August 31, 2013

Disc Review: THE BIG BANG THEORY: THE COMPLETE SIXTH SEASON (DVD)

Starring Johnny Galecki, Jim Parsons, Kaley Cuoco, Simon Helberg, Kunal Nayyar, Melissa Rauch, Mayim Bialik, Kevin Sussman. Various directors. (2012-13, 496 min).
Warner Home Video

On paper, the concept of The Big Bang Theory seems like something destined to last a season or two. But here we are, six seasons later and it’s just as fresh and funny as ever. While I like the show, it was never something I always went out of my way to watch. The older I get, the less I feel like planning my schedule around a program’s weekly time slot, much preferring to watch them at my leisure on disc.

Like Friends, That 70’s Show and Seinfeld, Big Bang Theory lends itself well to marathon viewing on DVD. Similar to those programs, episodes are loosely-plotted. Though there are a few ongoing running gags or story strands, viewing them in chronological order isn’t really required, even though Season 6 does start off with a thread left-over from the previous year (Howard’s adventures on the International Space Station, the closest this show ever came to jumping the shark).

After losing studio funding, James Cameron
is forced to shoot Avatar 2 in his apartment.
Of course, the cast is larger now; the only character without a steady girlfriend is Raj, though he briefly hooks-up with Lucy, a mousy girl who suffers from extreme social anxiety. At first, I was dubious at the idea of the main characters all having love interests, but they’ve since-been well-ingrained into the show, with plenty of amusing personality quirks of their own, especially Amy (Mayin Bialik) as Sheldon’s girlfriend. While Jim Parsons remains the show’s MVP, Bialik is often just as funny in the scenes they share.

Season 6 features some great cameos by the likes of Wil Wheaton, Bob Newhart and astronaut Mike Messimino. Wheaton shows he’s a good sport regarding his own acting career, and Newhart manages to steal the entire episode he appears in (playing a former kiddie-show host, forgotten by everyone but Sheldon & Leonard).

The ratings for The Big Bang Theory have been steady climbing ever since the first season (Season 6 was the most-watched so far). As long as the writing remains fresh and future new characters are well-developed, this show could be around for a long, long time. Like previous seasons, this boxed set is well-worth picking up by both newcomers and long-time fans, since most of the episodes are worth seeing more than once.

SPECIAL FEATURES: The Final Comedy Frontier (featuring astronauts Buzz Aldrin & Mike Massimino); Houston, We Have a Sitcom (the cast SKYPES the International Space Station); Electromagnetism: The Best Relationship Moments in Season 6 (chosen by the cast); The Big Bang Theory at Paleyfest 2013 (Q&A with cast & creators); Gag Reel.


FKMG RATING:
(Out of 5)


August 29, 2013

6 Classics Featuring the Cast of SESAME STREET

"I'm mad as hell, and I'm not gonna take it anymore!" (Network)
"I'm in love with you already, but I'll nail you anyway." (Basic Instinct)
"It's people! Soylent Green is made out of people! They're making our food out of people!" (Soylent Green)
"What knockers!" (Young Frankenstein)
"I came here to chew bubblegum and kick ass...and I'm all out of bubblegum." (They Live)
"We should have brought fuckin' shotguns." (Pulp Fiction)

August 28, 2013

Disc Review: THE CROODS (Blu-Ray/DVD)

Staring the voices of Nicholas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Catherine Keener, Clark Duke, Cloris Leachman. Directed by Kirk DeMisso & Chris Sanders. (2013, 98 min).
Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment

At the beginning of the 2012 NFL season, I wouldn’t have given the Baltimore Ravens a snowball’s chance of winning the Super Bowl because, on paper, they simply didn’t match up to the Falcons, Patriots, Broncos, 49ers or Eagles. So I wrote ‘em off.

I wrote off The Croods, too. To be honest, I was prepared to hate this movie from the day I saw the first trailer, which made it look like pre-digested swill created to part parents from the cash in their wallets just to shut their kids up. The ads were dumb, generic and pandering, appealing to undemanding kids still bowled-over by CGI & 3-D. Worse-yet, its casting of Nicholas Cage, Ryan Reynolds & Emma Stone reeked of a desperate stunt to plant more adult butts in theater seats. Further damning was the fact one of its co-directors was responsible for Space Chimps (ahh!). On paper, this sounded like the worst movie ever. While my youngest daughter wanted to see it, I’m pretty sure I told my wife I’d rather shit glass than sit through this cynically-produced product.

But, as ESPN’s Chris Berman loves to say, “That’s why they play the game.”

I’ll be damned if The Croods didn’t turn out to be the funniest, most-entertaining family film I’ve seen since Toy Story 3. Maybe it’s because my expectations were low, but I personally enjoyed it more than Pixar’s recent (and more-ambitious) films, Cars 2, Brave and Monsters University. This is actually hard to admit, since history has so-far shown Pixar to be the New England Patriots of CG animation, while most other studios are  the Cleveland Browns. However, Dreamworks (the studio which actually produced The Croods) has occasionally risen to the occasion and made the playoffs (Shrek, How to Train Your Dragon).

The story itself is somewhat similar to the godawful Ice Age: Continental Drift, only with a family of dimwitted cavemen, led by the overprotective Grug (Nicholas Cage), who keeps all of them safe by instilling a healthy fear of everything in them. They spend their nights in the safety of a cave, venturing-out every few days to hunt for food. His teenage daughter, Eep (Emma Stone) longs to see more of the world and resents Dad’s over-protectiveness. Then she meets Guy (that’s his name, played by Ryan Reynolds), who’s her age but a lot smarter and more-evolved than the rest of her family. He introduces them to such wonders as fire, footwear and traps to make hunting easier. Guy also informs the family their world is ending (because of the continental drift), but he knows the way to safety and suggests they should come with him before it’s too late. Much of the story centers around the conflict between the idealistic Guy and Grug, who’s stubborn and resents this young kid’s intrusion on the family (especially Eeps infatuation with him).

The Croods watch the most recent VMA Awards. 
The Croods is a very funny film, with humorously-kinetic set-pieces, such as the first time we watch the family’s daily hunt and their first encounter with fire. The movie is loaded with clever sight gags and funny dialogue. The story itself, while not exactly original, is fast-moving and fun. And unlike many animated films which boast celebrity voices for no reason, the actors’ talents are well-utilized. Sure, Nick Cage hasn’t been in a good live-action movie in a long time, but he’s terrific as Grug, partly because we know it’s Cage, but also because his oft-weary voice is perfect for the role. I also gotta hand it to Cloris Leachman as Gran; she manages to inject some fresh humor into the clichéd feisty-old-granny.

The movie’s also gorgeous to look at. The backgrounds, as well as the climactic cataclysm, are nearly photo-real; all characters are distinctive & vividly-depicted, with physical features exaggerated just enough to accentuate their personalities; the various critters they encounter on their journey - mostly products of the animators’ imaginations - are colorful, creatively rendered and often endearing. The overall quality of the animation is at least on par with Pixar’s work, and far better than what most other studios are churning out (including Dreamworks' own beloved Shrek movies).

So I was happily wrong in my pre-assessment of The Croods. Chris Berman was right. You can’t always go by stats or a team’s track record (after all, the Philadelphia Eagles, highly-touted Super Bowl contenders in 2012, didn’t even make the playoffs, while the Peyton Manning-less Indianapolis Colts did). I wanted to write it off because it wasn’t by Pixar, the ads were stupid and Nicholas Cage seemed like a dubious promotional tool.

Ultimately, I’m glad I didn’t, because The Croods is an unexpected winner.

