April 29, 2012

THE GRUDGE: How To End A Career Before It Begins


Starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jason Behr, KaDee Strickland. Directed by Takashi Shimizu. (2004, 92 min)

The Grudge provided positive proof that just because you have a college education doesn’t mean you are smart.

I’m a middle school teacher in the real world, and like any job, sometimes it's necessary to take a day off for an appointment, running my kids to the dentist or having the house to myself so I can crank-up some Metallica and play air-guitar in my underwear. But unlike most jobs, a teacher’s duties do not stop because you need a day off, so we must arrange for a sub to come and fill-in.

Seems simple enough, right? But it isn’t as easy as that. You have hire the sub yourself through an automated online system, prepare detailed lesson plans in advance and pray your students go easy on whoever shows up; it is amazing how many middle school kids think sub days give them permission to act like shitstains without fear of repercussion. One thing I can’t stand is the attitude that subs aren’t real teachers. They are, and almost all of them begin their career by subbing until they can secure themselves a permanent position. It’s hard work, and not always financially secure; unless it is a long-term gig, you don’t really know from one day to the next how often you’ll be working. Kids do not have the right to make the job harder, but they often do anyway.

On the other hand, while it’s unfair to be subjected to rotten behavior from children, a lot of subs tend to encourage such errant behavior themselves.

Not to belittle the job, but substitute teaching is essentially glorified babysitting. You are required to follow established lesson plans, remind students of their tasks and make sure they follow through. Seldom is actual teaching involved. Most of the time, the subs I’ve hired do that job well.

But every now and then, I’ve gotten some subs who have no business being in a classroom. Some have come in and totally ignored my lesson plans and taught their own (even if totally unrelated to whatever unit we were in the middle of), some have used the period to establish themselves as one of the ‘cool’ teachers who lets kids do what they want, some have come in with an agenda totally unrelated to public education at all (such as one genius who came in and lectured why we should all be more tolerant of transgender individuals).

Then there are those whose very appearance guarantees little will be accomplished. I once had a sub so androgynous that even my colleagues had no idea if the individual was a he or she. Another young lady showed up dressed in a mini-skirt, high-heels and fishnet leggings, boobs threatening to burst from her blouse. Another sandled hipster decided it was perfectly okay to sit at my desk, prop his feet up and cut his toenails. Remember, this is a classroom of 12 and 13 year olds, who are a lot like the elderly...anything which deviates from the norm throws their world into turmoil.

Most of the aforementioned substitutes were young and fresh-out-of-college, with little or no experience even being around middle-schoolers, much less knowing how they think. Unless you are LeBron James or Lady GaGa, they do not think any adults are cool. If you are an educator, no matter how you act, what you let them get away with or how sexy you dress, they do not want to be your buddy.

But that didn’t stop one sub from doing the dumbest thing I’d ever seen an educator do in my classroom. Not only did she have a misguided sense of mutual trust with my class, she pretty-much screwed herself out of ever teaching in the Portland metropolitan area. After arranging a day off to release my inner James Hetfield, our sub-finding system selected this young woman, who’d just recently graduated from Portland State University. My lesson plans were simple: As a reward for completion of a previously-assigned Narrative Writing Assessment, I planned to show The Sandlot, a fine little family film which featured narrative similar to the work they had just finished. All the sub had to do was push play and call it a day.

But, no, this particular teacher was one of those under the misguided impression that her job was to establish how hip she was. When several kids groaned at the idea of sitting through a family film like The Sandlot, she apparently asked the class what they’d rather do. One of my students responded by saying he had a DVD of The Grudge in his locker.

The Grudge is an American remake of a popular Japanese horror film. Starting with The Ring, there was a brief-but-huge trend of adapting Japanese ghost stories for American audiences. The Ring remains the only truly good one, but The Grudge was pretty successful, spawning two sequels. Personally, I thought the movie was derivative and boring, but it was extremely popular with teenagers. Although rated PG-13 in theaters, it was released on DVD in an unrated version, which is what my student had in his locker.

My sub apparently agreed to let the class watch The Grudge instead, as long as everyone promised to keep it a secret. As rationally-thinking beings, I’ll bet you just came up with two immediate reasons why this was a stupid idea...

First, teaching is one profession that's under constant scrutiny by the public in general. The slightest slip-up in the classroom can result in angry parents screaming for your head. Of course I know that most of the kids in my class grow up being allowed to watch stuff like Saw or The Hangover. At the same time, however, I’ve previously been forced to change the name of one of my independent reading units, “Stories of Mystery and Fear,” to the less-threatening “Weird Tales,” simply because a few conservative and religious parents objected. You also need to remember that, as a middle school teacher, I am not allowed to show any movie with a rating beyond PG without first clearing it with both the school’s administrators and every single parent whose kids are in my classroom.

Second, and even stupider, this supposedly-intelligent substitute teacher actually trusted a classroom of 30 kids to keep this a secret. Did she just land on Earth from Planet Stupidia? When I returned to school the next day, standing in the hall before class started, what do you think was the first thing at-least a dozen students said when they saw me?

13-year-old kids don’t give a shit about honoring the trust of some grown-up they just met, no matter how cool they may be.

During the course of the day, both me and my principal were inundated with angry phone calls from parents, understandably upset that a teacher would subject their kids to such horrors without being given permission. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not some conservative fuddy-duddy; I often sit with my eight-year-old daughter to view all kinds of cinematic horror. But watching those films with my own kid was my decision, based on what I knew she was ready for. I still wouldn’t want her school to make the same decision without checking with me first.

But my substitute, in an effort to be the so-called ‘cool teacher’, ignored all that and stupidly assumed every one of the students was hip to her plan.

Well, I doubt it was worth it, because after this incident she was removed from the sub lists of at least four school districts in the Portland area, which in-turn precluded her from being seriously considered for any kind of permanent teaching position.

