Last week, I logged on to Amazon’s MP3 store, as I do on pretty much a daily basis, and noticed a sale on what appeared to be the Iron Man 3 soundtrack. I grew up in the ’80s, when almost every single movie that came out had a soundtrack full of pop songs. Beverly Hills Cop, Flashdance, Top Gun, Rocky IV, anything by John Hughes…I could go on and on. Sure, most of the songs had little or nothing to do with the film itself, but you could usually count on hearing lots of great tunes every time you parked your butt into a theater seat. For this reason, I’ve always loved soundtracks. Since the Iron Man 3 soundtrack contained songs by a bunch of new-ish bands I like – including Imagine Dragons, Walk the Moon, and Passion Pit – my interest was piqued. For the low, low, low price I five bucks, I immediately downloaded it.
Cut to a few days later, when I headed to my favorite multiplex to see Iron Man 3. All those great songs on the soundtrack? Only one of them, AWOLNATION’s “Some Kind of Joke,” appears in the movie itself, and it’s buried so far in the background that you can barely hear it.
I was disappointed, but not exactly shocked. That’s because movies are rarely chock full of songs these days, and soundtrack albums have become a really shameful business. The trend, as you may already be aware, is to create CDs that are “inspired by” a particular film. Translation: There’s no music in this movie, but we want you to buy an album anyway. Take a gander at the cover of the soundtrack I bought. You’ll see a colorful picture of the titular superhero, along with the words “Iron Man 3: Heroes Fall.” Beneath that, in smaller letters, are the words “Music Inspired by the Motion Picture.” Not “From the Motion Picture,” but “Inspired by the Motion Picture.”
Yep, that’s right. A record company assembled a dozen alt-rock bands and asked them to contribute a song ostensibly (but improbably) based on Iron Man 3. The results are spotty, at best. Walk the Moon’s “Big Bad Wolves” at least contains the lines You should know I’m no superhuman/But I’ve got powers and a little secret. Okay, I suppose one could make the argument that the band had Tony Stark and his alter ego in mind when they penned that catchy little tune. But please tell me: What in tarnation does The Wondergirls’ remake of the cheesy ’80s Sly Fox hit “Let’s Go All the Way” have to do with Iron Man? Oh sure, Tony Stark is knocking boots with Pepper Potts. I doubt they’re listening to this song in the bedroom, though.
Such “Inspired by” collections are nothing more than a marketing tool, designed to generate ancillary business and fill someone’s coffers with even more money, based on your (and my) enthusiasm for a particular cinematic property. You like Iron Man? This CD has Iron Man on the cover! Buy it! Soundtracks were always marketing tools to some degree, although they at least had a direct connection to the film they were promoting. Even if the songs were irrelevant to the story, you still got to associate them with scenes from that film. This whole “Music From and Inspired By” trend doesn’t bother creating that connection to the movie. It merely throws a bunch of songs at you, to do with what you will.
How sad. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not arguing that filmmakers should shove pop songs into their pictures solely to justify a soundtrack album. My point is that if the songs not are in the movie, don’t make a soundtrack at all. I believe that this meaningless practice is an affront to the marriage of visuals and music on-screen, which, when done right, can be dazzlingly effective. What images come to your mind when I mention “The Power of Love” by Huey Lewis and the News? Did you envision Marty McFly racing down the street on his skateboard? How about when I bring up “Staying Alive” by the Bee Gees? Did you see John Travolta, wearing a white suit, shakin’ it on a multicolored dance floor? I think you catch my drift. Even if a song is simply placed over the end credits of a movie, it can still have power. You know why? Because that song is reflective of the feelings the movie wants to leave you with. Remember how choked up you got when Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” played while the end credits of Titanic rolled? Not a coincidence.
On the other hand, when songs are arbitrarily associated with a movie, they offer no emotional connection whatsoever. That goes against the whole purpose of putting songs in films to begin with. It makes a mockery of something every true cinema buff holds near and dear.
When Iron Man 3 was over, I got in my car and listened to the soundtrack on my way home, forcing myself to remember parts of the movie as I did so. It was fine. Nothing special. But you know what? Whenever I crank up Ellie Goulding’s “Lights” and think about the ending of Spring Breakers, I get chills. And that is what’s truly inspiring.
Summer is almost upon us, which means several months of big new movies coming out every week. Critics, bloggers, and average ticket buyers are already mentally formulating their lists of the summer flicks they are most excited for. So am I. But not here. Instead, I’m going to do the opposite, because while many of the upcoming summer movies look fantastic, a few decidedly do not. Of course, I’ll give them all a fair shake once I’m in my theater seat, but from a distance, these are the movies I’m less than excited about.
The Hangover Part III – Yes, the first Hangover was very funny. It was also a movie whose story had a finite end point. Yet because it was such a massive hit, Warner Brothers commissioned a sequel. There was nowhere new to take this material, and so they simply remade the original, minus all the funny parts. Although no one really seemed to like it very much, The Hangover Part II was almost as financially successful as its predecessor. Now we get a third installment which, based on the trailer, seems to repeat a lot of the same jokes a third time. Show of hands: How many of you would not have purchased a ticket to the original had you known a greedy studio would turn this thing into a trilogy? That’s what I thought. The Hangover Part III also appears to have a lot more of the character played by Ken Jeong, virtually ensuring that that picture will be filled with forced, obnoxious humor. Perhaps I should slip myself a mickey before I screen this one.
The Internship – In reteaming Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, the studio probably had visions of another Wedding Crashers. But holy cow, have you seen how terrible this movie looks? Vaughn does his usual motor-mouth shtick that he does in every single movie. Quite frankly, it’s becoming annoying. He’s gone from being the life of the cinematic party to being that guy you wish would just shut the hell up already. Simply talking fast and loud is not inherently funny; you actually have to say something witty. For his part, Wilson seems to be doing the umpteenth variation on his stoner/doofus persona. In other words, we have two stars who look to be on autopilot here. Making things even worse is that The Internship is set in and around Google headquarters, meaning it will likely be two hours of blatant product placement. Excuse me if I’m not jumping up and down.
