Special Bulletin, and a few more movies

#202  [archive]

Special Bulletin (1983)
Streaming free

Terrorists claim to have a nuclear bomb, aboard a small tugboat in the harbors of Charleston, South Carolina. The threat might be plausible, because their leader is a highly-respected nuclear scientist gone rogue. The twist is that these events are presented as if it's actually happening, and being covered by TV news.

It's a made for TV movie, filmed on video, and it looks like news, not a movie. And it's really, really good on several levels.

First, most important and most obviously, it works as a sweaty drama.

Second, it works as a 'message movie', with enough talk of the horrors of nuclear weapons to get its point across, but not so much that it becomes tiresome or preachy or bogs down the story.

Third and unexpectedly, it works as a parody of teevee news, with somber anchors projecting polished gravitas and expertise even when they don't know squat, and reporters blathering their blather in the familiar language of 'reporting live!' and always looking good. There's even a rant from one of the terrorists against the shallowness of television news, broadcast live on television, while the anchor squirms.

Remarkably, the movie succeeds at all three tasks at the same time, which makes it simply a blast to contemplate many millions of deaths in a flash of light.

I don't think it's coincidence that the newscasters turn for expert insight to a scientist at Princeton, as did Orson Welles in his original radiocast of War of the Worlds. It's a tip o' the hat, and this is as good as that.

We've all had nightmares of nuclear war, and in younger years I expected to see it in my lifetime. It still wouldn't surprise me. Nothing's changed, and any of us could be dust in twenty minutes. That'll be true so long as we have nuclear weapons, and we'll never not have nuclear weapons, so there we are.

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

Flashburn (2017)

A man asleep in a badly damaged yellow pickup truck is awakened by an unexplained shootout, and soon finds he's wearing an ankle bracelet that won't let him leave a parking garage. Say wha—?

Then an old-style landline phone rings, even though it's off the hook, and a woman's voice tells him he's Dr Wes Nolan, and that she knows he's lost his memory. Soon, the voice is talking to Wes without the phone, like she's in his head or sumfin.

"I am your ally, not your enemy."

This isn't the worst idea for a low-budget thriller, but it's poorly written, breaks its own rules soon as they're explained, and Wes never makes much effort to resist the voice's orders.

I came for schlock, so actual artistry doesn't matter, but the omnipresent voice in Wes's head bugs me. She makes no effort, and sounds like the android that says, "Your call is important to us, please hold..." only she always mispronounces the word 'important'. "Your call is imporded to us."

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Squirm (1976) 
Streaming free

Worms aren't inherently scary where I live. They're icky but harmless.

In the South, though, some minimal research confirms that they have scarier worms — bloodworms and bristle worms that have tiny fangs and will bite when provoked.

"There's a lot of spaghetti here. May take us ten, fifteen minutes to finish it. That's a bigger head start than you deserve."

In the tiny town of Fly Creek, Georgia, where everyone speaks with exaggerated Southern accents, 100,000 fanged worms being shipped to Willie's Bait Shop have disappeared. Turns out there's been a power outage that's sending a zillion volts straight into the ground, which really pisses off the fanged worms. And just like that, you've got a horror movie.

Early on, there's a pretty redhead in a shower, and the film snows neither boobies nor snatch. That's a good sign. Means the moviemakers are aiming higher than my groin.

Squirm has a great "bad Southern sheriff" who's not the typical bad Southern sheriff, and all the tensions build until exactly the halfway point, where the gruesomeness gets underway.

I'd been led to believe that this film had a subtle political point to go with all the worms, but if so it wriggled right past me. As schlock, though, it's a fairly flawless effort. You'll say Eeewww. 

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Stephen Fry in America (2008)
Streaming free

Noted Brit actor and author and man about town Stephen Fry says he's always been intrigued and bemused by America, so he's off to tour the Colonies, even as he insists on calling Maryland 'Mary Land'.

In Massachusetts, he briskly explains the American Revolution and the Boston Tea Party to his British audience.

