January 31, 2016

Blu-Ray Review: TRUTH

Starring Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, Topher Grace, Elisabeth Moss, Bruce Greenwood, Stacy Keach, Dennis Quaid. Directed by James Vanderbilt. (2015, 125 min).
SONY

Mary Mapes was a respected CBS news producer responsible for a story on 60 Minutes which questioned George W. Bush's military service record in the early 70s. It presented evidence that he was able to avoid Vietnam by being accepted into the National Guard, even though Bush failed to meet any of the criteria and was absent during much of his time in the service. Since it was 2004 and Bush was seeking re-election, this had the potential to be the biggest story of the year.

Instead, the validity of Mapes' evidence (specifically, documents given to her team by a disgruntled ex-Colonel who supported John Kerry) was called into question. Before long, it was CBS' news division (mostly Mapes' team, which included Dan Rather) who were put under the microscope. The whole thing became a media scandal and damaged the reputations of the network and everyone involved in putting the story together. Heads rolled - Mapes' first - and Rather himself stepped down from the anchor-desk shortly afterwards.

I remember when this incident made headlines, but didn't pay much attention. After all, with Fox News airing ill-informed, jingoistic rhetoric on a daily basis, how could any goof by CBS be all that scandalous? Depending on how you looked at it, this momentary lapse of credibility was either blown way out of proportion, or justifiably ended the careers of people hell-bent on skewing the public's perception of our president during an election year.

Truth, based on Mapes' own book, is an obviously-subjective account of what transpired from her perspective (played by Cate Blanchett). But I couldn't care less about the film's bias because the story itself is presented as a crackling, dynamic drama with conspiracy thriller undertones tossed in for good measure. The chronology of the events which transpire are gripping, even suspenseful at times. Truth isn't actually about the Bush story itself, but those reporting it and the ramifications they face when their journalistic integrity is called into question.

No cake pops? That's disappointing.

Truth is an intriguing film, driven more by its characters than an agenda. Blanchett is terrific as Mapes, at-first single-minded in her journalistic ambition, but later vulnerable and empathetic once the dominoes begin to fall (and its effects on her family). As Dan Rather, Robert Redford is...well, Robert Redford. On occasion, he briefly looks and sounds like Rather, but more importantly, we accept him because Redford's achieved the same amount of iconic respectability. But the entire cast (including Topher Grace & Dennis Quaid) is also good, even if their characters aren't as fleshed-out.

What matters most, from a viewer's standpoint, is Truth manages to take a fairly-recent media 'scandal' and amp-up the drama to keep us intrigued the entire time, especially since most of us haven't given the incident another thought after controversy died down. As such, it's very entertaining, even if the resolution is a forgone conclusion. The film bombed in theaters, but certainly deserves a second life on home video.

BONUS FEATURES:
  • Director & Producers Commentary
  • Featurettes: "The Reason for Being" (featuring Mary Mapes & Dan Rather); "The Team" (casting the film); "Q&A with Cate Blanchett, Elisabeth Moss & James Vanderbilt"
  • Deleted Scenes
KITTY CONSENSUS:
PURR...LIKE A GOOD SCRATCH BEHIND THE EARS

January 26, 2016

DVD Review: HOME INVASION (2016)

Starring Natasha Henstridge, Jason Patric, Scott Adkins, Liam Dickinson, Michael Rogers. Directed by David Tennant. (2016, 88 min).
SONY

Remember generic food products that used to grace grocery store shelves in the 80s...you know, the ones with plain white packages and black labels which simply read 'Cola' or 'Green Beans'? No enticing photos, no clever slogans or descriptive adjectives, just a word or two to let you know what's inside. Generic products were never elegant cuisine, but reasonably priced and edible enough if you kept your expectations low.

Similarly, the title tells all in this direct-to-video thriller starring Natasha Henstridge, Jason Patric and a bunch of other actors I'd never heard of. The film is nearly as generic as its title (there's over a dozen other films called Home Invasion). Like popping open that plain-labeled can of cream corn to discover that (surprise!) it's full of cream corn, you probably already know most of the story.

Henstridge plays Chloe, a lonely housewife, estranged from her absentee husband and taking care of her bratty stepson (Jacob) in their suburban home protected by a state-of-the-art security system. But that doesn't stop three violent assailants from busting in and looking for a safe which contains something her husband apparently stole from them. The film becomes a cat & mouse game with Chloe and Jacob trapped inside, trying to stay hidden while a security operator (Patric, who literally phones-in his entire performance) provides their eyes and ears because he has access to the cameras throughout the house.

One way to get rid of a spider.

While there are a few moments of mild suspense, you've seen all of this before. The plot is generic, the characters are generic (why does every preteen kid-in-peril start off as a mouthy little bastard?), the action is generic (and bloodless). Heck, when you think about it, even Henstridge & Patric have always been kind-of generic. Sure, they can act and are suitably attractive, but have you ever actually seen them in anything where their performances knocked your socks off?

