April 29, 2013

Rycke Foreman & Maria Olsen Talk SLASH, a New Horror Film in Pre-Production

Free Kittens Movie Guide recently had the unique opportunity to interview two of the creative talents behind the upcoming film, Slash, writer/director Rycke Foreman and actor/producer Maria Olsen. The film is currently in pre-production and scheduled for release in 2014.
Rycke Foreman wears a lot of hats. In addition to co-founding one of the better free e-zines out there, 69 Flavors of Paranoia (with his wife, Miranda), he's written and directed several short films, including the award-winning "Auto Care." Maria Olsen has amassed a list of acting credits as long as your arm in a relatively short period of time, appearing in over 100 features and shorts since 2005.
Both were kind enough to share a few minutes to discuss their experiences in getting Slash off the ground...

Slash sounds like an interesting psychological horror film. For our readers, could you briefly describe the concept of the movie?

Rycke:  In the simplest terms, it's a coming of age story about a young man struggling to pull away from his older step-brother's hedonistic and violent-minded lifestyle.

Where did the initial idea come from, Rycke? I know you've written and published a lot of short fiction over the years. Was Slash a story first or was it always conceived as a feature film?

Rycke: Slash always struck me as a screenplay/film, since many of its components are better suited to a visual medium. Plus, many of the seeds that grew into Slash stemmed from a couple of incidents that happened during a community theatre production of Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap -- including chatting with a minor serial killer who'd come to watch the performance (and who was arrested just a very short time after that run-in).

What other films or novels in the genre would you compare it to?

Rycke: That's kind of hard to answer. I don't think there is any one film (or book) I could point to and say, "It's a lot like that one." Everybody thought I was kidding the last time I said it's somewhere between Scream, Natural Born Killers and The Breakfast Club, but that really is the best way to describe it.

I imagine it takes a lot of hard work and patience to get a project like this off the ground. Could you talk about some of the obstacles you've had to overcome to get to this point?

Rycke: Ugh! What obstacle haven't we encountered? We've been greenlit and then had the funding yanked, had more than one shady producer talk their way into our circles, shot our mouths off before we should have, had inaccurate media reports, been pressured into contracts, and, worst of all, people's true colors begin to emerge... It's like living every horrible, cliché-ridden film about the seedy side of Hollywood. In 3D. And Technicolor Smell-O-Vision. You have to develop thick skin quickly, and keep your focus on the goal ahead of you.

According to iMDB, the film is currently in pre-production, and it looks like you have an impressive cast & crew lined-up. If all goes well, when and where do you hope to start shooting? Is there anything else standing in the way?

Rycke: Until the film is in the can, there's a neverending uphill obstacle course seeded with landmines and every manor of sinkhole. They say it's a miracle that any picture gets produced, and I truly believe it now. Currently, we're set to start shooting in the last week of June.

You are using a unique method to acquire additional funding for Slash, which gives those who donate to the production an opportunity to receive Slash-related goodies, or even a walk-on part in the film. Whose idea was that and how has it worked out so far?

Rycke: That was just all of us tossing crazy ideas out and seeing what stuck. We considered what resources we had to exploit. We gleaned--sounds better than stole, right?--ideas from other crowdfunding and marketing campaigns, sought advice from notable specialists, etc. It's boring, but it's helped us cover some pre-production expenses, so we're really grateful to all our supporters!

How did you and Maria hook up to work on this project?

Rycke: We met through LinkedIn, started chatting, and things moved quickly from there. It'll be great to meet her once we're actually on set!

Rycke Foreman & friend.*
You've directed some well-received shorts prior to this. Aside from length and budget, how is working on a feature-length film been different? Are there any concerns you have, considering you're working with a bigger budget and much larger cast & crew?

Rycke: Thanks, Dave. A feature is just more, more, more--more characters, more crew, more equipment, more time to finesse the story, more time to develop character, more character arcs, more complicated character arcs, more FX--yay!--but of course that means more money, which means more pressure...

In spite of that, I feel remarkably confident moving forward. We've got a wonderful crew that's a half-Hollywood, half-indie dream team. If unexpected problems arise--and I don't think I've been on a set where they haven't--I've got some of the best minds in the biz ready to throw their brains into finding a solution. On the other hand, we've got a number of seasoned indie vets that know how to feed a crew on $1.68 and fix an 18-foot crane with bubblegum and shoestring (I lead that pack). Factor that in with top-notch actors that won't need two dozen takes to "get it right" and a budget to realize some of these crazy ideas. I'm excited. In many ways, I feel like Orson Wells*, being handed the keys to Citizen Kane. I'm definitely living my version of the American Dream.

What other films or directors that have influenced or inspired your own work?

Rycke: Spielberg's Jaws is definitely my biggest influence. I was 5 or 6 when it first came out, and it was the greatest thing I'd ever seen. My first attempts at creative writing, around age 8, were all about sharks eating boats. I've followed James Cameron and Peter Jackson from their first films, and I absolutely worship Sam Raimi's brilliant camerawork in Evil Dead 2. Argento's Susperia has some direct influence on Slash. Cronenberg. Craven. Carpenter. Coscarelli. The Four C's, haha. I draw inspiration and have great admiration for obscure filmmaker William Girdler (FKMG loves Girdler, too...well, at least Grizzly - Ed). I also have a strange affinity for weird, low-budget experimental stuff--Cory McAbee's American Astronaut, Richard Elfman's Forbidden Zone and Rinse Dream's ridiculously unique Dr. Caligari (1989; a half-assed sequel to the original Cabinet of Dr. Caligari).

Maria, you've got a pretty impressive acting resume (including roles in American Horror Story, Percy Jackson & the Olympians and Paranormal Activity 3). You've done television, mainstream & independent films and several shorts. In addition to producing, you have a major role in Slash. As someone who's been around, what are some of interesting differences between working on a major studio film and, say, an indie or short subject?

Maria:  I always say that the difference between studio and indie is whether there’s salmon on the crafty table. Seriously, studio filmmaking can be compared to the workings of a huge corporation: there’s a place for everything and everything in its place.  Everything will get done just how it has to get done, but, as with all corporations, the process is rather impersonal.  Indie filmmaking can, instead, be compared to a mom-and-pop store: cast and crew become family because there’s usually only a small group of people involved and everyone becomes very comfortable with everyone else within a very small amount of time.  Sure, the end product may not be as glam as with a huge corporate product, but it is way more personal and has its own very special charm!

Maria Olsen
Is there a particular piece of work you are the most proud of?

Maria:  I think I’m going to go with my roles in Dan Donley’s extreme horror feature, Shellter, and in Tim Curley’s fantasy adventure feature, The Mudman. Neither of these roles – and both were large supporting – had any dialog, and so I had to portray what the characters were feeling entirely through expression and body language.  I absolutely LOVE doing this – I find dialog to be a crutch that sometimes hinders instead of helps – and I love the on-screen results.

You've also done some producing. What originally prompted you to get on the other side of the camera?

Maria:  I was getting a little tired of being at the unempowered end of the producer-actor relationship so I decided to take things into my own hands and start making films – take control of my career – instead of waiting for someone to possibly make a film that I would perhaps be called in to audition for and could, maybe, book…and the rest is history!

You're doing double-duty as actor/producer for Slash. Could you describe your character in the film?

Maria:  I play Mary Kelly – and that name has MUCH significance for me as I’m also a student of the original Jack the Ripper murders – and she is the Artistic Director of the theater where some of the dastardly deeds go down.  I see her as trying to keep control as everything spirals into chaos around her…and I’m also simply in love with her action scenes at the end of the movie! Her character is also closer to mine than I had initially anticipated, which is just an added bonus…and, yes, lol, I’m being intentionally cryptic!

Please forgive me while I indulge in a bit of hero worship, but you worked on Rob Zombie's The Lords of Salem. I've always admired the guy's creativity and audacity. What was that like working on his film?

Maria:  I ADORED working on The Lords of Salem, and I can honestly say that this, so far, has been the ONLY set where I actually felt totally creeped out when I saw some of the actors in makeup… The scenes I were in were shot at one of the historical theaters in downtown Los Angeles – a stunning interior filled with guilt and gold encased in a drab grey building – and, to me, the atmosphere was electric.  It was also simply wonderful to be on set with Rob, who was NOTHING like what I expected him to be (he’s extremely low key on set) as well as one of my idols, Patricia Quinn, who I grew up watching as Magenta in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

We here at FKMG aren't too happy with the current state of modern horror movies. The Cabin in the Woods notwithstanding, much of what is released today is either an unnecessary remake or a retread of something that's been done better before. Do you agree or disagree, and what do you think Slash brings to the table which will intrigue seasoned and curious horror fans?

Maria:  I totally agree with y’all there at FKMG as I, too, think that the only place horror is growing and thriving is in Indiewood. Slash will bring to the silver screen a combination of great story and ground-breaking 3D effects, and it’s also a re-working of the Jack the Ripper scenario that’s never been seen before.

Rycke: Studio fare has certainly been disappointing for a while, now, though there's a few noteworthy indie gems from the last decade--Andrew Traucki's The Reef & Black Water were good, Feed by Brett Leonard and quasi-anthology film The Signal were both strong, and Jake West's Doghouse was a lot of fun, if flawed. Surprisingly, horror seems to be doing much better on TV these days--quality horror like The Walking Dead, Dexter, American Horror Story and a slew of others.

Slash approaches slasher films from a whole new angle, embracing certain genre conventions while completely ignoring others. A nice side effect of concentrating on dramatic development is that it forced me to integrate the violent moments into the storyline and character development, so there's very little "violence for the sake of violence" in this film. In fact, though subtle, Slash weaves a number of anti-violent statements into the narrative.

Don't worry, though, gorehounds--Slash has a body count on par with franchise sequels, not first-in-series films. We start out in your face and then push the pedal to the metal. We don't like to flinch, either. The most important thing in my mind was to deliver an entertaining slasher flick that had a little extra depth for audiences who are more demanding. My problem with most slashers is that the good one's often skimp on the SFX, fair one's have great gore but no story, and the other 80% just suck. I plan to fix that.

And wow...I haven't even touched on our groundbreaking 3D innovations, or the odd little built-in "Easter Eggs" for Jack the Ripper and Dean Koontz fans, or the incredible cast we're lining up, or our uber-cool killer's weapon, the Thorn Ax, that co-writer Jeremy Orr came up with. (I'm really jealous that I didn't think of this thing. It's awesome!) There's a lot of reasons to check us out!

Where can people go to learn more about the ongoing production of Slash and how they can get involved?

Rycke: Just go to http://slashflick.com and look on the bottom of the home screen. That links out to all our other web and social media sites, plus our online product store, where you can pick up all kinds of merch--T-shirts, bumper stickers, key chains. I won't guarantee a full line of butcher knives soon, but you never know.

Maria: Here's what we have for you so far as far as links are concerned:
(a) link to our Indiegogo page: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/slash-when-his-fantasy-becomes-your-reality/x/4186?c=home
(b) link to our website: http://slashflick.com/
(c) link to our IMDB page: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2762752/
(d) link to our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SLASHflick
(e) link to our Zazzle store: http://www.zazzle.com/slashflick
(f) link to our Youtube channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/SlashFlick
People can get involved by investing in the film, becoming product placement partners, buying branded Slash swag to become a part of the Slash family and crewing (we’re going to be looking for a LOT of crew out of New Mexico in particular).  Anyone interested in doing anything like that can contact me at mariaolsen@ymail.com (yes Ymail) and I can pass them on to the producer in charge of whatever particular aspect it is that they want to get involved in.

Free Kittens Movie Guide thanks both of you for taking the time to share your exciting project with our readers. We wish you great success look forward to seeing Slash next year!

No, I haven't won an Oscar, but it's very special anyway. This is me with Orson Wells' Oscar. I was lucky enough to have it for a full weekend. The sad thing is, I was so paranoid that someone would find out I had it and try to steal it, it stayed hidden in my closet for most of the weekend. But my closet glowed with the aura of legendary brilliance for nearly 72 hours, and I was indeed INSPIRED!!!