In Minnesota, he goes ice fishing.

After visiting a New Jersey casino, Fry's assessment:

"And while I have nothing against gambling per se, the effect is truly devastating. Many have been ruined by their addiction, easily as toxic as any drug. In the end the house always wins. It's irrefutable arithmetic. As embodied in these trashy, tawdry palaces, I personally find the whole business vulgar, tasteless, and desperately sad. Maybe that's just me."

I wish the series had more bits of Fry's exasperation, but there's not much like that.

More ordinary is the show's visit to Louisiana's ghastly Angola prison, where Fry chats cordially with the warden. Nearly every sentence from the warden's mouth reveals him to be more of a bastard than his prisoners. Who's more evil — a man guilty of killing one person, or the warden who methodically does all he can legally do to make sure thousands of prisoners are miserable every day of the rest of their lives?

All Fry says is that Angola has "become a model of how a prison can work." Yikes. I'm a Fry fan so I hope he said that with supreme irony, but seeing all of America in six one-hour episodes, it can't help but be frequently superficial.

What's a state famous for? Fry goes there, shows us, and then he's on to the next state. It's enjoyable, yes, and it's colorful and pretty, Fry is often amusing, but an American won't learn much.

Here in my Washington, for example, the first stop is Seattle's Pike Place Market, then the famous Aquarium, then half a minute at a cabaret show, and then — north to Alaska.

Washington did better than Oregon, though, where the show drives north on the Interstate but doesn't stop.

Verdict: YES.


• • • Coming attractions • • •

The Time Traveler's Wife (2009)

You Can't Take It With You (1938)

... plus occasional schlock and surprises 

    • • • And then • • •

A Better Tomorrow (1996)

A Gnome Named Gnorm (1990)

A Night in Casablanca (1946) 

Alexander Nevsky (1938)

The Bat People (1974) 

The Beatles: Get Back (2021) 

Berkeley in the Sixties (1990)

Brainwaves (1983) 

The Card Counter (2021) 

Cellular (2004)  

The Celluloid Closet (1996)

The Dark Glow of the Mountains (1985)

Dark Star (1974)

The Day My Parents Became Cool (2009) 

The Decline of Western Civilization (1980) 

Downsizing (2017)

Frankenhooker (1990) 

The General (1926) 

Get Shorty (1995)

The Gorilla (1939)

The Green Girl (2014)

Hiroshima (1953)

Hugo (2011) 

The Importance of Being Earnest (1952)

The Internet's Own Boy (2014)

Kids in the Hall (debut episode; 1988)  

Kids in the Hall (reunion debut episode; 2022) 

The Killing of America (1981) 

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)  

Line of Duty (debut episode; 2012)

Love Happy (1950)

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

The Man Who Thought Life (1969)

The Man with Nine Lives (1940)

The Manhattan Project (1996) 

Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966)

Not Wanted (1949)

Nothing But a Man (1964) 

Phone Booth (2002)

PickAxe (1999)

Poison (1990)

Popeye (1980)

Reflections of Evil (2002)

Revelations (1993)

Ride in the Whirlwind (1966)

Romper Stomper (1992)

Room Service (1938) 

Same Kind of Different as Me (2017) 

Saved! (2004)

Scared to Death (1947) 

Secret Weapons (1985) 

The Shooting (1966)

The Soloist (2009) 

Sons of the Desert (1933)

Street of Crocodiles (1986)

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

Taken for a Ride (1996)

The Train (1964)

Truck Turner (1974)

Welcome to New Orleans (2006)

Who Farted? (2019) 

Who's That Girl? (1987) 

Wristcutters: A Love Story (2006)

There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twenty-plex, you're missing out.

To get beyond the ordinary, I recommend:

AlterCineverseCriterionCultCinema ClassicsDocsVilleDustFandorFilms for ActionHooplaIHaveNoTVIndieFlixInternet ArchiveKanopyKinoCultKino LorberKorean Classic FilmChristopher R MihmMosfilmMubiNational Film Board of CanadaNew Yorker Screening RoomDamon PackardMark PirroPizzaFlixPopcornFlixPublic Domain MoviesRareFilmmScarecrow VideoShudderThoughtMaybeTimeless Classic MoviesVoleFlixWatchDocumentaries • or your local library

Some people even access films through shady methods, though of course, that would be wrong.

