Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sean Paul Murphy, Writer
Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Monday, September 25, 2017

Sean Paul Murphy: Master Thespian

Yours truly still waiting for his star
on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
Unlike most people in the movie and/or television industry, I never had a great desire to appear before the camera. I do remember trying to get in a talent show in grade school. My friend Bob Burgess and I were big Laurel and Hardy fans, and he wrote a sketch in their vein. I played Hardy to his Laurel. We tried out for the talent show, but we lost to people lip syncing to records. (Yes, I'm still bitter about that!)  I never tried out for plays in high school. I rarely attended them either, despite the fact that I started writing them myself.

Once I started attending casting sessions as a producer at Smith Burke & Azzam, I saw just how hard how it was to be a good actor. Not only did you have to deliver the lines convincingly, you also had to know how to handle your entire body in the process.  Especially the hands. When I would try acting, I always found myself worrying about my hands.  They seemed to have a mind of their own.

Still, despite my wayward appendages, there was a time when my friends would often put me in commercials. Not surprisingly, considering my build and personality, I was usually cast as the jovial, heavyset guy. The commercials came at a rather fortuitous time in my life. Most of my commercial work was done at the dawn of the Age of Internet Dating. A couple of these long-airing spots gave the online girls a chance to see me in action on television. That was essential since the first picture I would send them of myself was the one below. (I felt if they would still go out with me after that, I had it made.)

My Internet dating photo. To quote Charlie Sheen:  "Winning!"
I didn't take my acting career seriously enough to even keep copies of all of my spots, but here are a few that I managed to find. The first one is a promo from WBFF Channel 45 in Baltimore. The spot, directed by my friend Chuck Regner, was a spoof of a popular radio station commercial which was syndicated all around the country.  He needed a heavyset guy who could dance, but he settled for me. (My dancing days were ahead of me.  That's how I met my lovely wife Deborah.)



This next commercial for Towson Towson Center, directed by David Butler and written by John Patterson, actually gave me a line.  I'm the guy who says, "You should see this place."  By the way, this spot is a good example of that hands thing I was talking about.



Director David Butler also gave me a starring role in this spot for the Adventist Healthcare System. They didn't have a harness for me to swing upside down in, so they just tied a rope to my leg. I didn't enjoy that part, but I got to keep the boots.



John Patterson wrote this spot for the Baltimore Zoo during his tenure at W.B. Doner.  This time I got to push a big ball of yarn for the big cats.



My commercial acting career ultimately petered out after I was cast in a national spot for Waccamaw stores by my friend Pam Poertner. I was my third Taft Hartley spot and I would have to join the Screen Actors Guild in order to appear in another one. I opted against joining the union. I didn't feel I could recoup the union fee without actually soliciting work, and I was too busy as a writer and editor to do that.  Of course had I known the union card could get you in the movies for free during Oscar season, I would have done it....

BTW,  you don't have to be a member of SAG to read my tale of first faith and first love and how the two became almost fatally intertwined:



Sunday, September 24, 2017

Writing Tip #15: The Shark and The Dreamer

"I've already got the money in place!"

Those words can come to you in many ways: in an email, on the phone or even face-to-face as the budding producer or director assures you that the film financing in place. All he needs is a script.

If you haven't met that guy yet, you might have met his equally-dangerous brother who knows someone who is ready to green-light the project as soon as he gets the script.

They call Hollywood the Dream Factory. Sadly, too many people in Hollywood are willing to profit from your dreams. There is no shortage of producers and directors who will gladly steal your time and talent by letting you work for free for them. Some of these folks are simply naive. They might actually believe that the production company executive they cornered in a restaurant restroom was completely sincere when he said he liked their idea and wanted to read the script. However, some of these folks are just sharks who want to exploit your talent.  Let me give you two examples of people who recently wanted me to work for free and why I refused.


The Shark

I got a phone call from a Hollywood producer who wanted to work with me. I was in a restaurant with my wife and I couldn't talk to him at the moment. I got his number and said I would call him back.  Before I did, I researched him on the internet. He had no produced credits. However, he had numerous six-figures sales recorded on Done Deal. Needless to say, I decided to call him back.

He found me on InkTip. He liked one of my posted scripts and my resume. He told me he wasn't interested in any of my scripts. He liked to partner with writers to develop his own ideas. He said he had a pile of B+ scripts he needed to turn into A+ scripts. I was cool with that. I am always happy to work on assignment. 

I asked him about the scripts. He rattled off about ten log lines. Three of them sounded intriguing. He emailed me the scripts. I read them overnight and called him back the next day. I told him I would be happy to work on one of them. He said good. Then he said there would be no upfront money. Instead, we would split the money fifty/fifty after the sale. Realizing I wasn't the first writer on the project, I asked what the original writer would get. He said, "Don't worry, he'll take whatever I give him."

In other words, not only was this guy not willing to pay me any money upfront for my labor, he was also probably going to cheat the original writer. I'm sure that writer originally had a fifty/fifty contract as well. Despite the fact that this guy had made some serious sales, I walked away. If there's one thing Hollywood has taught me, it's that a producer who is willing to cheat someone else will eventually cheat you, too. You're either honest or you're not. He wasn't, and I didn't want to be in business with him.


The Dreamer

I was contacted by another producer who read some of my work on InkTip. He was a former photojournalist who spent time in Iraq, Russia and China. He said he had Chinese money in place to produce a film. He already had a first draft of a script he had written himself but he knew it wasn't good enough. I asked him to send it to me.

I read it, and he was right: It wasn't good enough. However, it was a good story. I gave him my analysis about what was right and what was wrong with it. He agreed completely and asked if I could re-write it. I said sure and started discussing compensation. That's when he said he didn't actually have the money in hand now. The Chinese production company was going to give it to him when he gave them the script. I suggested that if they liked the story that much, he could sell them an option on it and use that amount as seed money to pay me.  He said they wouldn't do it.

That means, despite his wishful thinking, the money really wasn't in place. Plus, if the production company wasn't willing to option the story, they weren't really in love with it. So I asked him if he could pay me some upfront seed money to work on the project out of his pocket. He said he didn't have it.

Now think about that: If you knew you could invest five or ten thousand dollars now and get twenty million dollars in return a couple of months later, wouldn't you do it? I know I would. If I didn't have the cash I would sell my car or house to get it. He wouldn't do it. Obviously, his head was telling him something different than his heart.

I liked the guy. I really did. I don't think he was trying to deceive me. I believe he thought he had a real deal. He was caught up in the same dream as so many people in the film business. As it was, I gave him periodic script advice as he worked through the re-write himself. I haven't heard from him in a while. I don't think the film has been made.