Ultimately, Home Invasion goes down like a bag of generic potato chips, which might fill the void if there's nothing else in the house, but you'll get no memorable enjoyment out of them. This isn't exactly a terrible film. It's decently acted, competently directed and passable entertainment on a dull evening when there's nothing else on TV, but you aren't likely to give it another thought once the end credits begin to roll.

BONUS FEATURES: None
KITTY CONSENSUS:
MEH...BEEN THERE, SEEN THAT

Rest in Peace, Abe Vigoda

Abe Vigoda (1921-2016)

January 25, 2016

WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY and the Karmic Inevitability

Starring Gene Wilder, Jack Albertson, Peter Ostrum, Roy Kinnear, Julie Dawn Cole, Leonard Stone, Denise Nickerson, Dodo Denney, Paris Themmen. Directed by Mel Stuart. (1971, 99 min).

Essay by D.M. ANDERSON
 
Kids these days...

I’m prefacing with this cliche because I'm a middle school English teacher and the overall level of defiance and disrespect is a far cry from what I remember when I was that age. Not to sound like an old curmudgeon, but whenever I attempted to engage in open defiance like mouthing-off to a teacher, not only did I get a harsh reprimanded at school, the ensuing official phone call home assured that even more swift justice awaited me. I quickly learned that if you're going to disrespect an authority figure, save it for the playground when they aren't around.

That hard lesson has served me well in my adult life, especially during counselor-driven trainings and workshops over the years related to developing empathy and alternative plans for dealing with various students' personal issues. I can’t begin to count the number of meetings I’ve endured where counselors and parents vomit myriad excuses for the things a particular child does to make everyone else’s life a living hell. Because I enjoy being employed, I always refrain from suggesting what some parents really need to hear: “Hey, maybe your kid’s just an asshole.” I demonstrate professionalism and restraint because that's one of life's unwritten laws.

And when I say something as superficial as “kids these days,” I’m not referring to those with actual psychological disorders or whose home lives are the perfect metaphor for a disaster movie. I truly empathize with anyone forced to suffer through such obstacles. In general, though, “kids these days” are no better or worse than they were decades ago. They’re simply provided with a lot more excuses for their behavior, by both belligerent parents and the educational institutions who live in fear of being sued by them (and don’t think for a second some kids aren’t aware of this and manipulate the system to their advantage).

At my school, the worst kids are often given the biggest breaks regarding discipline and consequences because of their so-called ‘issues’. Many eloquent reasons are offered for their behavior, none which actually hold the kid responsible. In other words, selected students can tell me to fuck off right in the middle of class and be back the next day as if nothing happened, such as one boy did when I asked him to pull up his pants because sagging is a violation of the dress code.

Personally, I have no problem with sagging. While I think it’s an aesthetically hilarious fashion choice, if you want to spend your extracurricular time waddling around like a constipated penguin, be my guest. But I also have one foot in the real world, where doing your fucking job as instructed is reasonable expectation. As much as I’d like to show up for work wearing nothing but hip-waders and a Speedo so the world can behold the iron-boobed dragon-lady tattooed on my back, simply telling my boss to fuck off doesn’t suddenly give me permission to do so.

We’re not doing these kids any favors by coddling them because that ain’t how the real world works, which, as educators, we are allegedly preparing them for. All that touchy-feely shit ceases the second they turn 18. The real world doesn’t give a damn about anyone’s personal issues, fashion preferences or declarations of “how they roll.” Unless you’re Justin Bieber, consequences come swift and harsh, and if you aren't prepared for them, they're like a societal sucker-punch. Worse yet, the real world doesn’t stop (or even slow down) long enough to make sure you get the message.

"Whoa! This stuff is kickin' my ass."

The perennial classic, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, is arguably the greatest cinematic microcosm of that societal sucker-punch. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past five decades, you know it’s nearly as revered as The Wizard of Oz. And like that film, Willy Wonka never found a real audience until it began popping up on TV and home video (or in my case, its annual inclusion in the summer matinee movie series at the local Cinema V). You’d be hard-pressed to meet anyone over 20 who hasn’t seen it at-least once. It even remains relevant on the internet through countless memes using Gene Wilder’s condescending smile to point out the various stupidities in the world. Not bad for a movie cynically produced with the initial purpose of selling candy bars (and the author of the original book, Roald Dahl, absolutely hated it).