— — —

 Illustration by Jeff Meyer. Reviews are spoiler-free, or at least spoiler-warned. Click any image to enlarge. Arguments & recommendations are welcome, but no talking once the lights dim, and only real butter on the popcorn, not that fake yellow stuff. 
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  1. Stephen Fry has done some remarkable work, from Jeeves and Wooster to recent docs to going through cancer with online reports. I've seen the doc you reviewed a couple of times, and you got it exactly right. They didn't waste a lot of money on research. They could have borrowed my 25 year old jalopy (which was younger then) and spent the money they spent shipping the London cab on research. He drove the freeway in the state to the south of us, the only state -- to my knowledge -- which bought much of its coastline for the populace to enjoy as parks and recreation areas -- a beautiful coast -- and he's driving up the interstate. Nonetheless, whenever Stephen is talking this doc gets better. It's just a pleasure who hear someone who speaks the language we inherited so well.


    1. I can't even remember how I first stumbled across Fry. Like everyone who's anyone in England, he's been on Doctor Who but I knew him well before that. Might've been an article on atheism, long ago.

  2. postscript: Dude, you got the right quote. My extended family -- now, thankfully, divorced out and moved on -- was devastated by casino gambling (several hundred thousand dollars in fairly low-income families). When I had an income, the family would go on a weekday for the "free" dinner. I'd risk thirty cents a spin for a while, then watch other people lose, but I saw people who couldn't pay their electric bill play Bandits for three or four bucks a spin for hours, then eat their "free" dinner. Fry characterized middle class American gambling remarkably accurately. It is dangerous and sometimes a family disaster.


    1. Free dinner for everyone, not just for high rollers? I'd be there.

      I've been to casinos many times (mostly for bingo, which my wife inexplicably loved) and they usually had cheap buffets, but free? All-I-can-eat? I'd be there.

      Some people are vulnerable to gambling, same as booze or drugs or Trump. It is sad to see it, and I am lucky to be immune.

    2. I don't want to steer you wrong here. This is the Puyallup Tribal Casino off I-5 when you first get to Tacoma. And my information is about fifteen years old. It's a lot fancier than when we were going there. They now have a hotel and fancier dining facilities. But yes, you checked in and you were expected to at least play on the slot machines for two hours before you picked up your food voucher. My BiL literally played a penny a pull and didn't particularly rush his pulls. Nobody ever gave him shit. And the food was quite good. Pretty good steaks and lots of seafood and a terrific salad bar and fine desserts. And you were never rushed out. If it took you two hours to eat, then that's how long it took you. Free refills on everything. I have no idea how much any of that has changed.


    3. Wow.

      My Mrs really loved casino bingo, but we never saw a deal like that of I would've loved casino bingo too.

      So loud, though. Bing bong bong bong bing bong bing and it hurts my head.

    4. To some people it's the sound of the Sirens. Those are the people who are going to get into trouble.


    5. And by the way, the first three seasons of House are well-written and well-acted. After that it went downhill. Try an episode from season 1. Obviously tastes vary, but I enjoyed the show for a while.


    6. Claude Jackpot ReignsOctober 29, 2023 at 8:03 PM


    7. I used to like doctor shows, until my wife got sick and I saw too many real doctors. I understand Laurie played House as a prick, and that's certainly doctor-accurate, but does he actually have a heart of gold? Does he think a moment about patients after they're not directly in front of him? If so, I don't think I could stand it.

    8. Jeez, Twin Peaks must've changed a lot since the half-dozen episodes I watched when it first came on ABC. Why is the FBI guy in a casino, always winning?

      You did nudge me toward the theme song, though. Hadn't heard it in far too long, love me some Angelo Badalamenti.

