Badlands, and six more movies

Badlands (1973)

This is the slow-burn twisted love story of a teen girl who falls for an older boy she shouldn't. She's Sissy Spacek, he's Martin Sheen, and the movie was written, produced, and directed by Terrence Malick, before his movies got all ponderous and, to my taste, pretentious, like The Tree of Life (2011) and Knight of Cups (2015).

For Badlands, Malick was satisfied to simply tell a good story, beautifully written, gorgeously filmed. Someone please send him a memo, tell him to try doing that again.

I saw Badlands several times in the 1970s and '80s but not since, until today. I still love it, but maybe because I've gotten so damned old and short on patience, my perception of it has changed. I remembered it as a story of crazed youngens on the run, sort of a horror movie with Sheen as the horror — and it is.

Watching it now, though, Sheen's character seems more sympathetic, at least at the beginning. I can totally understand why he killed Warren Oates, and heck, maybe I'd kill Warren Oates too. I was kinda rooting for Sheen even after that, but you gotta draw the line somewhere, and for me it was when he killed his lovable buddy, Ramon Bieri.

"We're sorry. Nobody's coming out of this thing happy, especially not us. I can't deny we had fun, though, and that's more than I can say for some."

Verdict: BIG YES.

The Neverending
Film Festival

♦ ♦ ♦ 

The Betsy (1978)

Laurence Olivier plays a rich bastard who wants to manufacture a newfangled car, soon as he's done banging the maid (which we see far too vividly). He wants to name the car after his hot great-granddaughter, who's busy being banged by young Tommy Lee Jones, who's engineering the car when he's not banging the dame.

I find cars kinda boring, so I'm not the target audience, but this movie is very boring. It putters and sputters like an engine that's about to blow.

It's based on a (presumably very bad) novel by Harold Robbins, with Olivier inventing an American accent I didn't recognize, and turning in the worst performance of his otherwise legendary career. And it co-stars Paul Rudd, but not that Paul Rudd.

Verdict: BIG NO.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

The Domino Principle (1977)

Gene Hackman and Mickey Rooney are cellmates and best buddies in prison. Richard Widmark is a mysterious visitor who wants to get Hackman out, for reasons he's reticent to detail. Eli Wallach is Widmark's boss. Hackman, Widmark, and Wallach — that's a blessed trinity, but Rooney in a dramatic role is always, always a bad thing, so I'm pleased to report that he's mostly gone after the first third of the movie. Candice Bergen plays Hackman's wife, but it's a small, one-note role.

This is a political thriller, and like most thrillers, it has thrilling stretches and then boring stretches. The big mystery is no mystery, but it's entertaining enough that you won't want your money back.

Producer/director Stanley Kramer never made a movie that didn't have a political message, and the message here might've been profound in the 1960s, but it was well-known by the time he made this movie, and it's even better-known now, to the point that the movie's big twist is really no surprise, so I'm going to give it all away: Spies tend to be bad guys, even 'our' spies.

Verdict: MAYBE.

It's not relevant to the movie, but I wonder whether people younger than me know what 'the domino principle' was. It was the bullshit theory pushed by warmongers in the 1960s and '70s, that if America doesn't use guns and bombs and the CIA to put down left-leaning revolutions and coups and elections in places like Vietnam, and Congo, Indonesia, Ghana, Cambodia, Laos, Iran, Iraq, on and on, the dominoes (governments) will continue toppling the wrong way instead of the way America wants, and soon all the world would be left-leaning.

This was imagined to be a bad thing.

It's not.

♦ ♦ ♦  

In the Year 2889 (1969)

World War III has happened ("three billion people murdered by a thousand nuclear bombs and the lethal fallout") and this movie takes place at the home of some rich old survivalist who knew this day was coming. He built his home to make it through the apocalypse — the house and sprawling grounds have their own generator and food supply, all surrounded by cliffs of lead-bearing ore that'll theoretically absorb some of the post-nuke radiation, and there's a warm-water lake that he figures will vent the rest of the radiation up up and away.

That kooky concept could've been interesting, but the execution is so laid-back I didn't need my recliner. There's only enough food and supplies for three people, but other survivors have crashed the compound, and the old guy carries a gun and insists he's in charge, yet he doesn't even try sending the intruders away.

