June 28, 2012

MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1961): A Serious Case Of The Crabs

Starring Michael Craig, Herbert Lom, Joan Greenwood, Michael Gallan, Gary Merrill. Directed by Cy Endfield. (1961, 101 min)

When I was in second or third grade, long before basic cable was even a glint in anyone’s eye, we lived in an apartment in Portland and had exactly four-and-a-half TV channels to choose from. There was ABC, CBS and NBC and the half-channel was obviously PBS, since once I outgrew Sesame Street, the programming of PBS was about as appealing as snacking on celery when your other choices were Ding Dongs and Doritos. Even today, PBS is the celery of television entertainment...obviously good for you, but unless you slather on a shitload of peanut butter, not all that tasty.

The other available channel was KPTV - Channel 12 - an independent station not affiliated with any network. Most of the programming consisted of old reruns like Perry Mason, Star Trek, I Dream of Jeannie & Gilligan’s Island. Hanna-Barbara cartoons like The Flintstones and The Jetsons were regular after-school staples. The channel also aired local sports events like Trailblazers basketball and Buckaroos hockey. There were also a few locally-produced shows like Portland Wrestling, KPTV News and, most notably, Ramblin’ Rod. The latter was a daily kids’ show hosted by Rod Anders (RIP), who showed up in a cardboard boat in front an live audience of enthusiastic children. In between smile contests and prize giveaways, the show would air lots of old Looney Tunes, Tom & Jerry and Popeye. It was the goal of nearly every Portland area kid to appear in the studio audience of Ramblin’ Rod on their birthday because Rod himself would treat you like a VIP and your face was guaranteed to show up on TV.

But every weeknight at 8:00, it was time for The Movie (what the program was called), and KPTV would show the same film (usually from the 50s or 60s) every night for five straight days (sort-of making it the TNT of its time). Being only eight or nine, my short attention span never allowed me to give a damn what old movies they were usually showing, especially since most of them were in black & white.

But one Monday afternoon after school, while I was sitting on the couch watching Ramblin' Rod and snacking on a Ding Dong (to hell with celery), a commercial popped up advertising that week’s The Movie...1961’s Mysterious Island. My jaw dropped as I watched several men battle a giant crab.


It was at that moment I realized not all non-Disney movies were long-ass, boring stories appealing only to Mom & Dad. Some of them had monsters!

I made sure to tune in at 8:00 that night. I had to watch it on the tiny TV in my parents’ bedroom because there was no way Mom & Dad were gonna let me tie up the big living room Magnavox with killer crabs...not when Columbo was on.

Mysterious Island is (very) loosely based on a novel by Jules Verne and sort-of a sequel to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. During the height of the Civil War, several union soldiers escape a prison camp in a hot-air balloon and drift for days until crash landing on an uncharted island. At first they think they are alone, but soon discover the island is crawling with a variety of mutated critters, such as gigantic chickens, oysters and the aforementioned crabs, not to mention some angry, marauding pirates.

For the first four days I watched the film, this was as far as I got because my weeknight bedtime was 9:00 and my mother wouldn’t let me stay up for the second half, no matter how much I begged (and trust me, I found this mutant monster movie so amazing that I begged a lot). But finally, Friday came, the night my bedtime was extended to the wee hour of 10:00 and I was allowed to catch the second half of the movie...

It turned out there was even more monster mayhem, like elephant-sized bees and an unholy cross between an octopus and a snail. Another major character eventually arrives, Captain Nemo, fresh from dying at the end of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (which I still hadn’t seen at the time) to inform these castaways that he’s the one responsible for all the mutant animals (trying to boost the world’s food supply). He is also the killjoy who brings the unfortunate news that the island’s angrily-bubbling volcano is about to erupt and they will all die. The rest of the film involves the castaways’ attempt to escape the island.

Giant monsters, pirates and a volcanic eruption! How cool was that for a nine-year-old? The only things missing were dinosaurs and aliens.

Mysterious Island was the first movie I ever sat all the way through that didn’t have Walt Disney’s name in the credits. For me, at that age, it was the best thing ever. Mysterious Island is definitely one of the titles what made me fall in love with movies.

Of course 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea had far better acting, direction and special effects, and Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion critters in Mysterious Island look absolutely archaic compared to, say, the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park (hell, the effects were sorta quaint even in the 70s). But I love this film more than both of them, mostly out of nostalgia, I suppose.

I still pop it into my DVD player about once a year, plop onto my sofa with a big-ass bowl of popcorn and enjoy the hell out of it. This is usually late at night because I no longer have a bed time, but also because my wife and kids can’t sit through the thing without getting bored or laughing their asses off. My youngest loves monster movies too, but she was brought up on Jurassic Park (the first non-Disney flick she ever sat through)...no way can stop-motion crabs and matte paintings compete with a roaring, gnashing T-Rex.

But that’s okay. I like watching this one alone, anyway. It reminds me of the first time I saw it, propped on a pillow in my parents’ room. Now that I think about it, Mysterious Island may be one of the few films that I’ve always watched alone.
It’s hard to believe the movie’s over fifty years old now and much or the cast & crew are now dead (though I was happy to discover, as of this writing, Michael Craig is still among the living). Jules Verne’s original novel (which I tried to read once but couldn’t get past page 10) has been adapted many times before and since (including some really shitty TV movies), but the 1961 version, for me anyway, is the definitive one.

June 26, 2012

APOLLO 18: The Ultimate Dumbass Litmus Test

Starring Warren Christie, Lloyd Owen, Ryan Robbins. Directed by Jose David Montero. (2011, 86 min)

I’m starting to really hate “found footage” films...you know, that genre where the actors themselves do most of the actual work documenting the story as it’s happening with hand-held video cameras. They are cheap to make and easy to market.

The Blair Witch Project proved that. The movie itself, depending on who you ask, ended up costing anywhere from $20,000 to $750,000, but through the most genius viral-marketing campaign of all time, it made over $200 million at the box office. This is a movie that had no actual screenplay, just a 68 page outline. The actors, using their real names in the film, mostly improvised all their lines.

This obviously convinced a slew of other would-be filmmakers to do the same thing. We’ve been inundated by found footage flicks ever since, the most successful being Paranormal Activity, which was cheaper than Blair Witch and made even more money. Even a few major studios have jumped on the bandwagon. Cloverfield had 60-times the budget of Blair Witch, but was still relatively cheap compared to, say, Transformers.

But I don’t hate this genre because a few amateur directors have gotten rich inducing motion sickness. The more power to them! I wish I had thought of getting a few people to film themselves screaming in horror at bundles of twigs. And I have to admit, though it’s a tad overpraised, Paranormal Activity is creepy because it is shot by the actors. But most found footage films are total shit, simply using the gimmick because it is cheap, not because it’s the best way to tell the story.

Such an example of decent storytelling in the found-footage genre is Apollo 18, a low-budget and claustrophobic sci-fi thriller that, even though underappreciated by both critics and audiences, uses this style to its advantage. It isn’t a “great” film (I don’t think it is possible for found footage movies to achieve such status), but it is an effective one, mainly because its entire story depends on found footage. Ask yourself this question...when watching a found footage film, would the movie have been better if it were filmed in the traditional manner? If the answer is yes, then the movie is shit. If the answer is no, then you’re watching a film made by someone who really understands the genre. Apollo 18 falls into the latter category.