Blu-Ray Special Features:
The Croodaceous Creatures of Croods! – Find out more about your favorite Croods creatures
● Be An Artist! – Now you can draw Belt, Macawnivore and Mousephant
● The Croods Coloring & Storybook Builder App
● Belt’s Cave Journal – Take a journey with Belt and Guy as they rescue a Jackrobat
● World of DreamWorks Animation – Music videos from your favorite DreamWorks Animation feature films 

FKMG RATING:
(Out of 5)

August 26, 2013

FRIDAY THE 13TH - THE FINAL CHAPTER and the Grand Day Out

Starring Kimberly Beck, Erich Anderson, Corey Feldman, Crispin Glover, Ted White. Directed by Joseph Zito. (1984, 91 min).

I find this movie especially depressing. Has there ever been a movie you’d be happy never to see again because it reminds you of a time in your life you’d rather forget? For me, Friday the 13th - The (not-so) Final Chapter is one of those.

It was in early 1984 that I was kicked out of the Air Force before I even made it out of basic training. I wish I could claim a defiantly-cool reason for my discharge, like kicking the drill instructor in the nuts or something, but I simply couldn’t pass my locker & bunk inspection (fucking hospital corners…what the hell’s the point of those anyway?). While a tiny part of me was actually a little relieved because San Antonio winters are a bitch, this was a soul-crushing blow. I ended up back home in Portland with no real job prospects, no particularly employable skill and a first-wife whose assessment of me as a loser likely began to develop the second she picked me up at the airport.

We didn’t exactly have money falling out of our asses before I enlisted because job retention was a skill I hadn’t mastered (hell, I even got fired as a telemarketer). Now our financial situation was dire indeed. The day after I got back home, I started hitting the pavement looking for something - anything - to help keep us afloat. The only things I found where no experience was required were commission sales jobs, such as the one I finally landed which involved selling expensive sets of children’s books and encyclopedias.

This company was run by two guys, Dennis and Richard, whose so-called “office” was located on the second floor above an Asian grocery store. Every wall was covered in cheap wood paneling; the floor sported worn, matted shag carpet. Dennis also lived in one of the back rooms, sleeping on a mattress and heating his meals with a toaster oven. Richard drove around in a Mercedes, which he continued to remind me was paid-for in cash from selling these children’s books. He also made a considerable amount of money selling mail-order pornography from the same office, books with such enticing titles as Butthole Parade and Lesbian Love.

Anyway, after a successful ‘rite of passage’ which involved knocking on a family’s door unannounced and talking them into parting with $1000 (using a pitch created to convince parents their kids will be babbling idiots without these books), I earned my stripes and became part of the team, collecting a $150 commission for every set sold. However, from here on out, it would be through appointments set-up by Richard, whose bullshitting phone skills were second-to-none; he made this seedy little enterprise sound like the Scholastic Book Fair had just rolled into town.

Despite my new employers’ questionable background, I initially made quite a bit of money, sometimes as much as $450 per day, a lot even by today’s standards. Eventually, we took week-long road trips around the northwest, hitting small towns in Idaho and Montana with local phone lists Dennis & Richard managed to acquire. Yeah, I had to pay for my own gas, food and motel rooms, but I was earning enough commission sales to make it worth it. At least for awhile…

The problem with any kind of commission job, especially those which involve lengthy in-home presentations, is it’s feast or famine. I’d go through periods thinking it wouldn’t be long before I was driving my own Mercedes. Then there'd be long stretches of home visits where I’d do my whole presentation, only to leave the house an hour later with nothing to show for it. It also didn’t help that, while I enjoyed the money, I didn’t really enjoy the job itself, and it started to wear on me after awhile. I’ve never been what you’d call a people person, so repeatedly maintaining this friendly façade (a huge requirement in this line of work) was difficult and exhausting. And since I wasn’t a “born salesman,” a bit of guilt began to creep in. I was trying to sell phenomenally expensive sets of books by pretending to be an authority on education. Enthusiastically claiming I bought them for my own kids (I had none at the time) left a bad taste in my mouth. In fact, other than the sample volume I used in presentations, I'd never actually seen the books I was pushing on others.

My sales started to decline to the point when, during our second run through Missoula, Montana, I was barely earning enough to pay for my travel expenses. Richard and Dennis, used to the ebbs & flows of the business, were definitely saving the best sales prospects for themselves. Also disconcerting was the fact my wife hardly ever answered whenever I called home, even at 11:00 PM on weekdays. The few times she was home, when I asked where she’d been, she simply said she was at her sister’s.

One day during this trip I went to Richard’s room to get my list of potential customers. He answered the door, red-eyed & hungover, and said…“just go start knockin’ on doors, man, and you better get a sale cause I ain’t payin’ for your room.” I could feel the familiar dark cloud of despair forming over my head that instant…despite the initial euphoria of quick cash, the very people who sucked me into this line of work were not only abandoning me, but willing to leave me stranded in Missoula because I was no longer making them money. Worse yet, I knew the rent was due back home and had nothing to send. Hell, I didn’t even know how I was gonna afford the gas for the 500 mile drive back to Portland (maybe if I had offered copies of Butthole Parade as a bonus to the kids’ books, I’d have kept raking-in the green).

Simply put, if I didn’t make a sale that day, without the help of the hucksters who duped me into thinking I’d get rich, I was screwed. Sometimes - even today - when I become overwhelmed, I shut down and retreat into a world which may not solve my problems, but at least makes me forget about them for a few hours…the movie world.

When Rock-Paper-Scissors turns deadly.
I drove around Missoula most of the day, only occasionally stopping to knock on an inviting door (where I was mostly rejected, save for a single, hard-earned sale which would at least fill my tank, pay for my room and buy some groceries). But mostly, I smoked a lot of cigarettes and felt sorry for myself. As evening set-in on the way back to the motel, I spotted the marquee of a four-plex theater. It had been a few years since I went to the movies alone, and even though I could scarcely afford it, suddenly nothing sounded better. Movies have always been my ultimate escape, and right then, I really needed to get away from everybody. Before I knew what I was doing, I pulled into the parking lot, marched to the box office and bought a ticket to Friday the 13th - The Final Chapter. Then I made a bee-line into the theater without even stopping for a bag of popcorn.

I was never a gung-ho fan of the Friday the 13th series, even though I’ve seen them all, mostly on video. There’s nothing really clever, scary or original about them. Still, like ordering a Denny’s Grand Slam breakfast at 2:00 AM after the bars close, at least you know what you’re gonna get. When you go to Denny’s in the middle of the night, you aren’t looking for adventurous cuisine…you just want your belly full, often to counteract all the alcohol you ingested, a hunger which can only be sated with breakfast food. Similarly, the Friday the 13th films never attempted to re-invent the wheel or challenge the intellect. They’re just dumbed-down versions of And Then There Were None, with horny teenagers. Touted as the ‘final chapter’, this fourth film in the series provided a much-needed release for me at the time. With all the baggage I was carrying around, this admittedly-shitty movie (though Jason’s “death” was actually pretty cool) proved to be temporarily cathartic. For 90 short minutes, I forgot all my problems, and no matter how crappy I thought my life was at the time, at least my day wasn't likely to end with a machete to the face.

The weight of the world climbed back on my shoulders the second I left the theater. Back at the motel, I gave Richard the paperwork to my only sale that day. He looked at me contemptuously and said, “That’s it?”, even though it was obvious he hadn’t left his room all day. He shut the door on me without another word. What I wouldn’t have given for Jason Voorhees to pay him a little visit.