It's Really Not About The Money

I know I continually hit the theme that you shouldn't work for free in this blog. However, it's really not about the money at all. Payment is simply a way of sorting out who is real and who isn't. To me, time is more important than money. It should be your most treasured commodity, and I wasted a lot time on other people's vain dreams. People like this nearly derailed my career.

Back in the nineties, I was on a winning streak. I left my job at an advertising agency to pursue my career as a screenwriter, while working as a freelance editor to pay the bills. I took the leap because I knew I was producing good work. Creative Artists Agency was interested in repping my horror script Then The Judgement. Stu Robinson, of Robinson Weintraub and Gross (later Paradigm) wanted to rep my dramedy The Long Drive. I really liked Stu. I had read interviews with him in screenwriting books. He had a reputation for nurturing and developing new writers. So I put Then The Judgement on the shelf and let him handle The Long Drive.

He didn't sell The Long Drive, but it proved an excellent calling card. I got great reviews and people seemed anxious to read my next script. That script was another dramedy called The Fourth Mrs. Jones. It did even better. More great reviews. More importantly, it came really close to being sold for a then life-changing amount of money.

I immediately hurried out a drama about the reunion of a rock band called The Stray Characters. Stu didn't like it. He felt it needed more work, and he was right. I had sent him something that was essentially a first draft. But I never sent him the rewrite. In fact, I didn't send him another script for nearly four years. Why? Because I got hooked into one project after another that supposedly already had the money in place.

All of these scripts were for people I knew and liked, but none of the projects were as a real as the producers imagined. During those years, I wrote five scripts on assignment: House of Sadism, The Delicate Dependency, Roses In June, Jenny and Time. None of the films got made, although one of them did actually get me out to Hollywood for a meeting. What did I end up with in return for those lost years? Nothing. All of the work was based on other people's ideas so I didn't even end up owning the fruit of my labor. The worst part, however, was the fact that I had destroyed the forward momentum of my career in the process.

Did I mention any of these projects to my agent Stu? No, of course not. I knew he would have advised me against them. Now I am advising you against getting entangled in projects like that. If you must work for free, work on a spec script that you love and believe in that will make YOUR dreams come true.

Remember, there are thousands of people in Hollywood and elsewhere who believe they have funding in place or a solid green light. The easiest way to figure who really does and who really doesn't is to ask for upfront money.

It's that simple.

Other Tips:

Friday, September 22, 2017

Great-Grandmom Protani's Spaghetti Sauce Recipe

This is the 2nd post in my occasional series honoring my ancestors.


Vincenzo and Assunta, seated, 1912

My great-grandmother Assunta Mastracci Protani was born on August 12, 1886 in the village of Arnara in the Italian
province of Frosinone.  She was the daughter of Michele Mastracci and Maria Katerina Fiori.


Her future husband, Vincenzo Protani, was born in the same village on December 23, 1873. After many reputed adventures, Vincenzo came to America to make his fortune in 1903. I do not know whether the sixteen-year-old Assunta and the thirty-year-old Vincenzo had any kind of romantic relationship prior to his departure. However, Vincenzo returned to the little village to make Assunta his bride in 1907. 

Her family did not approve of the union. I do not know whether their disapproval stemmed from a fear that Vincenzo would take their daughter away from them forever, or simply because of his reputation as a tough guy. Regardless, Vincenzo refused to take no for an answer. According to my great-aunt Mary Protani Maccubbin, Vincenzo eventually kidnapped Assunta and spirited her away on horseback to the Vatican, where they were married. She arrived in New York City with him in February 1907. After a brief stay in New York, they permanently settled in Baltimore, Maryland.


Assunta with my uncle Tony.

Vincenzo and Assunta lived first on Stiles Street in Little Italy before moving to Montford Avenue just above Patterson Park.  They had eleven children and a horde of grandchildren. Assunta loved her family. Sadly, because of my grandparents' divorce, our family slowly drifted away from the greater Protani family. I only met Assunta once. I have a vague memory of being taken to see her when I was a small child. At the time I didn't know my grandmother had been previously married, so I assumed I was seeing her second husband's mother. Later, when I discussed the memory, I was told it was Assunta.


When I began my journey into genealogy was sadden to discover that Assunta lived until August 24, 1980. Had I known more about the Protani branch of my family, I would have sought her out. I would have loved to have met her as an adult, and I'm sure she would have been happy to meet me. 


Assunta with part of her family on her 50th wedding
anniversary in 1957. 

My great-grandmother may be gone, but I can still get a taste of the life she lived.  My great-aunt Elsie Protani shared Assunta's homemade spaghetti sauce recipe with me.  Here it is, as filtered through Aunt Elise:


Ingredients:

Fat Back
Garlic
Meat
Tomato Paste
Peeled Tomatoes
Basil
Oregano

Assunta cooked in fat back. She would render it down to liquid, add chopped garlic, then put it in a can and keep it in the refrigerator for cooking purposes. When she wanted to make sauce, she would put some fat back at the bottom of the pot. Then she would add some kind of meat. She would brown the meat and add salt or pepper as desired. Then, she would add tomato paste. She would let that cook for a while before adding the peeled tomatoes.  If she used two cans of paste, she would add two cans of peeled tomatoes. Three cans of paste, three cans of tomatoes, etc.  For every can of paste, she would add one paste can of water.  You can add more or less water depending how thick you want the sauce to be.  She would next add basil and oregano.*  How much?  Who knows?  It was never written down.  This is more a "pinch of this, a pinch of that" recipe.  Then she'd let it simmer for a couple of hours. 

The key to the recipe is the fat back and meat.  That's what gives the sauce its taste.

I personally found it interesting that she never added onions, then I remembered my cousin Carmen Falstaffi's spaghetti sauce recipe.  She made it for us some while visiting Baltimore and she didn't add onions.  She said she used either onions or garlic but never both at the same time since she felt the tastes fought each other.  Personally, I like both, but I will remain true to the cooking traditions of my ancestral village of Arnara!

Assunta last visited her hometown of Arnara in 1948 while arranging the marriage of one of her daughters. I went to Arnara in 2000 to meet the family.  Here's a little film about it:


*Aunt Elsie always adds some cinnamon at this point.  It cuts back on the acidity.

Read about my 2nd great-grandmother Kristina Bednar Kostohryz.

My blog wouldn't be complete without plugging my book.  Have you read it yet? The Kindle versionj isn't very expensive....





Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Building The Faith-Based Film Ghetto


Very early in my career as a writer of faith-based films, I read an interview with Christian filmmaker Rich Christiano where he proudly proclaimed, "It's not my job to entertain Christians."