Apollo 18 is about three astronauts enlisted for one last trip to the moon, even though NASA had officially scrubbed every flight after Apollo 17. This mission is top secret and will not be shown on TV or reported to the media. Reasons for the mission are not initially given, but we soon learn them when weird-ass shit starts happening once they land. It turns out that the Russians have previously landed there, too. Not only that, there are creatures living there that we once mistook for moon rocks.

I’ll be the first to admit that the revelation in Apollo 18 is stupid...crab-like critters who can survive in a zero-atmosphere environment. But what makes the movie such a great example of found footage is the painstaking effort for authenticity. We experience the utter monotony of space travel, we see what a pain-in-the-ass it is to perform even the most menial of tasks within the cramped confines of a space capsule, we are made to feel how utterly helpless and alone these astronauts are, even though they are in constant contact with Earth. This is one of the few films that make space look like a truly shitty place to be.

Best of all, we feel like we are really watching video footage from the 70s (when the story takes place). It looks old, worn and dated, and the characters are just as effectively bland as the real astronauts NASA shot into space 40 years ago (at least until these crab-critters start attacking). It is obvious a lot of effort was put into making this film look like the time when the story takes place.

And, as dumb as the premise is, these space crabs are kinda creepy, especially when only briefly seen through video cameras.

Apollo 18 is often excruciatingly slow moving; there are countless scenes when it seems like absolutely nothing is happening. Yet, if you were to look away for a second, you’d miss the only reason the camera is focused so intently on a single mound of rocks. This is a film that could not have been made in the traditional manner. It may not ultimately be an exciting film, but it is arguably one of the most effective uses of found footage as a vital part of the story.

How effective? Well, this is why I am growing to hate found-footage films.

They turn a lot of people into dumbasses.

For those of you who do not remember, the genius of the marketing campaign for The Blair Witch Project stemmed from its own promotional website, which was so-well put together that millions thought the film was an actual documentary. The same goes for Paranormal Activity. Legions of idiots thought they were watching a true paranormal event, simply because the movie was improvised and shot on video by its cast. I am sad to say, but there is something about hand-held video footage that convinces many people what they are seeing is real.

But this is the 21st Century, when people laugh at those old idiots once convinced by Orson Welles that a Martian invasion was taking place on Halloween in 1938. We’ve moved beyond such gullibility, right? Believing in malevolent ghosts is one thing, but killer space rocks? No one is that stupid.


My oldest daughter, a junior in high school, told me of a classmate who just saw Apollo 18 and, because it looked like authentic 70‘s video, was convinced he was watching historical footage, and asked their science teacher about killer moon rocks.

You might be saying to yourself, “That’s just a single dumbass. One guy out of a classroom of 30.”

Yeah? Try this bit of math. Several years ago, there was a survey asking 1000 American adults from various backgrounds who they thought was the greatest American of all time. There was a plethora of expected responses - Lincoln, Washington, King, Kennedy - along with a few delusional suggestions like Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley. But 1% actually responded with Jesus Christ.

1% may not seem like very much, but think about it...surveys are supposed to be a reflection of the population in general. There are roughly three-hundred-million people in this country right now. One percent of that is three million. That means there are three million people walking around right now who think, not only is Jesus Christ our lord and savior, but that he’s an American.

This dildo in my daughter’s science class may only be one in thirty, but how many high schools are there in this country alone? If even one moron in each class nationwide is convinced that what they see in Apollo 18 is real, it doesn’t take a math wizard to know that’s a legion of dumbasses who believe killer moon rocks live only 250,000 miles away from us.

And that’s what I hate about found footage films, especially those which do their jobs as effectively as Apollo 18.

SAVING PRIVATE RYAN: The Beloved Gorefest

Starring Tom Hanks, Edward Burns, Tom Sizemore, Matt Damon, Vin Diesel. Directed by Steven Spielberg. (1998, 169 min).

Steven Spielberg is a closet gorehound, and the MPAA loves him so much they let him get away with anything. Not to take away from his enormous gifts as a filmmaker, but because he’s Steven Spielberg, he got to sever limbs, melt faces and rip out hearts in his early 80s PG movies (PG-13 was arguably created for him). When he decides to make important movies, he gets to spill intestines, explode bodies and show more gunshots to the head than an Italian zombie flick, and still earn an R rating.

Saving Private Ryan is an important movie, because important movies can get away with disembowelings, imploded faces & dismembered limbs without getting slapped with an NC-17, especially when Spielberg's directing. If the MPAA wants to indulge the man's secret passion for splatter cinema, that’s fine, but how about giving George A. Romero the same leniency when he makes a zombie picture?

I know, I know...zombies aren’t important...at least not as important as watching soldiers fly apart. I’ll bet those MPAA assholes will suddenly think zombies are real fucking important when legions of these drooling things come lurching to their front door. Just because World War II really happened doesn’t necessarily mean a zombie apocalypse won’t.

And it isn’t just the MPAA who considered Saving Private Ryan important. ABC did, too; they showed the damned thing uncut on TV. No one complained.

And teachers...especially social studies teachers? Man, they love the film. As an educator myself, I’ve known some high school teachers who justified showing Saving Private Ryan in class by arguing its historical importance. The flaw in that argument is that the movie itself is not actually a true story. Screenwriter Robert Rodat was initially inspired by a Civil War monument dedicated to eight brothers who died in battle, then loosely based the premise of his screenplay on four brothers who fought in WWII, two of whom died. But in reality, there was no Private Ryan who lost three brothers, nor was there a troop-led mission to save him.

But that’s just nitpicking about petty details which aren’t really important to the effectiveness of the film. Saving Private Ryan is a great, emotionally devastating movie that should have won the Best Picture Oscar in 1998 (losing to Shakespeare in Love, for chrissakes). But there are also a lot of people who treat it like some historical document, and simply watching the movie will educate you about WWII.

Sure, the Normandy Invasion sequence (roughly the first 30 minutes of the movie) is an ultra-graphic and realistic depiction of battle. Saving Private Ryan might be the goriest important movie ever. This opening sequence features the most grueling war footage ever shot, even though it really has nothing to do with the story. Bombs and bullets fall like rain, ripping soldiers to ribbons. One guy’s screaming for his mother while his bowels spill out; another is staggering around on the beach, searching for his own severed arm.

I’m still troubled by any social studies teacher’s decision to show the movie in class, other than it’s a great way to kill three class periods they would have otherwise spent teaching. Yeah, we learn the various ways mortar fire can rearrange the human anatomy, but the film itself does not delve into the politics, purpose or causes of WWII, nor America’s involvement. That’s not a criticism of the movie itself, and no, I do not think the film is too violent for kids to handle (they're the main reason there's five Final Destination movies). It is a criticism of anyone thinking the film is an academic learning experience. When my oldest daughter watched it in her high school history class, all she really learned was what FUBAR means.