April 25, 2013

THE LOVE BUG and the Way of the Dodo

Starring Dean Jones, Michelle, Lee, David Tomlinson, Buddy Hackett. Directed by Robert Stevenson. (1969, 108 min).

According to my mom, The Love Bug was the very first movie I ever saw in a theater. I have almost no memory of this, but Mom would fondly recall years later how much I loved this Disney flick about Herbie, the magical little Volkswagen who thought he was a race car. She even bought me the storybook record one Christmas. That I do remember.

This was back when Disney regularly released tie-in LPs aimed at children, where a narrator (often a member of the film's cast, in this case, Buddy Hackett) would tell the story, accompanied by sound effects and dialogue. These records had gatefold sleeves with a booklet of pictures & words so you could read along. I'm pretty sure The Story of The Love Bug was the first record I ever owned and I listened to it all the time. Much more than the actual film, that record is the reason the story itself is so ingrained in my memory. I also vividly remember being monumentally amused when Hackett broke the fourth wall to pause and ask the listener to wipe his nose.

I had a bunch of Disney records (The Jungle Book, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, etc.) but The Story of The Love Bug was my favorite. This was how kids relived the movies they loved in the days before home video.

They don't make storybook records anymore. Once VCRs came along, they slowly went the way of the Dodo bird.

Hell, they hardly make records anymore, except to placate hipsters and nostalgic old farts happy to shell out 25 dollars for a slab of vinyl that once cost five bucks. And yeah, I guess I'm one of those nostalgic old farts because I absolutely love records. Sure, CDs sound better and last longer (and are now cheaper), but there's something really cool about the big beautiful cover art, gatefold sleeves and printed lyrics which didn't require a microscope to read. Some albums used to include extra goodies like stickers or posters. My favorite was the poster included with one of my Queen albums (Jazz) featuring hundreds of topless women riding bicycles.

Such goodies mostly disappeared when compact discs came along, and now that CDs are slowly going the way of the Dodo bird, everything that was once fun about buying music is nearly gone.

Buying and listening to a brand new record by a favorite artist was once an semi-epic, interactive experience that required your physical participation. When I was in my early teens, I loved jumping on my bike with my friends and pedaling five miles to For What It's Worth Records where the latest Rush or Queen album awaited. For What It's Worth was a great place. It reeked of incense and black-light posters covered the walls. In addition, if you ventured through a beaded doorway, there was a variety of recreational accessories which, if you were over 18, would really enhance the listening experience of that Santana record you were about to buy.

Purchase in-hand, I would ride home, the record banging in its bag against my knee as I pedaled. Then I tore off the cellophane, carefully shook the album from its sleeve, placed it on my turntable and gave it a listen without skipping a single song. Those times were awesome, when music was a big deal and venturing out to get it was part of the experience.

Sadly, most record stores went the way of the Dodo a long time ago. In fact, there’s only one bastion of vinyl music left where I live, Music Millennium. Although there’s no longer a special section for black lights and bongs, I still go there once every payday and buy an actual record. I’ll continue to do this because I have not yet gone the way of the Dodo...so fuck you, iTunes and your shitty compressed downloads.

I’ve also begun seeking old, out-of-print records I once owned. Ironically, as much as I detest how it has all-but destroyed physical music formats, the internet is where I have found a lot of those albums I used to cherish. However, it sometimes makes me sick to discover some of these records are now so rare that I can’t afford them.

Many of those old LPs met an unceremonious fate when me and some friends discovered how far they could fly when we flung them from the roof of the stadium at my high school. All the old records I’d outgrown or deemed uncool flew hundreds of feet through the air (twisting and turning like flying saucers) before shattering into tiny shards when they hit the ground. One of those records was my childhood friend, The Story of The Love Bug, which I’d clung to for years. Being that records pressed in 1969 were much heavier and wind-resistant than those made in the early 80s, it flew a long way across the high school football field before shattering into oblivion.

That beloved record went out in a blaze of glory, but considering how often it entertained me in my bedroom as a boy, it probably deserved a more respectful fate. It was the first record I ever loved and I wish I had it back. Unlike the classic albums which have since been newly-pressed for nostalgic old farts, those old Disneyland storybook records are not in high demand. I have since gone on Amazon and found dealers offering used copies of The Story of The Love Bug for sale...for less than four bucks. I guess I’m the only one who truly misses the golden days of Disneyland Records.

In my quest to own every movie I ever grew up with, I eventually picked up The Love Bug on DVD. Unlike Disney’s true live-action classics (like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Treasure Island), it is definitely a product of its time and I felt no personal connection to it. Everything I know and love about Herbie comes from that record my mother bought me all those years ago.

April 22, 2013

Lucy's Scary Movie Round-Up, Episode II

As some of you may know, Lucy is my little horror buddy, and she's recently turned nine! Here's her take on some films we've recently watched together. You can take her word as gospel.

"It is hilarious!" (This is one of her favorites, and except for maybe Jurassic Park, probably the horror movie she's seen the most times).

"It was too easy to make fun of. The bear didn't look 18 feet like the box said." (Dad is sad...he has fond childhood memories of this one).

"Actually, my thumb is kinda sideways. It's suspenseful but not scary." (Dad concurs...plants are really only scary when his wife drags him into the yard to pull weeds)

"It was so scary and freaky and sad." (Dad agrees)

"Awesome!" (Ya gotta love those one word reviews!)

"Awkward." (Dad's not sure what Lucy meant by that, and she took off to watch Jurassic Park again before he had a chance to ask).

April 20, 2013

22 Reasons Why THE THING is the Greatest Horror Movie of the 1980s

Starring Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Keith David. Directed by John Carpenter. (1982, 109 min).
1. This is one of the few remakes that is a lot better than the original.

2. While The Thing isn't always scary, the idea of an alien consisting of individual, free-acting cells with their own "built-in instinct to survive" is a terrifying concept to wrap your brain around.

3. Like Psycho, Night of the Living Dead and The Exorcist, The Thing showed us horrors we'd never seen onscreen before.

4. From beginning to end, this is arguably the most unpredictable horror film ever made.

5. Snake Plissken notwithstanding, character development was never one of Carpenter's strengths. But that actually works in The Thing's favor. Because everyone is so generic & bland, we never know who's still human and who's the thing.

6. We finally got to see what John Carpenter could do with a large budget. This was also his last truly great film.

7. In 1982, mostly thanks to Steven Spielberg, it had been a long time since visiting aliens were not-so-friendly.

8. It had the balls to end ambiguously. The Thing has the greatest open-ended finale of any horror movie in history. And Hollywood has so-far been smart enough to know not to fuck it up with a direct sequel.

9. Screenwriter Bill Lancaster (Burt's son) only wrote three screenplays during his short life. His first was The Bad News Bears, and that expletive-loaded screenplay was one of the biggest reasons the film was a hit. Today, if there is any part of The Thing which is still woefully under-appreciated, it's Lancaster's script, which manages to effectively establish these characters’ individual personalities with a minimum of casual dialogue.

10. This was easily the most graphically violent movie ever released by a major studio at the time.

11. For a horror movie, it has aged remarkably well. Whether or not they were around back then, people tend to look back many movies from the 80s with their tongues in their cheeks and an attitude of "look how silly we were." But The Thing belies the decade from which it sprang. For those of you still doubting, try watching it today with someone who doesn't know how old it is.

12. Thirty years later, the title creature is still one of the ugliest, slimiest and nastiest movie monsters of all time.

13. The "blood test" scene is a high-tension masterpiece. And despite all the slimy, goopy horrors we'd witnessed up to this point, it's the most cringe-worthy and disturbing scene in the whole film.

14. Kurt Russell's best performance. In fact, the entire cast is the best John Carpenter ever worked with.

15. Ol' Wilford Brimley kicks-ass & kills people.

16. Keith David is the original black, bald, bad-ass. In a perfect world, he would be an action movie superstar right now.

17. Antarctica is the ultimate setting for a bleak & brutal horror film.

18. Within just a few minutes, we already get the feeling everyone is doomed.

19. The Thing is a smart movie that doesn't depend on characters behaving stupidly to advance the plot (not a single horny teenager to be found). Everyone makes logical survival decisions & develops reasonable ideas on how to combat the thing. The fact that none of it works adds to the hopelessness of their struggle.

No! Not the dog!

20. When Russell shoots a hapless pooch just to put it out of its misery, we know we were in for a dark, nihilistic ride that isn't gonna pull any punches.

21. Like The Shawshank Redemption, Fight Club and Blade Runner, The Thing initially tanked in theaters, but is now considered an all-time classic.

22. It is so iconic that when Hollywood finally got around to 'rebooting' it, they wisely chose to do a prequel with the exact same title. While 2011's The Thing isn't nearly as good, it is a well-intentioned, big-budget love letter made by people who not only hold the original in the highest regard, but respect the fans who made it a classic. Not only that, it ingeniously connects the two films at the end, including the use of Ennio Morricone's (underrated) music score.

April 16, 2013

New Disc Review: PAWN (Blu-Ray/DVD)

Starring Michael Chiklis, Common, Marton Csonkas, Sean Faris, Stephen Lang, Ray Liotta, Nikki Reed, Forest Whitaker. Directed by David A. Armstrong. (2013, 88 min).

Anchor Bay Entertainment

This movie begins with the attempted robbery of a small diner in the middle of the night, but turns into a hostage situation as police surround the place. The violent gang of thugs inside, led by Michael Chiklis, threaten to execute everyone unless their demands are met.

But this is no ordinary diner...it happens to be owned by a powerful mafia boss. And these are no ordinary thugs looking for a quick score...they actually have a mission. And these aren't ordinary cops...many of them have big reasons why this confrontation should end violently. In fact, almost none of the characters in Pawn are what they seem.

A would-be cross between Rashomon and Dog Day Afternoon, Pawn unveils its complicated (or convoluted?) story in non-linear fashion, frequently shifting points-of-view in order to reveal the true intentions of its characters. It's a movie loaded with crooked cops, crooked agents and double-crossing criminals. It's revealed early on that this is no simple robbery. There are plenty of plot twists throughout the movie, which actually starts to work against it after a while. With every new revelation, it becomes increasingly obvious almost everyone who appears onscreen is part of this robbery, except the hapless, recently-paroled rube they plan to pin it on. Plot twists are only fun when you don't know they are coming (like the climax of The Usual Suspects), but Pawn tosses so many of them at us that we eventually cease being surprised.

"I said NO MAYO!"

Still, for a relatively minor-league, low budget movie, it sports a pretty impressive cast, even if most of the better-known ones aren't required to stretch themselves much. Michael Chiklis (inexplicably adopting a Cockney accent) engages in some enjoyable scenery-chewing, though his character has to be one of the dumbest criminals I've seen in a long time. Ray Liotta (whose scenes look like they were all done in a day) is a cold-blooded crooked cop (other than a psycho, who else can you play with a face like that?). Forest Whitaker is a fine actor, but to me, he always looks like it hurts to live. As for rapper-turned actor Common as a hostage negotiator...he doesn't suck, but he's no Ice Cube.

Pawn isn't a bad movie. It's slickly-made on a limited budget and is definitely worth seeing at least once. But it is also unnecessarily complicated for its own good (too many revelations that aren't that revelatory) and never reaches the heights of the classics which obviously inspired it.

SPECIAL FEATURES: Pawn: Behind the Scenes

 (out of 5)

April 14, 2013

ICE AGE: CONTINENTAL DRIFT and a Preoccupation With Death

Starring the voices of Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, Denis Leary, Chris Wedge, Peter Dinklage, Queen Latifah, Jennifer Lopez, Seann William Scott, Josh Peck, Wanda Sykes. Directed by Steve Martino & Mike Thurmeier. (2012, 88 min).

A few years ago I became deathly ill. It started off with what I thought was the flu, but without getting into unpleasant specifics, I ended up with life-threatening heart & lung issues which required a few surgeries. I was twice-put into an induced coma and spent almost three months in the hospital, during which time the odds of my survival sometimes dropped dangerously low.

Lengthy hospital stays really suck, and not just because you are sick. When you spend weeks with absolutely nothing to do but lay in bed, it fucks up your sleep patterns. I often found myself awake at 4:00 AM flipping from one infomercial to another, discovering just how bad some cable services are compared to my Direct TV subscription. During one particularly depressing night, when the prospects of my survival were still iffy, the best thing on TV was a show featuring dumbasses injuring themselves on camera, accompanied by "humorous" commentary by celebrities whose 15 minutes of fame ended during the Clinton Administration. That's when something horrible first occurred to me...what if this stupid fucking show is the last thing I ever watch?

My family came to the rescue. My oldest daughter, Natalie, offered me her laptop so I could watch movies (a huge sacrifice, considering her laptop is her world), and Francie (my wife) brought discs from home in order to pass the time. Because the prospect of death was foremost on my mind, I requested stuff that I always loved, just in case my heart did suddenly crap-out on me; I didn't want my last image to be of a guy crushing his own balls while attempting to skateboard off a roof.

So I watched a lot of old favorites...Jaws, The Great Escape, Pulp Fiction, The Towering Inferno, The Godfather, The Shawshank Redemption, Star Wars, etc. One exception was Alien. When you've got thirty staples in your chest, the last thing you wanna see is an Alien movie.

I've since physically recovered for the most part. Psychologically, not so much. I can't speak for everyone who has endured the same physical ordeal, but I now find myself thinking a lot more about my own mortality than I used to. Not that I'm obsessed, but I no longer look at death as some intangible thing to deal with when I'm good & ready. Every time I feel a slight painful sting in my chest, I briefly wonder if this is the beginning of the end, and if what I'm doing right that second is the last thing I'll ever do.

Chances are my death won't come at the perfect moment - right after a case of Moosehead and three helpings of my mom's lasagna, followed by sex with my wife while riding the Tower of Terror at Disneyland. No, I'll probably be at work and unceremoniously drop like a sack of meat in the middle of my classroom; some of my students will gasp, some might cry, some will whip out their phones to get pictures, and I can think of a few who'd probably poke me with rulers just to see if I'd twitch.

I think about that a lot...the last thing I'll ever do. My newfound preoccupation with mortality often has me wondering what'll be the last song I'll ever hear, the last car I'll ever drive, the last thing I'll ever write (I sure as hell hope it ain't this), the last sex I'll ever have (alas, probably not on the Tower of Terror) or the last movie I'll ever watch...

Okay...maybe I'm just a tad obsessed.

Recently, my family and I headed to my mother-in-law's for the weekend, but since it was a three hour drive and I was having one of my achy-chest days, Francie graciously offered to drive. So while she and Natalie sat up front, I climbed into the backseat with Lucy, which wasn't so bad because our SUV is roughly the size of the space shuttle, so there's lots of room. There's also a DVD player in back to pass the time, and Lucy wanted to watch the disc she just got for Christmas, Ice Age: Continental Drift. That was okay with me. We took Natalie to see the original Ice Age, which was better than I thought it would be. Even Ice Age 2 was a pretty decent sequel. As for Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs...well, sometimes parents are required to make sacrifices for the sake of the children.

I'm glad we were able to avoid taking Lucy to see Continental Drift in theaters. The trailers made this fourth film look like a cynical cash-grab, concerned with appealing to undemanding kids with 3-D and a growing cast of celebrity voices. But as me and Lucy slapped on our headphones and hit the play button, I figured it would at-least be an entertaining enough way to kill time in the back seat of our shuttle.

A metaphor for marriage.

I figured wrong, because Ice Age: Continental Drift is a godawful shitfest created to vacuum the wallets of parents who can't say no to their kids. The animation is as good as usual (a notch or two below Pixar standards), but the story is clumsily cobbled together and many of the characters who were once endearing have worn out their welcome (like Sid, voiced by John Leguizamo, who was borderline-obnoxious in the first film...now I wish Diego had eaten him a long time ago). The new characters introduced in this one are even worse. Even Scrat, the hapless acorn-obsessed squirrel who was the best part of the previous films, has become boring...just the same recycled gags over and over. Staring out the window at passing trees would have been preferable.

About a half-hour into it, my chest started hurting quite a bit. It happens on occasion, but I don't usually share this with my family, mainly because I don't want to worry them, so I suffer in silence. It eventually subsided (just gas), but got my morbid brain working again as the movie played on. I forced myself to keep watching for Lucy's sake, but all the while, a horrid thought kept running through my mind: What if Ice Age: Continental Drift ends up being the last movie I ever see? What if the last voice I hear before traveling to the hereafter is a spittle-dripping sloth? That would be an awful way for a lifelong movie lover to leave this world.

Sitting in that back seat, powerless to do anything about it (Lucy was enjoying the movie immensely), I silently begged my heart to keep plugging away long enough get back home and catch The Godfather one last time. I've never demanded a lot out of life, so I didn't think it was asking much that my last movie experience on Earth be something besides Ice Age: Continental Drift.

After the movie, Lucy removed her headphones and declared, "That was awesome!" All I managed to say was, "I'm glad you liked it, honey."

On the plus side, I got to hang out in the back seat with my kid (I so-enjoy watching & hearing her laugh), and the money we spent on the DVD was a hell of a lot cheaper than wasting fifty bucks to see it in a theater (a sad state of the movie-going experience, which I'll get into another time). So after the trip was over and my chest pains had subsided, I decided that if I was to die of a heart attack in the back seat of our shuttle, at least I was with one of my kids, not in the middle of my classroom.

Having survived the Continental Drift ordeal, I'm now thinking maybe I should be less concerned about what will be the last movie I ever see, but who I'm seeing it with.

April 10, 2013

10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Cary Grant

Special Thanks to ThinkJam for these wonderful trivia facts!

You might certainly know his face, his name, and charm but one can never exhaust themselves of random facts to know about this timeless Hollywood figure. In celebration of the DVD release of The Cary Grant Film Collection, here are a few facts you may not have known about the legendary Cary Grant.

‘Gap Brand Fan’ - his favorite store was The Gap’ because they carried the only jeans he loved- Levi’s 501’s.

‘Natural Beauty Admirer’ – While makeup may be a necessity on set, off-screen he loved his leading ladies with no make up or sparse use.

‘Brains & Looks’ - trivial pursuit was a favorite board game and one of the last games played shortly before his death.

’Judy, Judy, Judy’- Often attributed to Cary, the famous quote is actually attributed to a professional impersonator that greeted Julie Garland as she walked in during one of the impersonator’s comedy sets.

‘Keep Calm and carry an American Flag’- Cary is English and became a U.S. citizen on June 26, 1942 - chancing his name from Archie Leach to Cary Grant.

‘Mole today, not tomorrow’ - He had a mole on his cheek that was removed between filming of Crisis and People will Talk in 1950 & 1951.

‘Cary as James Bond’ - He was offered the role of James Bond in Dr .No but turned it down because he felt he was too old.

‘Always the Nice Guy’- He starred in 72 films throughout his career and never played the role of the villain.

‘Peer Review’ - Alfred Hitchcock quotes him as ‘the only actor I ever loved in my whole life’.

‘Charitable Patriot’- He donated his entire salary from the film Arsenic and Old Lace to the U.S. war relief fund.

The Cary Grant Film Collection
Over the course of his legendary career, two-time OSCAR® Nominee Cary Grant* has charmed audiences with his debonair style, sophisticated wit and dashing good looks. This 6-disc DVD set includes some of his finest films and most critically acclaimed performances. From screwball comedies to romantic dramas, this must-own collection also features some of Grant's most alluring co-stars, including Deborah Kerr, Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe.

*Actor, None but the Lonely Heart; 1944. Actor, Penny Serenade, 1941

April 9, 2013

RONIN: A Video Game for Grown-Ups

Starring Robert DeNiro, Jean Reno, Natascha McElhone, Stellan Skarsgard, Sean Bean, Jonathan Pryce. Directed by John Frankenheimer. (1998, 121 min).
I'm a responsible, middle-aged married man and loving father of two daughters. I have been a dedicated middle-school English teacher for the past 16 years. I spend a lot of time with my family, drive an SUV, grocery shop with my wife, mow my lawn once a week and, for the most part, I'm a pretty nice guy. With the exception of my tendency to swear like a sailor and my overall physical appearance (I sorta look like 'The Dude' from The Big Lebowski), my life is a lot like Ward Cleaver's. All this considered, I'm almost ashamed to admit I love playing Grand Theft Auto, arguably the most morally disreputable video game of all time.

I've occasionally let that bit of personal info slip out in my classroom, and kids act stunned that one of their teachers would enjoy such a game. It's pretty amusing how many of them (their parents as well) assume all teachers are single-minded puritans who live, eat and breathe education 24 hours a day. Sorry to burst your bubble, kids, but some of us enjoy firing up the X-Box, and not to play Dora the Explorer.

I could provide a feeble argument that I enjoy GTA because the individual missions are challenging, but that would be like trying to convince everyone I read Playboy for the articles. To be completely honest, GTA is fun because I get to be a criminal, blow stuff up, steal shit, pick up hookers and go on a gory killing spree whenever the mood strikes me.

Regarding my frequent killing sprees...I usually let the bullets fly after I have failed a mission and have little left to lose. This is when I simply whip out my biggest weapon and commence blasting pedestrians, police and vehicles at random, and my 'wanted level' skyrockets to the point that there's no way I can escape the hundreds of cops, FBI agents, helicopters and SWAT guys trying to take me out. My goal is simply seeing how long I can stay alive before getting caught or going down in a hail of gunfire. Even though I enjoy the game, I'm not especially good at it (probably because I play only occasionally, usually after a bad day at work). And sometimes, because accomplishing some of the missions in GTA are actually a lot more work than I want to put into them, popping in a movie like Ronin is easier.

This is sort-of the cinematic equivalent of GTA, without the hookers. There are mini-missions you must complete before reaching your ultimate goal, by any means necessary, regardless of the collateral damage. The only way police will come after you is if they just happen to be driving by while you’re engaged in a gunfight or smashing up cars (which is almost never). All you really need to worry about are the folks you’re chasing (or running from). But unlike my frustration with my dubious video-gaming skills, these folks never say "Aw, fuck it" and start wiping-out everybody within eyeshot.

In Ronin, a movie loaded with plot twists, double-crosses, gunplay, and best of all, big-ass car chases, Robert DeNiro plays Sam, a somewhat anal retentive American in France hired along with a bunch of mercenaries to recover a mysterious briefcase from a bunch of thugs who want to sell it to the Russians. What’s in the case? Who knows? And who cares? It's just a MacGuffin. What matters is the chase, which gets increasingly difficult as damn near everyone in the movie screws each other over to get this case.

Road rage...some are simply better at it than others.

There are several gunfights, as well as two extended (very destructive) car chases. It was nice to see director John Frankenheimer, who helmed some of the best racing footage ever in Grand Prix, hadn’t lost his touch over the years. The seven minute chase through the streets of Paris is as good as anything in The French Connection, and it doesn’t look like Frankenheimer relied on special effects to get it done. We don't get too many classic car chases like these anymore. Today, most look like they're created through CGI or hyper-editing, with vehicles as indestructible as the Batmobile.

Another thing which makes Ronin interesting is how Frankenheimer chooses to show us the consequences of the mayhem caused by these characters. A lot of innocent people get shot in the crossfire during gunfights, or barbecued in their vehicles because they chose the wrong road on which to commute that day. However, Frankenheimer is careful not to show the film’s “heroes” directly causing any of these deaths.

It’s clearly apparent that if you want to go on a killing spree, do it in France. Despite all the carnage inflicted in public streets, there’s never a cop to be found, kind-of like Grand Theft Auto when you activate a cheat code which erases your wanted level (which I must admit I use sometimes). Or maybe the French police in Ronin are as corrupt as the cops in Liberty City...if caught, just pay them off and you’re back on the streets, even though you just destroyed half the vehicles in Paris and killed two dozen people.

Ronin's tight pacing, simple story and great acting also helps us overlook lapses in plausibility, such as when two Irish terrorists (Natascha McElhone & Jonathan Pryce) drive their car off a bridge during a chase in Paris. Despite the fact they are pulled from the wreckage barely able to crawl, they appear later on seemingly no worse for wear.

But even though I've never met anyone who didn't like it, Ronin seems to be one of those overlooked and forgotten films. I would think the virtuosity displayed in the chase scenes alone would have people ranking it right up there with Bullitt, The French Connection and Mad Max. The movie definitely has a similar 70's vibe - an era when action didn't always go hand-in-hand with spectacle. If it had been made back then, perhaps people would see it as one of the great action classics.

As for Frankenheimer, who made some unquestionably great films (Birdman of Alcatraz, The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, Seconds, Grand Prix, Black Sunday) before wallowing in mediocrity for a few decades, Ronin was a return-to-form. In my humble opinion, this ranks right up there with his best.

And for those of you who feel you're above - or can't admit you enjoy - the guilty pleasures of Grand Theft Auto, a movie like Ronin provides many of the same thrills in the guise of a grown-up action movie.

April 5, 2013

STAR WARS and the Westgate Theater (RIP)

Starring Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Alec Guinness, Peter Cushing, Anthony Daniels, David Prowse, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew, James Earl Jones. Directed by George Lucas. (1977, 125 min).

This isn't actually about the movie itself. Sorry. But maybe you'd like to climb into my time machine for a few minutes...

Besides, Star Wars has been written about, worshipped & analyzed to death over the decades. A gajillion critics, fans, geeks and trolls have combed over every frame of this movie in far greater detail than I would ever care to. What more could I possibly have to add?

But I do have a unique perspective on the phenomenon of the original Star Wars, partially because I was around back then, but mostly because I live in Portland, Oregon. If you actually know the obscure connection between my hometown and Star Wars, you deserve a place in the Geek Hall of Fame.

Today, the biggest movies are released on thousands of screens across the country. In large cities, you have at least a dozen theaters to pick from and most of those are multiplexes showing it on at least two screens. Not only that, you can go just about any time you want since cinema chains open around noon every day of the week. Last summer, The Dark Knight Rises was easily the most anticipated movie of the year, yet the day after its premiere, my daughter and I were able to waltz into the theater ten minutes before it started and had our choice of the best seats.

For me, the last movie I actually had to wait in line for was Independence Day back in 1996. And I don't even remember that last time I went to a theater and the movie sold-out before I could get there. Modern moviegoers have never spent any time in a line "stretching around the block", as the old cliche goes.

"Pull my finger."

Now let's climb into my time machine and transport back to 1977. If you weren't around back then, it might surprise you to learn the biggest movies opened in only one or two theaters in town - 'exclusive engagements' - giving the impression you were privileged they were playing near you at all. Theaters showed matinees only on weekends; Monday through Friday, the box office never opened 'till around 7:00 PM. Not only that, there was no such thing as home video, meaning if you didn't catch a movie on the big screen, it might be years before you saw it on TV. So to see a blockbuster movie usually meant waiting in line.

But Star Wars wasn't simply a blockbuster. It was the mother of all blockbusters, arriving with huge fanfare at only one theater in the Portland area, the Westgate Tri-Cinema, located in the suburb of Beaverton. Since literally everyone wanted to see it (except my dad, who never liked sci-fi in any way, shape or form), this meant there was one 900-seat auditorium to placate over a million people in the metropolitan area.

I can't speak for how other cities' theaters handled the demand for Star Wars in '77, but at the Westgate, even three months after it premiered (mainly because it took that long to talk Dad into going), we were still required to wait in a giant line to buy tickets, then wait in an entirely different line in get into the theater itself, a total of about two hours (during which time Dad was getting increasingly pissed). It was worth the wait, of course, not only because Star Wars more-than lived up to the hype, but because the Westgate itself was a wonderful place with huge auditoriums, gigantic screens and plush, luxurious, rocking seats..

There was something really cool about that era. Movies seemed like a bigger deal than they are today. The biggest ones were events and our attitude was different. We went into the theater with high hopes and wide eyes, and those long-ass lines somehow made everything just a bit more epic.

The old Westgate, in the process of being demolished in 2006. A sad day.

Movies aren't special events anymore and places like the Westgate (which was demolished over a decade ago) are all gone. No one waits in line 90 minutes anymore (or even 10). While that's often a good thing, at the same time, it somehow tends to render all movies a bit smaller than they were back in the day, when we felt
privileged to be watching them, not cynically challenging them to entertain us. When we go to a movie today, we mostly hope it's worth the twelve-dollar ticket price.

Regarding the aforementioned connection between Star Wars and my hometown of Portland...as I said before, it premiered as an exclusive engagement at the Westgate, which enjoyed long lines of eager fans. After roughly eight months, it expanded into multiple theaters in town. Then after all the Star Wars hype began to dissipate, the film continued to play at the Westgate over a year-and-a-half after its initial release. In fact, the Westgate was eventually the only theater in all of North America still showing the film. And there were Star Wars zealots flying to Portland from all over the world, just so they could check-out the movie on the big screen one more time.

April 4, 2013


Roger Ebert, the Yoda of movie critics, passed away today. I've been a fan of his since the late 70s, when he and colleague/adversary Gene Siskel bickered on Sneak Previews, the very first TV show dedicated to film criticism. It aired in my hometown of Portland on PBS every Saturday night. I never missed it.

In the days before the internet (unless your local paper printed his syndicated reviews), the only way to enjoy his genius as a writer was through his annual movie yearbooks, initially titled Roger Ebert's Movie Home Companion. These hefty volumes were simply awesome, containing every movie he wrote a review for that year. What made these books so great, aside from their obvious value as bathroom reading, was that Ebert was entertaining, whether he liked a film or not. He wasn't just a great critic...he was a great writer, and even his reviews of the films he hated demonstrated the same attention to craft as those he loved. In fact, Ebert was always at his best when writing about something he disliked (his books, I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie and Your Movie Sucks, are entertaining and often hilarious). I didn't always agree with his assessments of particular films, but he always provided solid and legitimate reasons for his opinion. In fact, I think some of my favorite Ebert reviews were the ones I disagreed with entirely.

He never jumped on any bandwagons. He never blindly kissed a filmmaker's ass (even if he was a big fan). He was never afraid to openly praise a movie everyone else hated (such as Speed 2: Cruise Control or Knowing), nor did he automatically heap accolades on something universally-lauded by his peers. Whenever you read an Ebert review, you knew you're reading something honest. I think that's why he was always so highly-regarded. There are countless critics on TV and the internet right now who can only dream of attaining the respect & status of Roger Ebert (including yours truly). He was one-of-a-kind and will truly be missed.

April 3, 2013

New Disc Review: MAGIC JOURNEY TO AFRICA (Blu-Ray)

Starring Eva Gerretsen, Raymond Mvula, Adria Collado, John Whitely, Veronica Blume. Directed by Jordi Llompart. (2010, 49 min).
Image Entertainment
When you read the box, Magic Journey to Africa sounds like a spectacular IMAX-type of trip into the heart of Africa as seen through the eyes of a young girl who journeys there...you know, one of those HD nature films you buy to show off your system. And I love those things. If you haven't done so already, if you have a big-ass, 60 inch flat screen TV dominating an entire wall, do yourself a favor and pick up a Blu-Ray nature doc. Just not this one.

This is no nature doc. It isn't even a docudrama. Magic Journey to Africa is a disjointed feeble fantasy about a well-to-do girl who, after seeing a little urban street urchin steal a cell phone, becomes inexplicably inspired to find out more about him. We are never shown just how she's able to track him down in a city the size of Barcelona, but she ends up finding him bedridden in a hospital. Later, it is hinted that he dies and, according to a nurse, has gone back to his homeland in Africa.

A winged equestrian contemplates
becoming a carnivore.
Then, through her dreams, the girl rides to Africa on her magic winged horse (in reality, a stuffed animal) to try and find him. She meets a variety of snarky talking animals and befriends another boy who introduces her to the people in his village. At this point, the movie totally jettisons the Barcelona street urchin storyline and becomes a series of fantasy sequences that were probably created because they'd look cool in 3D.

In fact, we don't really get to see much of the real Africa. Most of the critters are CGI characters and, despite a few token panoramic shots, this movie doesn't provide anything the average NatGeo doc hasn't given us before...and better.

Okay, you might be saying, so it ain't the nature doc it promised...is the story any good? It sounds like it might amuse the kids.

The answer to that is no. The so-called story is all over the place, with little transition from one scene to another. How this movie bridges the gap from discovering a young boy's heritage to a fantasy world where children's dreams keep stories alive is as much a mystery to me as trigonometry. In addition, the pace is slow, the acting is terrible and the CGI effects (even in 3D) are no more impressive than those in an expensive Super Bowl ad.

But don’t take my word for it. I watched this with my youngest daughter, who’s nine, more-or-less the age a movie like this might appeal to. As the end-credits rolled, she rolled her eyes and sighed, “Lame.”

On the plus side, Magic Journey to Africa is only 49 minutes long.

SPECIAL FEATURES: 2 making-of documentaries, trailers, 3D version of the film

 (out of 5)

April 2, 2013


Starring Jay Hayden, Andy Stahl, Tori White, Scott Lilly. Directed by Turner Clay. (2012, 90 min).

 Image Entertainment

When this disc showed up in the mail, my youngest daughter, Lucy, took one look at the box and pleaded, "A zombie movie! Cool! Can we watch it tonight, Daddy? Can we, can we, can we?" Lucy's my little horror buddy, and zombies are her favorite. We've spend countless Friday nights camped-out on the sofa watching gut-munchers of all sorts. How could I say no?

But being a zombie movie fan takes a lot of patience, since the bad ones far-outweigh the good ones. Because they're relatively inexpensive to make, so damn many are perpetually pumped-out by would-be Romeros that wading through the gore to even find ones that are "simply okay" is a small victory. For every Dawn of the Dead, there's a thousand pieces of celluloid shit some idiot shot in the woods near his house. Being a zombie fan means keeping your expectations really low.

And my expectations for State of Emergency were  low indeed. First, I'd never heard of the thing. Second, according to IMDb, director Turner Clay has almost no track record. Third, the film gets off to a bad start by being a zombie movie without any fucking zombies.

But as all zombie fans know, every now and then, one comes along that, despite its budget or lack of originality, turns out to be a pleasant surprise. State of Emergency is one of those.

Lucy and I sat patiently during the slooooow first act, following its main character (Jim) as he lays his fiancé to rest, wanders around an empty barn and finds a rifle, wanders around some more before - finally! - a zombie shows up to try and take a chunk out of him.

“It’s about time,” Lucy quipped just before Jim takes it out with a head shot.

"Damn...Ann Coulter just won't stay down."

Jim later ends up in an abandoned warehouse with a few other survivors, which is where most of the remaining action takes place. He gets to this new location with relative ease because we don’t actually see too many zombies at any given time. Since the ghouls are so individually spread-out that they almost never appear to be a constant threat, we wonder why our heroes don’t just simply make a run for it. After all, they are never attacked by more than one zombie at a time, and those attacks are few and far-between. Considering the premise involves a chemical weapons leak which renders most of the community into gut-munching ghouls, one would think the area would be crawling with them. I’m pretty sure that the sparse numbers of undead has more to do with the film’s budget than its story.

Still, there’s something about State of Emergency that’s oddly compelling. It ain’t anything original, nor does offer any unique twists to the genre. The performances are okay, but nothing special. The same goes for the make-up effects, which are serviceable, but aside from a few CGI head-shots, this would likely earn a PG-13 rating. Worst of all, there are hardly any zombies!

But while the whole fortress-under-siege thing is as old as Night of the Living Dead, director Turner manages to build quite a bit of tension and suspense. Not only that, his characters are smart, interesting and likeable, which is the movie’s biggest saving grace. We want these people to survive; the best scene by-far is the one when we learn one of them is diabetic, and Jim has to venture outside to find insulin for her.

As for Lucy, the zombie fan whose opinion I value most, she was on the edge of her seat for the entire last half of the movie.

So no, State of Emergency is not gonna make anyone forget Dawn of the Dead (or even Resident Evil), but it’s well-made on a low budget, doesn’t insult the viewer’s intelligence and even provides a good scare or two along the way. For me, this joins Flight of the Living Dead as one of those zombie movies I expected to be grade-Z crap but turned out pretty cool.
 (Out of 5)