I understood what he meant. He felt Christian films should have a ministry purpose. That they should be vehicles to spread the good news of Jesus Christ. Still, I resented his comment. Despite the fact that I believed my films had a ministry purpose, I thought "Why shouldn't Christians have their own entertainment?  What's wrong with that?"

Plenty, I have come to believe.

The turning point came to me a few years ago at a Movieguide event on the East Coast hosted by its founder Ted Baehr.  For those unfamiliar with the organization, Movieguide's mission is to "redeem the values of the entertainment industry, according to biblical principles, by influencing executives and artists." Basically, they try to prove that it is in the best interests of Hollywood to produce films with wholesome and redemptive themes. Every year they produce a report to Hollywood which illustrates how much more money family-oriented films make on average than the the darker fare the industry celebrates. There is no disputing the numbers.


I became associated with Movieguide when it awarded my spec script "I, John" with the Kairos Prize at its annual Hollywood gala.  (2nd runner-up) I was very honored and enriched.  When I was later invited to a fundraiser at a private home in Northern Virginia a few years ago, I happily attended.  While there, I pulled Ted aside and told him that my latest faith-based film, Revelation Road: The Beginning of the End, was wrapping up production. I thought he would be pleased that I was still making Christian films. His response surprised me. He just rolled his eyes and said, "Sean, you've got to stop making those films."

Whoa!  Waz up with dat?  Is Ted Baehr suddenly a hater?  An enemy of Christian films?

No. Not at all.  He simply has his eyes on a bigger prize.  He believes that "he who controls the media controls the culture."

That made me think.  What is the place of Christian films in our culture, and, more importantly, the Kingdom of God?  The answer is complicated.  And I suspect my answer will anger some of my fellow filmmakers.

The independent Christian film business is growing by leaps and bounds. In many ways, I think the aforementioned Rich Christiano is the father of the modern movement. Starting in the early-90s, he made a series of low-budget evangelical films and developed a workable release model. PureFlix honcho David A.R. White got his first taste of Christian cinema by appearing in Christiano's Second Glance while he was on break from his steady work on the Burt Reynolds sitcom Evening Shade.  Producer Paul LaLonde and director Andre van Heerden further upped the ante by adding thriller aspects and recognizable movie stars, to their low-budget faith-based and end times films. Still, Hollywood didn't really start to take notice until the release of 1999's The Omega Code. The $12,000,000 domestic box office was surprising, but it was nothing compared to the $600,000,000+ generated by Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ.


I happily waded into the faith-based world in 2005 by co-writing Hidden Secrets, the first film produced, but not released, the current industry leader PureFlix Entertainment. At that time, the independent faith-based film market was still small.  There was only a couple rows of DVDs at my local Christian bookstores, and most of those videos were concerts by Christian recording artists.  A new narrative film was released straight to video every couple months. I didn't necessarily see every film, but I was aware of them all.

We have turned from a novelty to a genuine genre. My question is: Is that a good thing?

Years ago, I would have said yes, but now I am not so sure. I think ultimately it comes down to Matthew 5:15:  "No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket.  Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house."  By creating our own genre, for ourselves, by ourselves, I believe we are effectively placing our light under a bushel.

When I began making Christian films, everyone at least gave lip service to the concept that we were trying to reach people for the Lord. You'd see the producers, directors and stars on the Christian cable shows and hear them on radio broadcasts saying how their films were going to reach the lost. They'd all say if only one person came to the Lord after seeing the film it would be worth it.  Some of those folks were completely sincere, others, well, not so much.  To many, the faith-based film industry was simply a business. The reality is that, before the market gradually shifted from DVD to streaming, a reasonably budgeted faith-based film with some recognizable talent could expect to make a profit regardless of quality. The films were a safe bet with a small but dependable audience. But the environment has changed.

Recently a friend contacted me and asked me if I wanted to pitch a series with him to a faith-based streaming service.  I said okay.  He asked what we should pitch.  My response was: "First we have to establish a genuine evangelical need ." (When I use the word evangelical, I am using it in the more traditional missional definition. I am not using it in its now almost inescapable political sense.)

As soon as those words left my mouth, I realized how absurd my comment was. We didn't have to worry about any evangelical need because only Christians would ever see the series. No unbeliever was going to plunk down his credit card and subscribe to the service. There was absolutely no missionary purpose at all. Period. We would be strictly in the business of entertaining Christians.   And what is true of an internet web series is also true of independent theatrical faith-based films. You might be able to generate sixty million dollars in box office by getting hundreds of churches to buy up theater seats, but you're still hiding your light under a bushel unless the lost are seeing your film.

If you ever hear a Christian producer or entertainer tell you the purpose of his film or web series is to reach people for the Lord, then puts it behind a Christian paywall, rest assured he is not being truthful.

So what are the options for independent Christian filmmakers?  I see three choices.

1). EVANGELISM

You can make faith-based films aimed at bringing the non-believers to the Lord. This is a tough to do successfully. Why?  Because if you want to successfully reach non-believers, you have to do as Jesus did and step into their world and meet people where they are now. Unfortunately, if you do that in your films, you risk losing the base Christian audience. The rule of thumb I was taught was that we shouldn't show anything in a film that a pastor wouldn't feel comfortable showing in his sanctuary.  That's exactly why our films seem phony and unbelievable to non-believers. If I said it once, I've said it a thousand times:  If the world we present doesn't seem real, then our solution won't seem real either.

Case in point. I was approached by some filmmakers to write a script. It was a true story about a woman who left the world of drug addiction after coming to the Lord. The woman herself gave her testimony on numerous Christian talk shows. Very compelling stuff.  The filmmakers said they really wanted to make a film that would reach drug addicts. I said if that was their goal they had to really show the temptations and dangers of that world. You have to understand someone, and what brought them to that place, in order to reach them. The filmmakers agreed. Then I said, if they did that, the film would never get past the Christian gatekeepers who rate films solely on the number of bad words and bad things depicted regardless of the message. Without the support of the gatekeepers, the film would never reach the church audience.  Even if the film got to the church audience, they would reject it because of the content. Without the church audience, they could never hope to recoup their investment. The film has yet to be made.

Here's a film of mine that fits well into the first category. It was also viewed by a number of non-believers because of its high rating on Netflix, and a description that didn't completely pigeon-hole it as a faith-based film. It just looked like a cool, supernatural mystery.


Sadly, I doubt the film is having the same impact since it is no longer streaming on Netflix or playing on television. Now, if an unbeliever wants to see it, he has to buy the DVD or subscribe to a Christian streaming service. Both are unlikely.