I’m not upset with these teachers, though maybe just a little bit envious. I teach middle school English, and there aren’t too many opportunities for me to pop in a DVD for three consecutive class periods fwhile I check my fantasy football stats on the computer. And without a doubt, there are no movies as bloody as Saving Private Ryan that I could show without being called into my principal's office, verbally berated and ultimately fired.

As for the story itself, Tom Hanks plays Captain Miller, the uncertain leader of a small platoon assigned to wander the war-ravaged French countryside to locate a soldier, whose brothers have all been killed, and take him home. When they finally locate him, Private James Ryan (Matt Damon) refuses to leave his platoon, whom are preparing to face more Germans in an already battle-ravaged town. 
If I were Hanks, I would have said, “Fine, go ahead...get your ass blown off, dumbass.” Then I would have taken off to shack-up with a busty French prostitute until the war was over.

I guess that’s why no one lets me make movies.

But Hanks and his men feel obligated to stay and help defend a bridge the Germans want. The climactic battle that ensues is long, loud and just as violent as the Normandy scenes. German tanks blow the shit out of everything, while the out-numbered Americans make-do with what they have. Most of the cast dies, and I don’t think I’m giving anything way when I say they do end up saving Private Ryan, who should feel like a real asshole for making these guys stick around. Maybe that’s why he is seen weeping at the beginning of the film, perhaps thinking, “I was a real dick, wasn't I?”

Still, this is a great movie, an important movie, with phenomenal performances, great characters, a compelling story and, unless you’re utterly soulless, a resolution that will bring tears (even though it doesn't explain why Ryan is able to recall the Normandy Invasion, since he wasn't there).

But does that mean the MPAA should make a distinction between important violence and unimportant violence? If Saving Private Ryan can be given an R rating because the violence reflects reality, then shouldn't a sleazy celluloid suppository like 1980’s Maniac, about a serial killer who kills and scalps young women (released unrated due to its violence), have been given the same consideration. After all, sicko serial killers are every bit as real as WWII.

And does that mean that if a hack like Uwe Boll had directed this instead (yeah, that’s really stretching, but work with me here), he’d be given the same consideration by the MPAA as someone with the Hollywood clout as Spielberg?

And finally, does that mean a teacher can justify showing it to a classroom full of kids? I don‘t think there is a parent alive who wouldn’t agree that climbing into a stranger‘s van is a bad idea. So shouldn’t we show all of our kids The Silence of the Lambs in order to teach this lesson?

June 22, 2012

DEATH RACE 2000 / DEATHSPORT: Blood, Bombs & Boobies!

Being that these two films are Roger Corman quickies, It's fitting they'd included as a double-bill, much like most Corman-produced features were back in the 50s, 60s & 70s.

Starring David Carradine, Sylvester Stallone, Simone Griffeth, Don Steele, Mary Woronov, Fred Grandy. Directed by Paul Bartel. (1975, 79 min)

Remember a Saturday morning cartoon called Wacky Races, which featured such loony characters as Dastardly and Muttley (the dog who snickered every time his master fucked up), the Slag Brothers, Rufus Ruffcut and Penelope Pitstop, competing against each other every week in their outrageous automobiles? Death Race 2000 is just like Wacky Races, only the drivers get additional points for mowing down pedestrians. How can you not love a movie like that?

And how can you not love a movie that features Sylvester Stallone’s only intentionally funny performance as driver/gangster Machine Gun Joe Viturbo?

And how can you not love a movie in which the wife of the first hit-and-run victim is showered with game show prizes?

And how can you not love a movie in which the “treacherous French” are our biggest enemy?

And how can you not love a movie in which David Carradine plans to kill the president with a hand grenade that’s literally a hand grenade?

And how can you not love a movie that is arguably the prime inspiration for the plethora of hit-and-run video games (such as Carmageddon, Grand Theft Auto and Twisted Metal) that had parents screaming for their lawyers?

And finally, how can you not love the fact that me and my little sister (age 12 and 9) were able to see this movie this bounty of blood, boobs and bombs, simply because it was the bottom half of a double-feature (the main movie being the PG-rated Corman quickie, Crazy Mama)?

Right now, you might be saying, "What were your parents thinking?"

I guess they probably didn't know much about the movie. But still, those were the good old days, before parents were enabled to blame their own kids' maladjusted, antisocial behavior on everyone other than themselves.

I guess this makes me an 'old school' parent today, because I still believe I'm the one most qualified to determine what my own children are ready to watch or play, and don't rely on others to make that determination for me. I've let my 8-year-old watch zombie movies, as well as the whole Final Destination series, because I know my own kid well enough to make a informed decision regarding what she's ready to watch. Fancy that.

If you are a parent, and you disagree with me, then you really need to ask yourself how well you know your own kid.

As for the sleazy 70’s relic, Death Race 2000...I’ve tried to get both of my kids to watch it, but both of them grew bored within a few minutes...too fake, too cheap looking and worst of all, too 70s.

Starring David Carradine, Claudia Jennings, Richard Lynch. Directed by Allan Arkush. (1978, 82 min)

Except for the fact that it also stars David Carradine and is produced by Roger Corman, this isn’t really a sequel to Death Race 2000. That’s too bad, because DR2K, even though intended to be just a Rollerball knock-off, made the most of its low budget and ended up being a lot of hilarious, disreputable, tongue-in-cheek fun. Who wouldn’t want a sequel?

I don’t know what went wrong over at New World Pictures (the studio which released both films), but I do remember that, at one time, Deathsport originally was supposed to be a direct sequel. This was announced during an NBC News special focusing on violence in the media, and I distinctly remember one of the producers discussing this film-in-progress, which was to be called Death Sport 2020. But someone obviously fucked up, because what ultimately came out was this idiotic, dirt-cheap sleaze-fest that had the audacity to take itself seriously.

I didn’t know that at the time, however, and was simply jazzed to see a sequel to what-was easily the most disreputable guilty pleasure I’d ever seen at the time. But alas, I was still too young, and it was not playing at the trusty Southgate, where’d I’d become quite adept at sneaking into any R-rated flick that happened to be playing.

Still, I was able to convinced a buddy of mine, Greg, into giving it a go at the Rose Moyer 6-Plex. Sort-of uncharted territory, but still within driving range for my parents.

I’d known Greg for a few years at the time, and was sort-of in awe of the guy. When my family moved into the house next to his when I started 6th grade, he obviously became a friend out of proximity. He was also a year older, pretty popular at school, and a little more worldly with the ladies (at least by middle school standards). I think it is safe to say that, if I hadn’t moved next door, we would never have sought each other out as friends...Greg was a smooth-talking, laid-back athlete, and well-liked by just-about everybody. I, on the other hand, was a bit more awkward, less athletic (even though we both played on the same soccer team for several years), more into movies than girls. I wasn’t exactly a social pariah, but Greg simply knew how to look, talk and act cool.

At the same time, when it was just the two of us, he loved playing with Legos, making silly skits with my tape recorder, drawing cartoons based on our love of MAD Magazine. In other words, despite the persona he projected to others, Greg was a kind-of a closet geek. This was the guy who made me fall in love with Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Name another 12-year-old kid who was into those guys. But all of this was in private, away from the social scrutiny of middle school, where we really didn’t interact much at all. If you were to ask Greg today, he might say differently, but my memory is that I was the friend he didn’t want to admit he had.