Despite its humble product-placement beginnings, kid-friendly story, sunny production design and plethora of bouncy songs, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is a dark, sinister film with one clear message: Don’t be an asshole. Sure, most family films offer a variety of morals or lessons we experience vicariously through its main characters, and once they learn what’s truly important in life, everyone lives happily ever after. But really, isn’t ‘Don’t be an asshole’ the only life-lesson anyone needs? If God himself had handed down that single message for Moses to bestow upon the Hebrews, wouldn't that pretty-much cover every fucking commandment?

With the exception of Charlie Batch (ironically the dullest character in the film), all the other children are self-centered, unlikable little bastards who have never been held accountable for their behavior until touring Wonka’s chocolate factory. One by one, these kids get the unexpected Karmic retribution they deserve. Not only that, the audience is never reassured they even survive. And like life, the chocolate factory tour moves on...with or without their participation.

If the film is indeed more about Karma than candy bars, then Willy Wonka himself (Gene Wilder at his best) is its confectionary Buddha...always omnipresent, yet wise enough to stand aside and let these people shit in their own nest.

That’s how real life works. It doesn’t coddle you, render you a special snowflake or catch you when you fall. When you’re tossed out into the world, there are no lectures, no excuses, no empathy and no bleeding hearts who got-your-back because you’re not-yet ready to grow up and stop being a dick. I’m convinced the kid who told me to fuck off in class would last two seconds in Wonka's chocolate factory before the more streetwise Oompa-Loompas pinned him down to shove a few Everlasting Gobstoppers up his ass.

So kids these days would be doing themselves a big favor by taking-to-heart the Karmic inevitability present in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, a film with a singular life-lesson for the ages:

Don't be an asshole.

January 23, 2016

DVD Review: LEARNING TO DRIVE

Starring Patricia Clarkson, Ben Kingsley, Jake Weber, Grace Gummer, Sarita Choudhury. Directed by Isabel Coixet. (2014, 89 min).
BROADGREEN PICTURES

Learning to Drive is a deliberately-paced, semi-comedic character study driven (no pun intended) by its performances.

Patricia Clarkson is Wendy, a literary critic whose husband of over 20 years leaves her. Though always more obsessed with her own career than family (including her daughter), Wendy isn't used to being completely independent. She doesn't even know how to drive. Then she meets Darwan (Ben Kingsley), an Indian driving instructor/cab driver who doesn't seem particularly happy either, especially with an impending arranged marriage on the horizon. After Wendy reluctantly hires his services as an instructor, the two develop an odd little friendship in which each draws on their own personal experiences to help the other emotionally cope with the sudden changes in their lives.

This is a charming, undemanding (occasionally hilarious) little film which takes its time letting us get to know these two characters. We enjoy being around these people, and the story, while slight and slow to unfold, at least doesn't take the predictable route we're briefly led to assume will happen.

Darwan's favorite AC/DC song comes on the radio. Seconds later, he starts rockin' the air guitar.

The performances alone make Learning to Drive worth watching. Clarkson and Kingsley are solid as usual, instilling their characters with the appropriate amounts of likeability and stubbornness to make us empathize with them (though by now, playing yet-another Indian, Kingsley could have phoned this one in and we wouldn't notice). The film isn't likely to resonate much afterwards, but it's an entertaining enough way to spend 90 minutes.

On a side note, the music score (which is quite effective, by the way) is by Paul Kicks and Dhani Harrison, the latter being George Harrison's son.

BONUS FEATURES:
Photo Gallery
KITTY CONSENSUS:
NOT BAD...LIKE CAT CHOW

CD Review: KUNG FU PANDA 3 - ORIGINAL SOUNDTRACK

Composed and Produced by Hans Zimmer. Album Produced by Lorne Balfe. (2016, 69 min).
SONY CLASSICAL

Hans Zimmer is one of my favorite film composers, adept at scoring everything from blockbusters & critically acclaimed dramas to animated movies & video games. Like the best composers, his scores seldom call much attention to themselves, yet sound great when heard outside the context of the film. But unlike, say, John Williams or Jerry Goldsmith, Zimmer's music has no instantly identifiable qualities from film to film. His score for Rainman sounds nothing like the one for The Dark Knight. To me, that eclecticism is what makes him interesting.

Once again, he lends his talents to Kung Fu Panda 3, this time without the assistance of John Powell (who collaborated with Zimmer on the first two films). With the exception of a few forgettable songs (including yet-another version of "Kung Fu Fighting," this time by The Vamps), this CD consists primarily of Zimmer's orchestral score. A few pieces also feature renowned Chinese musicians, such as pianist Lang Lang (which are the best ones on the album). I haven't yet seen the film (it will be released at the end of January), but the track listing appears to be chronological, and you can almost get a gist of the story just from the music alone.

Overall, it's an entertaining listen. Kung Fu Panda 3 doesn't reach the heights of Zimmer's best work (The Lion King, the Dark Knight trilogy and his criminally underrated score for Crimson Tide), but works pretty well even when heard on its own. Since it sounds very much like Zimmer's score from the previous two films, fans of the franchise will likely enjoy it.