Back in my own room, I tried calling my wife again. She wasn't home. I might not be the brightest crayon in the box, but it didn’t take a super-genius to deduce she probably wasn’t spending all those nights at her sister’s. Still, I never brought it up when I got back home a few days later because we had bigger problems, like the eviction notice she greeted me with as I walked through the door. I suddenly had no income either; I showed up for work to find the office completely empty. Upon returning from Montana, Dennis & Richard had cleared the place out and disappeared, still owing me money. Things only got worse from there, but that’s another sad tale.

As for Friday the 13th - The Final Chapter...it isn't the best or worst in the series, though it's arguably the bloodiest. But even if it had turned out to be the greatest horror movie of all time, I doubt I'd ever want to see it again. It reminds me too much of one of the more depressing times in my life.

August 23, 2013

The 10 BEST (and 10 worst) DISASTER MOVIES

I’ve loved disaster movies ever since my parents dumped me off at the Southgate Quad to catch The Towering Inferno during a matinee when I was eleven years old. Until then, all I really ever saw was Disney stuff. This was my first ‘grown-up’ movie, where people actually died and all kinds of shit exploded. It was awesome, and I caught every disaster movie that came along afterwards. Good or bad, I did ‘em all. They essentially had the same plot, but I didn’t care, so long as a lot of stuff got destroyed and those characters who deserved to die usually did.

Even now, it is still my favorite genre. Its brief comeback in the mid 90s was especially cool (since I had assumed Airplane! killed-off the genre for good). I admit most disaster movies are kinda dumb - no one’s gonna confuse them for documentaries - but who cares? They’re fun, even the aggressively bad ones. Show me someone who didn’t enjoy The Towering Inferno and I’ll show you someone who doesn’t enjoy breathing. That being said, the following is a list of some of the best, and worst, movies of the genre I love.

THE BEST (in ascending order):

10. INDEPENDENCE DAY - Aliens arrive in giant flying saucers to kick our asses. The only movie to feature a dog outrun a rolling fireball, or Will Smith as a macho pilot able to expertly operate an alien space craft mere minutes after climbing into the cockpit for the first time. But who cares about plausibility when the White House gets wasted? And what does it take to destroy this vicious alien race? A laptop. It’s nice to know Apple software is compatible with everything, including alien technology.

"Of course I'm phoning-it-in.
I'm Charlton-fucking-Heston." 
9. EARTHQUAKE - L.A. gets wasted by the big one. Lorne Greene plays Ava Gardener’s father (he must have conceived her when he was eight), while Charlton Heston turns in the last decent performance of his career. Although the special effects are mostly terrific, watch for a cattle truck which flies off a bridge and no cows topple out! This one earns extra points for killing off a majority of the cast, and features Greene roaring at some female co-stars, “Take off your pantyhose, dammit!”  Too bad he never said that on Bonanza.

8. 2012 - In the real world, I am a middle school teacher, and a few of my more intellectually-challenged students thought this was more than a movie…it was a prediction. That aside, this could be the epoch of all disaster movies, one which kills off 99% of the human race yet still manages to tack on a happy ending. And who knew John Cusack, playing a failed writer, possessed such superhuman abilities as outrunning a volcanic eruption, steering a sports car off a crashing cargo plane and escaping a massive earthquake in a limo? The funniest movie since Twilight.

7. THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW - I’m convinced director Roland Emmerich once had a really bad experience in New York. Maybe he was mugged, or bet on the Knicks and lost a bundle. At any rate, this movie marks the third time (after ID4 and Godzilla) he totally destroys The Big Apple. The science presented may not be credible, but it is his least-dumb film.

"What the hell have I said about
you calling me Shirley?"
6. THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE - If you’ve ever wanted to check-out Shelly Winters’ giant underpants, Red Buttons bashfully confirm his use forVitamin E (while semi-pining for a teenage girl), Stella Stevens explaining to her dim husband where suppositories go and an obnoxious kid whose death you‘ll pray for, look no further. That aside, this is the first true disaster movie as we’ve come to know the genre (though some like to credit Airport, but it's more of a soap opera). This has some godawful dialogue, especially in the first 30 minutes, but it’s suspenseful, violent and features special effects which still hold up well today.

5. THE SWARM  - Killer bees! So deadly they can cause people to hallucinate, passenger trains to careen off cliffs and nuclear power plants to meltdown! Michael Caine plays a sunflower seed-scarfing entomologist placed in charge of killing them (he’s also placed in charge of delivering some of the goofiest lines in disaster movie history). Richard Widmark is the standard military man who exists to deny there’s a problem (even though people are dying by the thousands) and suspects Caine has some secret agenda (!). Sure, The Swarm was one of the biggest nails in the 70’s disaster coffin, but it is just too wonderfully awful not to be included, and has the distinction of being one of the few to kill-off its obligatory obnoxious child character.

4. TITANIC - Sure, it made Leonardo DiCaprio a star. Sure, lots of teenage girls swooned and cried. Sure, it only gets interesting once the ship starts sinking. Sure, it’s corny. Sure, it made us all undure “My Heart Will Go On" long after we'd rather kill someone than hear it again. Sure, it’s proof James Cameron is second only to George Lucas as a master of dumb dialogue. But it is the only disaster movie to win a Best Picture Oscar, and though it’s hip for retro-haters to scoff at it now, Titanic is still a hell of a lot of fun.

"Come on...do I look like a killer to you?"
3. THE CASSANDRA CROSSING - There's a deadly disease onboard a loaded passenger train! The government’s solution...crash the train, of course. Ava Gardner’s back from Earthquake for another round of all-star mayhem, this time cavorting with boy-toy Martin Sheen (yes, you'll throw-up in your mouth a bit). Sofia Loren adds luster just by showing up. Richard Harris takes his role seriously. Bad guy Burt Lancaster looks perpetually constipated. The climactic train wreck is phony but fun…it reminds me of the time as a kid when I blew up all my Hot Wheels and train sets with firecrackers. Bonus: O.J. Simpson saves a little girl. How could this guy be a murderer?

2. DEEP IMPACT  - I knew I was gonna love Deep Impact ten minutes into it, when an astronomer, upon discovering a comet is on a collision course toward Earth, rushes from his observatory to warn authorities. Speeding down the mountain in his jeep, he’s involved in a fatal, fiery accident while fumbling with his cell phone. The incident doesn’t really have much baring on the story, but let that be a lesson to all you assholes yakking on your phones when you should be watching the road!

"You know, you're right.
Your eyes are bluer than Steve's."
1. THE TOWERING INFERNO  - This is still the Gone with the Wind of the disaster genre. The world’s tallest building goes up in flames, along with a lot of aging actors in leisure suits. Tons of people die, including characters you either manage care about or totally despise. This is also the last movie where Steve McQueen manages to come off being cool. The last disaster movie to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar (losing to The Godfather, Part II) until Titanic twenty years later. Bonus: O.J. Simpson saves a kitty. Again, how could he be a murderer?

THE WORST (in descending order):

1. ARMAGEDDON - Apparently edited with the intention of triggering seizures, this two-and-a-half hour assault on the senses is mind-numbing. It strives for some Titanic-inspired sentimentality (Ben Affleck & Liv Tyler using animal crackers as foreplay...Yeech), but fails because uber-macho director Michael Bay is more in love with his ham-fisted MTV approach to nearly every scene in the movie, including the action sequences. I’ll bet the special effects guys were a little pissed so much of their hard work was probably left on the cutting room floor. On the plus side, it’s better than Transformers (then again, so are YouTube videos of poo flinging monkeys).