Anyway, we did a lot of shit together over the next few years...lots of sleepovers, lots of bike rides, lots of Lego parties, lots of trips to the Southgate Theater (where it was only through his encouragement that I got the nerve to make-out with a girl I’d never met before). In public, Greg was Dean Martin to my Jerry Lewis. He always knew the right thing to say in any social situation; I was the one who threatened to unravel everything with one dumb-ass comment.

It was Greg’s smooth demeanor got us both out of a big scrape when going to see Deathsport.
My parents dropped us off at the Rose Moyer Theater, fairly new at the time (since bulldozed to make room for a strip mall). The plan was simple...pay for a PG movie, then sneak into the R-rated Deathsport. No problem.

Then, while we were sitting there, some employee (not much older than we were), started walking down the aisle, checking theater patrons for tickets.

Fuck...they never did this at the Southgate!

I suddenly panicked, looking to my smooth-talking friend for a way out. To my surprise, he didn’t seem phased at all.

Greg, we’re about to be kicked out of the theater! How can you be so cool about it?

Butterflies welled in my gut as the usher worked his way closer. I’d snuck into movies before, but the closest I’d ever been to actually confronting authority was when I used the word ‘hell’ in a short story I wrote for an English assignment.

When the usher reached us, asking for our ticket stubs, I was ready to piss myself, especially since the guy already looked like he was ready to nail us. I opened my mouth, scrambling for something - anything - that would bail us out.

Instead, Greg looked up at him, shrugged, and said “We don’t have them anymore, but I think they were blue.”

The usher paused, glanced suspiciously at both of us, then moved on.

I’m sure I must have had the ultimate ‘WTF’ expression on my face at that time. But Greg simply looked at me, smiled and pointed to the theater floor, where two blue ticket stubs laid.

Greg didn’t even break a sweat. How cool can you get?

Too bad he didn’t come-to-bat for a better movie, because the best thing about Deathsport was the promotional poster. Unlike the good-humored DR2K, this is a serious film with even cheaper visual effects. One thing that made DR2K so fun was that it knew it was a cheap-ass picture, but made up for it with intentional humor and sheer chutzpah. Yeah, Deathsport has former Playboy Playmate Claudia Jennings as a perfect female specimen, but the movie itself was never more than an awesome poster promoting a movie with a $150,000 budget. But it duped me into going, which in-turn forced Greg to tag along and utilize his verbal skills so we could watch this shit.

June 18, 2012

THE HUNGER GAMES: No Happy Meal Toys?

Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland. Directed by Gary Ross. (2012, 142 min)

I'm a middle school English teacher in the real world, so I am  privy to what books are popular with kids. Personally, I'm not a giant fan of most young adult fiction, even though there are some great books out there and I've published two myself. Still, I do feel it's part of my job to keep up with what kids are into. I tried reading both Harry Potter and Twilight. While I think it's pretty awesome something other than video games or Jersey Shore can excite legions of kids worldwide, I couldn't get through the first books of either series.

Harry Potter didn't intrigue me much, but then I never did care for fantasy novels. I'm also one of the six people on Earth who didn't think the movies were all that great, either. As for Twilight, I read about 50 pages before I couldn't take any more. Stephanie Meyer is a godawful writer, and it sickens me to this day that I'm torn between thinking "Thank God I don't write like that" and "Why the hell can't I write like that?"

But who am I to judge Meyer? Her novels sell in the millions and my books sell about one copy per week on Amazon. Maybe I'm just a tad resentful, not just because she’s read by millions and I‘m not, but also because, if you go to the young adult section of any bookstore, the majority of what you'll find are dark, romantic, emo novels written by authors jumping on the Twilight bandwagon.

As with any book series which becomes a pop culture phenomenon, the Twilight movies followed, all of them blockbusters. I do have to admit I enjoyed the first Twilight film; it was easily the funniest movie I'd seen in a long time. Even my oldest daughter, who read and enjoyed all four books in the series, finds the movies unintentionally hilarious. When the first film came out on DVD, we had a great time giving it the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment.

In my classroom, most of the girls were genuinely offended by my assessment of Twilight, while the boys mostly nodded and laughed, a few of them adding that Edward was a fag. Then again, a lot of them currently say that about Justin Beiber, too. Yeah, they say that, but I'll bet there isn't a single one of them who wouldn't trade places or Beiber or Robert Pattinson.

For me, Twilight-mania reached ridiculous levels, culminating in the whole Team Edward vs. Team Jacob thing. That shit was everywhere...on students' binders, buttons, T-shirts and backpacks. What the fuck does Team Edward even mean, anyway? Until Twilight came along, there was never such a retarded mass-declaration of allegiance to one movie character over another. I don't remember anything like Team Luke vs. Team Han, Team Batman vs. Team Joker or Team McClane vs. Team Gruber. Why was everyone suddenly treating a sparkly vampire and shirtless werewolf like Super Bowl opponents?

Now that both the Harry Potter and Twilight series have wrapped things up, the latest young adult series to explode is Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy. I'd seen kids carrying the books around school over the past couple of years, but it wasn't until a movie adaptation of the first book was announced that I felt a sense of duty to sit down and read one. So one weekend I downloaded the first book onto my Kindle.

And I read the whole thing in one night. Unlike Rowling and Meyers, Suzanne Collins can really write. Not only that, The Hunger Games is only a young adult novel in the sense that the main characters are mostly kids. It's a brutal and violent story of a dystopian future where each of the twelve districts of Panem (which used to be America) are required to provide two kids, aged 12-18 (one boy and one girl), to participate in the Hunger Games, an annual event where they must fight to the death until only one remains.

Of course, being that The Hunger Games has spawned gobs of tie-in toys, clothing, posters, jewelery & school supplies (what...no Happy Meal toys?) you know this already. I truly didn't want to enjoy the book as much as I did, mainly because of its insane popularity. But all of a sudden, the upcoming film became numero uno on my must-see list, even though the pre-release hype bordered on offensive. When People Magazine published an asinine Team Peeta vs. Team Gale pole before the movie was even released, it tempted me to boycott it altogether. If the media wanted to reduce this awesomely dark & dystopian sci-fi story into mindless teen idol worship, I wanted no part of it.

My wife didn't want to see it, either, after reading the same People Magazine issue, which included an article featuring Jennifer Lawrence (who plays Katniss Everdeen). She thought Lawrence was pretentious and arrogant, and it influenced her decision whether or not to see the film. I'm still kind of perplexed by that philosophy, which a lot of people in the general population have...the idea that an actor's real-life likeability has anything to do with whether or not a movie is any good. I know a lot of folks who decided not to see War of the Worlds after Tom Cruise's couch incident on Oprah. Even more people have reassessed Mel Gibson's entire filmography following his drunken tirades. Yeah, Gibson may be a total prick, but that doesn't mean Braveheart is suddenly a shitty movie. When you think about it, how many of us would want others to judge our job performance on what we do outside of work?