KITTY CONSENSUS:
PURR...AN ENJOYABLE FILM SCORE, THOUGH THE SONGS ARE FORGETTABLE.

January 16, 2016

Blu-Ray Review: STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON

Starring O'Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Aldis Hodge, Neil Brown, Paul Giamatti, R. Marcos Taylor. Directed by F. Gary Gray. (2015, 147 min/167 min).
UNIVERSAL

I'm not a fan of rap music at all, but absolutely loved Straight Outta Compton.

Great music bios transcend genres with a riveting story and present its subjects as rounded, three-dimensional characters. The best ones instill a respect & appreciation for what that artist was able to accomplish, even if the viewer doesn't necessarily care for that particular type of music. As such, Straight Outta Compton may be the best musical biography since Coal Miner's Daughter.

While it didn't have me rushing out to pick up an N.W.A. album, Straight Outta Compton does a tremendous job helping me understand just how groundbreaking the group really was, as well as their massive impact on rap music and pop culture (which one could argue is still felt today). It chronicles the humble origins of N.W.A. (Ice Cube, Dr. Dre & Eazy-E being the primary focus), their rapid rise to fame, ensuing controversy over their image & lyrics, and finally, their somewhat acrimonious break-up, leading to a surprisingly emotional resolution. Not just Eazy-E's tragic fate; we're also left with the conclusion that, had outside influences (such as Suge Knight) not torn the group apart from within, N.W.A.'s full potential was just beginning.

Except for Ice Cube, it looks like everyone is Straight Outta Soda.

Director F. Gary Gray (who's always been criminally underrated) presents the story on a nearly epic scale. From the dark, foreboding streets of Compton where police presence puts everyone on-edge, to the spectacular and rousing concert scenes, we feel like we've been transported back to the late 80s and are right there among the action.

But none of this authenticity would have mattered without a compelling story and dynamic characters. Straight Outta Compton is much more than a checklist of events in a musician's career...the racial climate & tension in L.A., which influenced a lot of N.W.A.'s lyrics, is nearly omnipresent. Even such a spoiled suburbanite as myself could understand what fueled Ice Cube's angriest rhymes. He was there, as were all the other members, and experienced this shit every day...and they never forgot it. Speaking of which, no film amounts to much without characters we care about. Despite N.W.A.'s gangsta reputation, for the most part, we really like these guys because we get to know them long before they achieve any kind of fame. Sure, they're sometimes violent and make some dumb decisions from an outsider's perspective, but their musical integrity is never in question. Ice Cube (played by his son, O'Shea Jackson Jr., whose resemblance to Cube is uncanny) is probably the most likeable, even when he's smashing up his manager's office with a baseball bat. Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E does a tremendous job as the one member whose life is eventually (and literally) consumed by fame.

Much to his dismay, Dr. Dre discovers he's Straight Outta Condoms.
Ultimately, you know you're watching a great film when two-and-a-half hours fly by and you're disappointed that it has to end, something I didn't expect from a movie about gangsta rap artists. Straight Outta Compton is not-only a perfectly-realized look at bygone era when an entire rap subgenre was being created, but a flat-out terrific film and marvelously entertaining. Even if you profess to hate everything about rap music, this is great stuff. Shame on the Academy for not at-least giving it a nomination for Best Picture.

BONUS FEATURES:
  • Numerous Featurettes: "NWA The Origins"; "Impact"; "A Director's Journey"; "The Streets: Filming in Compton"; "Becoming NWA"
  • NWA Performance in Detroit
  • Deleted Scenes
  • Audio Commentary by F. Gary Gray
  • 167 minute Director's Cut
  • DVD & Digital Copies
KITTY CONSENSUS:
MEE-OW! BETTER THAN DANGLING VANILLA ICE FROM A BALCONY!


January 13, 2016

Book Review: THE APOCALYPSE IN FILM

Edited by Karen A. Ritzenhoff and Angela Krewani. (2015, 231 pp).
ROWMAN & LITTLEFIELD

Man, what movie lover wouldn't love taking a college course on the history of apocalyptic cinema? If such a course actually exists and the genre is your forte, it's a safe bet The Apocalypse in Film would be required text. This also means film readers of a non-academic persuasion should probably pass on this one.