I do not know whether or not my former sub is permanently employed right now, but I do know that spending six years in college and tens-of-thousands of dollars to earn a degree doesn’t automatically make one smarter. This lady screwed herself over a freaking movie. And you know, what’s truly sad is that all this hubbub was over such a shitty movie like The Grudge. I mean, if I was going to throw away my career over a horror movie, I would have at least chosen a film more worth throwing it away over, like, Psycho or The Exorcist.

April 27, 2012

HEAVY METAL: The Chemically-Dependent Cartoon


Featuring the voices of John Candy, Harold Ramis, John Vernon, Eugene Levy, Jackie Burroughs, Marilyn Lightstone. Directed by Gerald Potterton. (1981, 91 min.)

Ever watch a movie when you were a kid and thought it was uber-awesome, then revisit it years later and think, “Wow, that movie’s actually pretty shitty,” and you’re almost ashamed to admit you once liked it? For me, one of those movies is 1981’s Heavy Metal.

There are a couple of important details the uninitiated need to know about this film before we go any further...

First, Heavy Metal is an animated sci-fi anthology film featuring stories based on a popular adult comic book originally published in France. Right now, some of you might be retorting, “Heavy Metal is not a comic book. It is an adult illustrated fantasy magazine...from France.”

Really? Aside from the blood, gore, sex and female characters sporting boobs the size and texture of bowling balls, what’s the difference in the mode of storytelling between Heavy Metal and Archie? Besides the price per issue, that is. No, Heavy Metal is a comic book. A grown-up comic book, perhaps, one lonely guys might even masturbate to, but still just a comic book.

And what’s wrong with something being labeled a comic book, anyway? When did ‘comic book’ become such a four-letter word? Even today, if you’re of a certain age and do not want to be perceived as a maturity-stunted loser, you tend to defend your choice of printed entertainment as a graphic novel or Manga...anything but a comic book. Comic books are for little kids.

You know what? I still enjoy playing with Lego’s on occasion, but you don’t hear me referring to them as ‘simulated architecture.’ Besides, ‘graphic novel’ is simply a more eloquent way of saying ‘really expensive comic book’. As for Manga, the official Japanese definition is ‘really expensive black & white comic book that you have to read backwards.’ Folks, there’s nothing wrong with reading comic books as an adult. You do not need to justify it by calling it something else.

Second, the title has nothing to do with the heavy metal music genre, even though the ‘metal’ soundtrack (which blasted from almost everyone’s car that summer in 1981) was a major promotional tool for the film, featuring songs by numerous bands popular at the time. While it is obvious the filmmakers thought it fitting that a film called Heavy Metal should include songs from metal artists (admittedly a great gimmick), of all the artists who contributed songs for the soundtrack, only two (Black Sabbath & Blue Oyster Cult) could actually be considered metal bands. Okay, you could stretch it and include Sammy Hagar, only because he performs the most ass-kicking song in the movie. But Grand Funk? Don Felder (the guy from The Eagles)? Stevie Nicks? Devo? Journey? Jesus Christ, Journey is to heavy metal what Will Smith is to Gangsta Rap. They were the fucking Nickelback of the 80s.

I gotta admit, the list of music artists (who didn't love Stevie Nicks back then?) was a major factor in me wanting to see this movie, which was somewhat disappointing when I finally watched it. Most of these songs are buried so far down in the mix that their inclusion is perfunctory, even when later remastered for video and DVD. The songs are almost randomly inserted into the film and sound shitty, like they're being played through a transistor radio. I’m not a big fan of disco (in fact, I hate it), but at least the tunes in Saturday Night Fever were prominently featured and added auditory oomph to many scenes. I learned a valuable lesson the night I went to see Heavy Metal: do not choose a movie because you wanna hear songs. That’s what records were for.

Still, at the time, I thought the movie was great, partially because this was an adult animated film, but mainly because I was pretty stoned at the time. Which brings me to the third important detail about this film, and the key to whether or not anyone will enjoy it thirty years after its release: Heavy Metal is only good if you are high.

I went on a double-date to see the movie back in high school, and we all got pretty baked in the theater parking lot beforehand...a good idea for a movie like this, a bad idea for my relationship with my girlfriend, who was almost abnormally jealous. She didn’t even want me looking at another girl. If my eyes were simply cast in the general direction of perceived female competition, she’d throw a hissy-fit. I never realized how extreme her possessiveness was until we watched Heavy Metal, when she stormed out of the theater halfway through because she thought I was getting off on the animated boobs (of which there are plenty). Even though well-snockered, I followed to reassure her that her worries were unwarranted, mainly because, while my girlfriend’s boobs weren’t as epic and spherical as those adorning the animated tarts in Heavy Metal, I still wanted to touch them later that night. Too bad we had this little spat at that moment because, while I was groveling in the theater lobby, I missed the one truly good segment in the film, when a WW2 bomber is overrun by zombies and is forced to crash-land on an island, also overrun by zombies. Even though me and my girlfriend were both pretty messed up, I was able convince her that she was the only woman for me, animated or other wise.

At least her brief tantrum didn’t ruin my high, which made me love the film at the time. For years afterwards I ballyhooed how great it was to others who hadn’t yet experienced it, which they couldn’t easily do because it was 15 years before Heavy Metal became available on video. This was because it took forever to reacquire the rights to use all the original songs from the soundtrack (ironic, since they have no impact of the narrative). Its long absence on home video merely added to the film’s mystique. Sure, it occasionally ran on HBO (which I didn’t have) in the middle of the night, but other than that, Heavy Metal was the title most movie geeks were salivating over to include in their video collection.

In 1996, the long wait was over. Heavy Metal came out on VHS and I snapped up my copy the day it was released. By this time, I was 33, married for the second time and had my first daughter. Partying and drugs were part of my past, which I had long disassociated from my fond memory of this film. I just remembered it being a colorful and violent fantasy. And I assured my wife, a fantasy lover her whole life, that she’d really enjoy it as well.