Respected Swedish star Bibi Andersson deserves 
hazard pay for this scene.
2. THE CONCORDE: AIRPORT ’79  - Check out George Kennedy, piloting the fastest plane in the world, who opens the cockpit window to shoot a flare without getting his arm torn off, or the gorge-stirring  moment when he engages in post-coital pillow talk with a hooker. Because we love you, George, we sincerely hope this hard-earned paycheck bought you a bitchin’ beach house. The “Corn”corde (the fourth & last in the franchise) is as unintentionally funny as The Swarm. The difference is I’m convinced Irwin Allen was at-least trying to make a good movie. I don’t think anyone at Universal (who’d do the same disservice to the Jaws franchise) gave a shit…just trying to squeeze a few more drops of blood from this dying turnip.

3. METEOR - Made back when Sean Connery must have really needed the money (he quit being James Bond to do this crap?). The story may predate Armageddon and Deep Impact by twenty years, but even though this film was American-International Pictures’ big-budget attempt to compete with the major studios, it is still rife with stock footage, crappy FX and dialogue so bad it makes The Poseidon Adventure sound like it was written by David Mamet. However, it’s still better than Armageddon, and did inspire a totally bitchin' pinball game.

4. Any disaster movie to premiere on the SyFy Channel - Just because you can produce CGI effects cheaper than using miniatures doesn’t mean you should, especially when they look about as convincing as video game graphics. About once a month, SyFy trucks out a plethora of shitty and phony-looking apocalyptic crap, usually starring one of the younger & dumber Baldwin Brothers, some guy named Dean or a former 80’s pop tart. Most of these movies are only worth watching if you can’t find your remote.

"Hell, yeah, I'm doin' this for the paycheck!"
5. POSEIDON  - What’s worse that a bad disaster movie? A boring one. This is a high-tech remake of The Poseidon Adventure, and gone is the daffy dialogue and silly characters. However, as corny as the first movie may be, at least it was exciting and we cared about the characters. In this one, we don’t give a damn about anyone, to the point where star Kurt Russell makes the ultimate sacrifice to save his daughter and we end-up going, “Okay, another one dead.” Even though its CGI effects are impressive, they really aren’t any better than the traditional effects from the first one. This is one of the few disaster movies where I walked away thinking, “so what?”

6. BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE - What can you say about a sequel where the only good scenes are lifted directly from the original? Only a snake oil salesman like Irwin Allen could throw together a sequel to a film that didn’t leave the door open for one. Cheap to the extreme, this looks like it was mostly filmed on one or two sets, and every single “money” shot consists of the underwater explosions from the first movie. Considering the cast, either Allen was a huckstering genius on the level of PT Barnum, or Michael Caine, Sally Field, Telly Savalas, Karl Malden and Shirley Jones all had massive gambling debts to pay off.

7. WHEN TIME RAN OUT - Irwin Allen’s last hurrah, yet he still had a bit of the old huckster in him, coaxing the likes of Paul Newman, Jacqueline Bisset and William Holden to sign-up for this idiotic tale of an angry Pacific island volcano and the dolts who stupidly remain nearby. Hell, considering the big stars Allen still managed to continue acquiring (long after the disaster genre became a joke), maybe it wasn’t because of gambling debts after all. Maybe they personally owed him money, or he was simply too much like that loveable old man in everyone’s family who tells the same dumb joke at every reunion, yet we offer a courtesy laugh just to make him happy.

8. Any made-for-TV disaster movie produced in the 70s to capitalize on the genre’s popularity at the time - There were a ton of them…Smash-Up on Interstate Five, Terror on the 40th Floor, The Night the Bridge Fell Down, Fire!, Flood!, SST: Death Flight, etc. They were all cheaply-made junk, mostly featuring TV actors we recognized but would never pay good money to see in theaters. On an ultimately sad note, some of these movies were produced by Irwin Allen himself, Hollywood’s once-proud “Master of Disaster.”

"Tell me again why I refused an Oscar for Patton?" 
9. THE HINDENBURG - How do you stretch a 30-second historical event into a two-hour film? Simply suggest the dirigible’s untimely death was  the result of a massive conspiracy, then throw in George C. Scott to make it respectable (I still can’t believe he agreed to do this). And even though you’ve managed to land a director with the clout of Robert Wise, how do you shave the budget? Easy…when it comes time to show some big-ass onscreen mayhem, revert to the same newsreel footage everyone on the planet has seen a jillion times. Then you can use your cost-cutting measures to your advantage by ballyhooing your “authentic” footage in promotional campaigns. Sure, everyone will fall asleep, since you’ve made arguably the most boring disaster movie of all time, but they still paid to see it, didn’t they?

10. BLACK SUNDAY - I need to preface this by saying Black Sunday is actually a terrific film, probably more timely & relevant now than when it was when released in the 70s. It was also director John Frankenheimer’s last decent film for the next twenty years (he was rescued by Ronin). A focused, suspenseful and intense tale of an impending terrorist attack on American soil, it was nonetheless stupidly promoted as yet-another mindless disaster movie. I was duped into seeing it back in '77 for that reason, hoping for Towering Inferno-like mayhem, only to be totally let-down by the lackluster special effects, which didn’t rear their ugly heads until the last ten minutes. While the visuals are admittedly terrible, the film was never about destruction to begin with. Hence, the advertising campaign by Paramount, while understandable, was akin to promoting Animal House as a serious study of alcoholism.

August 19, 2013

Disc Review: THE WALKING DEAD, THE COMPLETE THIRD SEASON (DVD)

Starring Andrew Lincoln, Sarah Wayne Callies, Norman Reedus, Steven Yeun, Laurie Holden, Lauren Cohen, David Morrissey, Michael Rooker, Danai Gurira, Scott Wilson, Melissa McBride, Chandler Riggs. Various directors. (2012-13, 688 min).
Anchor Bay Entertainment

At this point, AMC’s The Walking Dead is more than just the greatest horror series of all time. Unlike many serialized shows which start out great only to run out of ideas really fast, this show just keeps getting better. That’s remarkable when you consider the built-in limitations of the zombie sub-genre. But here we are, three seasons later, and The Walking Dead is just as edgy, suspenseful and shocking as ever. It’s also since-transcended its genre, becoming a program compulsively watched by millions, many  who wouldn’t be caught dead (no pun intended) watching a regular zombie film, even though this program is gorier than Romero at his most devious. God forbid, The Walking Dead has actually made the zombie sub-genre respectable.

Still, I’ve always had a major problem with the show as-aired on AMC. After the first episode of Season One, I stopped tuning in for two reasons. First, this show sucks you in with its smart dialogue, outstanding performances, complex characters and compelling plot twists, all of which combine to make it hard to turn away. Then a commercial pops up, breaking the spell. Second, while I understand the purpose of serialized TV shows is to make viewers tune in each week, The Walking Dead isn’t so much a serial as it is an epic film trapped in a TV show’s body, unfortunately chopped up into smaller pieces. Imagine ordering the greatest-tasting pizza of your life, but only allowed to eat one slice per day. Then AMC had the balls in Season 3 to stick an 8-week hiatus halfway through its run, forcing everyone to wait until spring before it continued (word of warning: they're also planning on doing this in Season 4).

The cast...in Avengers mode.
This is why I wait every year to watch the show when it comes out on disc. Sure, the year-long interim is sometimes agonizing, especially when friends and co-workers want to talk about the show during its TV run and I’m forced to say, “Don’t say a goddamn thing or I‘ll kill you!” But it’s worth it. The Walking Dead is a show born for home video, free from commercials and week-long intermissions. There’s nothing cooler than freeing-up an entire summer Saturday to claim a spot on the couch and indulge in nearly 700 minutes of the greatest undead story ever told.