2). ENTERTAINMENT

Make films for the Christian audience. At a Christian film festival, I had a long talk with the head of a Christian streaming service. When he started his company, he envisioned a Christian HBO, where people could watch films suited to their tastes and values. I have no problem with that. However, if that is your goal, there is no need to continue making the "sinner comes to Christ" story. Granted, it's a great story with many variations, but it's not the end of the story. Trying to live the Christian life itself is fraught with drama.

If you're honest with yourself and your audience is entirely Christian, than you should create stories that deal with living the Christian life. Instead of pointing the mirror toward the world, I believe we should point the mirror at the church. There's a certain smugness in far too many of our films that reminds me of the Pharisee in Luke 18:11, who proudly points out that he is not like those sinners, We have plenty of work to do in our own backyard, too. Sunday morning is the most segregated time in America. Where are our films about race relations within the church? Where are the films addressing judgement in the church when grace is needed? Where are the films bridging denominational hatred and suspicion? A few people have tried, but the films weren't successful. It seems that Christian film goers only want films that make them feel good about themselves, not films that challenge them.  (Then again, it might not be the film goers. I think they are more tolerant and interested than the gatekeepers.)

My first produced faith-based film, Hidden Secrets, falls easily into this category. Although we present an atheist character being subjected to evangelization, both directly and indirectly, the main focus remains the relationship between the believers. Rhonda, the graceless Christian, is more of a villain than the atheist. I know her character has sparked many soul-searching conversations.


That film was about the closest I ever came to addressing troublesome issues within the church. In fact, I received an edict soon afterwards not to give the Christian characters in our films any flaws! (I was told that the Kendrick Brothers films made more money than ours because their Christian characters didn't have any flaws.) I confess that I, and the other writers, tried to include some jokes about the excesses of televangelism in the made-for-cable film Brother White, but they were all removed. Most of my faith-based films were, despite claims to the contrary, simple entertainments. For example, don't expect any altar calls or coherent theology from the Revelation Road trilogy, but, hey, why can't Christians have their own Road Warrior film?


Once again, I have no problem with Christian entertainment and there is certainly a place for it. I just think we have to be honest in our intentions. Don't call it evangelism when ninety-nine-percent of the people who see your film are already Christians.

3). MAINSTREAMING

The third option is to ignore the Christian film genre entirely and simply enter the mainstream media instead. Many believers are dismayed at the sudden changes in our culture. While the media tends to reflect rather than influence the culture, a lot of these recent changes have been accelerated because of conscious decisions within the media to promote new viewpoints. The traditional Judaeo-Christian viewpoint was, unsurprisingly, ignored. Why? In part, because there are so few believers sitting at the tables where these decisions are made. Our worldview is not proportionally represented at the highest levels within the industry.

Some of that is strictly our own fault. Some religious leaders have so demonized the film and television industry that they have consciously or unconsciously dissuaded their followers from entering the business. The only time most studio or network heads hear from a Christian is when someone is threatening a boycott over the outrage of moment. Even when mainstream Hollywood attempts to tell a Biblical or faith-friendly story, they are viciously attacked for what they got wrong rather than applauded for what they got right. (See my earlier blog:  Enter The Haters.)

Now, if you have the talent and ambition to move into the mainstream, will all of your movies or shows end with an altar call? No, probably none of them will. The mainstream media is not a place for weighty theological discussions, however there is definitely room in the market for graceful redemptive stories that reflect our values. One of the problems with faith-based films is that the audience wants the films to present the entire gospel in such a matter that it compels the viewer to accept Christ during the credits. I think that is symptomatic of a problem of the American church in general. We have become lazy. We leave the work of evangelism to the professionals: priests, ministers, television evangelists and now also faith-based filmmakers. That is an abrogation of personal responsibility. We're all supposed to be working in the field. To me, the role of the filmmaker is simply to start the discussion for you. The films themselves don't have to be explicitly Christian. Many completely secular films are great conversation starters. They include A Clockwork Orange to Wings of Desire to The Book of Eli to This Is The End to the HBO series The Leftovers. All of those films have elements many Christians will find objectionable, but they ask the world questions we can answer.

Here's the trailer to my first film, an edgy, mainstream whodunit:


Many Christian filmmakers have approached me and asked whether I thought they were selling out if they made secular films. I tell them no. From the dawn of my writing career, I have told both spiritual and mainstream stories. However, my moral worldview always remains consistent whether I am writing a faith-based film or a true crime docudrama for the FBI. I am who I am. I believe they can remain true to themselves, too.

Here's a trailer to one of my Emmy-award-winning films for the FBI:


I do not judge any of my fellow filmmakers. If you feel lead to make strictly evangelical films, go for it. If you want to make Christian entertainment, have at it. If you want to make mainstream films, you have my blessing. I just recommend that you take a step back and consider what you are trying to accomplish. Ask yourself: What is your goal? Who are you trying to reach?

I believe what is true of Christian filmmakers is also true of African-American and other minority filmmakers. After the #OscarSoWhite controversy at the Academy Awards two years ago, many commentators recommended that minority filmmakers should make their own films for themselves. As you may suspect, I disagree. If your desire is to share your culture and beliefs with the rest of the world in order to bring about understanding, you need to do it in the mainstream film business. Otherwise, like so many Christian filmmakers, you'll only end up preaching to the choir.

Not that there's anything wrong with that....


BTW, don't you think it's time to read my book? I think you'll like it.



Monday, September 18, 2017

"UNCLE FILMS" -- a guest blog with commentary

My previous blog about Seven Guy Films inspired my niece Marion Coe to share her own genre of films she calls "Uncle" movies.  I will let her define the genre and give her examples.  However, as one of her uncles, I will offer my opinion on the individual films.  Here she goes (with the assistance of her husband Josh):



Uncle Movies: A genre defined as a movie that the general uncle-figure likes. An uncle is someone who’s not your dad: he may be regarded as the “cool guy” who is ok to share with you his taste in low-brow comedy, or at least laugh at it around you, and is happy to corrupt you. Find one of these playing on basic cable, even if it’s already halfway through, and he’s happy. These movies were created in the VHS-era, between the late 1970s-mid 1990s. Although movies which fit the standards of the genre continue to be produced, there is a decline in popularity.

The movies generally encompass the misadventures of: Outsider white male losers, who are usually immature, and under-appreciated by the mainstream, their bosses, and women. Female characters, if they occur, are sex-objects, nagging wives, or bitches. Other themes include: Raunchy or low-brow humor; mainstream irreverence; “leaving a safe zone” in the military, or on camping, fishing, or road trips; ragtag groups of men; white-trash and dummies; slapstick; and the enemy is the “mainstream”, often manifested as preppies. They often but not always include the “Irishman and the Jew,” “Odd Couple,” and “Salt and Pepper” comedy tropes.