The Apocalypse in Cinema - subtitled "Dystopias, Disasters, and Other Visions about the End of the World" - is not an encyclopedic movie guide, nor a comprehensive volume on the history of the subgenre (though some historical context is obviously included to lay the groundwork for themes discussed in various chapters). It's a collection of scholarly, analytical & annotated essays focusing primarily on how select films reflect the societal concerns and/or mindsets of the era in which they were first released. Many factors - such as religion, politics and gender roles - are thoroughly discussed by numerous film scholars and historians. Some ideas and suggestions have considerable merit (even creating a few 'a-ha!' moments), while others occasionally leave the reader wondering if the writer has been sniffing the ink on their dissertations. In either case, one can't totally dismiss any book brave enough to discuss the supposed themes of 2012 with the same objective seriousness as those in Dr. Strangelove or The Bed Sitting Room.

Surprisingly, an entire section is dedicated to a series of essays discussing Lars von Trier's Melancholia, which was apparently featured during a conference which inspired this collection. Since Melancholia isn't likely the first title which comes-to-mind regarding films dealing with the end of the world, this is inadvertently the only part of the book that could be accused of being subjective. Aside from that, none of the selected films are included for their creative, technical and artistic merits (or lack thereof). Instead, they are chosen for their effectiveness as social commentary. Sorry, kids, you’ll find nothing about the making of Armageddon.

As its contents and price tag suggest, The Apocalypse in Film is not recreational reading. Being a simple movie fan (even if you love the genre) may not be enough to enjoy what essentially amounts to a textbook. However, one whose interest in cinema transcends mere entertainment may find this collection of theories and analyses quite fascinating. Who knew such an inherently dumb genre could be intellectualized?
KITTY CONSENSUS:
PURR...PUT YER THINKIN' COLLARS ON AND ENJOY.

January 5, 2016

THE OMEGA MAN and the Bitter End

Starring Charlton Heston, Anthony Zerbe, Roselind Cash, Paul Koslo, Lincoln Kilpatrick. Directed by Boris Segal. (1971, 98 min).

Essay by D.M. ANDERSON

If you really want to know what humanity is made of, simply deny them something they take for granted...

Not too long ago, during Portland's first real snowfall in five years, I was in my office at the computer, pecking out my usual words of wisdom while Slayer roared from the speakers. My wife, Francie, was in the living room watching television and browsing Facebook on her phone while she contemplated starting dinner. The kids were in their rooms, Natalie rockin' Fallout 4 on her PS4, Lucy Skyping with her current BFF while they played Minecraft together. Snow or no snow, this is more-or-less my family's nightly routine.

But on this particular evening, the power went out, cutting off "Angel of Death" mid-song. Almost immediately, my daughters bolted from their rooms and scurried downstairs, iPhones in-hand with the flashlights on, faces white with terror. Not from a fear of the dark, but because the WiFi was dead

"Did we blow a fuse?" Francie asked as she began lighting candles around the house.

I threw on a jacket and went outside. My dog, Murphy, followed, taking the opportunity to tear around in the snow. The power was out everywhere, but Murphy paid no mind as he repeatedly jumped at me, hoping I'd take time for some powder play. Relieved it wasn't a fuse (I don't generally keep spares handy), I stomped snow from my shoes, went back inside and informed everyone the whole neighborhood was dark.

"Why?" Lucy asked, obviously concerned.

I shrugged. "Who knows? Maybe a car hit a power pole."

"When will it come back on?"

"Dunno. Pretty soon."

Lucy and Natalie didn't appear too happy with my answer. Trotting amongst us with snow on his snout, Murphy didn't care. Nor did Josie, our fat-ass cat, still scarfing the contents of her bowl without batting a whisker over the sudden disruption.

I remember experiencing blackouts as a kid and thinking they were cool...no power, nothing for light but candles. It was a welcome break in the daily routine, and perhaps a brief taste of what an apocalypse might be like. But back then, aside from being denied television, blackouts were never a monumental disruption. I could still draw, write stories, play with my Legos or beat my sister at Monopoly, none of which required a power source. I was sometimes even a little disappointed when the lights would came back on.

What a difference 40 years makes...

My family and I gathered into the candlelit living room to pass the time until civilization returned. While we always enjoyed sitting together to talk and joke around, it's not nearly as entertaining when it's your only option. With no WiFi, our tablets and laptops were useless, and even though Francie and Natalie had their phones, neither had much charge left. Every few minutes Lucy would ask when the power was coming back. I had no answer, of course, but the disappointment in her face made me feel like a failure as a father.

As time passed and the house became colder, the girls grew agitated. I initially chuckled at their dependence on laptops and devices to remain entertained, at least until I absently picked up the TV remote, idiotically forgetting blackouts affect more than just our WiFi. I made the same mistake a few minutes later when firing up my iPad in hopes of playing some poker with online friends to pass the time. Unless I felt like engaging in a few rounds of Angry Birds, it was essentially a glorified lamp. Sure, Francie still had her phone service and was frantically searching for updates, but none were forthcoming and it was just a matter of time before her power ran dry. That's when it really hit me that we were damn near cut-off from the world.