Anyway, despite its massive popularity, I still felt compelled to see the film, and eventually played the Father's Day card to force my entire family to watch The Hunger Games with me when it arrived at a local second-run theater/arcade. The movie is remarkably faithful to the novel (thanks, in no part, to the fact that Suzanne Collins helped write the screenplay). I'm pretty sure my wife didn't like it, but my oldest daughter loved the film, and started reading my Kindle download shortly after we got home. Even my youngest daughter cried at the death of Rue (a 12-year-old whose death figures more prominently as the book series progresses).

Still, I watched the film with a curious sense of detachment. Yes, it is faithful to the book, and yes, the actors chosen to fill these roles do their jobs admirably (especially Lawrence). At the same time, I kind of felt like I did when forced the sit through the first two Harry Potter movies...I knew the filmmakers were faithful to the books, but somehow, I sensed there was not an emotional commitment...more like the filmmaking process was a checklist of key scenes. In the Hunger Games  novel, there was a feeling of impending dread throughout the story that isn’t present in the film.

But, on the other hand, what was I expecting, that the movie would somehow lift the story beyond its source material to become something...I dunno...legendary? Like Jaws? For those of you who don’t know, Jaws was actually a shitty book, and almost anyone who has read it will tell you that the movie is a hell of a lot better, despite the massive changes in the story.

Still, The Hunger Games, despite hyper-edited action scenes more at-home in a Michael Bay movie, is fun...much better than any movie in the Twilight series. It is also an extremely faithful adaptation of the novel, so much so that there aren’t any real surprises for anyone who read the book first.

Having since-read the other two books, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, I’ll be interested in seeing how this movie series can pull-off the events in the trilogy without watering down the violence to get a PG-13 rating.

June 17, 2012

DIARY OF A MAD BLACK WOMAN: The Most Obnoxious Movie Of All Time

Starring Kimberly Elise, Steve Harris, Shemar Moore, Tamara Taylor, Cicely Tyson & (of course) Tyler Perry. Directed by Darren Grant. (2005, 116 min).

I've seen thousands of movies in my life, so sometimes when someone asks me which one is my favorite, I don't usually have an easy answer. Sure, I have a short list of films which I hold in the highest esteem - Jaws, Pulp Fiction, The Big Lebowski, The Godfather, Fight Club, etc. - but to cite one as my all-time favorite gets tougher as I get older, and my answer often depends on my mood at the time. I suppose if a gun was put to my head, I'd have to choose Jaws.

I don't have that problem when it comes to my least favorite, the movie I hate, hate, hate above all others. That's easy...Diary of a Mad Black Woman.

I didn't say it was the worst movie. I could list hundreds of worse movies...grade-Z cheapies, unintentionally-hilarious teen dramas, egocentric vanity projects, budget-busting CG-fests that are like watching someone else play a video game, idiotic 'parodies' that simply mimic famous films with added fart jokes; and of course, Italian gorefests, incomprehensibly-edited action films, SyFy Channel premieres, 80's flicks created to sell records, Adam Sandler's entire filmography and fan-tarding YouTube videos.
Still, I'd rather endure all that shit than watch Diary of a Mad Black Woman again, the most annoying, schizophrenic and obnoxious movie I ever sat through, the one film that actually pissed me off while watching.

I know what you're saying: Why didn't you just stop watching it? Trust me, I would have, but at the time I had the good fortune to start writing reviews for a DVD website. The upside of this job was that I got a lot of free discs to add to my collection, and was able to write about a medium I loved, which would actually be read by people. I was also exposed to some absolutely wonderful films that, based on the genre, I would never have chosen on my own. In addition, I could take the discs I didn't like and sell them to a local used CD/DVD store...not for a ton of money, but often enough to fill my gas tank for the week. The downside was I sat through a lot of godawful shit...boxed sets of TV shows from the 70s, cartoons aimed at ten-year-olds, sleazy soft-core porn and movies which held no interest for me whatsoever. Hours - sometimes entire weekends - of reviewing crap I knew I was gonna hate. I used to think being a movie critic was the ultimate job. Now I know better.

One of those films which eventually helped fill my gas tank was Diary of a Mad Black Woman. If it were up to me, I would have shut it off after twenty minutes. Instead, I was forced to endure it all, becoming increasingly disgruntled with each passing minute displayed on my DVD player.

I'm a teacher in the real world, and not long after sitting through this, I attended a workshop with others in my profession. During some downtime, the topic of movies came up, and I expressed my utter hatred of this film. One of the people in this conversation was an African-American woman who tried to explain that the reason for my distain of the film was because I was not black, and could not relate to the culture Diary of a Mad Black Woman was created to appeal to, that this was a black film made for black people.

Well, lady, if that's the case, then you must not have a very high opinion of the intelligence of your own race. Diary of a Mad Black Woman doesn't suck because it's a 'black film.' It sucks because of its utter contempt for the intelligence of anyone watching, regardless of race.

In a nutshell, the film is about a devoted wife who is suddenly betrayed and kicked out of the house by her wealthy, cold-hearted husband. She eventually learns to adapt, work for a living and love again with the aid of her family and the chance-meeting of an impossibly good-looking, sympathetic blue-collar man. Sure, a bit cliche, but perfectly acceptable movie fodder.

But here's the problem...Tyler Perry.

He's not the star of the film, nor is he the director. He's the writer whose prior stage plays are heralded by African-American audiences. He's also the creator of the most blatantly obnoxious, stupid, over-the-top, unrealistic, overbearing and unfunny character in the history of movies...

...Madea, played by Tyler Perry himself.

This is a female character (Perry in drag), an easily-angered old lady who screams a lot and waves a handgun around. As Madea, Perry makes Jerry Lewis look subtle. Although intended to be a humorous character, Madea has nothing funny, clever or insightful to add to this movie. In fact, she almosts exists outside of this movie, and her frequent appearances are almost like intermissions in an otherwise-serious story about a woman trying to regain her life after being betrayed. Medea is hamfistedly wedged into key scenes, totally disrupting the tone of the film. Early on, when Helen (the female lead) is kicked out of the house she once shared with her husband of 20 years, Medea is almost randomly thrown into the picture, and, out of the blue, produces a chainsaw out of nowhere to carve up the man's furniture. It is supposed to be funny, but the viewer ends up thinking, what the fuck? Madea shows up frequently in this film to provide totally unnecessary slapstick comic relief. It's like watching Apocalypse Now, and every 15 minutes or so, The Three Stooges pop up to do their shtick. .

Worse yet is the fact the movie goes to great length making us sympathize with Helen, only to have her suddenly, without warning, turn vicious, vindictive and violent when her husband is incapacitated due to his mob dealings. I know this is supposed to be a “you go girl” moment, but at this point in the film, when Helen has already found true love, these scenes radically, and insultingly, alter the character entirely.

What is ultimately sad about Diary of a Mad Black Woman is there is a pretty good movie to be found in the material. A sentimental chick-flick to be sure, but a potentially audience-rousing film that isn’t an assault to our intelligence.

A great movie, even an “audience” picture, still needs to stick to the established rules of its genre. You simply can’t present a scenario where a woman is forced to make real-life choices, then randomly throw in a MAD Magazine interpretation of a black, anti-social grandma, simply because you cynically think you need to appeal to the dumbest of dumbasses in the audience.