We sat down to watch it that night, and it was less than five minutes into the film that I noticed two things:
  • The animation is shitty, on par with some kind of film school project. There’s also a lot of Rotoscoping (artists tracing over live action), one of several reasons I hate Ralph Bakshi’s movies. The animation in Heavy Metal makes Saturday morning cartoons look like Pixar.
  • The soundtrack still sounds terrible. Not a single attempt was made to boost the music more prominently into the audio mix.
And that’s just the look and sound. It only gets worse.

For the most part, the stories are simplistic and stupid, clumsily linked by the recurring appearance of an evil, glowing orb called the Loc-Nar, with god-awful dialogue and one-dimensional characters, none of whom you’ll give a shit about. Almost every story features either tons of gory violence, pandering drug humor (like the producers knew most the audience would be stoned) or impossibly voluptuous female characters, nearly all whom end up naked at some point. Don't get me wrong. I enjoy gratuitous sex and violence as much as the next guy, but in Heavy Metal, it's like watching the fantasies of a 13-year-old. In fact, one of the stories is a fantasy about a 13-year-old, suddenly transformed a lean fighting machine who also screws every woman in sight.

I think it was during the second or third story that my wife looked over at me, raised an eyebrow and said, “You actually like this?”

Suddenly defensive, I told her to give the movie a chance. It might get better. But was I trying to reassure her or myself? This was a movie I’d been championing for over a decade, but not the one I remembered in my inebriated state 15 years before. Interestingly, the aforementioned bomber/zombie segment, which I missed while patching things up with my girlfriend, is the only part of the movie which is still truly effective and creepy.

While I was happy my wife wasn’t too concerned whether or not I was digging the animated boobs, this was where her idea of fantasy differed somewhat than mine. Later on, she said “Looks like whoever drew these women were getting off on their own pictures.”

And she's right. Watching this movie today, one gets the impression the artists really were getting off on their own drawings. This tells me two things. First, that the staff hired to illustrate the movie are all heterosexuals, because every female character has a body you could bounce a quarter off of, making the bikini-clad babes of Baywatch look like contestants on The Biggest Loser, while most of the males are hideous monsters or comedic caricatures. Second, that these guys may be some of the greatest illustrators of all time, since it must take a phenomenally steady hand to draw such glorious female body parts while your other hand is busy. I don’t think that was ever a problem over at Disney (well...maybe for the guys who drew Jessica Rabbit).

Anyway, for a supposed adult cartoon, Heavy Metal is crude, sophomoric and incredibly dumb, even for its time. Today, we may chuckle at the absurdity of 80’s relics like Top Gun, Rambo, Highlander or Footloose. But while those movies may not have aged too well, they were great for their time. I can still watch most of those and enjoy them for cinema kitsch that they are. I can’t do that with Heavy Metal, which was only good in 1981 because I was 17 and stoned. Today, it’s simply a bad movie, and not even in a fun way.

Still, Heavy Metal has its fans. But I’d like to know just how many of those folks have watched it recently, without the aid of narcotics.

April 20, 2012

LOGAN'S RUN: A Cow's Life



Starring Michael York, Jenny Agutter, Richard Jordan, Peter Ustinov, Farrah-Fawcett. Directed by Michael Anderson. (1976, 119 min.)

If you could be reincarnated as any animal, what would it be? 


I've had this conversation on numerous occasions in the past, with my kids on long drives to grandma's house, or during my college years, hanging around the dorm on weekends with chemically-altered friends. My answer has always been the same.

I would come back as a cow.

During those hazy college days, someone would inevitably scoff and say, "A cow? But they're stupid, smelly and live just to be slaughtered." Then they'd try to convince me of the awesome life of a predator like a shark or wolf, or a majestic creature like a whale or elephant, or a housepet living in a loving home. But it was always easy to point out why those choices suck.

First of all, most predators are also prey. I'd hate going through life knowing that each day there was a good chance of ending up in another animal's mouth. And even if you’re a wolf or the biggest Great White in the ocean, you have to deal with gung-ho poachers or pissed-off farmers avenging their sheep, not to mention your life depends on a steady diet of smaller animals to catch and kill, many of which are usually faster than you.

A majestic animal? Sure, we all love whales. But do you really think they swim around basking in the knowledge of how wonderful they are? Then there are the whalers worldwide looking to shove a harpoon up your ass. No thanks.

Yeah, on the surface, being a pampered pet sounds like an awesome life, until you realize the first thing your owners usually do is whack your nuts off. You get no say in the matter. And it would be even worse if you were a dog, because you'd spend most of your life waiting...waiting for food, waiting for walkies, waiting to pee, waiting for master to return home. It's that last point which kills it for me, especially after I recently read an article by a veterinary expert who writes that the reason dogs are so excited to see you again is because, each and every time you leave them behind, they think you are never coming back. Dogs suffer from permanent separation anxiety. Since reading that article, I'm plagued with guilt every time I head off to work, seeing my dog Murphy peering out at me through the window with eyes the size of the moon.

Come back as a dog? Fuck that.

No...a cow's life is the life for me. A short life, to be sure, but during my time on this mortal coil, I'd have absolutely no responsibilities. I wander around a field all day and someone else gives me all the food and shelter I need. Granted, I'd be clomping around in my own filth most of the time, but hell, I do that now anyway. All cows generally do is sleep and eat and make more cows. Sleep, eat and mate...aren't those the very activities a majority of people enjoy the most? Why not condense them into just a few glorious years of real living? And absolutely no mid-life crisis!

What's that you say? Time for slaughter? Well, let's see...I've roamed the meadow a thousand times, tapped every female in the herd at least once and gorged myself every day at feeding time my entire life. Yep...I guess I've done it all. Bring on the bolt pistol.