More time ticked by and inevitable hunger set in. Both girls needed to eat, but my wife and I were helpless to do anything about it. I suggested they make themselves sandwiches. Being older and more experienced in such situations, Natalie managed to piece together a makeshift peanut butter and jelly sandwich. But Lucy? Without the microwave available, she was helpless and starving once the last remaining bag of potato chips was gone. The poor girl was withering away before my eyes.

Meanwhile, the skies darkened and our tedium grew to the point of desperation. Francie's phone finally died, casting a air of doom throughout the house as she convulsed in agony on the living room floor, spittle spewing from her lips. Meanwhile, Josie meowed incessantly to inform us her bowl was now empty. But I couldn't be bothered with such trifles. Though it broke my heart, Francie was too-far-gone and my daughters’ lives were all that mattered now. It was at this point that an ominous thought crept into my mind: What if the power never comes back?

My God, what would I do? How would I protect and provide for my family? With no power, how can I microwave the sustenance required to keep them alive? As a city boy, I never shot any animal with the intention of eating it later. And even if there were such weapons in the house, I had no idea how prepare a fresh kill for consumption (that’s what grocery stores were for).

Not only that, how would I deal with my daughters’ increasing anxiety? They were now staring at me with black sunken eyes, withdrawl symptoms from having no contact from the outside world. As the blackout wore on, I helplessly wondered how much time was left before they dropped to the floor and curled up into quivering balls of despair.

And coffee - oh, Christ, I forgot about coffee! - the only substance known to keep me from killing everyone in the room! If this blackout persisted ‘till morning, what would become of my kids? And where would I stash the bodies?

Then the lights came back on. Elapsed time: 1 hour and 2 minutes, according to Natalie's phone, which ran out of juice a few seconds later (thank God that crisis was averted...I'd hate to see her head explode).

With the impending apocalypse now cancelled, collective sighs of relief filled the room. After resetting all the clocks in the house, Francie & Natalie plugged their phones back in, waves of euphoria spreading over their faces like they just got a heroin fix. Lucy retreated to her bedroom to continue Skyping. Josie meowed to remind me her bowl was still empty. Back to the ol' routine.

I, on the other hand, came to the sad conclusion that, if any true apocalypse were to happen, this family would be royally screwed. We’re so dependent on our electronic gadgets and appliances that we’d be totally lost without them, spasmodically flopping around like snared tuna on the deck of a sea trawler. In the past, I have always felt superior to others who felt the incessant need to live vicariously through their cell phones. But while I still firmly believe phones are the primary reason for the dumbing-down on mankind, I’ve discovered I’m now just as incapable of surviving very long without my precious computer, TV, iPad, refrigerator, microwave and internet, a far cry from my younger days of roughing-it, when Charlton Heston was still my definition of a true badass.

I wasn’t even born during Chuck’s glory days as a 'real' actor in such classics as Touch of Evil, Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments. During my formative years, Heston was instead the tough-as-leather, sci-fi/disaster guy who kicked monkey-ass in Planet of the Apes, uncovered the Soylent Green conspiracy, landed a crippled plane in Airport 1975 and chose to die saving his crazy bitch-of-a-wife (Ava Gardner) over boinking a much younger & hotter Geneviene Bujold in Earthquake (I never said his characters were always smart).

"I swear to God...I wasn't really doing what you saw me doing."

In my youth, Chuck was the very definition of a larger-than-life hero and I worshipped him accordingly. He seemed unfazed by anything, including the apocalypse, as demonstrated in 1971’s The Omega Man. Here he plays Robert Neville, a scientist who is rendered immune to a worldwide plague after injecting himself with the vaccine. A few distant years later (1975), he’s apparently the last man on Earth, cruising the empty streets in sports cars by-day, killing disease-ridden mutants by-night from the lofty comfort of his generator-powered, armed-to-the-nuts penthouse apartment.

These albino mutants want him dead because he symbolizes everything wrong with the old world. But as Neville discovers while fondling a mannequin one day, he’s not truly alone. Rosalind Cash shows up to put some tightness in his trousers, and she’s accompanied by a biker and a few kids, some of whom are succumbing to the disease. Since Neville’s immune, there’s a chance he can cure them with a serum made from his own blood.

Obviously, Neville has a lot more on his plate than my family and I did during our one-hour night of terror. And like Mad Max nearly a decade later, The Omega Man even made the end of the world look kind-of fun at the time...unlimited resources, a whole city to yourself, a hot chick at your side while blowing away monsters. Sure, he had to fight for his life every night, but he made-do with weapons, booze, a chessboard and a generator. What else did a guy really need in the 70s?