As terrific as Season 2 was, Season 3 is even better. Picking up several months later, Rick Grimes and his group find refuge in an abandoned prison. They hope to stay and rest awhile, grow some crops and allow Lori (Rick’s now-estranged wife) to have their baby. However, they also end up facing the most evil & vile character in the show’s short history, The Governor, a psychotic megalomaniac who rules like a dictator over a nearby fortified town. As usual, there are many subplots, new characters (the most interesting being Michonne, a dreadlocked, ass-kicking chick who trusts almost nobody) and some returning ones (Michael Rooker’s welcome return as Merle, just as sleazy & self-serving as ever). And, like the previous two seasons, no one’s safety is assured…one of the cool things about The Walking Dead is it’s even less-afraid than 24 to kill-off major characters.

"Tag! You're it!"
On a visceral level, one thing which continues to amaze me is the level of realistic violence. The show continues to push the envelope in onscreen bloodletting, featuring increasingly creative methods of dispatching the undead (though the most cringe-worthy scene is easily the C-section birth of Lori’s child). The Walking Dead is not-only the most graphically violent show of all time, but gorier than any previous zombie film I’ve ever seen that earned an X or NC-17. What's amazing is I have a friend who read the original Walking Dead comics, and he said the show actually tones-down the violence. As someone who doesn’t read comics, I can’t begin to imagine how sick those books must be. At any rate, the special effects in the show are still amazing and really, really icky.

Season 3 ends with an agonizing cliffhanger I wouldn’t dream of giving away. I will say that waiting an entire year before learning how Season 4 ties-up the loose ends might be impossible this time.

What’s ultimately really cool about The Walking Dead boxed sets is the viewer ends up, not only watching every episode back-to-back, but revisiting them more than once. Season 3 is the best one so far, and I’m hard-pressed to think of how Season 4 can possibly top it, aside from skipping AMC altogether and letting us tear into the episodes uninterrupted on video. This five disc set is a must-own.

SPECIAL FEATURES: 8 features which focus on new Season 3 characters, the deaths of old ones and the gory special effects; Audio commentaries on five episodes; 6 deleted scenes.

FKMG RATING:
(OUT OF 5)

August 18, 2013

Disc Review: EPIC (Blu-Ray/DVD)

Starring the voices of Amanda Seyfried, Josh Hutcherson, Colin Farrell, Christoph Waltz, Aziz Ansari, Chris O’Dowd, Pitbull, Jason Sudeikis, Steven Tyler, Beyonce Knowles. Directed by Chris Wedge. (2013, 102 min).
Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment

Good news first…Blue Sky Studios’ Epic is a better film than the original theatrical trailers suggested. Since feature-length traditionally-animated movies are pretty-much extinct, and the novelty of CG animation wore off a long time ago, movies like this seem to be a dime a dozen, falling in-between the mastery of Pixar and bottom-feeders like Space Chimps. Parents endure them for the sake of their kids, hoping everyone in the family will at least have enough fun to make the exorbitant admission price worthwhile (even if said-fun will likely be forgotten by everyone on the drive back home).

So yeah, Epic is a lot more ambitious than, say, Planet 51, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs or the entire Ice Age franchise. First of all, the movie is absolutely gorgeous to look at and obviously made for the big screen. The overall imagery is spectacular at times. As such, its visual impact will likely be greatly diminished if seen on anything less than a 40-inch TV screen.

So it’s a good thing the story is interesting, too, about 17-year-old Mary who moves in with her estranged & obsessive father after her mother dies. Dad has spent a good deal of his life trying to prove the existence of tiny people living in a nearby forest, at the expense of his family and reputation as a scientist. But Mary accidentally discovers he was right all along when. While trying to find Dad’s dog, she happens upon Tara, the elfin queen of the forest who dies at the hand of the evil Mandrake and his minions. Before she dies, Tara hands Mary a plant pod, which must bloom under the next full moon to produce another queen and keep the forest alive. But Mandrake wants this pod as well, because if it blooms in darkness, the entire forest will die (it’s not really explained why Mandrake would actually want this to happen, but never mind).

"Do you serve anything that's sodium-free?"
Helping Mary on this new quest are Nod, a rebellious teen who doesn’t quit fit-in with the rest of the Leafman warriors (he’s also the romantic interest), Ronin, the uber-serious Leafman leader exasperated by Nod’s flakiness but obligated to watch over him because the kid‘s father was a friend, and two mollusks (Mug & Grub) serving as comic relief.

It’s tale that has been told before, but overall, the characters, no matter how broadly-painted, are engaging. And even though the all the action is regulated to the small forest near Mary’s home, we get a sense nothing less than the fate of the world is at stake. The film is also quite funny at times when depicting what it’s like to be suddenly-rendered two inches tall.

But now the bad news…like most middle-of-the-road animated movies, Epic sometimes falls victim to its own stunt-casting. A ton of big-name celebrities lend their voices to this film for no other reason than to the allow the studio's promotional department slap their names on posters and trailers. But really, aside from Jason Sudeikis as the hopelessly out-of-touch dad, these people’s talents are completely wasted. Steven Tyler’s presence as Nim might amuse kids’ fathers, but really, the character could have been voiced by anyone. And who really cares about Beyonce in the cast when you can’t actually look at her, or Christoph Waltz if he can’t bring his personal quirkiness to the role? In fact, since we cannot see him, Waltz sounds a lot like Christopher Lambert trying to act his way through Highlander. Since no one over the age of 15 is gonna give a damn about any of these people (aside from maybe Pitbull), the casting choices are obviously - and cynically - geared to entice parents into watching it with their kids. In other words, here’s an all-star cast mostly wasted for the sake of marquee value.

More bad news…the characters of Mub & Grub, intended as comic relief (to amuse kids with obligatory gross-out humor) are seldom very funny. They are comically-rendered, but not very creatively; they’re like a low-rent Timon & Pumba, only the ratio of their screen time versus their importance to the story is severely out of whack. Still, I’m sure most children will laugh at their antics.

These brief bits of bad news aside, Epic is still an engaging film, with terrific action set-pieces, along with a story and dialogue not-likely to insult anyone’s intelligence. No, it doesn’t rank up their with the likes of the Toy Story franchise, but aside from its blatantly pandering casting choices, it’s a movie worth seeing, maybe even more than once.

SPECIAL FEATURES: 
Epic Coloring & Storybook Builder app
“Mub & Grub Into” tour of disc extras
“Rot Rocks”, showing how Mandrake’s rotting world benefits ours
“Bugs of Camouflage”
“Birds, Bugs and Slugs: “Forest Explorer”
“The Epic Life at Two Inches Tall”
“Mysteries of Moonhaven Revealed”: Seven Part Making-of documentary

FKMG RATING:
(Out of 5)


August 16, 2013

WHEN THE SCREAMING STOPS* and What Barnum Said

*aka THE LORELEI’S GRASP

Starring Helga Line, Josefina Jartin, Silvia Tortosa, Tony Kendall. Directed by Amando de Ossorio. (1974, 85 min).

