body language was that of a guy flipping through the channel guide looking to see what’s on.” I admire writing like this; I just wish there was more to admire about this book.

If you’re a Patriots fan with a short memory, you may find this review of the Patriots’ remarkable run (which could result in yet another championship later tonight) refreshing. But if you’re looking for more, you’re likely to be disappointed.