But unlike Charlton Heston, I’ve become soft, complacent and dependent on the electronic wonderland I call home. Yet I’ve never stopped and taken the time to marvel at the sheer wonder of my ice-cube-making fridge, nor contemplated what I'd do without it. I’ve literally forgotten what it’s like to live without the luxuries I now take for granted. Whatever happened to the 10-year-old me, who relished blackouts as a chance to unleash a bit of his inner Heston?

As for my kids...except for this brief blackout, they know nothing about life before microwave ovens, Eggo waffles, calculators, Direct TV, cell phones, tablets, game consoles and the internet. In fact, Francie’s the only one in the family who’s probably able to prepare a meal without having the local Domino’s number handy. The rest of us would resort to cannibalism within a few hours of that first hunger pain.

I’m sad to say this, but whatever global apocalypse might await the world in the near future, me and my entire family will likely be some of the first to go, long before any mutants or zombies even show up. We just aren’t built for this end-of-the-world shit.

January 3, 2016

Rest in Peace, Vilmos Zsigmond

Vilmos Zsigmond (1930-2016)
Cinematographer: Deliverance, The Sugarland Express, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Deer Hunter, The Rose, The Witches of Eastwick, Maverick

January 2, 2016

Book Review: SOME KIND OF HERO: THE REMARKABLE STORY OF THE JAMES BOND FILMS

By Matthew Field & Ajay Chowdhury; Forward by George Lazenby. (2015, 704pp).
THE HISTORY PRESS

Any franchise spanning over 50 years and two dozen films is remarkable indeed, as is this exhaustingly detailed history of one of cinema's most iconic characters.

The first few chapters are brief biographies of the three major players involved in getting the franchise off the ground, author Ian Fleming and producers Albert R. Broccoli & Harry Saltzman. Then, from Dr. No through Skyfall, each film gets its own lengthy and detailed chapter which chronicles the entire production, from initial challenges in adapting Fleming's original story right up through its theatrical release. Each chapter is loaded with personal anecdotes from those involved, as well as information about every aspect of the production...casting, director selection, music, production issues, etc. The chapters covering the earliest Connery-era films are arguably the most interesting, when Bond had yet to become the cash cow & pop cultural phenomenon as we know it today.

Also fascinating are the chapters covering those films in which Broccoli & Saltzman were forced to cast a new James Bond to keep the franchise alive (and yes, Sir Connery does come across as a Grumpy Gus). Personally, I was pretty surprised to learn about some of the actors once considered for the role.

Authors Matthew Field & Ajay Chowdhury leave no Bond stone unturned, and wisely remain objective through the entire book. In no way is this a critical assessment of any Bond actor or film in the franchise (though they do include critiques and reviews of others). Besides, anyone interested in a book like this already has their own opinions of each film, as well as which actor played the character best. Most importantly, Some Kind of Hero is worth re-reading from time to time, such when you decide to pop-in your old copy of Goldfinger. Having the book handy while watching is almost like having a textual commentary.

Some Kind of Hero is as close as we'll likely ever get to a definitive history of this iconic franchise. Even the latest film, SPECTRE, still in theaters as of this writing, is given a brief chapter at the end, mostly confirming Bond isn't going away anytime soon. For any fan, from the casual to the obsessive, this is a great read.

KITTY CONSENSUS:
MEE-OW! BETTER THAN AN OPEN CAN OF TUNA
(OR A BEDROOM FULL OF BOND GIRLS)

January 1, 2016

WHAT MADE US PURR & HISS IN 2015

Another year down, another year of movies...the good, the bad and the ugly. But rather than compile the usual lists of best and worst movies (though we've included our top choice for each), we’ve decided to document the people and trends which have most affected us personally and professionally.  

WHAT MADE US PURR:

BELATED SEQUELS -  More often than not, sequels which come numerous years (or decades) after the last film end up being massive disappointments. It could be for a variety of reasons...original cast/crew not involved, shortened audience attention span, elevated expectations, etc. But in 2015, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Mad Max: Fury Road and Jurassic World more than delivered. Not only are they arguably worthy of mention in the same breath as some of their classic counterparts, Fury Road (FKMG’s vote for the best movie of the year) might even have an outside shot at an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. And most of us breathed a collective sigh of relief when The Force Awakens made good on the promise of a REAL Star Wars movie. As for Jurassic World...forget the plot holes and lapses in logic...for a film that aspired to be nothing more than a goodtime popcorn movie, mission accomplished.

SAN ANDREAS - Yeah, San Andreas is an old-fashioned, predictable, cliche-ridden slab of disaster porn. But think about how long it's BEEN since we've gotten an old-fashioned, predictable, cliche-ridden slab of disaster porn. Throwing in Dwayne Johnson as a dedicated rescue pilot (who practically has superpowers) is just icing on the cake. Besides, is hard to completely hate any modern film with the balls to end with the line "We’ll rebuild."