After Dawn of the Dead, gore movies became a big thing for me & most of my friends. We saw a lot of ‘em throughout the early 80s…Zombie, The Gates of Hell, Burial Ground, Maniac, etc. Many of them oozed out of Europe (mostly Italy) with ads ballyhooing self-imposed X ratings due to violence. Most of them really sucked, too…cheap production, atrocious acting, even worse dubbing, cheesy synth-scores and an overall look similar to 70’s porno films. I often got suckered into shelling-out my hard-earned cash hoping to experience even a little of the same visceral rush Dawn of the Dead provided, but almost always ended up disappointed. That’s because Dawn, despite its carnage, was clever and funny. Most of these Euro-horror flicks were not-only imitative, but dead-serious, which made them either really depressing or worthy of MST3K-ridicule (depending on how many beers you’ve had).

These were the days before the Internet, before there was a VCR in every home, when there were suburban drive-ins dotting the country and years of exploitative European cinema swill most Americans had never heard of. We simply had no idea of the dubious origins of most of these gore-fests, so a creative film distributor could dig up one of these old fossils, repackage it with a fresh title and X rating and watch the cash roll in. Hence, a few of the movies I paid good money to see theaters were already a decade old, such as Spain’s 1974 film, The Lorelei’s Grasp. It was retitled When the Screaming Stops and released in the US in 1985, with TV & newspaper ads boasting so much extreme violence that barf-bags would to be handed out with each admission ticket.

Barf bags required! Talk about an offer you can’t refuse! Challenge accepted! Me and a few buddies from work climbed into my car with a case of beer and head to the local drive-in.

"Hey...I eat at that table!"
The film itself is basically a monster movie with a monster no more convincing than the Creature of the Black Lagoon, only with gore and boobs. Aside from a few notable exceptions, like The Wicker Man and Suspiria, increased boobage was arguably Europe’s most noteworthy contribution to 70’s horror. It was also obvious the Europeans were skewering eye sockets, spilling entrails and ripping-out hearts long before George Romero made such pleasantries a bit more mainstream. When the Screaming Stops is cheaply made, badly dubbed and has some of the worst special effects of any so-called ‘extreme’ horror film I’d ever seen at the time. As far as gore goes, except for a few scenes, the onscreen carnage is actually pretty tame (some challenge). Worse yet, the drive-in showing the film did not have the barf bags as advertised due to a shipping error. Damn, that was the main reason I wanted to see it!

While I was already 80% certain When the Screaming Stops was gonna be shitty anyway, movie souvenirs are too awesome to pass up. The only thing that made John Waters’ Polyester worth checking out was the “Odorama” scratch-n-sniff card which came with your ticket; when a number flashed on the screen, you scratched the corresponding number on your card to smell what was happening in the scene (including roses, pizza, farts and feet). And I would have kept mine too, if not for the fact the combination of odors from these cards was so nauseatingly nasty I ended up throwing it out the window on the way home.

Anyway, after When the Screaming Stops was over, I felt totally ripped off. Not only did I not receive my complimentary barf bag, these was nothing in the movie that compelled me to use one. All that saved the evening from being a complete waste was the co-feature, Romero’s reliable old Night of the Living Dead, which is always worth seeing again. Still, because I was a bit buzzed from all the beer, I briefly considered marching to the box office to demand a refund. I can imagine how well that would have gone over…“Hey, I got no barf bag and your movie didn’t make me sick! That’s false advertising!” Such a complaint would have been as stupid as the lady who recently tried to sue the makers of Drive because it wasn’t Vin Deisel-ly enough.

In the end, I had to accept the fact I simply got snookered, just like all those rubes in the 50s enticed by William Castle’s Macabre because a $1000 “fright insurance” policy was included with their ticket. Castle was the undisputed master of movie gimmickry. Few of his films would ever be mistaken for masterpieces, but the man was the George Lucas of hype.

Though Castle’s heyday was during the 50s and 60s, like-minded hucksters continued his legacy. For example, a guy named Allan Shackleton acquired the rights to a cheap 1971 film, Slaughter, about a Manson-like cult in Argentina, then tacked-on an ending which was supposedly a real murder committed by the film crew. Retitled Snuff and released in 1976 to capitalize on the urban legend of murders committed on camera for the sake of entertainment, Shackleton went so far as to hire people to pose as protesters and picket selected theaters where it played. What was once an obscure cheapie is now a classic example of exploitative marketing, though I imagine those who watched Snuff  back then felt as duped as I did with When the Screaming Stops; all they got for their money was a shot of animal guts ripped from a badly-made dummy. But really, what were these jilted moviegoers gonna do…complain to theater management they didn’t get to witness a murder? This was a win-win situation for Shackleton. His cheaply-acquired movie is reprehensible shit, but you have to grudgingly admire his marketing savvy; he managed to rake in a ton of cash with very little initial investment.

Those days are mostly gone now. Sure, you might come across occasional ‘unrated’ DVD releases touted as being ‘too scary for theaters,' a term as meaningless porno movies being rated XXX. For the most part, the world is smaller & wiser now. We're able to avoid such movie masquerades with a few Google hits, so we don’t end up as disgruntled as I was in 1985, clueless to the Eurotrash origins of When the Screaming Stops. 

But the spirit of Castle & company still rears its carny head from time to time...sometimes in the most unlikely places...

For example, Discovery (the once-respected educational channel) spearheaded their most recent Shark Week programming with a two-hour “documentary” about the possibility of Megalodon, an extinct shark measuring up to 100 feet along, still lurking in our oceans. I love sharks and was intrigued enough to tune in, as were millions of others. Within minutes, however, it became obvious the entire show was fictional, with lots of over-acting, photo-shopped pictures and obviously-scripted encounters with the title creature they’re supposedly on the verge of catching. I'd been duped into watching what I thought would be a speculative documentary. Instead, Discovery jumped the shark (pun intended) with their own little version of The Blair Witch Project. As a hilarious side note, 70% of viewers still believed what they were watching was real.

So I guess P.T. Barnum's old adage is still true.

August 13, 2013

DANTE’S PEAK vs. VOLCANO: A 10-Point Comparison

DANTE’S PEAK
Starring Pierce Brosnan, Linda Hamilton, Charles Hallahan, Elizabeth Hoffman, Grant Heslov. Directed by Roger Donaldson. (1997, 109 min).

VOLCANO
Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Anne Heche, Gaby Hoffman, Don Cheadle, Jacqueline Kim. Directed by Mick Jackson. (1997, 104 min).

These two films were released in the same year, each with the similar premise…a natural disaster in the form of a volcanic eruption. Because I’m a die-hard disaster fan (terrified of lava since I was a kid), I rushed out to see both. Dante’s Peak came out first, followed a few months later by Volcano. Though Dante's Peak did better at the box office, I truly enjoyed both. But which is truly the better of the two movies? By better, I mean how well did each film incorporate standard disaster-genre conventions? We’ll use Free Kittens’ patented 10-Point Comparison for a side-by-side analysis, then tally-up the final score to determine the winner.

Plot/Setting/Originality - Hey, they’re disaster movies, so ‘originality’ is a probably moot point. Volcanic eruptions have been done before in films like The Devil at 4 O’Clock, Krakatoa: East of Java (BTW, Krakatoa is west of Java) and Irwin Allen’s career-killing When Time Ran Out.  Dante’s Peak is more like a traditional 70’s disaster epic (similar to Earthquake) about a long-dormant mountain in Eastern Washington on the verge of exploding, threatening a fictional resort town. Its plot and story appear to be inspired by the Mt. St. Helens eruption in 1980. Volcano’s disaster happens in the middle of downtown Los Angeles at the start of the morning rush hour, taking the Independence Day approach of depicting the destruction of iconic landmarks. We’ve seen small villages and towns ravaged by eruptions before, but Volcano is the first one I’m aware of which takes place in one of the world’s biggest cities.
Winner: Volcano

"That's not a rock, Harry. That's a Road Apple."
Leading Man - Let’s see…Pierce Brosnan or Tommy Lee Jones? Brosnan’s obviously better looking, but though he’s decent in Dante’s Peak, he pretty-much plays the same guy in everything he does. When he’s occasionally forced to truly emote, we get the impression he’s saying, “Hey, look at me act!” (at least he doesn’t sing in this one…ugh). Jones is the better actor, although ever since The Fugitive, he plays a variation of Gerard in all of his action films…that sad-eyed, gruff & grumpy guy whose laconic, deadpan delivery has been the saving grace of many movies. He can do more with a simple expression than other actors can with a page of dialogue.
Winner: Volcano

Leading Lady - Most of us will forever associate Linda Hamilton with Sarah Connor, who’s initially helpless but turns out to be quite resourceful. Hamilton doesn’t have a ton of range, but she’s appealing in Dante’s Peak for many of the same reasons we loved her in The Terminator. On the other hand, we will mostly remember Anne Heche as the trendy lesbian who briefly hooked-up with Ellen DeGeneres, mainly because she can’t really act (just check-out Six Days, Seven Nights). She’s especially annoying in this one.
Winner: Dante’s Peak

Needlessly-Stupid Supporting Characters - What disaster movie would be complete without these laughably daffy dumbasses, a tradition dating back to Airport?  We love ‘em. Such characters usually fall under four categories:
  • One whose greed outweighs any potential danger, at least until disaster strikes. Then they’re mostly concerned with saving their own ass.
  • One who exists to perpetually poo-poo any potential solution by our hero.
  • One who has an insanely-misguided idea of what’s truly important at the time of the disaster.
  • One who refuses to believe there’s even a problem, despite ominous, overwhelming evidence that a catastrophe is immanent. 
Dante’s Peak features a few of these folks:
  • The greedy chopper pilot who agrees to fly folks to safety if they’re willing to pay.
  • The obnoxiously stubborn grandmother who refuses to believe her beloved mountain will kill her, even after the peak has exploded and shot billions of tons of earth into the sky, blotting out the sun. We’re supposed to feel sad when she dies, but because she’s been nothing but a pain-in-the-ass, I can’t imagine a single tear was ever shed for her.
  • Pierce Brosnan’s boss, who spends most of the film telling him to stop being Chicken Little because it will cause a panic and ruin tourism.
Volcano really has only one, but he’s a doozy:
  • The phenomenally stupid white cop whose barely-contained racism has him more concerned with keeping a young black man in custody (guilty of voicing an opinion) than the relentless tide of lava rolling up Wilshire Blvd. Later, this cop finally releases his prisoner, who in-turn starts assisting the police in building a barricade to stop the lava. Afterwards, they give each other a final gaze of new-found respect. This laughably out-of-place message of racial tolerance - See…we can all get along if we try! - is presented with the subtlety of a sledgehammer.
Winner: Volcano (if awarding quality over quantity)

Children In Peril - A disaster movie staple since the 70s…kid characters whose only purpose is to put themselves in immediate danger after doing something really dumb, so the hero must risk his own life to save their dumb asses. With rare exception (like The Swarm), they always survive (swelling music; teary hugs), even though they’re often so sickeningly cute or loud & obnoxious that they don’t deserve to. Dante’s Peak has two of these stupid kids, a brother and sister who decide to drive up the mountain during the eruption to rescue their stubborn grandmother. But hey, at least they’re mostly likable. Not so with Volcano, in which Jones' flippant, eye-rolling teenage daughter suddenly becomes a helpless, quivering idiot when disaster strikes, only to inexplicably become heroic during the final act (doing something foolish so she can be rescued by Dad).
Winner: Dante’s Peak

"Dandruff? But I use Head & Shoulders every day!"
Dogs in Peril - Both pictures present poor pooches in perilous predicaments. Both dogs are loveable mutts. Both survive to be tearfully hugged by their masters. In reality, both would likely have met horrible, fiery deaths, but who the hell wants to see that?
Winner: Dante’s Peak, simply because it’s a recurring character throughout the film. Volcano’s dog-in-peril shows up for two minutes, and is one of those squeaky tiny dogs old ladies like to carry around in their purses. I hate those. 

Daffy Dialogue

Volcano:
Kelly Roark: Paper beats rock, but scissors beat paper.
Tommy: I'm not paper; I'm lava... what beats lava?
Kelly Roark: My dad... I hope!

Dante’s Peak:
Harry Dalton: My 9th grade science teacher always said that if you put a frog in boiling hot water, it would jump out. But put it in cold water, and heat it up gradually, it would slowly boil to death.
Nancy: What's that Harry? Your recipe for frog soup?
Harry Dalton: It's my recipe for disaster.

Winner: Dante’s Peak because you gotta admire anyone can work ‘recipe for disaster’ into a disaster movie, uttered with a totally straight face. Extra kudos to Peak for forcing Brosnan’s character to compare lovemaking to riding a bike.

Action - It’s quite a long time before the mountain explodes in Dante’s Peak. Until then, we mostly watch occasional signs of impending catastrophe, conflict between Brosnan and his clueless boss, or verbal foreplay between Brosnan and Hamilton. Volcano initially attempts to suggest chemistry between Jones and Heche, only to toss that subplot aside because, not only would nobody buy it, no one watching a movie like this really gives a damn. We came to see death and destruction, and Volcano wastes little time getting to the action.
Winner: Volcano

On-Screen Destruction/Special Effects - For the most part, both movies have decent special effects for their time. Volcano features the most interesting shots…magma flowing through LA streets, surrounding buildings catching fire and the occasional ‘lava bomb.’ However, although Dante’s Peak has considerably fewer FX shots (and a lot less lava), they look more realistic. We see buildings blown apart, bridges collapsing, helicopter crashes and vehicles tossed through the air like toys. It even throws in a flash flood which kills its biggest Needlessly-Stupid Supporting Character. Not only that, the eruption scenes are eerily reminiscent of the Mt. St. Helens explosion of 1980.
Winner: Dante’s Peak

Scientific Plausibility/Climax - We need to approach this point two-fold. First, do we ever, in real life, worry about a nearby mountain suddenly exploding? Maybe, because it’s actually happened (like Mt. St. Helens in 1980). But do any of us ever worry about lava suddenly spewing from our congested downtown streets? No, because it’s never happened (at least in America). Could it happen? Sure, I guess. At least the science presented in Volcano convinces us so. But since it actually hasn’t happened, we tend to blow-off such an idea. Second, just how realistic are the climaxes of these films? Both movies stretch plausibility to its limit in their final scenes. Volcano would have us believe that magma, the most destructive liquid on Earth, can be diverted with a few well-timed explosions. Hell, I can’t even keep water from seeping into my attic, so how’s that gonna work?. Meanwhile, Dante’s Peak tries to convince us that a beat-up old pick-up, traveling on four flat tires and loaded with survivors, can outrun a volcanic explosion which blows apart buildings like they were made of Lincoln Logs. I don’t even think Jeff Gordon could do that.
Winner: Dante’s Peak, by the slimmest of margins

FINAL SCORE:
Dante’s Peak = 6
Volcano = 4

It was close, but Dante’s Peak is the winner here. I’m actually kinda surprised because I personally think Volcano is the more fun movie of the two, which also features an amusing final shot of the newly-formed Mt. Wilshire while Randy Newman’s bouncy classic, “I Love LA,” plays in the background. It lets us know the filmmakers probably didn’t take their premise as seriously as those who made Dante’s Peak. But hey, numbers don’t lie. Still, both films are the best two examples of volcanic disaster movies ever made, which may be a somewhat dubious distinction, since the third best is likely one of those SyFy Channel cheapies.

