The Last Starfighter, and six more movies

Dirty Work (1998)

Norm MacDonald recently croaked, and he was never in my top ten or even twenty funny people, but sometimes he made me laugh so I liked the guy. I'd say the same about Bob Saget, who followed MacDonald into croakitude earlier this year. In honor of some laughs gone by, Dirty Work was on my watchlist — it's directed by Saget and stars MacDonald.

The Neverending
Film Festival

When he was a kid, Mitch (MacDonald) was "the king of revenge." He'd take no crap, and if you gave him crap, he'd find a way to get even or get ahead.

Then he grew up and, as with most adults who aren't rich, his life became nothing but taking crap — from his boss, his girlfriend, and the universe at large. In his 30s, this movie's Mitch gets tired of taking crap and starts Dirty Work Inc, selling "revenge for hire."

That's the setup for this comedy, and you're right, it doesn't sound funny. Most of it isn't, and the story is dumb. Dirty Work is far below the Mendoza line — nine out of ten jokes fall flat, and of the remainder, half are homophobic or about hookers or how smelly the homeless are. Some of the jokes are lowbrow funny, though, and it has the virtue of being short — an hour and 21 minutes, including a very slow credits-crawl at the end.

"Note to self: Remember no matter how bad life gets, there is always beer."

With special guest bits by Don Rickles, Chris Farley, Gary Coleman, Ken Norton, Adam Sandler, and unfunny Chevy Chase, I borderline enjoyed this and wish I could recommend it, but the best I can do is, "You could do worse, and rest in peace, MacDonald and Saget."

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦

The Last Starfighter (1984)

"I've been to another planet, Ma."

This is a minor-league sci-fi flick from (believe it or not) the makers of The Waltons. I saw it and enjoyed it when it first came out, but I'd forgotten almost everything about it (one of the advantages of being old) so it was brand new to me when I saw it again yesterday.

Lance Guest stars. Never heard of him before or since, but he's pretty good here as Alex, a kid who lives in a pre-internet trailer park. As required of teenage boys in such movies, he has a pretty girlfriend and yearns to get away from the nowhere he grew up in.

At the trailer court, the only entertainment is a video game — an old-school, pinball-type box that plays just one game, called Starfighter, when you feed quarters into its slot. Alex is quite good at Starfighter, and when he breaks the box's all-time record, the device signals across several galaxies to Centurai (Robert Preston). Turns out, the video game is how new starfighters are recruited by the Star League, to defend the frontier against Zur and the Cordonn Armada.

"Welcome to Rylos, my boy! May the luck of the seven pillars of Boolu be with you at all times!"

This movie is almost 40 years old, and most of its special effects have cheesified in that time, but everything else about The Last Starfighter is hard to resist. Best of all, Preston's character is basically Harold Hill from The Music Man again, and he's having a grand time.

"Did Chris Columbus say he wanted to stay home? No! What if the Wright brothers thought that only birds should fly? And what if Galokka thought the yueddles were too ugly to save?"

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

New Rose Hotel (1998)

This movie has several names I respect. It's co-written and directed by Abel Ferrara, based on a short story by William Gibson, and stars Christopher Walken, Willem Dafoe, Asia Argento. Ferrara worries me, though — he's made some great movies but also lots of utter rubbish. Gibson, the cyberpunk impresario, is a mystery to me — everyone says he's great, but whenever I've tried reading Gibson, he's put me to sleep. Maybe a movie version will work better?

It does, for the first two-thirds of the film. Walken and Dafoe are delightfully up to no good together, and Argento is the bait they're using to target a superstar Japanese high-tech bro. Everything clicks, both in their criminal plans and as a movie.

Then things go wrong, and Dafoe holes up in the New Rose Hotel, a place that rents cheap sleeping cubes for the poor or adrift (check me in). While Dafoe thinks about things, piecing together what went wrong, we spend the last third of the movie re-watching scenes and dialogue from the first two-thirds.

Yes, elements can be seen in a different light during the rewatch, but it's a deadening way to resolve what had been a good enough movie.

Walken is excellent, of course. Has he ever been not, in anything? He does some dancing here, which clearly brought him to Fatboy Slim's attention for the famous "Weapon of Choice" music video a few years later. In some scenes, you can almost hear that song, though it hadn't yet been recorded.

Other than that, though, the movie disappoints and underwhelms.

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Night Sky (2022)

Out in the shed there's a portal to another dimension, or a different planet.

After watching four episodes of this Amazon eight-part miniseries, that's just about all we know — out in the shed there's a portal to another dimension, or a different planet. We've known that since the first moments of the first episode, but nothing's been done with the idea.

It's paced very slowly, which isn't a problem when it's about the old couple at its center, because they're played by J K Simmons and Sissy Spacek — two great actors, incapable of being boring. There are several subplots, though, and without Simmons and Spacek on screen, it's nap time.

One of the subplots involves a single mom and her daughter, and they're llama-herders in South America or something, so they speak Spanish. Since the dawn of sound in cinema, when a foreign language is spoken, movies and TV have given us subtitles. Amazon doesn't play by such rules, though. There are no subtitles here. There's only closed-captioning, which isn't the same, since it's only visible if you've switched it on.

Our story so far: Out in the shed there's a portal to another dimension, or a different planet. That's been our story so far after each of the first four episodes, but yours truly has left the recliner.

