80s Odyssey: Romancing The Stone (1984)

romancing the stone I’ve mentioned this before in regards to Star Wars and the Indiana Jones movies, but when I was a kid there were certain movies that just seemed to be on cable all the time. You’d be flipping around channels, land on one of them and just start watching wherever the movie happened to be. While the previously mentioned franchises might be huge deals these days, one movie and its sequel that were also on a lot happened to be the Michael Douglas/Kathleen Turner/Danny DeVito outings Romancing The Stone and Jewel Of The Nile. It’s been probably 20 years since I watched either of these movies, but I still got jazzed when I saw them pop up on Netflix Instant.

As it turns out, Romancing The Stone is a pretty fun movie. Some people say the Robert Zemeckis film¬†rips off the Indy movies a bit, but I don’t think so. The plot follows romance writer Joan Wilder (Turner) as she heads to Colombia with a map to trade for her kidnapped sister’s life. She’s being trailed by a super cop called Zolo (Manuel Ojeda) as well as one of the two kidnappers (DeVito) and eventually finds herself crossing paths with Jack T. Colton (Douglas). She hires him to get her where she needs to go and the two go on a fairly epic journey in order to save her sister.

Romancing The Stone is a fun comedy-adventure that plays that great trick of making things feel safe, but also just dangerous enough to keep the plot running along.¬†Turner and Douglas really shine in the film. Turner has the biggest metaphorical journey on screen as she goes from a clueless-to-the-real-world, sheltered person who invents adventures to one who’s able to handle herself pretty well. Meanwhile, Douglas does get to fill the role of swashbuckling, roguish hero. He had more of a Han Solo vibe to me than an Indiana Jones one if we’re talking Harrison Ford characters. Oh, and seeing DeVito in these roles he used to play that equally mix his trademark exasperated temperament with some physical comedy was a lot of fun.

I wouldn’t say that Romancing The Stone is a really solid movie, but it doesn’t topple other Zemeckis films like the Back To The Future movies or Who Framed Roger Rabbit? but it is probably one that more people should give another shot.

Halloween Scene: Serial Mom (1994)

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Oh John Waters, you lovable scamp. Only you could turn a lovely housewife played by Kathleen Turner into a hilarious murdering psychopath. Kudos. If memory servers (and it very likely doesn’t) this is the first horror-ish movie that I ever watched on tape from beginning to end. I had this friend named Jeff Kurt whose parents were way more lax when it came to rental choices (or maybe his older sister got it for us, I can’t remember). Anyway, we stayed up and watched it and I laughed my head off. Kind of like I do when characters get hit by buses in movies and TV shows.

Tonight is the first time I’ve watched since probably 1994 or ’95 (when I was 11 or 12, yeesh) and I loved it. First off, I had no idea how recognizable the cast is. You’ve got Scream’s Matthew Lillard (who I loved in that movie), Law and Order’s Sam Waterston, Katheleen Turner who still looked pretty good in 1994, Ricki Lake who would go on to entertain me during days off school and summer vacation with her crazy talk show and finally, Justin Whalin who you might remember as one of the Jimmy Olsens from Lois and Clark The New Adventures of Sueprman (which I LOVED as a kid).

12 year old me also had no idea who John Waters was (well, maybe in the most basic sense). I haven’t seen a ton of his movies (I liked Cecil B. DeMented more than Hairspray, but Serial Mom the best). I’d like to think the dark sense of humor he displayed here would go on to effect me in a good way (I was the only one of my friends who didn’t want to leave the theater when we snuck in to see Very Bad Things, the sissies). So, thanks for that John and Jeff Kurt’s parents.

Now, the movie itself features Turner as what seems like an ultra-sitcom-like housewife whose married to Sam Waterston and has horror fan Matthew Lillard and boy crazy Ricki Lake as kids. Everything seems okay until the cops show up asking about obscene phone calls. Sam and Kathleen say they don’t know anything about it. We then find out that Kathleen is in fact the one making the calls (it’s a hilarious scene).

From there, she goes on to kill more and more people for silly reasons. Lillard’s teacher thinks he’s too obsessed with horror movies. Heck, she’s making the obscene phone calls because the woman took her spot in a parking lot. She also ices a dude who stood her daughter up with a fire poker through the chest (his liver gets stuck on the edge).

Eventually, the police start to take notice, which is great because in a lot of horror movies, the killer seems to avoid any and all contact with the law. In fact, the cops have a pretty good idea it’s her early on. Even the kids and husband get freaked out until they find Lillard’s buddy (Jimmy Olsen) hasn’t been killed even though they thought he was the next on her list. Instead she was stabbing his neighbors to death, seemingly for eating chicken in a sloppy manner. Later, the police are waiting on the proof that she’s the killer while they’re in church (which is also hilarious as this huge line of cop cars rolls through town). Also of note, at this point, the town is freake dout and terrified of her. They freak out after she sneezes on a baby at which time Lillard and his girlfriend help her escape. They’re really excited about the fact that she’s now bigger than Freddy and Jason. Anyway, this lady comes into the video store that Lillard works at and she’s mean, so Turner gets into her house and kills her with a roast.

