March 28, 2013

STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN and the Collection of One

Starring William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForrest Kelly, Ricardo Montalban, James Doohan, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, Walter Koenig, Kirstie Alley. Directed by Nicholas Meyer. (1982, 113 min).

This is largely considered the best of the Star Trek movies featuring the cast from the original series. It's my favorite, too, but the only one I probably can't watch again.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away (when dire finances forced me and my wife to relocate to Cleveland, Ohio), VCRs were still a fairly new thing and very expensive. I was envious of anyone who could afford such a luxury in their living room. But as fate would have it, I lucked into $200 that I didn't need to commit to bills or personal debt. That wasn't lot of money even back then, but when you're down-and-out it's a fortune. I probably could have used it for something practical, like work clothes, a new car muffler, or treating my then-wife to a night out (even though I was enjoying her company less and less). Those ideas did briefly cross my mind for a second or two before I knew exactly what I should blow my extra cash own VCR.

This was easier said than done, because most were still in the $400 range, but lo and behold, after a bit of searching, I found one at Sears. The price: $180. It was a beauty...a top-loading, big-ass Sony that was roughly the size of a toolshed. I couldn't believe my luck.

The downside? It was a Betamax.

Betamax was developed in the mid-1970s by Sony and was the first home video format. VHS came along a few years later, and although the picture quality wasn't quite as good, it was cheaper and the tapes allowed you to record longer. After most other VCR manufacturers jumped onboard the VHS bandwagon, Sony ended up the big loser in the format war. By 1985, the reason I was able to snag a brand new Betamax VCR for $180 was because there wasn't a demand for them anymore.

But I didn't care about that at the time. I just wanted to enjoy movies in the comfort of my own home whenever I wanted. From the second I slapped my nine twenty dollar bills on the counter in the electronics section at Sears, I felt like a big shot.

Back then, most people who had VCRs used them to record stuff or rent movies. I did some of that, too, but the main thing I wanted was to have my own movie library, a collection of favorites proudly displayed on my shelf like a rare book collection. As a life-long movie lover, it was my idea of Heaven. However, in the mid-80s, most movies newly-released on home video were intended for rental, not sale. The price to actually buy most new movies ranged from $50-100. What usually happened was, roughly a year or two after a movie's theatrical run, it would be released on home video for rental. Once the rental revenue was saturated (another year or two), the price to actually buy the movie would drop to a more consumer-friendly twenty bucks.

But not every studio did this. Paramount and Disney seemed to know right away there were a lot of folks like me who'd buy a newly-released movie right away if the price was right. Hence, some of the shopping mall record stores began stocking a small shelf of movies for sale. With the remaining twenty bucks from my VCR purchase, I snapped up a copy of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. I was giddy...for the first time in my life, I actually owned a movie, free to watch it whenever I wanted and never had to return it to the video store the next day.

That first experience of popping Star Trek II into my own VCR was awesome. There I was on a Saturday night, watching a theatrical film I paid to see in theaters only a few years before in the comfort of my tiny apartment. Man, technology was wonderful!

However, when you have caviar tastes on a tuna fish budget, you are brought down to Earth in a hurry. I had a job which allowed me to live paycheck-to-paycheck and had little discretionary income. Sure, if I was lucky, I could afford to rent a movie now and then, but most video stores carried very few Betamax videos, so I ended up watching Star Trek II a lot, the novelty of watching a movie whenever I pleased slowly dissipating with each viewing. I began to notice things in the movie I didn't want to...Shatner's hairpiece, Ricardo Montalban's nipple-free chest and the fact that most of the supporting cast from the original Star Trek series are actually shitty actors.

Soon after, Betamax went the way of the Dodo bird. Less than a year after I bought my first VCR, most Betamax movies could be found in clearance bins. I grabbed a lot of shit from those bins, even movies I didn't necessarily think were worth owning, just to have something - anything - to watch other than Star Trek II.

So today, even though Star Trek II is the best film in the entire franchise, and I have it on DVD (mostly to round out my collection of all the Trek films), I still haven't even taken the plastic wrap off the box. I don't know if I'll ever watch it again. Hell, I still know every scene by heart, so maybe I don't need to.

March 27, 2013

New Disc Review: EARTH'S FINAL HOURS (Blu-Ray)

Starring Robert Knepper, Julia Benson & Bruce Davison. Directed by W.D. Hogan. (2012, 91 min)

Anchor Bay Entertainment
There are two things one needs to know about Earth's Final Hours in order to get any enjoyment out of it. First, this is yet-another apocalyptic disaster story that the SyFy Channel unleashes on a nearly weekly basis, meaning the special effects were likely created on some guy's laptop over a weekend. Second, these effects are few and far between, and despite the promise of massive destruction depicted on the box art, the closest we get to real onscreen mayhem is when a girl’s decades-old sedan blows up..