WAYWARD PINES - The little miniseries that could. What looked on the surface like a Twin Peaks wannabe ended up being 10 episodes of the most addicting and unpredictable sci-fi on television. Now let’s hope the powers-that-be simply walk away and leave it alone. It’s perfect as-is.

TARANTINO'S 'ROADSHOW' RELEASE OF THE HATEFUL EIGHT - Though not a lot of us had the privilege to experience it, Tarantino’s 8th and longest film was initially released in the old 70mm film format, complete with an overture and intermission at theaters still equipped with projectors. The cinema version of buying music on vinyl, this harkens back to a glorious time when epic movies were released and presented as major events.

SURPRISES - As someone who was never a big fan of the franchise, I have to admit I really enjoyed Furious 7...its outrageousness, the ample anti-gravity vehicular mayhem and its surprisingly poignant send-off of Paul Walker’s character. And even though it was completely unnecessary, I enjoyed seeing an aging Arnold Schwarzenegger return for Terminator: Genisys (and the movie was fun, so fuck you). But for me, Inside Out was the most pleasant surprise of the year...Pixar returning to what it does best, creating something completely original, imaginative and visually stunning without forgetting that their best films always relied on strong characters and the ability to jerk the viewers emotions around with stunning ease. This is the first Pixar film in several years that didn’t feel like it was primarily made to put toys on shelves at the Disney Store.

HORROR - As with any other year, bad horror films far outnumbered the good ones in 2015. However, there was a surprising number that were not only good, but offered something smarter and more creative than the usual mallrat mayhem, such as It Follows, The Gift, Goodnight Mommy, The Final Girls, Krampus and The Visit. Hell, even Unfriended and Insidious Chapter 3 were better than they had a right to be.

WHAT MADE US HISS:

COMEDY SEQUELS NOBODY ASKED FOR -  As a rule, comedy sequels generally suck, and this year was proof-positive. I defy you to name even one comedy sequel released in 2015 that wasn’t a stupid, sloppily-made crapfest created to cash in on a brand name. Raise your hand if you really thought the concepts of Ted, Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Think Like a Man and Joe Dirt warranted follow-ups. If so, you got ‘em this year, and probably keep them on the same shelf as your hidden porn collection.

MUCK - Not just a bad horror movie, but built on a pointless and stupid idea, which was to film and release the second chapter of a supposed trilogy first, meaning it begins mid-plot and ends with no climax or resolution. Not only that, the film is so comically voyeuristic that it plays more like a peep show, often setting-aside the entire plot to dedicate ample running time to lingering on women in various stages of undress. Strictly for horny 13 year olds and guys too embarrassed to buy a copy of Penthouse, this gets FKMG’s vote for the worst film of 2015.

ADAM SANDLER - If Pixels is the best of the five films you cranked out in 2015, you've got one seriously fucked up career. Why is this guy still allowed to make movies? While I personally never found him very funny, even many of his longtime fans have finally grown up enough to notice his juvenile schtick is well past its expiration date (which was roughly 10 years ago).

MILITANT FANBOYS - I got a small taste of the intolerance, ignorance and venom of the militant fanboy crowd when I published an article titled, “Batman v Superman: A Recipe for Disappointment.” The piece expressed my personal (unfavorable) assessment of, not only the trailer for the upcoming Warner Brothers film, but my concerns that it appeared to be overstuffed with too many characters and director Zack Snyder’s penchant for CGI overkill. It was strictly an opinion piece and stated no actual facts, but based on reader responses, you’d have thought I took a shit on the Vatican floor. But don't take my word for it...go ahead and read the comments following any article even remotely critical of Star Wars, superhero movies or anything based on a popular comic book. You'll find folks willing to compose lengthy & detailed retorts trying to 'educate' the author on why his or her opinion is actually wrong (which, by definition, isn't possible), along with the usual expletives by mouth-breathing trolls who can't be bothered to spell-check. As someone whose obsession with movies stretches back decades, I never thought I’d say this but, get a fucking life. Speaking of which...

THE INTERNET - The internet (especially Facebook and Twitter) has become an absolutely terrible place for movie fans, especially those of us who still love nothing more than attending a film without any prior knowledge of what they've just paid their hard-earned money to see. It's one thing to read reviews of a movie, but quite another to be accosted by countless posts analyizing every scene, easter egg and plot point before the fucking thing has even been officially released.

GEORGE LUCAS - While we will always be grateful to St. Lucas for giving us Star Wars to begin with, he’s recently come-across as a jilted boyfriend. Lucas condemned The Force Awakens for being a retro movie while boasting he would have personally done something new and different. Oh, you mean like Episodes I-III? Well, thank God you sold Lucasfilm, George, because while you may lament the direction Disney has taken with the franchise, 90% of the world (you know, all those peons who made you a billionaire to begin with) seem to disagree.