Proto-Uncle




Blazing Saddles (1974) I saw this film upon its initial release with a friend of mine and his mother. She squirmed in embarrassment throughout. I recently showed my 16mm print in my backyard one summer night, and I was the one squirming this time.  Not for our politically correct times.

Prime-Uncle Era:



Slapshot (1977)  Perhaps the best sports film ever made. I might have to write an appreciation.
Animal House (1978) Definitely the iconic comedy of its time, and the comedy works better than the plot.
The Jerk (1979) I remember loving this film upon its release. I don't think I would feel the same way now. It is best that I do not revisit it.
Meatballs (1979) A slight film with an amiable performance by Bill Murray.
The Villain (1979) Not familiar with it.



Caddyshack (1980) Every frame of Rodney Dangerfield in the film is worth watching.
Blues Brothers (1980) In the early 'eighties, my friends and I spoke in our own shorthand of movie quotes from Animal House, Caddyshack, Stripes and this one. Now I find the film more interesting for the musical guests.
Airplane (1980) Come on, this is hilarious.
Porky’s (1981) Saw a sneak preview of this film on a double date. Our girlfriends were appalled and made us leave less than halfway through. My friend and I snuck back later to see it. Typical for the genre. A big hit at the time.
Cannonball Run (1981) Harmless and forgettable.

Stripes (1981) My favorite of the early Bill Murray films. Some great one-liners. Saw it repeatedly in the theater. I think it still holds up.
Strange Brew (1983) Never saw it.
National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983) I originally saw this back when I still liked Chevy Chase. I like it less now since I don't care for him.
Police Academy franchise (1984 – infinity) Upon this rock, Steve Guttenberg was built. The first one was okay, but the sequels....
Beverly Hills Cop (1984) This film and 48 Hours essentially defined the buddy cop film for the next fifteen years. I liked it, but I thought 48 Hours was better.



Revenge of the Nerds (1984)  Hey, what can I say? I identified with it.
Ghostbusters (1984) I saw this film with some folks from the Towson Film Lab. We were all bowled over by it. That said, it hasn't aged well. The special effects are hard to watch, and the humor rests mainly on some one-liners.  All of the sequels are skippable.
Top Secret! (1984) Not as good as Airplane! but it has its moments.
National Lampoon’s European Vacation (1985) Not fond of this one.
Better off Dead (1985) Early John Cusack. Liked The Sure Thing much better.
Spies Like Us (1985) I was pretty much through with Chevy Chase and John Landis by now.  As for Dan Aykroyd...  This is one of the films that hurried him toward supporting roles.  (You didn't mention Doctor Detroit or Nothing But Trouble, then again, who would ever recommend them?)



Back to School (1986) Pure Rodney Dangerfield. Still works. If I didn't show you this one, I failed as an uncle.
3 Amigos (1986) Stopped seeing Chevy Chase films in the theater by now.
Spaceballs (1987) The end of Mel Brooks. I bet this script read funny, but it did not play.
Lethal Weapon all (1987) A franchise that outlived its welcome. Liked the first one, but the quality of the sequels dropped off considerably. Wanna bet someone remakes it?
Ernest Goes to Camp (1987) No, no, no, no, no.



The Naked Gun (1988) Not as funny as Airplane! but funny nonetheless.  That was a simpler time, when we all still loved O.J.
The Great Outdoors (1988) Subpar John Hughes script. Forgettable.
Ernest Saves Christmas (1988) (See Ernest Goes To Camp.)
Uncle Buck (1989) The normally supporting John Candy gets the lead, but I found it disappointing, especially compared to Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
Let it Ride (1989) Saw it in the theaters, but didn't think much of it.
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989) The best of the Vacation sequels. Overlooked my distaste for Chevy Chase to see it. (Worst Chevy Chase film: Cops and Robertsons.)
Major League (1989) Shot in Baltimore. Had some laughs, but it was no Slap Shot. Have a hard time watching Charlie Sheen anymore.



Tremors (1990) Great horror comedy. I was very much in my Fred Ward period at the time. (We nearly got him for 21 Eyes.) I hope, as your uncle, I forced you to watch this one.
Kindergarten Cop (1990) I can remember the time when America was still buying into the whole Arnold Schwarzenegger thing. He could do it all. Action... Comedy... Politics?... But Last Action Hero was on the horizon....
Hudson Hawk (1991) A Bruce Willis ego trip.  Not a pretty sight.
The Last Boy Scout (1991) Saw it in the theaters. Had forgotten it by the time I got to my car.
Ernest Scared Stupid (1991) (See Ernest Goes To Camp.)
Encino Man (1992) This was the first film where I noticed Pauley Shore. Sadly, he would prove difficult to ignore in 1990s.
Captain Ron (1992) Liked it at the time.
Out on a Limb (1992) Didn't see this one.  I must have thought it was an adaptation of the Shirley MacLaine book.
Son in Law (1993) Yes, I paid to see it. It taught me a valuable lesson: Don't pay to see Pauley Shore films.



Dumb and Dumber (1994) Actually one of the funnier goofball films of the 1990s, but, as this list shows, it didn't have much competition.
In the Army Now (1994) Skipped it. Still haven't seen it.
Ace Ventura movies (1994-1995) By now, the whole Jim Carrey thing was wearing thin, but I still laughed at the first one.
Operation Dumbo Drop (1995) Didn't see it, but it was probably better than the Pauley Shore movies....
Major Payne (1995) Man, this list is making it looked like the 1990s sucked.
Billy Madison (1995) Okay, okay, I saw it.
Canadian Bacon (1995) Didn't see it. Proud of the fact.
Down Periscope (1996) Saw it, but I have no memory of it.
Bio-Dome (1996) The only reason I saw this was because I had a pass to a theater chain and I saw everything.
Happy Gilmore (1996) The pinnacle of Adam Sandler's career.  It was all downhill after this...
Rocket Man (1997) Remember when Hollywood tried to make a star out of Harlan Williams and America collectively said NO!


Neo-Uncle



The Big Lebowski (1999) I was actually cold to this film when I first saw it in the theaters. However, I have grown to appreciate it. I like it more each time I see it. Now I believe that the Dude truly abides...