So what's left is the story itself, which is somewhat ludicrous...a piece of matter from a white hole boars straight through the Earth, causing the magnetic fields to dissipate as the planet's rotation begins to stop. This is a bad thing. Earth is screwed unless there's some way to restart its rotation. Fortunately, there are a couple of scientist who developed a satellite system to counter this sort of thing. But unfortunately, our evil government (headed by a douchebag who inexplicably refuses to try anything which might save the entire planet as opposed to a chosen few) mothballed the project years ago after said-scientists refused to turn their invention into a weapon. Now it’s up to a renegade CIA agent, his computer-hacking son and an astronomy expert with a great rack to save the world.

"Ooh! A penny!"
Effects-wise, this is low-rent stuff, which leaves the aforementioned story. It has its moments, including a lot of pseudo-science which makes one briefly think such a scenario is least until we end up in an abandoned mining town where an obnoxious teen punk, using 20-year-old computer equipment, is capable of undermining state-of-the-art government-issued technology simply because he’s a rebellious hacker.

If you keep your expectations really, really low, Earth’s Final Hours might be decent enough time killer, but it’s hardly worth owning until it inevitably turns up in Best Buy budget bins in the near future.

FKMG RATING: *1/2 (out of 4)

March 26, 2013

OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN: Comfort in Predictability

Starring Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Angela Basset, Rick Yune, Robert Forster, Dylan McDermott, Melissa Leo, Radha Mitchell, Cole Hauser, Ashley Judd. Directed by Antoine Fuqua. (2013, 120 min).

Since it was payday, I invited my wife out to the movies.

"What's playing?" she asked.
"Olympus Has Fallen," I replied. "That movie with Gerard Butler about terrorists in the White House. Looks like a Die Hard thing."
"What else is playing?"
"Uh...Olympus Has Fallen. I wanna watch shit explode."

I get less adventurous as I get older. I don’t roll the dice with my discretionary income like I used to. This exasperates my wife on occasion, especially during those rare times when the stars align and we’re able to enjoy a night on the town without the kids. She likes to try new restaurants with foreign cuisine. I, on the other hand, have problems with shelling out a C-note for a dining experience which has a 50% chance of sucking. Whenever the decision is left to me, we usually end up at Red Robin or the Chinese joint down the road from our house (about as close to foreign cuisine as I like to get), because at least I know what's gonna end up on my plate.

And as much as I hate to admit this, I've developed the same attitude when it comes to going to movies. Back in the day, I took chances on all kinds of stuff...character dramas, independent films, comedies, horror flicks, etc. But as I get older and movie-going gets more expensive, not only do I not go as often as I used to, I'm less willing to gamble with my hard-earned income. There's nothing worse than spending fifty bucks for two tickets, a tub of popcorn and a couple of drinks to sit through a comedy that isn't funny, a horror movie that isn't scary or a critical darling where you leave the theater wondering if said-critics had been drinking Drano (and it goes without saying none of the art-houses downtown have gotten my business for a long time).

So most movies we choose to see are just like the Bleu Ribbon Burger I order every time at Red bets which pay off more often than not. That list of safe bets is pretty short:

  • James Bond
  • Anything with Pixar above the title
  • Quentin Tarantino movies
  • Superhero stories (mainly because Francie loves them)
  • Disaster movies
  • Sequels to something we loved the first time (though we do occasionally get burned on those)
  • Die Hard clones

Regarding that last thing on the list, you know the formula: an arrogant & super-intelligent terrorist/criminal/disgruntled employee and his henchmen lay siege upon a skyscraper/boat/train/city and threaten large-scale destructive wrath unless their demands aren't met. It's up to ONE MAN (disgraced agent/troubled cop/Navy Seal) who just happens to be in the wrong place at the right time, to not only rescue his wife/buddy/family/President/beloved housepet, but single-handedly kill every single bad guy. Along the way are big, loud scenes of massive & fiery destruction which go a long way in masking any plot holes.

All this started with 1988's Die Hard, pretty much the Star Wars of action movies. It's been ripped-off and imitated so many times ever since that the term "Die Hard on a..." is practically its own genre. Speed 2 notwithstanding, it is a hard concept to fuck-up (hell, I even enjoyed Jean Claude Van Damme's Sudden Death).

"Are you ready for the cinnamon challenge?"