One of the house-crashers still thinks he's headed to L.A. when this all blows over, and someone else has to explain that Los Angeles itself got blown over. All the unwelcome but tolerated guests are similarly stupid, and then one of them — with severe radiation burns — stops eating or drinking but somehow still walks around and starts feeling better. Turns out he's some freak of nature, thriving on the radiation instead of wasting away.

Since the movie starts so stupid, it's surprising that it gets even dumber as it goes along, and no matter what happens, the armed survivalist never even thinks about kicking anyone out.

Verdict: BIG NO.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

JCVD (2008) 

Action actor Jean-Claude Van Damme plays himself as a 48-year-old movie star who's trapped on several fronts — he's losing his daughter in a divorce and custody case, he doesn't have enough money in the bank to pay his lawyers, and he's basically all washed up in the movie business. Then he goes to the post office and stumbles into a hostage situation — and the bad guys force him to act as their spokesman.

Despite the silliness of that set-up, this is a serious movie, and undoubtedly the best Van Damme movie I've seen. It opens with a breathtaking single-shot action sequence, but after that, the movie's action is essentially over. Van Damme the kickboxer checks out, and Van Damme the actor takes over. 

It feels like an art flick, maybe because it's all in French with subtitles. English is Van Damme's second language; he's better in French, and delivers a hell of a soliloquy at the movie's climax.

Haven't seen a Van Damme movie since the 1990s, and I was never a fan. Always thought he was just another action star with an accent. He made passably entertaining kickboxing movies, so I'd munch some popcorn while he cracked some skulls, but I never watched a Van Damme movie and said to myself when it was over, "Wow!"

With Van Damme playing Van Damme in a movie named after Van Damme, schlock on schlock on schlock was my only expectation, but — "Wow!" JCVD is not schlock. Carried by the star's acting chops, not his fighting cops, it's simply a surprisingly strong movie.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

My Name is Bruce (2007)

This is similar in concept to JCVD, but aims far, far lower. It's an action/horror movie with Bruce Campbell playing an action/horror movie star named Bruce Campbell. If you'd asked me yesterday, I would've said I was much more a fan of Campbell than of Van Damme, but...

Obnoxious teenagers wander through a graveyard, and one of them finds a magic doorknob or something, that lets loose monsters from another dimension. The monsters quickly eliminate most of the teenagers, but Bruce Campbell is filming a shitty movie nearby, so one of the surviving kids runs to Campbell's trailer for help.

With that set-up, any complaints are probably void in advance, but everything I've liked about Campbell is muted here. My Name is Bruce is played broadly, obviously, and stupidly, and the hero takes way too long to slip into hero mode.

Campbell's movie-star charm probably works better with a real director, but this was directed by Bruce Campbell. Also, for a movie made only 15 years ago, there are way too many jokes where the joke is that Chinese people are Chinese.

If I live five or ten more years, I'll probably get a hankering to watch JCVD again. For My Name is Bruce, watching it once is more than enough.

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Warlords of the Twenty-First Century (1982)
a/k/a Battletruck
a/k/a Destructors

There's a pretty good movie hidden in here, about a post-apocalyptic community where most of the people are working together and trying to build a better society, and one or two of them are butt-heads. A mysterious young woman tries to join the tribe, not saying much about where she's from or why she's there.

Unfortunately, that movie is wrapped inside a more boring movie about a blandly ruthless villain who's not literally twirling his mustache all the time, but might as well. That mysterious woman is his daughter, but she wisely hates him. I hate him, too. Not because he's evil — his evil is cardboard, nothing but bad acting — but because he and his gang of dumbass bad guys are so boringly movie-ordinary.

The score, mostly electric guitar and drums, is credited to someone named Kevin Peek, but the only memorable music is by Aaron Copeland, uncredited. If you're going to filch, by golly, filch from the best, but "Appalachian Spring" is too familiar to plagiarize.

Verdict: NO.

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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. "For Badlands, Malick was satisfied to simply tell a good story, beautifully written, gorgeously filmed. Someone please send him a memo, tell him to try doing that again."


    1. A difficult sell, but... I have it now. Maybe.

      I haven't watched a movie in two weeks, which must be a lifetime record. I've been working on one movie, watching it in 15-minute chunks...


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