August 8, 2013

THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION II: THE METAL YEARS: An Unfortunate Time Capsule

Starring Steven Tyler, Joe Perry, Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, Dave Mustaine, Lemmy, Ozzy Osbourne, Chris Holmes. Directed by Penelope Spheeris. (1988, 93 min).

I’ve been a heavy metal fan most of my life. Even today, pushing 50, I still prefer Anthrax over Adele, Pantera over P!nk, Metallica over Morrisey, Judas Priest over Josh Grobin, King Diamond over Neil Diamond. As far as musical sexpots go, I’ll take Doro Pesch over Shania Twain any day. At my age, I may not be one of those idiots moshing themselves bloody during a Motorhead concert, but you can damn-well bet I’m in the balcony, overpriced beer in-hand, screaming along with Lemmy during “Ace of Spades” whenever the band is in town. During long-ass drives to my mother-in-law’s house, there’s an unwritten rule that whoever is behind the wheel gets to control the radio. Hence, I subject my family to endless miles of Tool, Slayer, Opeth & Iron Maiden (my oldest daughter hates metal, but probably knows all the words to “Run to the Hills”). A lot of those bands I've mentioned might be considered old farts, so just to confirm I’m not a completely out-of-touch old fogey, I also enjoy a lot relatively new stuff like Disturbed, Gojira, Five Finger Death Punch & Mastodon.

Metal appeals to me because it’s forceful, dramatic and somehow more cinematic than other genres. It demands your attention and refuses to be background noise while you mow the lawn or do the dishes. One can’t simply regulate Ronnie James Dio’s epic voice to the background as easily as Gotye’s. I know I’m in the minority on this, not just because of my age (most folks think my love of metal is kinda weird), but because this music (with the possible exception of Metallica) has never been truly embraced or respected by a vast majority of both snooty critics and casual listeners. And I think there are two main reasons why…

First, a lot of hard core metal fans have always looked and behaved like idiots. From the spandex-clad, Madonna-hating dorks of Heavy Metal Parking Lot, to the baseball-capped thugs who used Woodstock ‘99 as an excuse to rape and burn shit, to the mascara-smearing emos who think Black Veil Brides are the soundtrack to their miserable lives…these folks are largely responsible for the perpetual low public estimation of the average metal fan's intelligence. I actually understand that. As much as I love heavy metal, I generally can't stand being around other people who love heavy metal. For me, it was never a way of life, never a signal to break stuff or become an animal, never a clarion call of anarchic rebellion. I just like how it sounds….and that’s it.

Second, many of the bands of the 80s who received a majority of the media’s attention were 'hair metal' bands, where the focus was almost always on how hard they partied, run-ins with the police or Tipper Gore, the number of groupies they fucked or their simple-minded attempts to pander to teenage boys while alienating parents. Most of these bands unceremoniously crashed & burned by the end of the decade. Though the genre eventually evolved into something perceived as less shallow and image-driven, mention the term ‘heavy metal’ to the average non-fan today and they’ll still likely recall a bygone era of leather & studs, spandex, huge hair, sleazy videos and debauchery…the ultimate example of 80s excess.

Both are on full display in The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years, the now-infamous documentary released at the pinnacle of the genre’s popularity, which has become more than a simple document of metal culture at the time. In fact, because it is mostly focused on the hair metal scene, it ceases to be an accurate depiction of the genre at all, which really disappointed me back then. I truly thought it was going to be a long-overdue look at the music I loved so much. Instead, I felt like director Penelope Spheeris mostly focused trying to capture a train-wreck in action and feeding everyone’s clichéd perceptions about metal music, those who created it and the dumb-asses who worshipped it.

As a parent, it is important to destroy your child's
self-esteem as early as possible
.
The film features interviews with established rock stars, young hopefuls on LA’s Sunset Strip looking for a break and obsessive metal fans whose devotion influenced how they groomed and dressed their kids. We see a lot of metal luminaries: Steven Tyler from Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne, Dave Mustaine from Megadeth, Lemmy from Motorhead, Paul Stanley & Gene Simmons from KISS and all four members of Poison. A few of them come across as fairly intelligent, but many others make asses of themselves with their arrogance, vanity, sexism or wince-inducing attempts at philosophizing. The most famous scene involves W.A.S.P. guitarist Chris Holmes, whose drunken, self-destructive rants between guzzling bottles of vodka is painful to watch.

These stars’ attitudes is contagious, evidenced when we watch hilarious-yet-embarrassing segments of struggling local bands trying to achieve similar success. With the exception of Lizzy Borden, most of these guys act like they’re already rock stars on the verge of world domination (probably because they’re on camera). Some of the delusional and sexist shit that flies from their mouths comes across as calculated attempts to pander to a fan base they hadn’t-yet acquired (and most never would). What’s both hilarious and sad is we’re certain these idiots think this is how they’re expected to behave.

Watching this movie in the late 80s, I just knew it confirmed naysayers’ opinion that metal was music made by idiots, for idiots. But 25 years later, it is obvious Decline II was never about the music…it’s about a particular moment in time that its subjects naively assumed would last forever. In fact, the film could have just-as-easily been made in the 50s, instead featuring equally-untalented actors migrating west in hopes of being discovered.

Director Penelope Spheeris’ timing was perfect. Because Decline II was released near the end of the decade, it's often-cited as one of the nails in the 80's metal coffin (along with rap, Beavis & Butthead and grunge), ‘exposing’ viewers to its shallowness and sexism. Whether or not that assessment is valid is obviously subjective, since there were a lot of brilliant metal artists who weren’t bragging about banging groupies. But there are some facts about Decline II which cannot be disputed, cinematically, culturally or musically:
  • It has a train-wreck quality that is wonderfully entertaining, even today. This was reality TV before anyone ever heard of reality TV. Only here, no one appears to really be acting.
  • Based on the myriad morons who agreed to be on camera, you would not want a headbanger on your side in any sort of debate.
  • Every member of Poison is a douchebag.
  • Of the dozens of struggling metal artists & bands interviewed, only one ever went on to achieve any kind of mainstream success (Vixen). 
  • Odin may be the worst band of all time.
  • Since many of the ‘big names’ in the film got to choose where they were interviewed, it’s obvious both Paul Stanley & Gene Simmons have extremely high opinions of themselves.
  • If you had children in the 80s and dressed them like little rock stars, you’re likely ashamed of yourself now (even back then, what kid wanted to attend grade school sporting a an Aqua-Netted mullet?).
  • There are moments that are funnier than anything in This is Spinal Tap.
  • While nearly everyone in the movie is a delusional idiot, the “Wet Cherri Guy” (Google him) is a strong candidate for the dumbest individual to ever walk the Earth.
  • It’s possible this film was made to appeal to those who truly hate heavy metal, because almost every scene will confirm one’s negative assessment about the genre.
  • Even if you were never a metal fan, Decline II offers a fairly accurate summary of the over-the-top, me-first attitude prevalent in the 80s.
The Decline of Western Civilization II depicts the genre I love in a mostly-negative light, narrowly focusing on the Hollywood glam scene, and I hate it for that. It wouldn’t be until decades later that director Sam Dunn would give this music the serious cinematic respect it deserves (Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey…a must-see). Still, for all of my resentment, Decline II is probably the most entertaining documentary I’ve ever seen, maybe because I’ve never really cared about the music’s image anyway. I can still look at this morbidly fascinating film and have a good laugh at the expense of its subjects, just like those who’ve always hated this music.