As for Olympus Has Fallen, I was ready to part with the cash in my wallet the second its trailer showed the Washington Monument crumbling to the ground. Yeah, it's Die Hard in the White House, and what most probably were hoping A Good Day to Die Hard could have been. As such, I'm pretty sure the screenplay was actually more like a checklist:

  • Ultra-skilled-yet-troubled hero...check
  • Personal friend of said-hero in need of rescue...check
  • Arrogant super-villain who ultimately over-estimates his own intelligence...check
  • Impenetrable fortress penetrated...check
  • The computer genius who works for the villain and is able to totally take control of everything with a few hits to the keyboard...check
  • That character who initially appears to be on the up-and-up, but is actually working for the bad guys...check
  • Needlessly-stupid supporting characters whose actions are wrong-headed even to the dumbest guy in the audience...check
  • The disastrous result of that same needlessly-stupid character’s attempt to end the crisis quickly...check
  • Climactic hand-to-hand-combat showdown between the hero and villain (the latter of whom thinks he’s still winning even though his plans have been thwarted)...check
  • Scenes of massive, gratuitous destruction...check, check & check

That being said, I suppose there are two unexpected surprises to be found in Olympus Has Fallen. First, it is extraordinarily violent even by Die Hard standards. Second, it may be the most blatantly-jingoistic movie since Air Force One. It practically wraps itself in the Stars & Stripes and screams “AMERICA!!!!!”. This is the kind of movie Fox News would view as a speculative documentary, and guys like Bill O’Reilly pop into their DVD player when they feel like masturbating.

As Die Hard clones go, Olympus Has Fallen doesn’t offer a single surprise or twist that a fan of the genre won’t see coming a mile away, but that is actually its greatest virtue. It knows the formula and milks it better than any similar movie since The Rock, doing so with a lot of panache. Like riding the same roller coaster at an amusement park countless times, or when I order the same hamburger every time I go to Red Robin, we know what’s coming, but that doesn’t make it any less satisfying. This movie delivers exactly what you expect...cinematic comfort food.

March 22, 2013

20 Things We Learn from the DIE HARD Franchise

1. The original is still the Star Wars of action movies. Ever since 1988, how many times have we walked out of a movie and said, "It's good, but no Die Hard." The last few sequels aren't Die Hard, either.
2. Germany builds their super villains nearly as well as they build sports cars.
 3. When the shit goes down, the FBI will suddenly become as pathetic and helpless as my dog after he's caught peeing in the house.
4. Contrary to popular belief, Twinkies eventually expire.
5. Unless you're Bruce Willis, do not fuck with Alan Rickman.
6. If your hair is starting to fall out, you might as well bite the bullet and get rid of it all. Who may end up looking like a badass.
7. Bonnie Bedelia looks like your childhood friend's hot mom you used to shamefully fantasize about.
8. It's possible to leap from a bridge onto a moving freighter, with only a few painful bruises to show for it.
9. Police cars can fly.
10. If you are cast as a secondary character in a Die Hard movie, you are most-likely being paid for your ability to come across as a complete idiot.
11. Mercenaries should try-out for the NBA, since they are able to toss every single grenade 20 feet through a tiny cockpit window.
12. CGI has never improved a single franchise, but you knew that after The Phantom Menace. The fact the original Die Hard still boasts the best special effects of the entire franchise simply nails this home.
13. Adding sidekicks doesn't improve the sequels, either, though Justin Long comes reaallly close to stealing Live Free or Die Hard right from under Willis' nose.
14. If the character of John McClane manages to become estranged from his wife, daughter and son over the course of 25 years, he must actually be quite a douchebag when he's not working.
15. Since Bruce Willis becomes more indestructible with each film, Live Free or Die Hard and A Good Day to Die Hard could also be considered defacto sequels to Unbreakable.
16. No one likes a John McClane who can't let the f-bombs fly.
17. The book is not always better than the movie. In fact, how many of you even remember the original was even based on a novel (Nothing Lasts Forever, by Roderick Thorp), or Die Hard 2 was based on a another unrelated novel by a completely different author (58 Minutes, by Walter Wager)?
18. Out of novels? No can turn anything into a Die Hard movie. Die Hard with a Vengeance began life as a Lethal Weapon sequel, and Live Free or Die Hard was inspired by a 1997 article in Wired magazine. As for A Good Day to Die Hard? Maybe a million monkeys with typewriters couldn't pump out Shakespeare, but a Die Hard sequel like this isn't out of the question.
19. If the approaching asteroid in Armageddon was populated with evil Germans, it could be another Die Hard sequel.
20. In fact, there are a lot of Bruce Willis movies that could have been Die Hard sequels, like The Last Boy Scout, The Fifth Element, 16 Blocks, Striking Distance and RED (you know, as sort-of a final chapter), as long as he's blowing shit up. Because, in the end, McClane is just a name...all we really care about is watching Willis blow shit up.