And that’s the problem...Diary of a Mad Black Woman is not a “black film” that white people cannot relate to (in fact, to its credit, race is never an issue here). But it is a stupid, intelligence-bashing, over-the-top cartoon that dumbs-down its message, mostly because Tyler Perry felt the need to shoehorn his Madea creation into a movie which didn’t need it. This makes the movie nothing more than a vanity project of the worst kind.

What is really alarming is that so many people (black, white or whatever) truly love this movie...that so many think it is actually funny, clever, and reflective of real life, when in reality it is as childish as the script for Creepshow.

Diary of a Mad Black Woman is not a black movie. It is not a comedy. It is not a drama. It is not an audience picture. It is a simple-minded film which tries to be all of the above, but failing miserably.

June 12, 2012


SUDDEN CAT! - These critters just love to pop out of nowhere in horror movies, startling one of the characters (and giving the audience a cheap scare). This usually happens just before a psycho/alien/monster jumps out to kill the character.

THAT BELOVED DYING DOG - As Gordon Korman once wrote, “check any book in the library with a dog and an award sticker on the cover, trust me, that dog’s going down.” (Ex: Old Yeller, Where the Red Fern Grows, Marley and Me, Sounder)

ONE-DOG DEMOLITION CREW - Whenever a large, gangly dog is introduced into a new home, it will lay-waste to so much property that, in reality, the owners would have it put down. Instead, they simply throw their arms up and cry out the pet's name in exasperation.

THE IMPOSSIBLY SMART HORSE - A staple of westerns since the genre was created, these creatures have uncanny intelligence at least equal to the bad guys, and have some sort of sixth sense to always be where their owner needs them to be in a time of crisis. Bonus cliché: the closer the horse is to his master, the more likely he is to die (Ex: Dances with Wolves).

MISUNDERSTOOD WOLF - Replacing the old cliché that all wolves are inherently evil, wolves in modern stories are now noble, maligned creatures, unfairly persecuted and hunted down by angry farmers.

IMPOSING ROLES - In live action movies where housepets can talk, dogs are usually voiced by men, while cats are usually voiced by women.

SHARKS - No matter the story or film, when a shark appears, the animal has an insatiable taste for human blood and will eat far more people than it can physically stomach.

BEAUTY IS ONLY SKIN DEEP - If the animal is fuzzy, it is a loveable hero. If it is a disgusting reptile or insect, it exists to kill the hero.

SPIDERS - In movies, all spiders are aggressive and deadly. Even tarantulas, who in real life sleep for days at a time, are lightning quick and attack without provocation. Then again, who wants to see a movie about a friendly spider? (Exception: Charlotte’s Web).

AMOROUS CANINE - Telling a story and want a cheap laugh? Have a tiny dog hump a character’s leg.

CHOICE OF DOG - Heroes own mutts. Villians own purebreds.

THE NOBLE SEA-FARING MAMMAL - All dolphins and whales are totally righteous, sensitive creatures who love us just as much as we love them.

MONKEYS - Almost always depicted as endearingly cute, especially when they ape (no pun intended) human activity. Hey, these things fling their poo when angry! Then again, if we actually did that to voice our displeasure over something, most arguments would end before they began.

MONKEYS, PART 2 - Actually, the image of a poo flinging monkey is a cliché, too.

YOU GONNA EAT THAT? - Whenever a character is lost (on an island, in the desert, in the mountains, etc), he or she will inevitably be forced to eating an animal most of us would call an exterminator to get rid of. And super-brave actors like Nicholas Cage will actually do it.

SUPER-VILLAIN FISH TANK - If a villain owns a fish tank, it is filled with piranha. If he owns a pond, it is also filled with piranha, only this time he feeds them a henchman who failed or betrayed him.

CATS - Unless the story is about them, most cat characters are generally evil…and always hungry.

SELFLESS, OMINOUS INTUITION - Whenever there is a crisis threatening to destroy mankind, packs of animals do us a solid by engaging in inexplicible behavior which leads to their own deaths.

BEARS - Bears love to show up at campsites, especially if the campers are city folks not used to the great outdoors. Hilarity ensues.

NO! NOT THE DOG! - Whenever a dog dies in a movie, it is a tragedy. When a cat dies, it is exposition.

INCREDIBLE JOURNEYS - No matter the animal or breed, when abandoned, they will set off on a trek to find their masters, and somehow always succeed. And, of course, even though the master left without any regard for their pets, cry tears of joy whenever old Rex appears over the horizon. The heart-wrenching exception to this cliché is Richard Adams’ The Plague Dogs.

GENETICALLY ENHANCED SUPER BEAST - Scientists love to inject a normally docile animal with some weird concoction which turns it into a killing machine. What science stems to gain from such an experiment is still not really understood.

June 9, 2012

ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK: Just Leave The Damn Thing Alone

Starring Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Adrienne Barbeau, Ernest Borgnine, Isaac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton, Donald Pleasence, voice of Jamie Lee Curtis. Directed by John Carpenter. (1981, 99 min).

 I was 17 when I first saw this, and it was probably the first movie since Jaws that I became truly obsessed with. This was back when the year 1997 (when the film takes place) was still the distant future, Kurt Russell was still mostly known for all those Walt Disney comedies, and John Carpenter was still making really good movies.

I loved everything about Escape from New York...the Big Apple depicted as an urban hellhole, the morally-questionable characters, the bleak and cynical view of the future, the synthesized music score (yeah, it sounds kinda cheesy today, but back then it was cool enough to persuade me to buy the soundtrack), not to mention what is still the most awesome twist ending of any movie ever made.

But most of all, I loved Snake Plissken, the first main character I'd ever seen in a movie who could be called an anti-hero. The guy is a total badass, not giving a shit about anything or anyone. Seeing someone like Kurt Russell play the role was a revelation, and he does such a great job that I was able to overlook the questionable special effects (even for 1981). Plissken was so fucking cool that I even tried growing my hair out so I could look more like him.

I suppose if the term man-crush existed back then, it might have applied here.

Years later, when the belated sequel, Escape from L.A., came out, I found myself not caring one bit how stupid the movie was, just so long as I could see Snake in action one more once again. Self-parody or not, Escape from L.A. really was fucking stupid, yet Plissken himself was still mean, cynical and totally cool, even when surfing a tsunami down Wilshire Boulevard or shooting hoops to save his own life.

I remember reading somewhere that, if Escape from L.A. was a hit, Carpenter had an idea for a third film, Escape from Earth. But the sequel totally tanked in theaters, which essentially meant there would be no more Snake Plissken in my future. A sad day indeed. So all I have of Snake is these two films, one good, one bad. Yeah, there was a short-lived comic book series, but try as I might, I've never been able to embrace comic books much. Although I was always an extreme movie geek, somehow the idea of being a comic book geek was truly repellant.

Of course, we are now living in an era where re-booting a franchise is the norm, and I've heard of plans to remake the original Escape from New York. I also heard that original Escape director John Carpenter is totally on-board with the idea, probably because he hasn't made a great movie since The Thing. In fact, he's probably made more cash from the remakes/prequels of his early movies (Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, The Fog and The Thing) than he ever did with his originals.

This remake news was yet-another reminder of how old and out-of-touch I am becoming. Rather than get excited at the news, the first thing I thought was, "No...you can't." No one could possibly replace Kurt Russell as Plissken, just like no one could replace Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates (just ask Vince Vaughn). With all due respect for the actors that have, so far, been attached to reprise the role of Plissken (most notably, Gerard Butler, and recently, Jeremy Renner), none of them are Russell, the guy who had a huge hand in creating the character.

You know, I should be happy that there are enough folks in Hollywood still willing to give this dead franchise a second chance. Escape from New York is a cult classic now, but it didn't exactly set the box office on fire back in '81. And Escape from L.A. was a certified bomb. Maybe by rebooting the franchise to appeal to modern audiences, with faster action and better special effects, it could finally be successful enough to warrant a third chapter, perhaps the aforementioned Escape from Earth.


Yeah, and Timothy Dalton was a perfectly suitable replacement for Clark Cable in the TV sequel to Gone with the Wind. Kurt Russell is Snake Plissken, just like Peter Sellers is Inspector Clouseau, and Gene Wilder is Willy Wonka.

As much as I'd love the adventures of Snake Plissken to continue, it can't be done without Russell, and he's probably too old at this point. Sure, you could replace him with someone younger and surround him with CGI, but doing so would just make Snake a brand name to hook older movie geeks like me. But I can count on one hand (without using every finger) the number of remakes which were better than the original

Yeah, I'd probably pay to see a remake of Escape from New York, but at my age, I doubt I could separate myself from the original thrill I got from watching Snake kick total ass back in 1981. I do not think there's anything that can be added to the original story or it's iconic anti-hero that would make me appreciate a remake on its own terms, even thirty years later.

Leave this one alone. You aren't gonna make it better.

June 8, 2012

10 Phenomenally Underrated Movies

GODZILLA (1998) - In 1998, it was a big, dumb, loud & over-hyped Hollywood product, cynically calculated to sell as many toys as movie tickets. Critics hated it, audiences stayed away and tie-in merchandise ended up in budget bins before summer was even over. Hey, it's a giant monster movie. What was everyone expecting, The Seventh Seal? Roland Emmerich is no Scorsese, but Godzilla was better than Transformers, 2007's big, dumb, loud & over-hyped Hollywood product everybody flocked to.

APOLLO 18 - Yet another one of those 'found-footage' movies, a genre that's quickly wearing out its welcome. But what makes this one truly cool is it looks like it came from the era when it takes place - the 70s - when everything was captured on film, and we couldn’t simply fire-up a camcorder or cell-phone. Yeah, the whole killer-alien-space-rock thing is kinda dumb, but I personally thought this deliberately-paced quickie was really spooky. One of the few films to make space look like a shitty place to go.

June 6, 2012


Starring Richard Gere, Debra Winger, Louis Gossett, Jr., David Keith, Lisa Blount (who was always hotter than Winger...RIP). Directed by Taylor Hackford. (1982, 122 min).

Some movies can change your life. But not always for the better...at least initially...

One of the dumber things I did in my youth was marry my girlfriend right out of high school. Everyone I knew - family, friends, co-workers - tried to talk me out of it. I didn't listen. What did they know? I was in love.

30 years and a second marriage later, with the 20/20 hindsight which comes with such maturity, I may have mistaken love for the amount of uninhibited sex I was having at the time. When you're an adult only in the legal sense, sex makes you do dumb things, like getting married before you're ready, alienating your friends and family and, at least in my case, joining the military.

Like most idiots who get married before the ink on their high school diplomas is dry, me and my new wife had shitty jobs, no money and bills which were suddenly our responsibility to pay. We did the same thing a lot of young, dumb couples do...act like we were still in high school. We spent money we didn't have, had hysterical knock-down, drag-out fights and often came crawling back to our parents to bail us out of the jams we got ourselves into. Still, we were in love, and that would see us through the dark times.

I am actually amazed we lasted as long as we did - four years - though I think if you would have hooked both of us up to a polygraph back then, you'd discover we probably stopped actually liking each other after a few months. I dunno, maybe we tried so hard to make the marriage work just to prove all our naysayers wrong.

Anyway, still young, dumb and impressionable, one night during the early months of our wedded bliss, we decided to catch a movie, 1982's An Officer and a Gentleman. And yes, my wife picked the film. If were up to me, I'd have chosen Airplane II, playing in the theater next door. I have nothing against romantic dramas. They just aren't my first choice in movie entertainment, even though there have been many that are mighty fine, the best one being Casablanca. Then again, if you don't like Casablanca, you must not like movies. Some films transcend their genre. An Officer and a Gentleman is one of 'em...a so-called chick-flick that just about everyone has to admit is pretty fucking awesome...

...and if you are an impressionable 19 year old with a way-too-young bride on your arm, it is potentially life-changing.

We watched this film when I was between jobs, having just lost my dubious position as a telemarketer (how much of a loser do you have to be to get fired as a telemarketer?). Up on the screen was Richard Gere, cool and studly in his Navy whites after completing pilot training, strutting into a factory at the end of the film to scoop up Debra Winger to rescue her from her menial existence, all to a swelling power ballad (which itself became somewhat iconic back in the day).

After leaving the theater, the first thing we did, at my wife's insistence, was run over to Tower Records to buy the soundtrack. Then on the way home, music from the movie blaring from the tiny speakers of our Honda Civic (back when Civics were still cheap cars), my wife suggested that I should enlist in the military, purring how hot I'd look in uniform.

Even though I was no physical slouch back in 1982, no way could I fill out a military uniform the way Richard Gere did. But I was also 19 (aka: stupid), a bit drunk and had no better financial prospects on the horizon. What do you think I did? My young, hot wife wanted to see me in a uniform!

I enlisted in the Air Force soon after. Yeah, I know, Gere's character joined the Navy, but Navy basic training was too long. I was still very lazy at the time, and hey, a man in uniform is a man in uniform, right? My wife would dig me all the same. Air Force training was only six weeks, so the Air Force it was.

I managed to make it four weeks before getting drummed out because I couldn't pass my bunk and locker inspection.

That's not what I told my wife, though. The night before I shipped out, she, my best friend and I got totally high and drove around Portland all night. After failing basic training a few weeks later, I used that incident to convince my wife I was kicked out because my Social Security number popped up for a random drug check. That way, it wasn't entirely my fault, especially since she was there doing bong hits with me.

Hey, this was 1982; getting kicked out for drugs sounded a lot cooler than being unable to fold your socks. At any rate, arriving home after the long flight from Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, the reunion with my wife was a far cry from Richard Gere saving Debra Winger from a life of factory labor. My wife was taken back - and obviously repulsed - by my shaved head (which made me look like Charlie Brown). Despite her smile, her eyes basically said, "Way to fuck up...loser").

This may have been the first moment I pondered whether or not marrying young had been a good idea (roughly around the same time she probably realized I was no Richard Gere).

This was another instance  I was reminded that real life is never like the movies. I first found that out as a kid when I got the bright idea to stage my own game of Rollerball with some neighborhood friends and ended up breaking someone's nose. Even as I blindly signed my name on the dotted line in the Air Force recruiting office, the guy in charge told me there was recently a big boost in enlistment following the release of An Officer and a Gentlemen. At least I wasn’t alone in my stupidity.