I'm not gonna keep clicking closed-captions on and then off again from one scene to another, and not gonna keep watching a show that has a portal to another dimension out in the shed, but doesn't want to use it, show it, or even much talk about it.

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Revolution (1968)

Filmed on location and at the moment, this is a documentary on the hippie scene of San Francisco in the 1960s. There are thousands of people dancing in the park, panhandling on the sidewalk, getting high, getting laid, doing anything but holding an honest job, and man, it was beautiful.

The movie offers these kids a chance to talk, and also turns the camera toward worried officials from 'the establishment'. It's all served with generous helpings of rock'n'roll and zooming quick-cut camera work intended to imply an altered state of reality or some such.

In talking to hippies, the moviemakers seem especially intrigued by one very pretty blonde female, and who wouldn't be? Likewise the film's occasional nudity is (almost?) entirely by healthy young women. Lotsa boobs, not many hairy chests. The movie is mostly sympathetic to the hippie movement, but it's from a major studio (MGM) and they knew what would sell tickets.

My complaint is that there's no telling who's who, because we're given no chyrons on screen. That pretty hippie chick tells us that her name is Today, and tells us why, but nobody else is identified. Unless you recognize him, you wouldn't even know it's a young Herb Caen, the long-time Chronicle columnist, explaining to the camera that he first smoked marijuana when it was given to him by a cop.

These kids and young adults ran away from home to come to San Francisco, and a reminder of their runaway status is the too-brief imagery of 'lost people' signs on storefront windows: 'Have you seen Brad?' 'Please call home.' 'We're not angry, just wondering where you are and worried.'

When these runaways arrived they found each other, and sent for their friends, and soon, simply because there were so many of them, they'd taken control of some parks and neighborhoods. It's not surprising that many of the locals — the employed, the homeowners, the ordinary — didn't welcome these newcomers.

Whether you'll enjoy the film probably hinges on your opinion of the place, and time, and the hippie movement. For me, the place was Frisco, where I spent some happy years. The time was too early — I would've been there, but the scene was over before I was old enough. And for all the movement's problems and despite some valid complaints, for me there's no disputing that the hippies changed America, very much for the better. I wish they'd never faded away.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

The St. Louis Bank Robbery (1959)

Has there been only one bank robbery in St Louis? Well, this movie dramatizes it. The moviemakers brag that it has the original cops playing themselves, but that's just a dumb gimmick — most of the cops have no lines, and the few who speak say things like, "Make mine a ham sandwich."

Steve McQueen (the real one, very good as a bad guy, and very young) is supposed to drive the getaway car. It's his first crime so he's a little nervous, and his cohorts aren't sure he can handle it.

The cops play themselves but the robbers don't, so you can probably guess that everything goes wrong. Ocean's Eleven, this isn't, but it's enjoyable watching everything go wrong for someone who's not me.

Verdict: YES. 

♦ ♦ ♦

TransSiberian (2008)

Ben Kingsley wears a fur cap because he's supposed to be Russian? Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer are Christian missionaries in China? This seems unlikely.

When their mission ends, Woody and Emily board a train for a long ride to Moscow, naïvely surprised to hear stories on the train of bureaucracy and police corruption in Russia. Everything goes wrong after they meet and befriend another English-speaking couple on the train, and by the end they're not so naïve.

This looks and feels like a tense mystery/thriller, and possibly it's very good, but Kate Mara is in it. I'm sure she's a great actress and a fine humanitarian, but I've always disliked her in everything she's in. I feel the same about Leonardo DiCaprio. Just can't stand either of them, and never want to see them in anything.

Harrelson's gone from the movie a lot, so Mortimer is mostly the star, and she's great. All through this, though, whenever the tension builds and it's getting good, Kate Mara pops onto the screen again, so eventually I clicked it off and ate a bowl of soup.

Verdict: MAYBE, but not for me.

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Top illustration by Jeff Meyer. No talking once the lights dim. Real butter, not that fake crap, on the popcorn. Piracy is not a victimless crime. Click any image to enlarge. Comments & conversations invited.  


  1. What's your problem with Kata Mara? She's hot, she emotes, she was in House of Cards before it got stinky.

    1. Wiki:

      "The Mara family is an Irish-American family primarily known for owning the New York Giants of the National Football League (NFL) since the formation of the franchise in 1925."

      They're billionaires, and have been for more than a century. We don't need these kinds of people making art for us. Fuck 'em.

    2. Well, polish my apples. I didn't know she was related to *that* evil Mara family. Thanks for the info.

      I just can't stand her viscerally, with no particular reason except that she *looks* and behaves (at least on screen) like someone I should dislike.

    3. The sins of the family fall on the daughter.

      I think Abraham Lincoln said that.


    4. How's your computer repair or replacement coming along, John?

  2. Slowly. Like the strategic missile defense shield funding continues to be a problem. Also, it’s hard to find a computer without a computer. I touch type fairly fast and thumb very slowly so my brain is always two sentences ahead which puts it behind.

    I have learned that brevity is not my strong suit.


    1. I have *very* limited experience on those tiny devices, and like you it would drive me mad. Heck, even typing on my laptop feels cramped so I have a full-size keyboard attached via USB. Rooting for you from a distance, man.


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