Kathleen then sees Jimmy Olsen watching her and gives chase in the middle of the day, running after him with a huge butcher knife. THEN she steals a delivery truck and chases him down. To get away Jimmy Olsen makes his way into a packed punk rock club (L7’s playing). The funniest part (and I’m not sure if this is intentional or not) is that it’s in the middle of the day! Have you ever seen a concert that starts before dark? It made me laugh pretty hard.

So, she gets caught and ends up defending herself. At some point the people in the town stop being disgusted and start supporting her (including her family, of course). It turns out there’s no actual evidence so she gets off scott free and goes on to kill a woman of the jury for wearing white after Labor Day with a pay phone. That juror? Played by Patty Hearst! Look her up if you don’t know who she is and feel ashamed. Truly crazy! Oh and she’s also going to be played by Suzanne Sommers in the movie. Hey, remember Step By Step? Hot, right?

I really like how Waters flips the script, making such a big deal out of the case and turning this absolute nut job into a local hero. He really smacks you in the face with this satire of “celebrity trials,” public perception and how the media and public can make these crazy killers into celebs. But besides that, the kills are pretty enjoyable and I can’t think of another female killer in a movie that has that crazy “I WILL kill you” look better than Kathleen Turner. Man, that’s a weird sentence.

Book vs. Movie: The Virgin Suicides

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So, remember when I said that I didn’t read books too often? Well, after finishing Slam I looked at the growing stack of novels I have next to my bed and picked one kind of at random. It was Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides (1993). Someone had put it on the free table at work and I snatched it up, not really knowing anything about it.

So I started reading it and was hooked instantly. It only took me about three dedicated days of reading to get through it (so about a week, real time) and it was one of the most moving, ghostly reading experiences I’ve ever had. The story follows the Lisbon Family as all five of the daughters kill themselves over the span of a year, the first of which Cecilia, predates her sisters by a full year. What really grabbed me about the telling of the tale was that the narrator speaks in the “we” and comes from the point of view of one of the boys in the neighborhood who fell in a sort of love with the girls and desperately wanted to help them. After they killed themselves, the boys spend the rest of their lives (at least to the point we find them in the book), trying to figure out why these five young women took their lives.

Another element of the book that got me was the way that Eugenides packed each page with so many characters, either actually involved in the story or just mentioned by name. Almost all of them seem incidental at first, but come back into play later on. The great thing about it, though, is that I never felt lost. Maybe I didn’t take much stock in such casually mentioned characters, but they all came back in one way or another, which really makes the reader feel like a part of these boys’ (and later mens’) club of failed avenging heroes.

The sense of not being able to penetrate another person is one that I’ve often thought about. Even the girls’ own father who lived under the same roof as them had no idea what was going through their heads as they planned an elaborate suicide plan that involved a number of the neighborhood boys. No matter how hard you try to decode someone’s thoughts and actions, you just can’t get inside their heads. The best you can do is gather accounts to try and put the puzzle together.

Sophia Coppola’s adaptation (1999) is pretty faithful to the book, but not necessarily to the version in my brain. But I think a lot of that comes from the basic differences between books and movies. For instance, in the book, you don’t really get a sense of the girls as individuals until the narrator does which is well into the book. Of course, in a movie, you can obviously see the differences. Though, I do have to give props to the casting folks for making the non Kirsten Dunst sisters all look pretty similar and easily confused.

Aside from Dunst who nails the promiscuous and evocative Lux to a T, the casting didn’t quite do it for me. I didn’t get the same feel from Kathleen Turner’s mother character as I did in the book, even though she looks almost exactly like how I pictured her. The way its conveyed in the book, it’s hard to not feel like she’s majorly to blame for the girls’ suicides. Again, I’m thinking this is because we actually see her reactions to things like her first daughter’s suicide.

I was really most curious to see how Coppola and Co. handled the first person plural narrator of the book in the film (he always uses “we” and never deviates). She got Giovanni Ribisi, an actor I’ve liked since I randomly rented Suburbia at the age of 16 and developed a pretty deep man crush on. Anyway, he does a great job, but isn’t utilized enough to really set the same tone as the book. The lack of entrenchment along with the neighborhood boys leads to more focus on the girls, which almost completely removes the element of being an outsider looking in on them which is central to the novel. Heck, it’s hard to be an outsider when you’re right in their living room as they play Chinese checkers and watch wildlife shows.

One of the downsides to watching such a faithful adaptation so soon after reading the book (I finished it Saturday in between and after errands I didn’t want to run) is that you know when everything’s coming and what’s going to happen. I didn’t feel that way watching Virgin Suicides. I was mostly curious to see how Coppola translated such an artfully crafted novel onto the screen. And kudos to her for doing such a great job. The movie never lags (it’s just over an hour and a half) and, while you’re nowhere near as firmly entrenched with the neighborhood kids as you are in the book, you still develop an attachment for these girls and desperately want to help them, even though it’s a forgone conclusion from about the second line of the script that they’re not going to make it.

All in all, I enjoyed both works, though obviously I liked the book better. I can’t recommend the book enough to people. Heck, if it only took me a few days to read, you should be able to get through it quickly. But, if books aren’t your thing, I also give the movie my thumb’s up.