    9. I understand why you don't like doctor shows and I'm not selling. As a matter of fact, House doesn't have many redeeming characteristics. He's a badly damaged guy who doesn't have a heart of anything.


    10. As you know, you care about many things and people other than yourself. House, not so much.


    11. The original Twin Peaks didn't interest me at all, but his 18-hour Twin Peaks: The Return (or season 3) is among his three best works. Unbelievably brilliant and fucked up and heartbreaking. If you dislike latter Lynch, you'll hate it, though. But man, Kyle MacLachlan gives the best performance of the 21st century here, playing like half a dozen characters, all wildly different yet all necessary and making perfect sense. The last couple episodes are the most moving things Lynch has ever done, but I'm at a loss to say why... they're about the passage of time, among other things. The very last scene is so simple and extraordinary. If you watch just one episode, make it Part 8 "Gotta Light?" and prepare to be melted down in your recliner.

    12. Doctor Shows: We all hate doctors, and rightly so (I suppose it's really the insurance companies we should hate - I pay through the nose every week in insurance deductions at my job, yet a single 1-hour visit to a walk-in clinic still costs me $400... Fuck America) but there is one good show about doctors, from Lars Von Trier, called The Kingdom. Strange, misanthropic, hilariously xenophobic characters, and ghosts.

    13. I dunno, John... mostly I care about myself. Maybe I ought to watch House.

    14. The original TP was one of the strangest things ever on commercial TV, but after several episodes it became clear that Mr Lynch was more interested in throwing 'weird' at the telly than telling a story. Back then, early '90s, I wanted a story.

      Clicked it off, and never paid attention to any of the TP that followed. I guess to me TP was Lynch's downfall. But sometimes I'm wrong.

      If it's still a soap opera I wouldn't want to jump in at episode 8, so I ask: Is it worth catching up?

    15. I was going to say I saw The Kingdom, but it was a European mini-series about pervy cops or priests (can't remember which), and can't quickly find on IMDB.

      Wife was sick for seven years before she died, and at her request I accompanied her to all her appointments. I will guess that we saw 300 doctors in that time. Most seemed competent, several were assholes, at least one was downright murderous. Good odds, I Guess.

  3. You likely know that Fry spent the first half of his career with Hugh Laurie in a variety of programmes (like four different series) on the Beeb. They might have continued, but Laurie went to Africa to make a movie and, in a privy, way back in the brush, recorded an unlikely audition for an American TV series called House, using an American accent he picked up who knows where? He got the part. It was in all the papers.

    So Stephen continued on his own, sometimes in theatre, sometimes as a commentator, sometimes as an author. Today I think Stephen is cancer-free, or nearly and Laurie is rich, but still insists on riding British motorcycles. Do you see where this is going? Neither do I.

    And I think it's downright charming that Stephanie loved bingo. I don't know why I think it's charming, but I do.


    1. I knew Laurie had a comedy team, but I'd forgotten the other half was Stephen Fry. Huh. The things I don't know...

      Never watched a minute of House, never a minute of Jeeves and Wooster, and other than a few YouTube clips, never saw even A Bit of Fry and Laurie.

    2. I've seen about half the episodes of Jeeves and Wooster and read a fair amount of P G Wodehouse. I think the stories are well-written and that the series was well-produced and well-acted.


    3. I had a friend (Judith in PL) who never stopped reading Jeeves and Wooster, and never stopped trying to get me to read the books too, until I moved out. I tried, honest. The books just didn't do it for me. I'm not British enough.

    4. Just reporting, not selling.


    5. I am selling Dashiell Hammett, though. There really isn't much of it, so I read most of it once every ten or fifteen years. As soon as Hammett started getting high-paying screenwriting gigs he stopped writing new stories. The last thing he published was The Thin Man in 1934, and he lived until 1961. But the Continental Op short stories he published between 1923 and 1930 is his best stuff, and represent a high point in American literature. The best thing anyone could do would be to put a halt to the various wars around the world. The second best thing would be to check out The Big Knockover, a Hammett book of short stories, being very careful to avoid reading "Tulip", but reading the rest slowly in your favorite chair. These stories are collected from the eight years or so of Hammett's peak, and are works of fine art written in the vernacular of the 20s. It's my favorite writing and it feels like genius.