White House Down - Every so often, Hollywood gives us two movies about the exact same thing in close proximity. In 2013, we’re getting two movies about terrorist takeovers of the White House. March’s Olympus Has Fallen was a bit underwhelming, falling so far into preposterousness that it was more eyes-in-the-back-of-your-head than edge-of-your-seat, if you know what I mean. White House Down admittedly has a decent cast (Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Richard Jenkins), but it was directed by Roland Emmerich, a filmmaker for whom the word “overkill” has no meaning. Emmerich has previously foiled talented actors like John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Matthew Broderick, and Omar Sharif with bombastic crap such as 2012, Godzilla, and 10,000 BC. There’s little doubt in my mind that he’ll take White House Down so far over the top that it will make Olympus Has Fallen look restrained in comparison.
The Lone Ranger - I’m not sure how much relevance The Lone Ranger has for today’s audiences. Do young people care about a masked man on a horse? The trailer indicates that they’re trying to compensate by beefing up the action to extreme levels, yet that seems completely counter to the spirit of the character. In short, it looks like kind of a mess. But my real hesitation with this film lies with its star, Johnny Depp. Playing Tonto, the actor once again dons a weird costume, slathers himself with makeup, and talks in a funny voice. Depp used to be an interesting, offbeat actor. With recent films like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Dark Shadows, Alice in Wonderland, and the four Pirates of the Caribbean pictures, he’s turned into someone who thinks looking and acting strange constitutes a worthy performance. The weirdo bit has gotten really stale, to the point where I no longer look forward to seeing Depp onscreen because I know it’s probably just going to be more of the same. Hopefully I’m wrong and The Lone Ranger will be a lot of fun. For now, though, it looks like yet another chapter in the decline of Johnny Depp’s career.
Grown Ups 2 – Here’s a sequel to a movie that I found insufferably unfunny. Adam Sandler’s comedies are almost all the same: fat jokes, poop jokes, offensive gay jokes, and a few misogynist jokes about how women are uptight harpies who need to be loosened up by overgrown man-boys. UGH. Grown Ups 2 looks like it adds nothing new to the formula. It’s probably safe to say that, if you’ve seen the original, you’ve already seen the sequel. Besides, any movie that gives David Spade work is already on my hit list. (We can at least be thankful that Rob Schenider is apparently not in this one, thereby marking the first smart career choice Rob Schneider has ever made.)
One Direction: This Is Us - It’s become a requisite for any pop star with a sizable youth following to get his/her own 3D concert movie (Hannah Montana, the Jonas Brothers, Katy Perry, that Bieber kid). British boy band One Direction is just the latest. Aside from the fact that I don’t like their music, I think this movie is a bad bet for two reasons: 1.) the members simply aren’t as interesting as Katy Perry, or even Justin Bieber (both of whom had compelling backstories); and 2.) given the fleeting nature of tween stardom, there’s a very good chance One Direction fever will have cooled substantially by the time the flick’s late-August release date rolls around. Is there anything worse than enduring a documentary about a stale subject?
Like I said, I’ll put all my preconceived notions aside and give each of these movies a fair shake when they’re released. I’d love to be surprised by having some – or even all – of them be good. It’s happened before, and it’s one of the greatest feelings a film critic can experience. For now, though, my expectations will remain muted. What are your least-anticipated summer movies? Feel free to leave them in the comments section below.
Long before The Asylum began making goofball Saturday night movies about mega-sharks and crocosauruses for the SyFy channel, there was Charles Band. Often with the assistance of his father Albert, Band produced a string of low-budget, intentionally campy horror-comedies during the 1980s. (His 1985 production Re-Animator has rightly become a horror classic, but that’s far and away the highlight of his career.) Band’s films occasionally got theatrical releases, but they were largely staples of cable TV and video store shelves. Some of them, like Ghoulies and Trancers, became cult-trash favorites. Most did not, although there is a base of fans who maintain a peculiar fondness for Band’s output.
One of the producer’s most unusual pictures, 1986’s TerrorVision, popped up in the middle of the night on Turner Classic Movies over Christmas 2012. I’d long forgotten the film, but when I saw the title on my program guide, I immediately recalled the VHS box that I glanced at many a time, back when video stores were still a thing. Time to finally check this flick out, I thought.
TerrorVision opens on a distant planet, its surface littered with buildings that are obviously plastic toys. An alien being is in charge of vaporizing a hideous monster. Something goes wrong, and the beast is instead beamed to Earth, where its particles land inside the new satellite dish owned by the Putterman family. They are an odd bunch. Father Stanley (Gerrit Graham) and mother Raquel (Mary Woronov) are swingers who have decorated the walls of their home with pornographic paintings. Daughter Suzy (Diane Franklin) is a Valley Girl who dresses like Madonna Lauper and dates a headbanger named O.D. (Jon Gries, who later found fame playing “Uncle Rico” in Napoleon Dynamite). Son Sherman (Chad Allen) is a rambunctious little twerp who loves to hang around with Grampa (Bert Remsen), a vet still obsessed with military weaponry.
One evening, the monster comes out of the TV set and eats Grampa whole. Sherman tries to convince the rest of his family of the threat, but they’re too busy to listen. Stanley and Raquel have invited another couple over for an evening of spouse-swapping, while Suzy and O.D. are out on a date. The monster first eats the other swinging couple, then the elder Puttermans. Suzy and O.D. come home, but they don’t believe Sherman’s wild tales. Hearing a noise from their parents’ bedroom, Suzy and Sherman go to investigate. The monster, hiding under the covers, has absorbed the DNA of its victims and can impersonate their heads on its tentacles. Upon opening the door, the kids see what appears to be their parents in bed with another couple. Suzy is grossed out. “Where’s Grampa?” she says. A squishy noise fills the soundtrack and suddenly Grampa’s head pops out from under the sheets. This is the kind of weird, transgressive humor found in TerrorVision - a couple of kids thinking the adults in their family are having an orgy.
After O.D. is eaten by the monster, Suzy becomes a believer. For help, Sherman calls Medusa (Jennifer Richards), the voluptuous host of a late-night call-in program. (Why? The cops don’t believe him, so he figures she might.) She thinks she’s being invited to a wild party and shows up, mere moments after the alien who accidentally beamed the monster to Earth arrives to retrieve it. A freaked-out Medusa kills the alien by mistake. The monster eats Sherman and Suzy. The final shot of the movie is Medusa getting in her car and giving orders to her driver. When he turns around, he sees her face attached to one of the monster’s tentacles. Cut to black.