March 19, 2013


Starring Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler, Edgar Ramirez. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. (2012, 157 min).

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Being that they have the same writer and director, obvious comparisons are drawn between Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker. Both are darkly similar in tone, and display a great deal of technical virtuosity in their visceral depiction of action scenes. Both are inspired by real events in recent history. Both received heaps of critical praise and ended up on many year-end best-of lists. And of course, both were nominated for a lot of Oscars. The Hurt Locker won for Best Picture, but while pre-release hype touted Zero Dark Thirty as an Oscar front-runner, ensuing controversy (that it supposedly had a pro-torture agenda) pretty-much sealed its fate, especially after the late outpouring of goodwill toward Argo (which did deserve to win).

The oft-discussed torture scenes in Zero Dark Thirty, while uncomfortable to watch, are few and far between, and certainly don't leave the average viewer the impression that the filmmakers have some sort of pro-torture agenda. Instead, we feel like director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal are simply presenting events as they supposedly happened, leaving the viewer to either commend or condemn the characters' actions. Like the equally-maligned JFK, Zero Dark Thirty is a movie first, a political statement last.

As such, it is a much better film than The Hurt Locker. Personally, I think The Hurt Locker is overrated, and not even close to deserving Best Picture. Zero Dark Thirty isn't either, but taken simply as a film rather than a history lesson, it is far more compelling, with a stronger main character (Jessica Chastain as Maya) and more-focused narrative. After all, despite what you personally think of everything that has transpired since 9/11, who wouldn't be fascinated by the details behind our government's hunt for Osama Bin Laden?

"I know you are...but what am I?"
Contrary to the movie's critics, Zero Dark Thirty eschews most of the inherent political and moral baggage to focus on this hunt for the world's most notorious terrorist, making it a compelling journey. After a fairly slow-moving start (when countless suspects and names are thrown at us), the movie builds a considerable amount of suspense as its primary characters start to close in on their quarry. Even though we all know the ultimate outcome, the final act is action-packed and suspenseful, and we really feel like we're watching events exactly as they transpired.

But it does take a long time to get to that final act. Since Zero Dark Thirty takes place over the course of many years, characters come and go, and normally that's fine, but we are set-up to believe some of them carry more importance to the plot than they actually do. Ultimately, the movie ends up being thirty minutes longer than it needs to be.

But as a dramatic experience, Zero Dark Thirty lends itself to repeated viewings far better than The Hurt Locker. We simply like these people more (even those who initially come across as uncaring, sadistic bastards), and have more personally invested in their success or failure. What's truly amazing is both The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty were directed by a woman whose first 'big' movie was Point Break, one of the most unintentionally funny movies of all time.

Special Features:
No Small Feat - making-of featurette
The Compound
Geared Up
- the weapons and equipment used by the actors
Targeting Jessica Chastain - featuring the lead actor

FKMG RATING: *** (out of 4)

March 14, 2013

New Disc Review: WILLOW - 25th Anniversary (Blu-Ray/DVD)

Starring Val Kilmer, Joanne Whalley, Warwick Davis, Billy Barty & Jean Marsh. Directed by Ron Howard. (1988, 125 min).

20th Century Fox

In this post-Lord of the Rings era, I suppose a movie like Willow must seem pretty quaint. Special effects have advanced so much over the 25 years since its release that the visuals look downright archaic. Of the movies released in the 80s that have gone on to become classics, Willow seems to be largely forgotten, which is sad when you consider this was the first film to effectively utilize the computer-generated 'morphing' process in creating one of its key scenes. This process had a huge impact on special effects technology at the time, easily as groundbreaking & influential as the stop-motion wonders in the original King Kong or the use of blue-screen in 1940's The Thief of Bagdad. This alone is reason enough for Willow to be considered a movie milestone. Without morphing, it is unlikely James Cameron could have made Terminator 2 (the film most-associated with the process).

Aside from that, Willow is the best movie George Lucas ever attached his name to that doesn't have Star Wars in the title. Storywise, it ain't anything original. In fact, the movie is Star Wars with a lot of Lord of the Rings thrown in. But it's a hell of a lot of fun, and free of the arty pretensions which sometimes makes Lord of the Rings (as good as it is) a chore to sit all the way through. Whereas Peter Jackson was striving for serious cinematic artistry, using Tolkien’s original trilogy as his bible, director Ron Howard simply cranked out a popcorn movie which essentially tells a similar story in a fraction of the time.

"I farted!"