My argument even managed to convince one of my college friends, a new-age chick who enjoyed listening to CDs of whalesong, that life as a cow would be far cooler than life as a humpback.

By that same reckoning, according to Logan's Run, our future’s gonna be cool, too. You live in a massive domed city, protected from the outside world. You get to hang around in your pajamas, dial up free sex with your remote control, indulge in mind-altering chemicals and basically have fun your entire life while a super-computer does all the work. For further entertainment, you can go to an arena to watch other people explode. Sure, you’re about as educated as the average cow, but so what? Do you really care about the meaning of existence when you can get your wing-wang squeezed whenever you want?

Of course, the population must be kept in check, so you must die when you turn thirty. But, like the cows oblivious to their own mortality right up to the moment when they're tagged in the head at a slaughterhouse, the blissfully stupid inhabitants of this paradise have no concept of death; they think they’re being 'renewed' in a fiery ritual called Carousel (where the aforementioned human combustion takes place each day). Personally, I wouldn’t care if there was no renewel. If you got to spend thirty years of your life indulging in your every whim, isn’t that better than 80 years of working your ass off, only to end up in a nursing home with no control over your own bowels?


But some of the folks in Logan’s Run want to turn 31 and try to run away. That’s when guys like Logan (Michael York) step in. Logan is a Sandman, whose job it is to track down and kill runners (if I were Logan, I'd be a little pissed to be stuck with an actual job while everyone else gets to spend their days getting high and banging each other). A few runners have managed to actually escape over the years, so the central computer instructs Logan to pose as a runner, seek out and destroy a place called Sanctuary, a refuge for runners which allegedly exists outside the dome. Accompanying him is Jessica (Jenny Agutter), who still has a lot of years left, but is so charmed by Logan she doesn’t want to leave his side (I’m not sure why, since Logan’s an egocentric douchebag through most of the picture). On their trail is another Sandman, Logan’s former buddy, Francis (Richard Jordan), who’s trying to kill them every step of the way.

Once outside the city, Logan and Jessica make their way to the ivy-laden ruins of Washington D.C. (an improvement over how the town looks today). It's here they meet an old man (Peter Ustinov, actually billed as 'Old Man') and realize it's possible to grow old and spend the rest of your life with someone you love (yeah, because getting old is so fucking awesome). Suddenly enlightened, they decide to go back to the domed city and free its citizens of a horrible existence of recreation and endless sex.

I know we‘re supposed to root for Logan and Jessica, but at this point I really wanted Francis to blow them away. Instead, after Logan is captured, the central computer taps into his mind and becomes so confused the whole city starts to explode. Supposedly, it’s because the computer can’t accept there’s no Sanctuary. It certainly isn’t because of Logan’s own brainpower, since he doesn’t demonstrate an iota of smarts during the entire movie. Maybe the poor computer stumbled upon the previous nauseating scene when Logan and Jessica learn what marriage is and suddenly decide to be married. Still, whatever the reason, it doesn’t explain why a whole city would go up in flames. I've done a lot of things that confused my own computer and not once did it try to burn my house down

Logan's Run is a silly big-budget bastardization of William Nolan’s and George Clayton Johnson’s much darker novel. Despite the unique premise, the script is on par with a rejected Star Trek episode - these people really are stupid, as demonstrated during an awful scene when Logan and Jessica see the sun for the first time and don’t know what the hell it is. Plus, the romantic chemistry between these two is as engaging as watching otters mate. Most of the effort is put into the admittedly great production design, as well as an elaborate miniature set of the city itself. It still looks like a model, but it’s fun to take in all the details, the same way it’s fun to marvel at doll houses. The filmmakers must have been proud of it, too, because when the story calls for the city to be destroyed, they just can’t bring themselves to do it. Instead, we see strategically placed showers of sparks, along with holographic effects superimposed over scenes of people running in panic. We never actually get to see anything crumble, topple or explode. The visual effects won an Oscar, but not even a year later, Star Wars came along and made Logan's Run look like Plan 9 from Outer Space.

In the end, thanks to Logan, everyone is free from their living hell of non-stop luxury and can now fend for themselves, like a once-loved housepet that owners unceremoniously leave behind when they move away.

Just one more reason I’d rather be reincarnated as a cow.

April 16, 2012

AVATAR: What "Meh" Was Created For



Starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Lang, Sigourney Weaver, Michelle Rodriguez. Directed by James Cameron. (2009, 162 min.)

Meh.

Yeah, yeah, I know...it's the biggest movie of the decade, biggest of all time. But Gone with the Wind might have been too, if they charged fourteen bucks a ticket back in 1939. Yeah, the giant  Smurfs are cool looking and the special effects are incredible. Once again, director James Cameron has pushed filmmaking technology to its limits. Visually, Avatar makes his last movie, Titanic, look like Mega-shark vs. Giant Octopus.

Still...meh.

Of course, I had to see it. We all had to. If nothing else, just to see what kind of film costs as much money as it would take to solve the educational budget problems of an entire state. While I don't usually give in to hype, this is James Cameron we're talking about, whose movies have always been pretty damn cool. And, of course, his groundbreaking use of 3-D has to be seen to be believed. But what am I saying? You know that, because you saw it.
We all did.

Still...meh.

Walking out of the theater after nearly three hours, the first thing I thought wasn't how awesome it was, but the painful throbbing in my ass. Actually, I was thinking that only 90 minutes into the thing, and it had nothing to do with the theater seats. I've sat through longer movies (The Green Mile, JFK, The Right Stuff, Titanic, Grindhouse, even a re-release of The Great Escape at a revival house, even though I already had it on DVD). But those were interesting enough to keep my mind off my posterior. Cheaper, too.

I know I'm in the minority regarding my meh-assessment of Avatar. Almost everyone I know declared how great it was, how astounding the effects were, how incredible the 3-D was.

And it isn't a bad movie. I didn't hate it or anything. Still, part of me wonders if some people felt obligated to love it because they had to sell one of their children to afford the ticket price, or were simply blown away by the admittedly-outstanding 3-D. Avatar is only the second 3-D film I've seen where the gimmick actually made the movie itself better.

The first one was in 1983, when Universal crapped all over its Jaws legacy by vomiting-forth Jaws 3-D. There isn't a person alive today willing to admit that movie was anything but an excuse to throw fake-looking body parts at the audience. But back then, in theaters, 3-D did make the film seem better than it really was, enough that we were willing to put up with the swelling headache (which felt like someone driving a corkscrew into your skull) we developed from wearing those cheap paper glasses. At least we weren't charged extra for the privilege.

But watching Jaws 3-D on TV a few years later, imaginatively retitled Jaws 3 because there was no 3-D TV back then, we saw the movie for the manure it really was. Even the special effects, which looked cool with glasses on, were so cheesy that it made the effects in the original Jaws look like...well, Avatar. I’m sure the producers didn’t mind, having scammed enough cash from us to justify Jaws: The Revenge, obviously green-lit by some misguided bonehead at Universal who assumed Jaws 3-D was successful because of its story. I’m certain that individual found himself unemployed soon after.

Avatar is not nearly as god-awful as Jaws 3-D. It is obvious that every bit of its third-world-nation-crippling budget is right up there on the screen. That’s all fine and good; it makes the film (in theaters) as fun as riding Splash Mountain at Disneyland. However, watching Avatar at home is like watching a YouTube video of someone else riding Splash Mountain. I’ve ridden Splash Mountain, and folks, a YouTube video is not Splash Mountain.

And it’s at home when you truly discover which movies are really worth watching a second time, when the story becomes more important. In the theater, I was blown away by Avatar’s incredible 3-D, at least until the point when my ass started to hurt and deja vu began to creep over me; I’d seen this movie before. And if you’ve ever seen Dances with Wolves, or Pocahontas or Ferngully: The Last Rainforest, so have you. Avatar tells the exact same story. Critics and trolls have been saying the same thing for a few years now. But originality isn’t the problem. Granted, Avatar is far more technically brilliant than all of those films combined, but only if you see it in a theater, in 3-D.

Lack of originality doesn’t really bother me much. The Godfather wasn't the first gangster picture, either. And even though he’s hardly had an original creative idea of his own, I’m a big James Cameron fan. I loved The Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, True Lies and Titanic, but admit Cameron has always been a thief or borrower. Harlan Ellison, a contentious sci-fi writer who claimed the story of The Terminator was lifted from a few of Ellison’s Outer Limits teleplays, threatened to sue; Aliens is a sequel to Ridley Scott’s classic; True Lies is a remake of the French film, La Totale; the sinking of Titanic had been depicted in at least a half-dozen other movies. Terminator 2 is a sequel to his first film. That leaves The Abyss as the only 100% original Cameron film (ironic, since it is the only movie of his career generally to be considered a failure).

Again...originality? No big deal. If a studio wants to give Cameron $300 million to make Dances with Smurfs, fine with me. If Cameron can make us all grip our armrests as the Titanic sinks, even though we already know it’s going to, that’s saying a lot about his storytelling skill. And say what you will about his enormous budgets; no matter how many peoples he kills, boats he sinks, shit he blows up and effects artists he employs, in the middle of those movies have been characters we cared about (even when they were cyborgs). This is the guy who gave Arnold Schwarzenegger a film career, who made everyone take female action heroes seriously, and even managed to make Tom Arnold funny.

But I didn't care about the story or any of the characters in Avatar, two feats Pocahontas managed to accomplish in half the time. To those of you who saw Avatar only once, in 3-D on a giant 50-foot-wide screen, tell me one single classic & iconic scene, a snippet of quotable dialogue or a memorable performance by any of the actors. Hell, can you even name a single character?

Was Avatar great because it was in 3-D, or was it a great movie that just happened to be in 3-D? Try watching it a second time on your television and convince yourself it’s is as great as you remember it in theaters.

For me anyway, a truly great film is one I can still can still repeatedly enjoy long after the opportunity to see it again in theaters is gone. Avatar doesn’t qualify. Seeing the it without all the bells and whistles confirmed what it really is, a movie by filmmaker more in love with pushing technological boundaries than telling a compelling or original story. Sounds like another genius who once made a great film a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Meh.

April 12, 2012

EARTHQUAKE: Take Off Your Pantyhose, Dammit!

Starring Charleton Heston, Ava Gardner, George Kennedy, Lorne Greene, Genevieve Bujold, Richard Roundtree, Marjoe Gortner. Directed by Mark Robson. (1974, 121 min)


“Sensurround” was a gimmick dreamed up in the 70s by Universal Pictures for their most successful entry in the 70s disaster movie sweepstakes, Earthquake. In theaters where the movie played, speakers the size of Volkswagens were installed in the back. During key scenes these speakers emitted a bass-heavy rumble, loud enough to (sort of) vibrate your seat as though you were experiencing the quake too, much like I used to experience my upstairs neighbor’s love of R. Kelly every weekend before I finally lost my mind and shot him. To this day, whenever I hear “I Believe I Can Fly,” I believe I can kill again.

Sensurround was one of those gimmicks that William Castle would have once concocted himself if he had the money. It ain’t some technological breakthrough - anyone with the same stereo system as my late, bullet-riddled neighbor can accomplish the same thing - but it’s an idea no one had thought of before. While today all movies are presented in Mega-Dolby-THX-5.1-Dodeccophonic-Digital-Thunder-Of-The-Gods-Christ-My-Ears-Are-Bleeding-Surround sound, back then there was only Sensurround, simply because someone thought to stick huge speakers at the back of the theater. Universal would use the gimmick for later films (Midway, Rollercoaster and Battlestar Galactica), but it was only really effective in Earthquake, when the idea was still new. That as much as anything helped make it a box office hit.