"Have you put on some weight?"
So I was duped by a chick flick - and my wife - into getting my head shaved and freezing my ass off for a winter month in San Antonio. In the end, all I had to show for it was 900 bucks and a set of fatigues. I was decidedly not military material; definitely not Richard Gere.

A few years later, I could totally sympathize with the gullible bastards inspired to join the Navy after seeing Top Gun, only to have their dreams dashed when they weren't dropped into a fighter plane the second they signed up. How many of them were goaded into signing their life away by a woman?

The reality is that all those rogue hot-shots we cheer for onscreen actually went to college first, a prerequisite for any military training program worth making a movie about. The rest of us are underlings. Even if I had made it through basic training, the closest I would have come to the heroic glory depicted in Officer or Top Gun would have been putting out the fire after Gere or Cruise crashed their plane and strutted away unscathed. While they hopped in the sack with Debra Winger or Kelly McGillis for some deep reflection, I’d be spending the better part of a day getting the stink of burning jet fuel out of my nostrils.

Anyway, getting drummed out of the Air Force was the beginning of a long downward spiral of dismal employment, apartment evictions, mounting debt and an eventual divorce because I couldn’t pull my head out of my ass.

We’ve all looked back to examine - with far more maturity - the events which guided the course of our lives. Sometimes we laugh at our former selves, other times we wonder “what if I’d done this instead of that?” The decision to see An Officer and a Gentleman was one of those times, a catalyst for the direction my life took over the next several years.

Do I regret joining the military? Not really, believe it or not. Yeah, my reasons were dumb, and I’m convinced my first wife and I were destined for divorce no matter what. But most of my past failures steered to the life I have now, once I finally grew up, and which I wouldn’t trade for the world. I’m not an 80’s-era super-stud, but I now have a wife who loves me as I am, and two awesome daughters. If I didn’t go through all the shit I put myself through back when I was young and stupid, there’s a good chance my daughters wouldn’t have ever been born. Now that’s something to regret.

So yeah, An Officer and a Gentleman is probably one of the most influential movies of all time, at least for me. It was life-changing, and I can only thank God today that, eventually, that change turned out to be a positive one.

Things could have been far worse. I could have been influenced by Natural Born Killers.

June 3, 2012


Starring Eric Braeden, Susan Clark, Gordon Pinset and a whole bunch other Hey-It's-That-Guys. Directed by Joseph Sargent. (1970, 101 min)

Am I the only person just a little bit uneasy about our increasing dependence on technological toys? Physical books, newspapers, magazines, maps, movies and CDs are likely to become extinct in my lifetime; we can now download all that shit a lot cheaper. Facebook, Scype and Twitter are taking the place of real social interaction; I know a lot of kids, my own daughter included, who hang out with friends without ever leaving their bedrooms. Hell, you can even let your computer do the work to find a compatible mate, or at least someone willing to all sorts of nasty things on camera.

Then there are the things technology does to make life easier. The places we shop online will use our previous purchases or inquiries to suggest similar products which might interest us. We don't even have to remember to pay our bills; our computers can automatically do it for us. Our cars can verbally tell us where to go, when we're driving stupid and even park themselves (remember when being able to parallel park in three moves was a requirement in your driver’s test?). Some cars can even contact the police themselves if they are stolen.

Speaking of which, we're now making the transition from personal computers (marvels of technology not even ten years ago) to hand-held tablets; all we have to do is tap the app on our screen. No real brain required! Our gadgets will do the thinking for us.

We're so dependent on our toys, personally and professionally, that if they were suddenly taken away, we'd flop around like snared tuna on the deck of a sea trawler. Think about it...one big-ass solar flare can erase everything about us because we’re willingly handing over everything about ourselves into a realm which doesn’t actually exist in the physical world.

And most of us don’t even know how our beloved technology actually works. We take it for granted, and assume it will always do what we intend it to. Not only that, technology is advancing so fast that it isn’t long before the tablet we bought a year ago is out-of-date because something new comes along which allows us to think even less.

When you take all this into account, is it really that much of a stretch to believe the day is coming when you fire-up your computer or tablet or phone, and it alone makes the decision whether or not the porn you're trying to download is good for your marriage, whether or not you’re too fat to request extra sausage & cheese on your pizza order, whether or not you'll go on a killing spree from playing the latest version of Grand Theft Auto? Such a scenario is not too far removed from what our machines are capable of right now. Think real hard...how much does your computer know about you, personally and professionally?

What's really scary is that there are a lot of people who'd love their computers to do all the thinking.
But do we really want technology be that fucking smart? What if your computer became so efficient it decides one day that you aren't worth the oxygen you're using. Good morning, Dave. Sorry, but it's time to die.

Such a scenario was presented over 40 years ago in Colossus: The Forbin Project, a mostly-forgotten film from 1970 that is, thankfully, still science fiction. Eric Braeden (best-known for his role in the long-running soap-opera, The Young and the Restless) is Charles Forbin, the mastermind behind Colossus, a super-computer put in charge of all our defenses, thus eliminating any real thinking by the powers-that-be. Unfortunately, after Colossus discovers the existence of Guardian, a similar system developed by the Russians at the same time, both computers logically decide the best way to avoid global war is to enslave the entire human race, threatening nuclear annihilation if they do not obey.

What makes this movie truly scary, even today, is the fact that these super-computers are not malfunctioning. Colossus and Guardian are functioning exactly as they were programmed. The terrible acts perpetrated by these systems on humanity are based on pure, pre-programmed logic. In other words, we have have demanded a deterrent to nuclear war, but opened a Pandora's box, because we as a species would be the ultimate cause of World War III.

Are we heading in that direction now? I don't know. I hope not. What I do know is my computer does exactly what I tell it to. It follows the letter of the law, not the spirit, which is why I'm still reluctant to entrust it with absolutely everything. Computers are wonderful tools. I love them, and depend on them to carry out a myriad of chores that were once laborious and time-consuming. But do I want them to do my thinking for me? Hell, no.

Colossus: The Forbin Project is seldom mentioned among the great sci-fi films of the 70s, but it may be end up being the most prophetic. No, I don’t believe computers and technology will turn against us and destroy the world, but the computers in this film didn’t turn against us either. They did what they were told, and performed their task perfectly, which may be even scarier. The fact that we don't like their solution is redundant.

I first saw this movie late one night on TV as a kid, when I barely even knew what a computer was, other than it took up a lot of space (Colossus is roughly the size of Mt. Hood) and had a lot of pretty lights. But even then, the message was obvious, and as timely today as it was back then: Entrusting technology with your very life is as ill-advised as making a deal with the Devil. Just because we can do something doesn’t always mean we should.

Dated set design and hairstyles notwithstanding, I now think about Colossus: The Forbin Project more and more these days. Collectively, we whole-heartedly embrace anything that meets our needs faster, easier and cheaper, and anything which allows us to think less and make fewer decisions on our own. Being so, Colossus is not the real villian in this film. We are, as emodied by Chalres Forbin. He arrogantly believes that his technology, by eliminating the human element, will ultimately save the world. Instead, he has doomed it by taking our own fate out of our hands.