    6. I find Hammett and Chandler real bores. Too classy, almost embarrassed to be writing genre fiction. Give me Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Margaret Millar, Ross Macdonald, hell, even Jack Webb.

    7. I'll take James M. Cain, specifically Mildred Pierce, but Hammett is no slouch.

    8. Oh hell, Cain is great, he slipped my mind.

    9. Well, Hammett and Chandler are very different writers. I like Chandler fine: The Little Sister is a great read. But Hammett really mastered the short story. His five novels are pretty good, particularly the first and last, but a ham and eggs crookdom story like The Big Knockover is a joy from start to finish, which is about an hour because it's so much nicer to stroll through his writing than to sprint.

    10. Loving noir films, I went on a long jag reading just about all the pulp and noiry novels I could find. Never the short stories, though., and certainly never Jack Webb.

      If we're comparing favorites, mine is The Postman Always Rings Twice, at least today. There be tigers!

    11. I don't know where Jack Webb came from. Maybe one of the links I couldn't bring up. Had no idea he wrote. Could there be two Jack Webbs? I only know two things abour Mr Webb: he was a serious jazz buff with a huge collection of jazz records and he walked like he learned to walk in an elevator shaft.


    12. It's Jack Webb's TV and film work I speak of - he was a genius, no irony, no joke - completely sublime

    13. I don't tell jokes about people who have a jazz album collection of more than 6,000, and even fewer jokes about an actor/director/producer who puts energy and money into starting his own production company with all its attendant additional responsibilities and headaches because it might offer additional creative control down the line somewhere.

      I never thought of him as a genius, but I was aware, even in the 60s that he wasn't the joke my contemps made him out to be. I don't know what it's like to be completely sublime -- sublime seems sufficient -- but I look forward to discovering the genius in the otherwise long and competent career of Mr Webb.


    14. > It's Jack Webb's TV and film work I speak of - he was a genius, no irony, no joke - completely sublime


    15. I'm not much interested in someone else's record collection. Webb was no dummy to do the things you mention, but he spent the cop-worship that became his brand is bullshit that brainwashed America.

      Or, I dunno. I watched a lot of Dragnet and Adam-12 and Emergency and even O'Hara, U.S. Treasury, and I recovered.

    16. Wow, without jumping to conclusions or off a bridge, I think someone's record collection says a great deal about them. Not everything, maybe not enough for you, but in the dim past of my earlier life, the first thing I did when visiting someone at his/her apartment or house was to check out his/her record collection. I was not alone.

      Obviously, with digital music today you can't do that any more. With digital books, you can't examine a library. We gain and we lose, but we mostly lose.


    17. Hmmm. I'm trying, but can't get to seeing what someone's music collection means so far as assessing their character. Would you think higher of, say, Donald Trump or Elon Musk, is they mentioned a collection of thousands of jazz albums?

    18. Obviously it's not what's in their collection -- it's what they listen to, and I'm assuming a correlation. Do you think ether of those donkeys has a jazz collection and/or some Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen? If so, then I'm wrong.


    19. Nah, I don't think Trump or Muck are jazz aficionados. Just think one's musical taste is irrelevant in assessing character, inless they own a vast collection of modern country.

  4. "Special Bulletin:" I just watched it. Typically cheesy, grade-B 1980s filmography...every actor didn't fail to disappoint. Loved every minute.

    1. Claude Velveeta ReignsOctober 29, 2023 at 7:22 PM


    2. Yay -- love it when someone actually watches one of these. I rewinded and rewatched the end several times, ha.

    3. I considered Threads just a few days ago, decided I'd seen it already and didn't need another nuclear holocaust, but you've made me reconsider. The more nuclear holocausts the better...


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