TerrorVision is badly outdated. It attempts to cash in on the then-new phenomenon of satellite dishes and to create a kind of paranoia about them. It all looks especially ludicrous now, given the miracles of modern technology. Late night horror TV programs, heavy metal music, and phone chat lines are all used as fodder for humor. The fairly obvious jokes crafted from these things wouldn’t have been considered edgy even at the time, but they seem especially dusty now.
Nonetheless, the movie remains an interesting curio. While parts of it are undeniably dull, the parts with the monster have a quirky appeal. The beast is nicely designed, with one normal eye and one that’s crooked, a mouth that endlessly drools slime, and scaly skin. Clearly, Band and director Ted Nicolaou blew a big chunk of their budget on its creation. The visual effects used when it zaps into and out of the TV – essentially a stream of colored light bands – have that cheap-o aesthetic that seems charmingly quaint compared to the elaborate FX we’re used to today. And you have to give it to the cast – they are fearlessly committed to delivering over-the-top performances. Alejandro Rey is particularly amusing as the horny Grecian swinger Stanley and Raquel bring home.
TerrorVision was not a box office hit when it opened on February 14, 1986. According to Box Office Mojo, it lasted a mere four days in theaters, playing on 256 screens and earning just $320,256. It seemed ubiquitous on home video, though. I used to belong to about half a dozen different video stores, and I recall seeing the box – with a giant eye inside a satellite dish – in several of them. Home video is actually the preferred format for a picture like this. It’s not really theater quality, but it is perfect for watching and mocking with friends in the privacy of your own home.
As for Charles Band…well, he’s still out there doing his thing. Recent output bearing his name includes the Evil Bong movies (about, you know, a killer pot-smoking device), and the unforgettable Zombies vs. Strippers. The ’80s were his heyday, though. Band and his stable of collaborators embraced the “make it cheap” ethic. They also savored exploitation elements. I suspect that, viewed in its day, TerrorVision might have just seemed stupid. Viewed today, it’s still stupid, but at least it’s stupid in a nostalgic-for-’80s-cheese way. I know that I, for one, will never look at my satellite dish the same way again. On second thought, yes I will.
It’s January again. January always produces a weird, melancholy feeling inside me, as I’m guessing it also does for other film critics. That’s because January marks the beginning of “the Cycle.” We go through the Cycle every year, like clockwork. January is the worst part of it.
While the Cycle starts with the new year, I want to begin in May for the purposes of this explanation. You’ll understand why January is so depressing once I do so. The first weekend in May has become the official start date of the Summer Movie Season. This is where you get the biggest, best pieces of pure Hollywood entertainment. Starting that first May weekend (a release date that has brought us, among other things, Iron Man and The Avengers), there are four solid months of major titles, several new ones opening every weekend. Movies like The Dark Knight, Transformers, Spider-Man, Inception, Star Trek, Harry Potter, and Wall-E all exemplify the typical summer fare. It’s an exciting time to be inside a cinema.
Despite what you might think, the end of summer is not depressing. That’s because the end of summer marks the beginning of the Fall Movie Season. Most critics will tell you that this is actually their favorite time of year. Because it’s the lead-in to Awards Season (we’ll get to that in a minute), the most unusual and interesting films tend to be released starting in September. The Master, End of Watch, Looper, and Argo are fine examples from the fall of 2012. Summer may offer the most entertaining movies, but fall begins the barrage of the best movies.
The Fall Movie Season leads directly into the Holiday Movie Season, which begins around Thanksgiving and runs through New Year’s. Here, studios and distributors offer more of their best pieces of popcorn entertainment (Skyfall and Wreck-It Ralph, for example), but also some of their heaviest Oscar contenders (Lincoln, Django Unchained, Silver Linings Playbook, Les Miserables, etc.). Film critics and film buffs alike have an abundance of great titles in front of them.
Running parallel to the Holiday Movie Season is Awards Season, or, as some call it, “Screener Season.” Film critics who belong to professional organizations are literally inundated with screeners – copies of movies on DVD “for your consideration” in the voting process. If the studios and distributors think there’s a chance you might give one of their films an award, you’ll get it in screener form, often while – or even before – it’s in theaters. In November/December 2012, for example, I received almost 70 DVDs for awards consideration. I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t the best time of year to be a film critic; the great movies come left and right, and every time the FedEx man shows up at your door, it brings the promise of another potentially magnificent film. The last week of December – the end of the Holiday Movie Season/Awards Season – is spent catching up on screeners last-minute, voting for awards, and making Ten Best and Ten Worst lists. It’s a lot of activity in a short amount of time, but it’s also incredibly enjoyable because most of it centers around excellence.
And then, BAM!, it’s January or, as I call it, the Winter Doldrums. All the excitement is over, and the Cycle begins again. Coming off that Awards Season rush, January is a particular letdown. It is well known as a dumping ground, a place where studios release the problematic movies they don’t know what to do with (Season of the Witch, Leap Year, or Extraordinary Measures, for instance) or toss out super-cheap crap in the hopes of making a quick buck due to lack of competition in the marketplace (The Devil Inside). This approach extends into February, as well. Occasionally, a great film will slip in there, but for every The Grey, there are a dozen The Roommates. The Winter Doldrums 2013 will be bringing such unpromising fare as Texas Chainsaw 3D, A Haunted House, and Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. Sure, it’s possible one or more of these could turn out to be good, but it’s unlikely. If they were too good, they probably wouldn’t be releasing in January.
Finding a 3-star movie during the Winter Doldrums becomes a reason to celebrate. The only glimmers of hope are Valentine’s Day weekend, which usually brings at least one or two mildly-promising pictures, and the month of March. March is the start of the Spring Movie Season. In the past few years, Hollywood has learned that it can release a good movie in the spring and do blockbuster business. The Hunger Games and 300 are two fine examples. The Spring Movie Season is also the entryway into the Summer Movie Season, which, as we’ve already discussed, is a prime moviegoing time of year.
Hope is abundant in Spring, not so much in Winter. It isn’t just the dearth of great movies that makes this time of year melancholic, though. Film critics thrive on the momentum of the Cycle. Everything builds and builds to Awards Season, and then it all abruptly stops. This theoretical hitting of the brakes can be palpably felt. Instead of three or four new releases each week, there is often only one. Productivity is lessened: The lists have been written, the votes tabulated. There is not much else to do but to start the process all over again from the beginning. The counter resets to zero. The sudden transition is jarring and, in its own way, a little sad. We kiss the prior movie year goodbye, knowing we won’t feel the same rush, over the same films, in the same way, ever again.