Post-Uncle:


Deuce Bigelow Male Gigolo (1999) Rob Schneider tries to fill the slot left by Pauley Shore.
Joe Dirt (2001) David Spade is a supporting actor at best....
Superbad (2007) Seemed fresh and funny at the time.
Paul Blart: Mall Cop (2009) Didn't like it. Small screen success doesn't automatically transfer to the big screen.
Grown Ups (2010) Let me get this straight... Kevin James thought teaming up with Adam Sandler would boost his career..


The Ridiculous 6 (2015) The controversy about Native America stereotypes almost got me to watch this one, but fortunately I remembered it was an Adam Sandler movie.

Normally, I mention my book at the end of my blogs.  This time, however, you should feel free to check out Marion's book:  Tomas the Tarsier: An English and Indonesian Bilingual Book


Thursday, September 14, 2017

Seven Guy Films

Here's an unscientific list of guy films that, in my years of experience as the former head of the Baltimore Film Club, I find that women don't seem to enjoy with equal fervor as men. That doesn't mean that some women don't like them.  Just most of the women I know.

It would be very easy to make a such a list if I included torture-porn horror movies like I Spit on Your Grave, teen sex comedies like Porky's, any martial arts flicks and deliberately misogynistic films like Neil LaBute's In the Company of Men.  Instead, I have chosen films that were all hits or well-reviewed and intended for a wide audience.

THE GODFATHER, 1972, Director Francis Ford Coppola.  Many women appreciate this sprawling saga of a mafia family based on the bestseller by Mario Puzo, but few treat it with the near religious reverence that men often do. Rare is the man who cannot quote it chapter and verse. Writer/Director Nora Ephron spoke for many men in You've Got Mail when she had Tom Hanks explain to Meg Ryan that: "The Godfather is the sum of all wisdom. The Godfather is the answer to any question."  This reverence extends to the second film, but not necessarily the third.


SE7EN, 1995, Director David Fincher. Despite the presence of the hunky Brad Pitt, and the soothing influence of Morgan Freeman, David Fincher's tale of a serial killer intent on illustrating the seven deadly sins is a taste many women simply prefer not to acquire. I was unexpectedly knocked out by the film when I first saw it, but words of the young lady I took to the movies that night summed it up nicely: "Boys looking for love shouldn't take girls to films like this." And, yes, she was true to her words.  Darn you, David Fincher!


SLAP SHOT, 1977, Director George Roy Hill. There is actually considerable nuance and depth in this outwardly raunchy and meandering comedy about a failing minor league hockey team but women tend to bench the film before uncovering it.  You would think that the presence of Paul Newman, despite his character's casual sexism and general cluelessness, would generate a wider female audience but it doesn't do so. Interestingly, this film was written by a woman, Nancy Dowd, who based her script on the experiences of her professional hockey-playing brother.


SCARFACE, 1983, Director Brian De Palma. This expletive-filled tale of the rise of Tony Montana, a Cuban immigrant who claws his way to the top of the drug business in Florida, is always a sure winner among the guys. Throw this Blu-Ray into the player and the boys happily settle in for the ride, often quoting the lines ahead of the characters. The women, however, tend to leave the room for other pursuits.


TAXI DRIVER, 1975, Director Martin Scorsese. In this film, director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader channeled all of their respective obsessions and paranoia into this dark but classic tale of a taxi driver slowly falling into madness and violence. In this film, the taxi driver, Travis Bickle, played by Robert De Niro, takes the object of his desire, Cybill Shepherd, to a pornographic film for their first and only date. Her response to that film is similar to most women's response to this film.



FULL METAL JACKET, 1987, Director Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick's masterful tale of the dehumanization wrought by war has been a constant source of trash talk by men since the first day of its release. Real-life drill instructor R. Lee Ermey provides a nonstop treasure trove of insults, and the treatment of women is even less enlightened. Many Asian women have had the film's depiction of the Vietnamese prostitute thrown back at them. It is a masterpiece, but it can be argued that the colorfulness of the dialogue overwhelms the larger themes.


A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, 1971, Director Stanley Kubrick. I initially didn't want to include two films by the same director, but both of these films warrant inclusion. Of all the major directors, Stanley Kubrick seems to be the master of alienating women. In this once x-rated parable about free will, a violent young man is given the chance to leave prison if he submits to an experimental mind-control program which will render him "good." About forty members of the Baltimore Film Club saw a revival screening of this film. Afterwards, we voted thumbs-up or thumbs-down on the film on the sidewalk outside of the theater. All of the men voted thumbs-up. All of the women voted thumbs-down. An interesting debate ensued. The women were fairly insistent that no theme or lesson justified the rape and violence depicted in the film. Were they right? I'll leave that for you to decide.

In the meantime, be sure to check out my book.  Most women do not find it objectionable.




Tuesday, August 22, 2017

RUNAWAY TRAIN -- An Appreciation


SPOILERS. MANY SPOILERS.

I saw Runaway Train upon its initial release at the United Artists Theaters at Golden Ring Mall right outside of Baltimore with my old friend director David Butler. It was a Monday night. For a couple of months, the theater ran a dollar movie night special on Mondays. I was there practically every week with some friends. It didn't matter what was playing. Any film was worth a dollar.

 I had no expectations walking into the theater. I had not gone to see this film specifically. It was probably just the next film that started after we arrived. Had I taken the time to consider the film, I might have opted for something else instead. It was a Cannon film. I mainly associated the company with low rent Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson action films. I had no idea I was going to be seeing one of the most harrowing and intellectual thrillers of the decade.

From the critical review heavy trailer below, it is obvious that Cannon was trying to differentiate this film from its normal schlock:



Considering its pedigree, it is not surprising that Runaway Train rose above the genre.  The film was based on a script by the great Japanese master Akira Kurosawa, who planned to shoot the film with Henry Fonda and Lee Marvin in the mid-60s. The project, however, fell apart.  That was not necessarily a tragedy. As interesting as the Kurosawa film might have been, I can't imagine it packing the same over-the-top emotional intensity of this version. The Russian director, Andrei Konchalovsky, and his writers, added just the right amount of philosophical nihilism. Writer/Actor, and former prison inmate, Eddie Bunker, added a certain realism.

The film starts in Stonehaven Maximum Security Prison in Alaska. The prison has just lost a legal battle to keep prisoner Oscar "Manny" Manheim (Jon Voight) welded into a cell in solitary confinement.  The central theme is stated upfront in a news interview with Warden Ranken (John P. Ryan) after the decision. When asked by a reporter how he could keep a man welded into a cell, Ranken replies that "Manheim isn't a man. He's an animal." The film could be viewed as a meditation on what, if anything, differentiates us from animals.