As for the movie itself, Earthquake assembles the usual all-star cast to wonder around and dig each other out of the rubble after a massive quake hits Los Angeles. Typical of most disaster movies, most of the principle actors are well past their prime, many of whom overact on an unparalleled level - you know you’re in for extreme William Shatner-style thespianism when Charleton Heston turns in one of the most low-keyed performances in the movie. George Kennedy is on-hand to pretty-much play the same guy he does in the Airport movies (this time as a hard-nosed cop); Ava Gardener is Heston’s bitter alcoholic old wife, who looks like that scary aunt in every family who reeks of cigarettes and Pond’s cold cream; Lorne Greene is cast as Gardener’s dad (!), who has either discovered the Fountain of Youth or conceived her when he was eight years old. Others along for the ride include Richard Roundtree as a motorcycle daredevil, Marjoe Gortner as an unhinged National Guardsman, Walter Matthau as the film’s comic relief, Genevieve Bujold as Heston’s mousy mistress, and Victoria Principal in her pre-Dallas days, sporting leather pants, a Get Christy Love afro and big knockers.

Of course, all these actors take a back seat to the true stars of the movie, the special effects team. There are two massive quakes during the film, and Los Angeles ends up pretty well wasted. Skyscrapers crumble, bridges collapse, a dam bursts, houses topple or explode; victims fall to their deaths, get crushed, blown up, broiled, drowned, or shot by Gortner (the film’s only real villain, and sporting a 'fro nearly as big as Victoria's). For the most part, the effects artists do a good job. Much of the destruction is pretty convincing even by modern standards, save for a few goofy scenes, such as when a cattle truck flies off of a crumbling bridge; though the truck topples a hundred feet to the ground, none of the anti-gravity cows fall out. Another scene shows passengers in a high-rise elevator falling to their deaths...we know they’ve hit the ground floor when a splotch of red paint is badly super-imposed over the shot. The traditional matte paintings showing the city in ruins may not be as convincing in this age of CGI, but I personally think they give those scenes a surreal look that's more effective than anything one of Michael Bay's current chronies can cook up with a laptop.

Earthquake at least deserves some kudos for being one of the few disaster movies with a fairly downbeat ending. A majority of the cast is dead by the time the credits roll, and the few who survive aren’t embracing each other, simply happy to be alive and with their loved ones. They are understandably shellshocked, dazed and confused. Earthquake is also the only time you’ll ever hear Lorne Greene roar, “Take off your panty hose, dammit!

Imagine if he had yelled that on Bonanza.

April 8, 2012

THE TOWERING INFERNO: A Conspiracy Theory

Starring Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Fred Astaire, Richard Chamberlain & O.J. Simpson. Directed by John Guillermin & Irwin Allen (action sequences only). (1974, 165 min)

The Towering Inferno is an important movie. Not just because it’s the quintessential disaster film of the 70s. Not just because it was the first truly ‘grown-up’ movie I was allowed to see without my parents tagging along (they dropped me and my sister off at the Southgate in order to attend a hockey game, and I watched in horror at the decidedly non-Disney death of people in leisure suits going up in flames). Not because this movie was, at the time, one of the most expensive films ever made. In fact, the ultimate historical importance of The Towering Inferno wouldn’t be felt for another 20 years, and then only by conspiracy theorists such as yours truly.

Like most people with a lot of spare time on their hands, I have a theory about what really went down during the O.J. Simpson trial (the former football star was accused of killing his wife and her lover). He didn’t get away with it because his dream team of lawyers did such a bang-up job in the courtroom, nor was it a lack of effort on the prosecution’s part. After all, they had overwhelming evidence pointing the finger right at him. No, O.J. Simpson got off because of The Towering Inferno, in which he has a supporting role as a security guard who takes the time to rescue a cat from a burning skyscraper. I have a sneaking suspicion that the jury, sitting in their hotel rooms after yet-another grueling day of listening to Johnny Cochran spout bad poetry (“If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit”), punched up an on-demand service, and by a remarkable coincidence, the only film available was The Towering Inferno. Upon viewing this manipulatively tender moment halfway through the film, the jury came to the conclusion that nobody who’d take the time to save a cute little kitty could possibly carve up his ex-wife.

He saved a kitten! We be acquittin’!

Far-fetched, you say? Well, look at all those idiots (and they are legion) who refuse to even entertain the notion that Michael Jackson was guilty of child molestation, simply because he was so talented and wrote sensitive songs. Case-in-point...a few years ago, after discovering a fun website that allows you to make your own ’demotivational posters’, I made one which poked fun at Michael Jackson (yes, after he was dead). I got a lot of angry replies, including one which read:

Can any of you prove that Michael Jackson was a child molester, do you just take the perspective that the media sells to you, instead of thinking for yourself. Watch "This is It", listen to some of his songs, someone like that could NEVER be a child molester...He loved more than anything...he was a philanthropist if there ever was one...


By the way, the punctuation and sentencing errors above are those of the individual who wrote the reply, not mine. Anyway, this genius is convinced of the man’s innocence and offering his music as evidence. Even more amusing is the fact my demotivational poster never even mentioned Jackson’s child molestation charges - it was a jab at those who claim to be lifelong fans only after he died - yet this person immediately jumped to Jackson’s post-mortem defense. Apparently, so did the jurors in the Jackson case, who acquitted him of any wrongdoing, even though Jackson himself openly admitted seeing nothing wrong with sharing a bed with children.

So is it really that much of a stretch to speculate 12 O.J. jurors coming up with a similarly-asinine verdict, despite the mountain of evidence against him? Such a verdict certainly wasn’t based on his prowess on the gridiron or his amusing roles in The Naked Gun films. It was only in The Towering Inferno that O.J. displayed any kind of heartfelt sensitivity on par with Michael Jackson’s music.

You may argue my comparison is not valid. To that, I offer this scenario: the career of Tom Hanks. For all we know, the man is a total prick...wife beater, misogynist, on-the-set prima donna, killer of puppies. Hell, he might be one step away from going postal on everyone. But he is always a nice guy onscreen, so we automatically assume Hanks the actor and Hanks the man are one in the same. But none of us know him personally. Most of us have based our perception of Hanks on his ‘nice guy’ roles. Even in the movies where he’s sort-of a villain (Catch Me if You Can, That Thing You Do), we still like him. But let me ask you this...if Hanks was suddenly accused of beating his wife, raping his dog (or the other way around) and jumping into his car to mow down every pedestrian he sees, wouldn’t we be so shocked that a fraction of us would refuse to believe the allegations against him, based solely on his public persona? And who’s to say that that a good number of that fraction couldn’t be assembled for jury duty in the Hanks case? Surely Woody or Forrest Gump would never go on a killing spree, therefore Tom Hanks couldn’t, either. That’s the same alarmingly effective argument Michael Jackson zealots use to defend their former King of Pop.

The one big difference is that we all had a few sneak previews of Michael Jackson‘s weird-ass behavior prior to his trial (buying Elephant Man bones, sleeping in an oxygenated booth, dangling his own kids over balconies). The whole O.J. thing came out of the blue. One day he’s a former football hero, the next day he’s puttering down the freeway in his white Bronco with the entire L.A. police force on his tail. He’s known today to a whole new generation as the guy who got away with murder. Back then, we were still trying to grasp the inconceivable notion that an All-American hero was capable of knifing his wife.

So who’s to say the jurors in the O.J. trail weren’t unduly influenced by his charming role in The Towering Inferno and his kitty rescue? If dumber-than-average moviegoers converge in a single jury room, then there’s no way O.J. could have killed his wife and boyfriend.

We all watched the car chase, the trial, the verdict. How else can you explain him getting away with murder?

But O.J. is only one of 17,000 stars to make an appearance in The Towering Inferno, in which the world’s tallest skyscraper (looking like a giant middle finger on the San Francisco skyline) catches ablaze, trapping hundreds of people on the top floor. It’s the undisputed mother of all disaster films, and one of the few that's truly a classic. The Towering Inferno has it all: fire, explosions, destruction, a billion subplots, a dopey song interlude, that kid from The Brady Bunch, and plenty o’ death (death by falling, death by drowning, death by explosion, death by helicopter, death by blunt objects, and of course, lots of death by combustion), all wrapped up in a cozy 165 minutes that feels more like 90. Sure, The Towering Inferno trucks out every disaster cliche in the book, but it’s executed so well that we easily forgive the cardboard characters, the goofy dialogue (as when Faye Dunaway compares sex with Paul Newman to a cheeseburger), and the ridiculous climax. None of that matters; the movie’s too damned fun, and I defy you to find anyone whose seen it that didn’t have a good time (by “anyone”, I mean anyone normal). Of course the film is stupid, but so manipulative that you can’t help but go along with it, much like I’m sure the O.J. jurors were swayed by his act of feline humanity, even while people throughout the building were being broiled alive.

The Towering Inferno was the last truly great disaster movie made in the 70s (and the last good movie producer Irwin Allen would be associated with), mainly because I think everyone involved in its production had no pretenses about what they were making...big, grand, no-brain entertainment, the kind of bloated, star-driven melodrama that really wasn’t being made at the time. Brainless movies today are the norm, but back then, with a lot of self-important young directors calling themselves artists, such a movie was indeed a rarity. It was also one of the last movies made where the studio wasn’t embarrassed to admit how much they spent (Hell, the voice-over in the theatrical trailers bragged about it). There’s no attempt to challenge the intellect here, nor are there any star-making breakthrough performances to boast about. The movie itself is the star, even though it features a cast of Hollywood big-guns (such as Paul Newman, Faye Dunaway and Steve McQueen, who does what he does best, which is be Steve McQueen).

I’m sure the producers were as surprised as the rest of the world when The Towering Inferno was nominated for 8 Oscars, including Best Picture. Considering its competition (The Godfather Part II, Chinatown, Lenny and The Conversation), the idea that it had a chance of winning seems laughable. But let me ask you this...how many of those nominated films would you actually want to watch a second or third time? Chinatown was confusing, Lenny was depressing, The Conversation was downright boring, and anyone telling you different is either lying or they haven’t actually sat and watched them lately. That leaves Godfather II (which deservedly won) and The Towering Inferno, the only two nominated films in 1974 I'd want to sit through a second time. To me, that’s the definition of a great movie.

Plus, O.J. saves a kitty! Let’s see Michael Corleone do that!

April 1, 2012

MARCH OF THE PENGUINS: It's A Bird's Life...And It Sucks



Narrated by Morgan Freeman. Directed by Luc Jacquet. (2005, 80 min)

March of the Penguins is, so far, the only “documentary” I ever paid to watch in a theater. Not by choice, mind you. Like most theatrically-released docs, it started off in art houses, but once word got out that penguins were the new black, and my oldest daughter (10 at the time) saw the trailer, guess who got the privilege of taking her to the movies to bask in their cuteness?

Growing up, I was never a big fan of documentaries. The last thing I wanted in cinematic entertainment was the feeling I should be learning something. They reminded me of being back in school, when my burned-out social studies teacher would show a dry, 60 minute video of the Civil War in lieu of actual instruction. Not to date myself, but these snoozers weren’t even videos as we know them now. They were actual film reels shown with a clickity-clackity projector, lovingly spooled by the clichéd, nerdy AV-savvy student who once existed in every class, later rendered extinct once technology became so idiot proof that even my grandmother learned how to pop in a DVD after 17 hours of instruction by yours truly.