Later this week, I’ll be seeing my first theatrical movie of 2013. Doubtlessly, I will feel the same melancholy I felt the first week of January 2012, and the first week of January 2011, and all the first weeks of January before that. I will get out of my car and walk across the parking lot through the cold, crisp air to the multiplex box office, knowing that the coming weeks will bring a lot of 1-star and 2-star movies. Knowing that it will be a while before a film is released that I am truly, authentically eager to see. Knowing that the excitement has quieted down for a while, and it will be time to rest a little bit. Knowing that the Cycle has begun anew.
I will stay sane by forcing myself to remember that the start of the Cycle brings the rest of the Cycle, and the rest of the Cycle makes the Winter Doldrums, as somber as they are, well worth it.
You kids today…You’re all spoiled. Spoiled, I say! Seeing movies is a snap for you. In my day, seeing a hot new movie was work! You all have got it so easy and all you do is complain. “Boo hoo, I can’t find a website that will allow me to pirate the new Will Smith movie before it’s in theaters.” Let me tell you something: you’re all a bunch of punks!
You young people today will never understand the concept of “lines around the block.” A major movie will open on thousands and thousands of screens. Multiplexes will show it in several auditoriums simultaneously, meaning that if you don’t get in for one show, you only have to wait half an hour for the next one. How nice that must be!
When I was a teenager, a major movie opened on only about 800 screens nationwide. If you lived in a small town, like I did, that meant it played at exactly one location near you – and it wasn’t some fancy-shmancy multiplex, it was a single-screen downtown theater. People lined up on the street in front of the box office waiting to get in. Sometimes that line would stretch halfway around the block! But we wanted to see the movies, and so we waited, and we were happy about it. If a really great movie came out in January, we stood outside in the freezing cold waiting to get in! If it was April and raining out, we got soaked and then spent two hours watching the movie in sopping wet clothes. Do you think we complained about it? No, we didn’t complain! We were just happy to be there!
Even when one of those four-screen shoebox-style cinemas opened at the local mall, we still had to wait in line for the latest blockbuster because they’d only show it in one auditorium. When we wanted to see something that was going to be really popular, we went to the mall on Saturday afternoon and stood in line. No shopping, just standing! If we got there early enough, we could get in right away. If not, we sat and waited. The line would often stretch down the corridor where the theater was located, intersect with the main thoroughfare, and continue almost all the way down the length of the mall. Every two hours, they’d start selling tickets for the next show, and we hoped that there would still be tickets left when we got up to the box office. If they sold out, we sat in place for another two hours, hoping to get in for the show after that. It was possible to sit there all day long. And we did! Every once in a while, a movie was so hot that, even after waiting in line all day, we still didn’t get in! You know what we did then? We went back the next weekend and waited in line all over again!
Don’t even get me started on this stadium seating thing you have in all your high-falootin’ multiplexes. Every row is a little higher than the one in front of it. You probably don’t even appreciate that. In my day, we didn’t have stadium seating. All the seats were on the flat floor. If someone tall sat in front of you, you didn’t see the movie! Simple as that! We didn’t complain; we just listened to the movie and used our imagination to visualize what was happening!
You wanna talk 3D? Okay, fine, I’ll talk 3D with you. When you rapscallions go to a 3D movie, you put on these nice, comfortable plastic glasses with clear polarized lenses. It all looks so pretty and realistic when you watch the film. Well, back in my day, we wore uncomfortable, flimsy cardboard glasses. They had one red lens and one green lens. When you looked through them, it made everything on the screen look gray. And by the time the movie was over, we all had massive headaches. But we were thrilled, and you know why? Because we were seeing movies in 3D! We thought we were living in the space age!
I’m not done. These days, you whippersnappers have your fancy DVDs and Blu-Rays. You can watch whatever you want, whenever you want. Let’s say you rent a movie from that Netflix thing you’re all going crazy over. You think it’s pretty good, so you watch it again the next day. Humph! When I was your age, if you liked a movie and wanted to see it a second time, you had to pay to go see the movie in the theater again! And since we didn’t have those new-fangled DVDs, we had to hope that the studios would re-release their biggest and best films. Sometimes they did, but it could be two or three years later! Imagine loving a movie and then having to wait three years to see it again. You can’t, can you?
Of course, now the movies come on DVD the minute they stop showing in theaters. Well, it didn’t used to be that way! It used to take a year or more for a movie to come to home video, and even then it was only on Beta! I bet you punks don’t even know what Beta is! I’d tell you it was something like VHS, but you probably don’t know what VHS is either. You all make me sick!
Oh, and here’s something else. You can own a movie on DVD for, what, twenty bucks, tops? I used to have to work a crummy minimum wage job for months to save up enough money to buy a movie on VHS tape. That’s because they used to cost one hundred dollars! Buying a movie to watch at home was an investment! If I wanted to own a film, I had to be damn sure it was something I’d want to watch again and again and again, because I was dropping a small fortune to own it.
Of course, not all movies came out on tape. We didn’t have video stores because so few movies were released on home video. I used to rent movies at a carpet store! I’d walk in and next to the giant rolls of shag carpet they’d have a small spinning rack of videotapes for rent. Maybe twenty or twenty-five titles in all. There was only one copy of each movie, so the odds of getting what I wanted were slim. At times, I had to wait months before it timed up that I entered the store when the movie I wanted was in. And never a word of complaint came out of my mouth! If I wanted to see a movie bad enough, I went into that carpet store every single day – sometimes multiple times a day – hoping to catch it as somebody else was returning it. If that didn’t work, I went to the dry cleaners across town to see if they had it in. These days, you lazy bums have this…what do you call it?…”instant viewing” and “on demand” nonsense. You have no idea how good you have it! A movie at the touch of your fingers? How nice for you!