Additionally, Willow is arguably the last George Lucas movie where just as much care is given to the characters and performances as the action and special effects. Like the original Star Wars trilogy, we truly like the heroes and despise the villains, even if most of them are composite caricatures. Considering how the Star Wars prequels turned out, this is more likely due to Howard’s direction and Bob Dolman’s witty screenplay than Lucas’ original story. The performances hold up pretty well, too. Val Kilmer has never been this likable or charming before or since; not only is he the heroic/romantic lead, he also provides a majority of the comic relief. And although third-billed, most of the film rests on Warwick Davis’ shoulders. As the title character, his role is similar to Mark Hamill’s in Star Wars, and Davis manages to make us care a lot about Willow, even though he’s stuck with uttering some of the movie’s worst lines.

So sure, the special effects are now pretty phony looking (especially noticeable on this Blu-Ray release), and the story is derivative. But for an unpretentious fantasy film made during a time when no one else was making them, Willow definitely deserves a second look 25 years later.

Special Features:
Deleted Scenes with Ron Howard
The Making of an Adventure with Ron Howard
From Morf to Morfing with Dennis Muren
Willow: An Unlikely Hero - Personal Video Diary of Warwick Davis
Matte Paintings
Standard DVD Disc
FKMG RATING: ***1/2 (out of 4)

March 13, 2013

New Disc Review: THIS MUST BE THE PLACE (Blu-Ray)

Starring Sean Penn, Frances McDormand, Judd Hirsch, Eve Hewson, Kerry Condon, Harry Dean Stanton, Joyce Van Patten, David Byrne. Directed by Paolo Sorrentino. (2011, 111 min).

Anchor Bay Entertainment

This is about as whacked-out an idea for a movie since Bubba Ho-Tep. Sean Penn plays Cheyenne, an aging, burned-out goth rocker. Still dressing like it's the 1980s, he resembles an undead member of The Cure. Retired and living off of his wealth in Ireland, he mostly shuffles aimlessly around his mansion while his doting wife (Frances McDormand) divides her time between fire-fighting and taking care of him. When he learns his estranged father is deathly ill, he sums up the courage to leave the safety of his home to visit him. Unfortunately, his dad dies before he can get there.

It’s at this point the movie makes a bizarre turn (at least on paper). A professional Nazi hunter reveals that Cheyenne’s father was a Holocaust survivor who was tormented in Auschwitz by an SS officer, and that man is now hiding somewhere in America. So Cheyenne embarks on a cross-country quest to find him and avenge his father.

The plot sounds like the makings of a black comedy, but This Must Be the Place is a very low-key, deliberately-paced character drama that plays like a serious version of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. Like Pee Wee, Cheyenne seems to exist in a completely different world than the people he encounters on his road trip to revenge, yet those he meets always accept him for what he is, despite his unbelievably goofy appearance and mannerisms.

I was totally prepared to hate this movie. I’ve never been a big Sean Penn fan, and not even ten minutes into it, I was forced to accept it wasn’t going to be some wild genre mash-up like Bubba Ho-Tep. And God does it start slow!

But This Must Be the Place is one of those films where patience is rewarded, and the fact that it defies viewers’ expectations ends up being one of its greatest virtues. It isn’t a story of revenge, but one of redemption and closure, bundled up as a road trip where we meet the characters who inevitably snap Cheyenne out of the 20-year time warp he’s been stuck in, which includes the very ex-Nazi he is hunting.

Not to say the film is completely dark and serious; there are a lot of amusing moments, most of them provided by Cheyenne’s appearance and obvious discomfort when dealing with the real world.

Ironically, I think the biggest flaw in the film might lie in its main character. Even though Cheyenne is in nearly every scene, he is still kind-of a caricature, a composite of burned-out rock star cliches. The people who move in and out of his life during this quest are far more interesting, even though none of them have more than maybe ten minutes of screen time. As Cheyenne moves on, we’re almost sad to see him leave these people behind. Still, despite how out-of-touch he seems, at least we like Cheyenne. Personally, I haven’t found Penn this amusing since Fast Times at Ridgemont High. In fact, you could almost imagine Cheyenne as the middle-aged version of Jeff Spicoli after drugs have taken their toll.

What I appreciate most about This Must Be the Place is that it defied my expectations, and will be likely one of those movies where I can't totally explain why I like it.

FKMG RATING: *** (out of 4)

March 10, 2013

New Disc Review: WRECK-IT RALPH (Blu-Ray/DVD)

Starring the voices of John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Alan Tudyk, Ed O’Neill, Dennis Haysbert, Mandy Kaling. Directed by Rich Moore. (2012, 101 min).
Disney Blu-Ray

The cool thing about Wreck-It Ralph is it’s a much better film than it needed to be. The premise, about a video game villain who decides he’s no longer happy with his role in life, could just-as-easily have been a quickly slapped-together product without a whiff of imagination and would have raked in just as much cash from undemanding kids and their parents dragged along for the ride.

Instead, Wreck-It Ralph has much higher aspirations, to be the Who Framed Roger Rabbit or Toy Story for the video game crowd. It isn’t as clever, funny or groundbreaking as either of those classics, but it does just-as-lovingly acknowledge the past. Those who grew up in arcades during the 80s will find a lot to love about the film’s small touches that will be totally lost on the children they would likely buy the movie for. That, more than anything, makes this film worth seeing more than once.

The plot itself is standard fare, so it’s those little touches which raises Wreck-It Ralph above the usual kiddie fodder. My favorite so-called throwaway scene involves the use of Oreo cookies as palace guards in the Suger Rush video game. The scene is dumb, and has nothing to do with the story itself, but its inclusion makes it obvious the film’s writers had much loftier ambitions than simply catering to the built-in video game crowd.

Another nice touch is that the primary characters all come from different eras of video game history. Hence, those from older games move and act differently than those from modern ones, making the budding romance between Fix-It Felix & Sergeant Tamora all the more amusing.

In fact, if there’s one major fault with the movie, it’s that the secondary characters are much more interesting than Ralph or Vanellope (voiced by John C. Reilly & Sarah Silverman). This goes for the numerous ‘cameos’ by characters from real video games, like Bowser and one of the ghosts from Pac-Man. These more satiric moments tend to suck the viewer from what little plot the movie has.

Still, while no classic, Wreck-It Ralph is a lovingly-made film that manages to lift itself above most of the CG animated fodder glutting the market. It’s not in the same league as Toy Story, but does lend itself to repeated viewings, which is more than you can say about most family films.

Bonus Features:
Paperman - Disney’s Oscar-winning short, which might be the sweetest seven minutes ever put on film.
Bit-by-Bit: Creating the Worlds of Wreck-It Ralph
Disney Intermission: The Gamer’s Guide to Wreck-It Ralph
Deleted/Alternate Scenes
Video Game Commercials - Fake ads for the fake games created for the film, and very funny.

FKMG RATING: *** (out of 4)

JFK: The Big Budget Sasquatch Movie

Starring Kevin Costner, Tommy Lee Jones, Gary Oldman, Kevin Bacon, Joe Pesci, Sissy Spacek, Michael Rooker, Laurie Metcalf, Jay O. Sanders, Donald Sutherland, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau. Directed by Oliver Stone. (1991, 189 min).

Some of you might be too young to remember this, but back in the 1970s there was a plethora of cheap pseudo-documentaries released in theaters promising to unlock mysteries of the Bermuda Triangle, ancient aliens, Lincoln's assassination, Sasquatch, Noah's Ark and UFOs. A lot of 'em were produced by Sunn Classic Pictures, who had the perfect formula: compile grainy photos & badly-acted reenactments, accompanied by testimony from so-called experts, then tack on ominous narration by Rod Serling, Leonard Nimoy or Brad Crandall and you've got box office gold. These paranoid movies came and went in theaters within a week or two, but were so inexpensive to make that they earned a tidy profit.

If you are old enough to remember any of those films, you also know you never left the theater any more enlightened than you were when you bought your ticket. Despite some of the most ingenious marketing campaigns of that era, none of these films ever really provided any revelatory information, and most of them ended up raising more questions than they actually answered. Still, they were fun to watch, especially if you were a kid, before real life made you the cynical old fart you are today.

Those movies mostly disappeared in the early 80s, but the genre has enjoyed a resurgence of-late, through History Channel's psuedo-docs about Nostradamus or the end of the world, or reality shows like Finding Bigfoot. But in the interim, Oliver Stone gave us what is arguably the greatest Sunn Classic Picture that wasn't actually made by Sunn Classic Pictures...

JFK spends its entire running time raising a shitload of questions without actually answering any of them, but does it so entertainingly that its three hours feel more like 90 minutes. This is a movie so hell-bent in its convictions that, not only do we get sucked into this perceived conspiracy to kill the president, we forget how fast and loose Stone plays with history. He manages to convince us that, not only is John Kennedy one of the most historically-important public martyrs since Jesus Christ, so is Lee Harvey Oswald (Stone stops just short of declaring Oswald some kind of unsung hero), which may be why the movie raised so many hackles back in 1991. Stone does such a great job presenting his theories as fact that JFK manages to do what very few three hour movies can, which is make you want to watch it several times.

"This is going right up my nose."

I have seen JFK at least a dozen times, and while some of it reeks of paranoid histrionics, two scenes grab me every time. The first is when Donald Sutherland (unbilled, playing ‘Agent X’) secretly meets Garrison (Kevin Costner) and unveils why the Kennedy assassination could not have been anything but a massive conspiracy. In reality, this meeting never took place, but damn, it’s intense. The other is the final courtroom scene, where Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), speculates the events before, during and after the assassination. But for someone who reveres Kennedy so much, Stone sure does love repeatedly showing the man’s head being blown off. Historically, both scenes may be total bullshit, but at least while watching, I get sucked into the whole conspiracy all over again, simply because it's great drama.

While JFK doesn’t really solve any mysteries, it does manipulate us into thinking some kind of conspiracy is at least plausible, and points accusing finger at damn near everybody. If you've ever listened to Oliver Stone, you know he likes to blow a lot of smoke up our asses, especially regarding this film, which he seems to think is as important to our recent history as the Zapruter Film. In the end, JFK is simply a great movie, and that's all. And structurally, it's just like those old Sunn Classics, only with a bigger budget and better actors.

March 6, 2013

GRIZZLY and the Stupidity of Children

Starring Christopher George, Andrew Prine & Richard Jaeckel. Directed by William Girdler. (1976, 91 min).

Kids are dumb. I know this because I teach middle school.

I begin each day of my 7th grade English class with a warm-up writing exercise, where students respond to a prompt on the screen. It's mostly silly stuff, like 'write about a time you were scared,' or 'what would you do with a million dollars?'. But occasionally, I try throw them something a little more challenging, one of my favorites being 'name the greatest American who ever lived.' I get an amusing variety of responses on that one. Sure, there are a few who actually think about the question and provide such reasonable responses as Lincoln, Washington, Kennedy and King. Right now, a lot of kids select Obama, probably because he's the one president they're familiar with.

Then there are the wacky answers, such as Michael Jackson, Justin Beiber, Lebron James, etc. My all-time favorite was, 'I don't know who the greatest American was, but I know the brother.'

Several years ago, one girl actually responded with Mike Tyson. When I read that, I said to her, "So let me get this believe Mike Tyson, a disgraced athlete who once bit off an opponent's ear and went to prison for rape is the greatest American who ever lived." She sheepishly shrugged and replied, "Yeah, because we named our dog after him."

For some students, my warm-up questions are apparently above and beyond challenging. Further evidence that kids are dumb is when I ask them to write about the best movie they've ever seen. Seems simple enough, right?

I do not expect them all to have experienced Citizen Kane, although there's the occasional kid who mentions Grease, The Wizard of Oz or the original Star Wars. But for the most part, less than 1% ever write about a movie that came out before they were born. And that's to be expected; even though I'm getting on in years, there are very few movies made before I popped from my mom that I would list among my all time favorites.

One year, several boys responded with Alien vs. Predator, which briefly oozed into theaters that previous summer. I offered my two cents, saying it didn't hold a candle to the original Alien. One kid's stunned reply was, “There was another Alien movie?” Okay, I understand that, since there's a  common middle school philosophy that nothing existed before they were born. But I won't ever forgive this other kid who had seen the original and proudly stated AvP was far better because it was newer, therefore more realistic. This was one of those times I wished they still allowed paddling in schools.

Year in and year out, most kids tend to equate the best movie they've seen with the last movie they've seen. Currently, a lot of 'em cite The Hunger Games, Ted and The Avengers as the greatest films of all time (that's right...even the girls' beloved Twilight saga reached its expiration date). This used to bug me, until I took a good look back into my own past. Like everyone on Earth except my high school History teacher, I was a kid once, too...and just as dumb. Maybe even dumber because, after seeing 1976's Grizzly, I thought it was bigger, better and scarier than Jaws.

Jaws is widely-considered one of the greatest movies ever made (the greatest, in my humble opinion). It's on several AFI best-of lists in various categories. It was nominated for four Oscars, winning three (losing Best Picture). It also was the first film to earn over $100 million at the box office and, adjusting for inflation, is still the seventh biggest movie of all time.


Grizzly, on the other hand, is a low-budget Jaws knock-off. In fact, it is Jaws, only with a giant bear instead of a shark, a national park instead of an island, a park ranger instead of a sheriff, a chopper pilot instead of a boat captain. Even several scenes are nearly identical...shots from the beasts' POV, climaxes where said-beasts explode, dumbass authority figures proven wrong by our hero, Susan Blacklinie as a victim (though uncredited in Grizzly). Even the movie's poster art was similar to the one for Jaws.

18 feet of gut-crunching, man-eating terror!” touted the tag-line in ads back in'76, roughly a year after Jaws first scared the living shit out of everybody with a pulse, including yours truly. That was enough for me to be first in line the day Grizzly opened.