Not every school-sanctioned documentary was a dull montage of grainy black & white war photos. I kind of enjoyed the nature documentaries my biology teacher used to show, especially those which showed animals humping. Or maybe I more-enjoyed my teacher's reaction when the entire class would erupt with laughter once two species started going at it. On a few occasions, he’d stop the film and berate our immaturity. But what did he expect? Humping is funny, especially animal humping. With hindsight, it’s obvious that even the producers of these educational films knew the value of on-screen sex as an attention-getter. We laugh, we go ‘eeew’…but at least we’re watching. There’s a bit of on-screen bumping-of-uglies in March of the Penguins, too.

Like I said, not all documentaries are boring exercises in education. Nature documentaries, in particular, hold a special fascination with most people, and not just because they provide the opportunity for us to watch them do the nasty (that’s just a bonus, like getting to check-out Angelina Jolie’s boobs in an otherwise violent action movie). No, we love animals because they are different. Whether these critters are overwhelmingly cute or disgustingly fascinating, the one thing we do actually learn from these films is that animals have a harder time getting through life than we do. I mean, how would you like waking up each day knowing there's a good chance you could be eaten on the way to work?

Based on what we see in March of the Penguins, there’s no species on the planet whose life is shittier than those little birds waddling around Antarctica.

A lot of modern nature documentaries (at least those made by directors who actually want their films to make money) aren’t really documentaries in the purest sense, and may have taken a cue from Walt Disney in order to boost the drama. Remember those old Disney's True Life Adventures, the ones which amusingly depict the life and death struggles of various species, all set to a comedic music soundtrack and jovial voice-over by narrator Winston Hibler? Turns out most of those weren't true documentaries either, with some of the scenes staged by the filmmakers.

Think about it, the only way they could have captured a hapless raccoon rolling down a mountainside while stuck inside a log is if they shoved the poor critter in there and kicked it down the hill. In fact, it was later discovered by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that, for the film, White Wilderness, the scene showing hundreds of lemmings leaping off a cliff to their deaths was actually set-up in advance, using a rotating platform installed by the crew. Like those old True-Life Adventures, many modern nature docs are loaded with drama, at least until you think about what the filmmakers did to get some of those shots. What, you thought the makers of Winged Migration didn't place that nest of helpless chicks in the path of an approaching combine?

There isn't any obvious filmmaker manipulation in March of the Penguins, but at the same time, you've got to question their agenda in documenting the slow deaths of such cute little birds. Sure, that's just nature in action, which is fine...but don't spend all that time getting me emotionally attached to them!

Nature is the perfect fodder for movie drama. With a bit of manipulation from the film crew, a heart-wrenching scene in a nature documentary is as emotionally riveting as Kevin Costner playing catch with his dad in Field of Dreams, at a fraction of the cost.

Even in nature docs, giving the viewer a lot visual spectacle is more important than providing any actual info, like those shows on the History Channel, which use CGI to depict various spectacular ways our world could come to a violent end. If you do not know what I’m talking about, just check out the History Channel’s programming schedule on any given day. Odds are there will be at least one program dedicated to impending Armageddon, either by asteroids, global warming or biblical prophecy (maybe it should be called the We're History Channel). March of the Penguins provides such spectacle. We may not see them scorched by a rogue asteroid (that would be uber-sad), but the numerous panoramic shots of these critters waddling across the open Antarctic landscape is as stirring as Moses leading the Hebrews over open desert.

March of the Penguins is a French film in the tradition of Microcosmos and Winged Migration: awesomely cool to look at, even if we don’t really learn that much (except that the snail-on-snail action in Microcosmos will put you off your lunch). But unlike those, this one didn’t actually start off as a documentary. The original French cut was sort of a love story with actors providing the voices for the penguins. It wasn’t until March of the Penguins was altered for U.S. release that all the dialogue was replaced by narration from Morgan Freeman (whose authoritative voice could make Rambo look like an accurate depiction of post-war syndrome). At any rate, the actual facts presented about the subjects of these aforementioned French films take a backseat to showing a lot of cool things to look at. March of the Penguins offers only one cool thing, but it's a really cool one thing, like the knock-knock joke a four-year-old learns and thinks is the height of hilarity even after telling it for the umpteenth time. The film features penguins, thousands of them, and most of the running time is dedicated to showing these birds engaged in the single activity that makes them so endearing…

Waddling.

Waddling miles and miles across a bleak white Antarctic landscape in order to mate or feed or whatever. And it’s cute as hell, at least until some of them start dropping dead from the cold, or others finally finding a break in the ice so they can dive into the water in search of food, only to get eaten by a walrus or whale. And yes, babies die, too. But, like your four-year-old repeatedly telling you the same knock-knock joke, watching penguins endlessly waddle can get old after awhile, so these asides of horrible death actually provide a break for the viewer.

And sure, we say, “aaaw, poor little penguin,” but something else gnaws at us while we're watching, something we don’t want to think about in relation to one of the most adorable species on Earth…

…what a dumb fucking animal.

This movie establishes early on that, for most of the year, Antarctica is so goddamn cold that even the penguins can barely stand it. Sure, they can’t fly to a warmer climate, but they sure as hell can swim. We know this because March of the Penguins provides ample footage of these birds gracefully cutting through the ocean depths like fighter planes breaking the speed of sound. Yet it doesn’t occur to a single one of them that they don’t have to tolerate the living hell God saw fit to place them in. They choose to.

So, in actuality, March of the Penguins does offer some facts we may not have known about the species before:

1) Being a penguin sucks.

2) Penguins are stupid.

3) My own problems suddenly don’t seem so bad, even the ones that are my fault.

Still, I over-analyzed the hell out of this movie while my daughter and I watched the events unfold. Being 10, she bought into the drama and plight of the penguins, shedding a tear or two when a penguin froze or starved. All I could think about was, if I am ever reincarnated as a penguin, then I must have really, really wronged someone in my previous life.