Then there’s all those cable channels devoted to movies. You no-good, miserable little shits can find a movie to watch any time you’re inclined to do so. When I was growing up, we had one movie channel: HBO. And it didn’t come on until six o’clock at night. I used to run home from school, wolf down my dinner, then sit in front of the TV for fifteen minutes waiting for HBO to sign on. They ran from 6:00 PM until midnight. If you wanted to watch a movie after that, you were out of luck, because they signed off the air. I remember thinking it was a big deal when HBO finally went 24 hours on weekends. The idea of having hundreds of round-the-clock movie channels was unthinkable. We were just glad to have movies to watch in our own homes!
We had it rough, but we were happy. It gave us character, too! You kids today just have no appreciation for how good your movie-watching lives are. You never would have survived in my day, what with all your whining and your moping around. I ought to give each and every one of you a good slap. You need some sense knocked into those thick heads of yours. Next time you park your keister on a fluffy couch or one of those posh stadium seats to watch the latest Hollywood blockbuster, just take a second to appreciate how good you have it. And if I happen to be sitting behind you, please shut your traps during the show. I didn’t pay good money to listen to you run at the mouth.
Grumpy Old Moviegoer
In a few weeks, film critics everywhere will begin unveiling their lists of the best films of 2012. I’ll be doing mine as well. (Spoiler: The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure probably won’t make the cut.) Every year at this time, though, I like to take a look further back than twelve months. I’ve long been fascinated with how our perception of films changes over time. Some movies look great in the moment, but don’t hold up. Others grow on you, or turn out to be a little bit ahead of the curve. It’s always interesting for me to look back over my Ten Best list from a decade prior, to see if my choices seem solid or if they’ve changed. So here, then, is my annual excursion into the past. It’s time to revisit my list of the best films of 2002.
10. Chicago – Time hasn’t been kind to this musical, probably because it won the Best Picture Oscar that year, an honor it’s now clear it really didn’t deserve. I remember enjoying the movie immensely, though, and I’ll stand by that. Still, I had to make some painful cuts in 2002, and for reasons I can no longer recall, Chicago won out. The movies that were also in contention for the #10 slot were Bill Paxton’s uber-creepy Frailty, Christopher Nolan’s remake of Insomnia, and Spike Lee’s 25th Hour. It hadn’t opened in the market I cover when this list was made, but I later saw Paul Schrader’s Auto Focus on DVD and couldn’t shake the feeling that it deserved a spot on my list somewhere. Having seen none of these films since my initial viewings, I can’t honestly say what I’d put in this slot today, but it’s safe to say that Chicago wouldn’t be a sure thing.
9. About Schmidt – I’m a huge fan of Alexander Payne’s films. He’s one of my favorite directors. So far, he’s never made a clunker. This Jack Nicholson-starring dramedy made me laugh while simultaneously touching my heartstrings. If anything, it might be too low at #9.
8. Adaptation – 2002 found cinephiles in the middle of Charlie Kaufman mania. He was being heralded as the Next Great Screenwriter. He doesn’t crank out a lot of scripts, but the ones he does are still gold. With Adaptation, Kaufman wrote a movie about his own inability to write a movie, namely one based on Susan Orlean’s book “The Orchid Thief.” The end result was mind-bending, funny, and completely original. At the time, I made the following confession: “After I see Adaptation again, I may regret not putting it higher on my list.” Prophetic words, indeed.
7. Gangs of New York – They say a “lesser” Martin Scorsese movie is still better than the best movie from most directors. I’d say that’s true. Gangs is probably considered a lesser Scorsese, as it has undeniable moments of brilliance tempered by a few undeniable flaws. Still, I responded to a master filmmaker taking risks – something that should always be commended. And really, in spite of the flaws, I found this a stirring drama with more than enough admirable qualities to make it a must-see. If I’m bumping Adaptation up on my list, this one would probably drop down at least a notch.
6. Far From Heaven – Todd Haynes’ exploration of racial and sexual intolerance drew inspiration from the films of Douglas Sirk. It was a bold experiment that worked. I thought this movie was really emotional, with powerhouse performances from Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid. It definitely belongs somewhere mid-list.
5. About a Boy – I was a huge fan of the Nick Hornby novel on which this movie was based, and that honestly played a part in my ranking About a Boy so high. Something about the story’s themes spoke to me. Co-directors Chris and Paul Weitz and writer Peter Hedges took those themes off the page and transferred them onto the screen fully intact. Part of my list-making process is to include the movies that mean the most to me, even – and especially – if they don’t fit the stereotypical definition of what should go on a Ten Best list. So I like the #5 slot where this one is sitting.
4. One Hour Photo – My first viewing of this picture, which brilliantly casts Robin Williams against type as a creepy/obsessive photo clerk, left me with chills. It’s a this-could-really-happen psychological thriller that makes you look twice at the people who wait on you in stores. My second viewing didn’t have as powerful an impact, but I think that was because I already knew all the twists and turns that initially caught me off guard. I have to say, though, that in a time when so many thrillers are preposterous (hello, Man on a Ledge!), there is something appealing about one that gives off a whiff of credibility. I still think it deserves top five placement.
3. Changing Lanes – Here’s a picture that deeply divided people when it was released. Some felt it was manipulative and false. Others found it to be a provocative meditation on modern morality. Obviously, I was in the latter camp. And really, this is one of the most under-appreciated films of the aughts. Changing Lanes captures the sense of interpersonal disconnect that allows things like road rage (the story’s main plot device) to occur on a daily basis. My feelings on it haven’t changed over the course of the past decade. If anything, it may be even more relevant now than it was in 2002.
2. Minority Report – It’s a genuine genre classic, as far as I’m concerned. Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of a Phillip K. Dick story may not have been completely faithful to the source material, yet it addressed some important societal issues while also giving us a glimpse of how scary things could get in the future should certain ideas be allowed to progress unchecked. I remember debating whether Minority Report should be my #1 or my #2 movie in 2002. Was I reluctant to put a big Hollywood sci-fi picture in my top spot? I don’t think so; I did it before and I’ve done it since. No, I think that the movie that earned my top spot just had a bigger gut-punch reaction. And that movie was…
1. Bowling for Columbine – Yes, Michael Moore shapes things to fit his point of view, and sometimes he picks on the wrong people. (Harassing Dick Clark in a film about gun control? Really?!) Nonetheless, Moore delivered a powerful treatise on our nation’s weaponry fascination, using the Columbine tragedy as its center. There’s no denying that the documentary stirred up thought and debate, making you realize with chilling intensity that America’s massive gun problem leaves no one safe, not even children. Last year, I started a new tradition of creating a separate Ten Best list for documentaries. By those rules, Bowling for Columbine wouldn’t make this traditional list. But in 2002, it did, and I stand by it as my #1 film, although, if anything, it’s really in a two-way tie with Minority Report.