Manny, a bank robber who previously escaped twice from the prison, is a hero to fellow inmates. One of his most ardent devotees is a young punk named Buck McGeehy played by Eric Roberts.  Manny is everything Buck aspires to be: A skilled, hardened criminal respected and feared by the other inmates. Buck rests on his reputation as a boxer, but it is a skill that Manny dismisses as being worth "two dead flies." What interests Manny is Buck's job pushing a laundry cart. After a brutal assassination attempt, instigated by Ranken, Manny realizes that it is time to jump the wall again, and he avails himself of Buck's assistance to reach an opening to the sewers.

Here's a clip of the assassination scene:


As Manny prepares to escape, Buck impulsively joins him. It is a decision that well defines his character. Buck is first and foremost a follower, prone to acting without weighing the consequences first. He feels he and his hero will be partners if he escapes with him. Manny shares no such illusion. He neither encourages or discourages the young wannabe. Buck's decision is irrelevant to him. He does, however, wonder why someone would want to join him when "he's at war with the whole world and everyone in it."
Buck and Manny picking their train.
Although Buck was ill-prepared for the trudge through the frigid wilderness, he successfully follows Manny to a train yard where they steal some clothing. Emerging from the locker room, Manny spots a moving train, a grouping of four combined engines, and picks it as their ticket to freedom. They jump aboard the rear engine without realizing that the engineer is having a fatal heart attack. He isn't able to fully apply the brake before he falls off the train. The train is now a runaway, and its speed increases as the brakes burn off.  Meanwhile, back at the prison, their escape has been discovered. Warden Ranken is happy. "God, don't kill him," Ranken says, "Let me do it." The chase is on. Ranken will do anything to kill or capture Manny. (Poor Buck seems as irrelevant to Ranken as he does to Manny!)

Now another group of people enter the drama: The railroad company personnel.  The conflict revolves around Frank Barstow (Kyle T. Heffner,) who devised a computerized switching system,  and supervisor Eddie MacDonald (Kenneth McMillan). whose only desire is to limit the company's potential liability. MacDonald wants to immediately derail the supposedly empty train. Barstow believes his new system will allow him to safely resolve the dilemma.  T.K. Carter provides the comic relief, much as he did in John Carpenter's The Thing.

As the train continues to increase in speed, Manny fears something is amiss.  Buck has no such worries. The film now takes a slight breather to let us get to know our two convicts better. Many critics say that Manny is very intelligent. I disagree. In his own way, Manny is just as impulsive as Buck. While he does weigh the consequences of his actions, Manny's judgement is hampered by the fact that he doesn't care whether he lives or dies. He later expresses his attitude with the words: "Win? Lose? What does it matter?" Manny's main intellectual strength, which isn't shared by the somewhat dim-witted Buck, is self-awareness. It is illustrated in this clip where Manny offers Buck some sound advice that he himself was incapable of following.



As that clip illustrated, the performances in Runaway Train are broad.  Very broad. Most of the people I know who dislike this film complain that the performances are too over the top. That, of course, is a matter of taste but I find them extremely compelling. So did the Academy. John Voight was nominated for Best Actor. Eric Roberts was nominated for Best Supporting Actor.  That's pretty good for a B action film. (The editor, Henry Richardson, was also nominated.)

Barstow works to clear the line ahead of the runaway. Unfortunately, one of the engineers doesn't respond quickly enough and loses his caboose, and nearly his conductor, in a collision with the runaway. Now MacDonald overrules Barstow and demands that the seemingly-unmanned runaway be derailed before there is any loss of life. An aging signal maintainer is sent to flip the switch to send the train to its doom. However, as he settles back into his truck to watch the coming crash, he hears a whistle coming from the train. It is manned. Barstow orders him to switch the signal to keep the runaway on the main line.

The whistle comes as a surprise to Manny and Buck as well. They were considerably shaken from by the collision and plan to investigate. Fortunately, they see a person trudging toward them on the locomotive walkway. They subdue the person when she enters, and lo-and-behold, it is third billed Rebecca De Mornay, whom you had probably already forgotten was supposed to be in the film.
Rebecca De Mornay as the late Sara.
Rebecca De Mornay's character Sara, a railroad maintenance worker, doesn't make her appearance until nearly halfway through the film. Trust me, as a working screenwriter, I can tell you that would never happen today. Nowadays, screenwriting has become utterly formulaic. Every screenwriting textbook warns you that you must introduce all of the major characters in the first act. Additionally, there are egos to be considered. No agent would want his/her star caliber client to appear so late in the film.  Mark my words, if this film is ever remade, we will definitely meet Sara in the first act. And it would be a mistake. When and how she shows up in this film is perfect. Showing her any earlier, even if you don't reveal she is on the train, ruins it.

After a perfunctory invitation to rape by Buck, Sara succinctly unloads all of the exposition we will need for the rest of the film. She explains that she is a maintenance worker who snuck into the second engine to take a nap. She was awakened by the collision and started blowing the horn. She tells them that when multiple engines are joined together, they are controlled by the first engine. Finally, she tells them that the door between the first and second engines is jammed. Unable to stop the train, she was heading to the last engine, which will be the safest place to be when the train eventually crashes into something.

That's all Manny needs to hear. He wants to jump. That means Buck is going, too. Sara warns them that the fall will kill them. Manny is undeterred. However, she gets their attention when she says she knows how to slow, if not stop, the train. She says if they break the bus cables between the engines, the engines will shut off.  They decide to break the connections. This is a very important decision because, back at the control center, we learn the train is fast approaching the old Seneca bridge. The bridge can only handle trains going fifty-miles-an-hour. The runaway is traveling at ninety-two-miles-an-hour. At that speed, it will destroy the bridge. Meanwhile, Warden Rankin, who has been searching a glacier from a helicopter, gets word that the prisoners' clothes have been found at the rail yard.

Manny, Buck and Sara manage to break the cable between the third and fourth engines easily enough. They have a harder time with the connection between the second and third engines, but they manage to break it just as the train crosses the bridge. The emergency crew at the bridge see the three of them between the engines as the train. That's two more people than they expected. Ranken is now suddenly interested in the train. He goes to the control room to talk with Barstow, but he is initially rebuffed. Ranken, however, does not take no for an answer, as the clip below shows.


Manny, Buck and Sara arrive in the second engine. Sara shows them the blocked door to the first engine. The convicts are unable to open it. Undeterred, Manny convinces dim-witted Buck to try to climb around the side of the speeding, ice-covered locomotive to get to the front engine. Watching safely from inside, Manny comments on Buck's guts and stupidity. Sara is appalled. After a few, harrowing;y unsuccessful attempts to climb to the front, Buck tries to get back into the car, but Manny won't let him. Eventually, Sara pulls Manny away from the door long enough for Buck to fall inside. Enraged, Manny kicks and bullies Buck until he agrees to try again. Sara horrified, revisits the theme, by calling Manny an animal. "No, worse," Manny replies.  "Human."