I thought Grizzly was awesome. Sure, this was just Jaws-in-the-woods, but Grizzly was brand new and Bruce the shark was a distant memory. In 1976, when they didn't show-up on-demand or on disc a few months after their theatrical runs, movies became distant memories really fast, especially when you were 12. So for a long time, I thought Grizzly was the better of the two movies, not that it was scarier (it ain't scary at all). In fact, the co-feature playing with Grizzly at the time, a William Castle cheapie titled Bug, disturbed me a lot more (especially a scene where a fire-spewing cockroach barbecues a, I was days getting over that).

No, Grizzly was simply better because it was new and I was stupid. When you're stupid, you don't notice all the dumb dialogue, you don't notice how cheap the movie looks, you don't realize Christopher George is no Roy Scheider, and you sure-as-hell don't compare William Girdler's meager talents to those of Spielberg (in fact, you don't even know who the hell Spielberg is).

But my eyes were opened a few years later when Grizzly aired on TV, retitled Killer Grizzly, apparently to avoid confusion with the huggable, fun-loving grizzlies that play with our kids in the back yard. It was the same old film, though, only this time I could see it for what it was...a knock-off of a classic.

I'm making it sound like the movie is garbage, but as Jaws imitators go (and there were a lot of 'em back then), Grizzly ain't bad at all. It's pretty fun & fast-paced, reasonably well-acted by its D-list cast and makes the most of its limited financial resources. In fact, I'd say more creativity and care was put into this Jaws rip-off than any of that film's official sequels. As for me, the movie holds a great deal of nostalgic value. I still pluck it from my DVD shelf now and again to enjoy a good laugh...not at the movie (though it's sometimes unintentionally funny), but at my younger self for ever thinking Grizzly could be a better film than Jaws.

And I'm sure when that maladjusted AvP-loving student of mine pulls his head out of his ass later in life, he'll do the same thing. Because kids are dumb, but most don't remain dumb forever.

March 2, 2013

New Disc Review: MIMESIS (Blu-Ray)

Starring Allen Maldonado, Lauren Mae Shafer, Taylor John Piedmonte, David G.B. Brown, Courtney Gains & Sid Haig. Directed by Douglas Schulze (2011, 95 min).

Anchor Bay Entertainment

The current problem with the zombie genre is that they've replaced vampires as pop culture's most endearing movie monsters. They just aren't scary anymore, a sad fact not helped by endless movies - good and bad - which glut video shelves, YouTube, Netflix and the SyFy Channel. Hence, I've seen so many cookie-cutter zombie flicks that I've learned to appreciate the few that at-least try to do something different. To a limited extent, Mimesis does that.

The subtitle on the box cover of Mimesis is Night of the Living Dead, George Romero’s 1968 classic which invented the zombie genre as we know it today. But this is not part of that franchise, nor is it a remake or satire. I suppose homage would be the best term, though that’s not 100% accurate either, even though the success of it’s premise largely depends on one's familiarity of NOTLD.

In Mimesis, several bland characters are being pursued & attacked by what appear to be zombies. As in NOTLD, they end up in an abandoned farm house as the ghouls surround them. The first hour of this movie is standard and dull zombie fare, occasionally bordering on amateurish. We are not too impressed with what’s shaping to be a love letter to the original NOTLD. In fact, I nearly fell asleep while watching it. But then, when these characters slowly discover they’ve been drugged, kidnapped and forced to re-enact NOTLD in real life, I began to perk up a bit. Without trying to give too much away, Mimesis confounded my expectations by not being a zombie movie at all.

"Cool story, make me a sandwich."
It isn't a great film. For the first hour, it isn’t even a good one. But the final act ultimately saves Mimesis from being a complete waste of time. The last 30 minutes are loaded with black comedy and interesting twists. Even the actors themselves turn their game up a notch or two during these segments. There’s also clever observational commentary regarding the media’s impact on particularly disturbed individuals which borders on disturbing; despite a few glaring plot holes, one could imagine something like this actually happening.

As with most films of this genre, there is plenty of violence, and the budget-conscious gore effects are serviceable enough, though unremarkable to seasoned zombie fans. Cult aficionados may also be disappointed that, despite their billing, Sid Haig’s & Courtney Gains’ appearances are glorified cameos. Still, for the patient viewer willing to sit through what - on-the-surface - starts off as yet-another zombie gut-muncher, Mimesis provides a few worthwhile rewards.

Special Features: Audio commentary by writer/director Douglas Schulze and co-writer Joshua Wagner.

FKMG RATING: **1/2 (out of 4)