All things considered, I seem to have gotten my 2002 list right. How will I feel about my 2003 list a decade later? We’ll find out in another twelve months.
I grew up watching reruns of “Laugh-In.” I didn’t understand all the jokes, but I understood enough of them, and I responded to the rapid-fire pace of the show. Despite having a lifelong appreciation for the program, I had no idea that stars Dan Rowan and Dick Martin capitalized on its popularity by making a movie. Only by flipping through the channels one night did I learn of The Maltese Bippy’s existence. You’ve never seen someone hit the record button on a DVR so quickly. Released by MGM in 1969, The Maltese Bippy was a critical and commercial flop, and it has never been released on home video in any format. How Turner Classic Movies obtained a restored-to-pristine-quality copy is unknown to me. Unfortunately, it only takes one viewing to understand why it flopped and why no one was in a rush to make it available for public purchase.
Rowan plays Sam Smith, a shady producer of low-budget erotic films, and Martin is his reluctant star, Ernest Grey. After their production office is shut down, the two retire to Ernest’s estate – a large home he shares with a no-nonsense housekeeper and several tenants, including a comely female college student named Robin Sherwood (Carol Lynley). It soon becomes clear that something weird is going on. Ernest feels sudden compulsions to howl, and a strange, fanged creature is repeatedly seen in a corner of the basement. A bit of investigation reveals that the weird people next door are, in fact, vampires and werewolves. They know that a valuable diamond was hidden inside Ernest’s home by the previous owner and fully intend to do whatever is necessary to retrieve it.
“Laugh-In” was filled with social and political humor, so it was a rather bizarre decision to stick Rowan and Martin in a horror movie spoof. The material simply doesn’t play to their strengths. Overly-complicated plotting makes The Maltese Bippy difficult to follow. There are lots of scenes in which characters are forced to verbalize mouthfuls of exposition. Further worsening matters is that the two leads are kept apart for large periods of time. Dan Rowan and Dick Martin were both funny men, but their primary appeal came from the comedic rapport they created together, with the former playing exasperated straight man to the latter’s randy, clueless goofball. Without the other guy to play off, they struggle for laughs. The supporting actors – including a pre-”Brady Bunch” Robert Reed as a police detective – offer no support, because they are not given anything colorful or interesting to do.
The Maltese Bippy contains some genuinely head-scratching moments. At one point, Rowan mistakes a long-haired Afghan hound for a voluptuous woman who can turn into a werewolf, and immediately begins flirting with the dog. (Thankfully, this does not lead to heavy “petting.”) During the farcical finale, which finds most of the characters shooting one another, the film, unable to un-paint itself from a corner, has Rowan and Martin break the fourth wall to dictate multiple different endings, none of which are even remotely satisfying. I suppose these things might have seemed edgy or hip in 1969, but viewed today, they come across as stilted.
There is one highlight to The Maltese Bippy, and that’s the opening title sequence, in which Rowan and Martin mock the credits as they play. It’s self-referential in a manner that is highly compatible with the duo’s style of humor. Martin pretends to be oblivious to the whole meaning of credits, while Rowan explains their purpose to him. The sequence generates the only real laughs to be found. It’s all downhill from there.
The Maltese Bippy is interesting as a curio, but as a movie, it’s borderline excruciating. Comedians need to find film projects that are in line with their sense of humor. In this case, someone thought it was a good idea to stick Rowan and Martin into something that was, at best, an ill fit. Audiences clearly picked up on this from the advertising and stayed away. The movie offers none of the topical humor that made its stars famous. Instead, it has a dumb plot with no scares and no particular perspective on the genre it is allegedly spoofing. It is an imbecilic film. Look that up in your Funk and Wagnalls.
Forgotten Garbage is an occasional feature in which I spotlight terrible movies that briefly made a blip on the cinematic radar before shuffling off to obscurity.
The other day, I was looking over an assortment of vintage movie ads on Brian Orndorf’s website. One of the ads I saw was for a 1975 sex comedy called If You Don’t Stop It…You’ll Go Blind!!! The very sight of this ad gave me a flashback. I was seven years old in 1975, living in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, a town less than an hour’s drive from Pittsburgh. A local shopping plaza contained a small, shoeboxy four-plex to one side of the parking lot. Even at such a young age, I was obsessed with movies, and every time we’d go to that plaza, I’d make my parents take me over to look at the posters hanging outside the theater. I distinctly remember going there one day and staring intently at the poster for If You Don’t Stop It…You’ll Go Blind!!! The title of the film contained a mystery that, at seven, was perplexing and unsolvable. I thought: “If you don’t stop what, you’ll go blind?” An ad for the movie popped up in the pages of the Sunday paper too, prompting to me ask my parents what the title meant. They wisely feigned ignorance. In the 37 years since, that film has occasionally popped into my mind for reasons I am at a loss to explain. Something about standing there staring at the poster made an indelible impression. So when I saw the ad on Brian’s site, I decided that I was going to watch If You Don’t Stop It, to finally sate my decades-long curiosity about it. To my astonishment, Amazon Instant Video had it for free, so I hit the play button immediately.
A sketch movie along the lines of The Groove Tube and Kentucky Fried Movie, this is nothing more than a loosely assembled collection of skits related to sex. Imagine a feature-length version of the Playboy jokes page, or an R-rated erotic “Laugh-In” and you’ll get the idea. There is a framing device in which a group of individuals come together to judge the Sex Awards. They thread up a projector and watch what we, the audience, are also seeing. The bits are not exactly inspired. A guy goes to a sperm bank after hours, only to discover that their night drop-off box is a “glory hole” in the wall. In another scene, a man in a hospital gown runs screaming down the hallway, chased by a nurse holding a bedpan filled with steaming hot water. “Nurse,” a doctor says, “I told you to prick his boil!” That’s typical of the movie’s humor.
Many of the jokes revolve around hookers, as though the very fact that some women get paid for sex is hilarious. There are quite a few outdated and offensive gay jokes scattered throughout, too. Almost all the scenes involve female nudity of some sort. (In this picture’s view, boobies = hilarious.) There are some moments that appalled me, most notably a couple of rape jokes. The most indefensible sequence finds a man discovering a nude woman tied to a tree. She tells the man that her husband caught her cheating; as punishment, he tied her up so that other men could rape her. “Today is really not your day!” the man replies before dropping his pants and sexually assaulting her. Needless to say, it is not a moment that inspires gales of laughter.
If You Don’t Stop It…You’ll Go Blind often goes a long way for a short joke. Sequences ramble on and on, only to lead to a stupid punchline that wasn’t worth the effort. The grand finale finds “The Gong Show” and Friar’s Club regular Pat McCormick hosting the Sex Awards, in which trophies are given to the characters we’ve seen throughout the film. I’ll give you one guess what the physical awards look like. If you guessed “something phallic,” you win.
Upon viewing this dubious exercise in sexual humor, I can only conclude that it was inspired in equal parts by the sexual revolution and heavy cocaine use. If you took a time machine back to the mid-’70s, got stoned out of your ever-lovin’ mind, and watched the movie, you might laugh. Seen today, it is an outdated relic, with a hostile attitude toward women and gays. Seventy-nine minutes has never felt so long.
If You Don’t Stop It…You’ll Go Blind!!! was apparently popular enough to spawn a sequel, Can I Do It…’Til I Need Glasses? (Props to David Cornelius for reminding me of this.) Released two years later, the sequel is only notable as the big screen debut of Robin Williams who, according to the Internet Movie Database, portrays both “Lawyer” and “Man with Tooth Ache.” I have no plans to watch the second installment. My childhood question has been answered. The “it” in If You Don’t Stop It…You’ll Go Blind!!! refers to masturbation. And the movie is a cinematic example of that activity.
Last week, I did something I’ve been waiting years to do: I took my son to his first movie. The magic of moviegoing was introduced to me by my parents at an early age. I was four when they took me to see my first film, Hey There, It’s Yogi Bear. (My second film, Cinderella, ultimately proved more memorable.) Although I went to movies with both parents, it was primarily my father who is responsible for my love of cinema. He didn’t have much taste for kids’ movies, so he took me to whatever he wanted to see. That’s how I saw Young Frankenstein at age six, Silver Streak at age eight, Stripes at age thirteen, and Porky’s a year later. I knew from the time I was a teenager that I wanted to get married and have kids someday, and I knew that I’d be like my dad, bonding with my own kid(s) over trips to the movies.
I got a later start on these things than most people. I was married two weeks before my 35th birthday, and didn’t become a father until I was forty. It was in 2008 that our son Logan was born. From the time he emerged into the world, I looked forward to the day we’d hit the local multiplex together.
Now three-and-a-half years old, we weren’t sure how Logan would do at the movies. He’d been to our favorite local cinema before. I’ve taken him into the lobby, just to get him acclimated to the place. He enjoys running through the lobby and playing games in the arcade. Going into the auditoriums is a whole different matter. We weren’t sure if he’d be afraid of the dark, if the sound would be too loud, or if he’d even have the attention span to focus on an entire movie. (At home, he often bops around the room while a movie is on.) Thankfully, the theater, which is owned by a new-ish chain called Digiplex Destinations, has free family movies every Tuesday and Wednesday morning at 10:00 AM during the summer months. It seemed like a good way to introduce him to moviegoing. Back in May, I looked over the schedule and knew exactly what Logan’s first theatrical movie should be.
Like I said, my first movie wasn’t memorable. I wanted Logan to see something cool for his first time out. Hero of the Rails is an animated Thomas the Tank Engine movie. While it’s not exactly the same as seeing a Disney classic, it’s something I think will maintain a special place in Logan’s heart, even after he’s grown. From the day he was introduced to Thomas, he was addicted. Our house is full of Thomas toys and DVDs, his closet full of Thomas clothes, and his bedroom completely done in a Thomas theme. The stories are sweet and gentle, with good-hearted messages about cooperation and friendship. And, at only 60 minutes, Hero of the Rails was just the right length.
He was excited to go. As we stood in line outside the theater, he kept asking when they would let us in. Once they did, we took him into the auditorium – the biggest house in the place - where he was awed by the size of the massive screen. I bought him a kids’ combo pack at the concession stand: a cardboard tray containing some popcorn, a bag of M&Ms, and a small cup of Coke. Logan sat in his seat, happily eating up the treats before the show even started. Then, precisely at 10:00, the lights dimmed and the movie began. Thomas was suddenly projected larger than any of us had ever seen him before. Logan beamed, a huge smile coming across his face. Truth be told, I watched him more than I watched the movie. He was enthralled by the experience. He looked at my wife and smiled, then did the same to me. He was enjoying himself.
Then the most amazing thing happened. About 20 minutes into the film, Logan stood up, gave me a hug, and said, “Thank you for bringing me here, Dada!” No words could have possibly made me happier. I melted.
They say that there are two types of film critics: those for whom it’s a job, and those for whom it’s a lifestyle. I definitely fall into the latter camp. Even when I’m not working, movies are a huge part of my life. I watch them for pleasure as well as for profession. I read about them, dream about them, and study them. They are my obsession, my passion, my drug. That’s why taking my son to a movie meant so much. During the hour that Hero of the Rails ran, I was sharing a huge part of myself with him. He knows I go to movies all the time. He knows I write about them and talk about them on the radio. Now, finally, he can understand what I experience on a regular basis. From here on out, when I’m working, he will be aware of where exactly I am and what I’m doing. He can recognize what this thing that captivates me is all about. He knows me a little better now than he did before.
Being a husband and a father gives me even more satisfaction than movies. I love it more than words can describe. Getting to share my favorite interest with Logan was intensely gratifying. Best of all, he loved going to the movies and wants to go again. And he will, because I’ll take him, just as my dad took me. Whether he develops the same powerful love of cinema that I have is beside the point. It’ll be something we can share in as a family, something that lets us all feel a little bit of magic.
In my book Straight-Up Blatant, there is a chapter entitled “Don’t Disagree With Me,” in which I look at our culture’s current aversion to independent thinking and how it has filtered down to the discussion of cinema. This week has provided further examples to illustrate that many people only want to hear what they already believe, and become irrationally defensive if they hear something contradictory. Although seemingly unrelated on the surface, the Penn State sex abuse scandal and The Dark Knight Rises both illustrate this distressing trend.
As you may have already heard, reviews of The Dark Knight Rises hit Rotten Tomatoes this week. The initial round of reviews were overwhelmingly positive, but two critics – Marshall Fine and Christy Lemire - gave the film negative marks. The comments sections below their reviews were immediately flooded with fanboy vitriol. Lemire was subjected to misogynist insults, while Fine received death threats. The kicker is that The Dark Knight Rises hasn’t yet opened, so the hateful comments came from users who have not seen the movie. Despite that fact; they already feel entitled to assert their knowledge of it, as well as their superiority over the critics who have actually screened it.
Rotten Tomatoes eventually deleted the offensive insults and threats, and temporarily disabled user comments on reviews of the film. But the evidence was still there: a lot of people already had their minds made up, and nothing was going to change them. These fanboys had decided, sight unseen, that The Dark Knight Rises was brilliant. Anyone who challenged this belief was a threat, and therefore deserving of scorn. Their rationale for preemptively declaring the movie’s brilliance was that the two previous Batman movies were highly-regarded, and that director Christopher Nolan routinely delivers smart, blow-you-away entertainment.
It’s astonishing how dogmatic these individuals were. It didn’t matter that Fine and Lemire were strictly offering personal opinions. Nor did it matter that both are esteemed critics. No, they challenged something that a lot of Rotten Tomatoes users had decided was written in stone. By daring to disagree, they were committing heresy. This sort of blind allegiance is scary. When people start asserting moral authority over something they haven’t directly experienced, bad things happen. There was no willingness to see whether the critics might have had a valid point. There was no accepting that every movie has somebody who doesn’t like it. There was simply rage that The Dark Knight Rises, predetermined by them to be infallible, would not receive the perfect Tomato-meter score they knew it deserved. A few sick individuals were even ready to call for the death of a critic who went against the grain. Seriously, what kind of disturbed mind gets so enraged about a movie review that he’s prepared to threaten someone’s life over it? This sort of thing represents a complete loss of perspective. There is only the Belief, and the Belief must be defended at all costs.
A similar thing has gone on with the fallout from the Freeh report, which concluded that Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, university President Graham Spanier, Vice President Gary Schultz, and athletic director Tim Curley had conspired to cover up the fact that Jerry Sandusky was sexually abusing children.
First, a little background: I live right in the heart of Penn State country. There is a thing Louis Freeh referred to as a “culture of reverence” regarding the university’s football program. Others less charitably call it “the cult of Penn State.” Joe Paterno was not just a football coach around here. Lots of people viewed him (almost literally) as a deity. The importance of Penn State and its football team has been passed down through generations. Folks paint their cars blue and white, and have Nittany Lion logos plastered on them. I know women who had the university logo sewn into their wedding dresses. You do not speak negatively about Penn State or Joe Paterno around here. It’s blasphemy.
For this reason, a lot of Penn State fans are understandably upset about the findings presented in the Freeh report. They invested themselves in the team and defined themselves by their loyalty to it. Now they feel hurt and betrayed. The reputations of the school, the team, and the man they love have been tarnished. Still, there is much “Penn State pride” being exhibited in the area, as there should be; academically, it’s a terrific school, and Happy Valley is a beautiful place that many wonderful people call home.
While the majority of PSU fans view the situation as the multi-layered tragedy it is, there is a contingent of people who have great anger – not toward the men who protected Sandusky and brought shame to the school, but toward the Freeh report itself. Some still believe Joe Paterno, in particular, was a saint, and nothing is going to change their minds. I’ve been keeping up with the news articles written by Sara Ganim, a local reporter who won the Pulitzer for her coverage of the Sandusky case. The user comments sections below her online articles have contained animosity toward Freeh. Readers have accused Freeh of “fabricating” parts of the report just to make Paterno look bad. They’ve accused him of having a grudge against PSU and its late coach. They have called him incompetent, crooked, and a liar. One of the very first comments I saw on the day the Freeh report was released said, “We need to go win a bowl game next year! This will vindicate PSU and Joe Paterno!” (As though winning a bowl game makes up for not reporting a pedophile. Yeah, I don’t think so.) On my Facebook feed, I’ve seen similar comments, with people claiming the Freeh report – a multi-million dollar investigation carried out by the former head of the FBI – is a farce and part of a conspiracy to smear Joe Paterno. Just like some fans don’t want to hear that The Dark Knight Rises may have some flaws, a few Penn State fans don’t want to consider that, for as many admirable things as he did, Paterno screwed up royally when it really counted. The mere suggestion of it awakens their anger and defensiveness.
It’s not much better on the other side. Many folks (and I include myself here) are appalled by what Spanier, Schultz, Curley, and Paterno did. We find it inexcusable. We may express those feelings in the occasional tweet or status update. Others feel the need to take the expression to a disturbing extreme. In response to Jay Paterno’s public statement denying that his father knew of Sandusky’s actions, one news website commenter said, “I’m glad your father is dead, you liar!” Others have taken their aggression out on the university’s decision to leave its famous statue of Joe Paterno standing - for the time being, at least. Earlier this week, someone rented a plane, which flew above State College carrying a banner reading, “Take the statue down or we will.” As one friend of mine pointed out, the culprit would have been better off taking the money they spent to rent the plane and donating it to a child abuse prevention charity instead. That the sex abuse scandal has been painful for those to whom Penn State means so much has scarcely been taken into account; these individuals smell blood and are moving in for the kill.
In the cases of both The Dark Knight Rises and the Penn State scandal, people are making up their minds about things and subsequently getting blinded by their own beliefs. It’s absurd to threaten the life of a film critic who disliked a movie you haven’t even seen; see it for yourself and then be open to dissenting views that may enrich your own understanding of that movie. It’s absurd to assume someone is innocent of serious crimes simply because you idolize them; consider the preponderance of evidence and be willing to admit that even the most accomplished of human beings are capable of unconscionable choices. It’s absurd to assume that everyone will share your moral outrage at a situation; express your beliefs with sincerity while still maintaining empathy and respect for those who had an emotional connection to the parties involved.
This week has brought us a lot of rigid thinking, a lot of defensiveness, and many presumptions of infallible correctness. There’s nothing wrong with staying true to your convictions, unless, of course, those convictions are impeding your ability to be reasonable and rational.