Sara attacks Manny to prevent him from forcing Buck out to certain death. Buck, her former would-be rapist, rises to her defense. Now the believer turns against his God. They parry with each other, Buck armed with a wrench and Manny armed with a knife. Sara, the innocent, shouts for Buck to kill Manny, calling into question who is indeed the real human. Manny, however, is the one who ends the confrontation by dropping his knife. He can't bring himself to kill his former disciple. In the aftermath, Buck berates his erstwhile hero in what is probably Eric Roberts' best moment as an actor, and that includes his work in films I wrote.

Wow. Talk about a Big Gloom, that all is lost moment always caps the second act of film. Now only are Manny, Buck and Sara condemned to certain death on the train, Manny has completely lost his faith. All is indeed lost.

Here's the clip:



Unbeknownst to the trio on the train, their fate is being decided at the railroad headquarters. The train is fast approaching a dangerous curve near a chemical plant. If it crashes into the plant, there will be countless casualties. The decision is reluctantly made to shunt the train onto a dead end and derail it, even though it will cost the lives of all aboard. Sara feels the train being sent onto the side line. She knows what it means. She asks Buck to hold her because she doesn't want to die alone. Buck obliges, telling her that everything will be alright. Manny laughs scornfully. "We all die alone," he says.

But not so fast....

Warden Ranken arrives in his helicopter.  Not willing to let Manny escape, even in death, he sends an officer down on a ladder to the roof of the first engine. Unfortunately, the officer loses his footing, falls onto the second engine breaking its front window, and then falls to his death. Through the broken front window, a now energized Manny taunts Ranken. Ranken, obsessed with Manny, decides to take a chance on the ladder. Manny is only too happy to greet him. He climbs through the broken window and jumps toward the first engine. When he disappears out of sight, Buck and Sara assume he is dead, but he isn't. In a sequence that still makes me cringe in pain, Manny pulls himself up onto the front engine and gets the best of Ranken, handcuffing him to some metal just out of reach of the button that will stop the engine and save all of their lives.

Ranken soon discovers he has underestimated Manny.  With Ranken as his prisoner, Manny is content to die because he has now obtained his freedom. Ranken pretends to be equally unafraid to die, but it is an act and he soon tries to convince his nemesis to stop the train.  No dice. Finally, he says, "What about the punk and the girl?"

Tellingly, the self-absorbed Manny hadn't even considered the fate of his fellow companions since he jumped from the second engine. However, this final ride is reserved for him and Ranken alone. Going back to the second engine, he breaks the ice and release the coupling.  Buck and Sara jump to their feet and run to the window in utter amazement. Not only is Manny still alive, he has saved them. As their engine slows and falls behind, Buck yells frantically for Manny to shut the train down.

It is a great moment, on one level Buck's faith in Manny has been justified. However, as Buck watches his hero wave goodbye and climb to the top of the first engine in triumph, it is clear he never has and never would understand Manny. It has always been clear what Buck wanted: He wanted to be respected by the criminal elite. Now, as a result of the escape, he will be. However, Buck will always know he will never be like Manny. He is too weak, but it is that very weakness that gives him his humanity. He is a better man than when he started.

Ignoring the captive Ranken, Manny climbs to the top of the first engine as it races toward destruction. Walking into the wind, with his arms extended in a Christ-like manner, he is finally free. The film ends with a quote from Shakespeare's Richard III. It reads: "No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity." "But I know none, therefore am no beast."

Is Manny a beast? By Shakespeare's definition, I would say yes, because he showed pity and saved Buck and Sara.  As defined by the film, Manny is not an animal. He is indeed human.

Here's the clip:


Critics today tend to compare Runaway Train to the more successful film Speed.  That is a facile comparison based almost entirely on the plot device of passengers being endangered on vehicles of mass transit. Speed is an entertaining film, with a prominent romantic subplot, but it has none of the emotional depth of Runaway Train. (Trust me, if Runaway Train were remade today, they would add a non-rapey subplot between Buck and Sara.) A much more accurate comparison would be the 1968 Paul Newman chain gang film Cool Hand Luke.


Cool Hand Luke is a classic late-sixties homage to non-conformity. It is also a favorite of mine, and I have been known to project my 16mm print in the backyard on nice summer evenings. Like Runaway Train, Cool Hand Luke is a drama about a prisoner who cannot be broken by the system. Superficially, the main characters seem very different. Paul Newman's Luke is certainly more charming and charismatic than Jon Voight's Manny. Manny is a hardened criminal, fully capable of murder. Luke, on the other hand, has been imprisoned for the nonthreatening act of cutting the heads off parking meters. Both men are heroes to the general population of their respective prisons.  Manny starts as a hero. Luke slowly becomes a hero, with the former top dog, Dragline (George Kennedy) becoming his chief disciple. Like Voight and Roberts, Newman and Kennedy were also nominated for Academy Awards for their roles. However, both Newman and Kennedy went home with the statuettes.

Here's the trailer:


I do not doubt that most people would prefer to spend an evening with the charming, easy-going Luke rather than the harsh, animalistic Manny. However, I believe Manny is actually the more compassionate human being. Although Luke is willing to charm and entertain his followers when the mood strikes him, he ultimately expresses little concern for them, even Dragline, who, like Buck, impulsively follows him in an escape. Manny, on the other hand, treats his disciple Buck with undisguised contempt. However, when they come to blows, Manny is the one who throws down his weapon because he doesn't have the heart to kill the young man who idolizes him. Buck's hero worship pricks his conscience, and ultimately Manny fulfills Buck's faith by saving his life. In other words, Manny actually does something for his fellow man (and woman.) Luke doesn't. He remains completely self-centered. He only maintains his hero status because he was never broken. That, somehow, encourages the other prisoners, despite the fact that they all remain broken. Dragline does show of spark of courage when Luke is killed, but it is a brief rebellion. He remains in chains.

Runaway Train is a great under-appreciated film of the 1980s. No matter how many times I've seen it, it always elicits a strong emotional response from me. I am also delighted that I had the opportunity to put words in Eric Roberts' mouth on my Revelation Road trilogy.

Here's Eric in the trailer of the second film in the series:


If you haven't seen Runaway Train, do yourself a favor and check it out immediately.

Yours truly with Eric Roberts
Speaking of under-appreciated, be sure to check out my memoir. You can check out the first few chapters for free on Amazon: