Monday, December 31, 2012


The 1974 Saturday morning series Korg: 70,000 BC is newly available on DVD.  I was eight when this premiered as a mid-season replacement, and even though it had a comic book spinoff and everything, I never watched it.

The only reason I remember it at all--heck, the only reason why I'm mentioning it now--is because eight-year-old me thought it would be awesome if it had been called Coug: 70,000 BC, and had been about my beloved cat Cougar, who somehow traveled through time to a prehistoric era.  Episodes would follow her as she...well, as she slept, devoured mice and occasionally fought with other cats, which is pretty much what Cougar did.  Sure, that doesn't sound very interesting, but come on, we're talking seventies kiddie shows.  A half hour of a cat sleeping on a rock couldn't be any less entertaining than an episode of Ark II.  At least my show wouldn't feature any guest appearances from Jonathan Harris.

And...this is my last post for 2012: Cats and long-forgotten TV shows.  Seems about right, doesn't it?

Wednesday, December 05, 2012


He curls up beside me, his head on the pillow.  His powerful hind legs, kick gently against my chest, his front paws wrap around my wrist on lazily fall on the side of my face.  His purr is so loud his whole body trembles, and I feel the vibrations through him.

He seems almost possessive.  There's a dog now, and another cat I sometimes seem to favor, and he's maybe unsure of his place in the world.  But this is our time now, and he relaxes, some comfort finally available to his troubled soul.

Still, this is Delmar, so as gentle as he tries to be, his claws are perpetually bared, piercing my skin as his paws slide across my arm or my face.  I'll wake up with fresh scratches, with dried blood.  I'm used to this by now.

After all, he's been in my life for ten years.  Sometimes he can be a pain, quite literally, but hey, to live is to feel pain.  And joy, which he also provides.  Delmar is awesome and terrifying and sweet.  His love is ferocious and absolute, and I can't imagine my world without him.

Saturday, November 17, 2012


Whenever possible, you're usually better off buying name brands, at least when it comes to, say, things you actually put in your body.  Other times. it's okay to go with the dollar store special.  Dish soap, for instance.  Does it foam up in water?  Yes?  Fine, I'll take it.

So I had less than a third of my Dollar Tree dish soap left before I even bothered looking at its label, and more to the point, its randomly-chosen brand name: First Force.  Huh, I thought.  Sounds less like a brand of soap than a cheapo eighties action movie.

Fair enough, but I can't just let it go.  I start to imagine a First Force movie in my head.  David Carradine would star--that seems obvious enough--but who else?  Steve James as Generic Black Guy, whose main job is to get kidnapped by the bad guys at some point so he can be rescued by our hero, because they were buddies in 'Nam.  Don "The Dragon" Wilson would be Martial Arts Guy, who does the action stuff Carradine's stunt double doesn't.  And the group's lone female?  My first thought was Cynthia Rothrock, but since we already have two actors associated with martial arts movies, maybe it should be a onetime mainstream actress who everyone thought would be a second-tier star, or at least have a healthy career.  Lisa Blount or Lisa Eichhorn, whichever one would be most likely to do a topless scene, since that's the only reason she's even along.  Then there's the Gary Busey question: Does he play a member of the titular Force--The Guy Who Gets Killed Early To Drum Up Sympathy--or is he Generic Bad Guy?  Probably Generic Bad Guy, because he could be someone else Carradine knew in 'Nam, but who went bad.

About the time I start speculating about who would've directed such a movie (Joseph Zito, no question), it suddenly occurs to me that I'm spending way too much time thinking about a bottle of dish detergent.  Maybe I should just stop shopping at Dollar Tree.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


As much time as I sometimes spend here prattling on about all things Muppet related, you might expect me to have something to say about the sort-of-or-maybe-not sex scandal involving Elmo Muppeteer Kevin Clash.

The thing is, it's really too depressing to consider, especially since we don't know what actually happened, and probably never will.  Clash was initially accused of having an inappropriate sexual relationship with a minor, although the minor in question was 16, not, say, 10, and the unnamed accuser even admitted the relationship was consensual.  As a result, Clash lost his regular gig on Sesame Street, but only one day after the story broke, the accuser recanted his story, claiming he was of legal age when the whole thing started, but he'd apparently accepted a financial settlement from Clash, and neither side is talking, so who knows?

Still, it seems likely Clash's Muppet days are over, since an accusation is all that is needed to taint a reputation.  If online chatter is any indication, most people are creeped out not so much because Clash might have been getting it on with a minor as the age difference in general.  Even assuming the accuser was eighteen when the relationship started, Clash was in his mid-forties.

But as to that age difference, I say what about Bobby Goldsboro's touching relationship with an older woman, as explored in his profoundly not-good song Summer (The First Time)?  Society was okay with this sort of thing back in the early seventies, or so I must assume, because the song was a hit, and it sure as hell can't be because people thought it was any good.

If you find yourself wondering whether starting this post by referencing the whole Kevin Clash thing was basically just an excuse for me to post this song, hey, you may be right.  But seriously--what a horrible song.  "I told Billy Ray/In his red Chevrolet" may be the worst lyric of all time, or at least until Billy Joel came up with "Talking to Davy/Who's still in the Navy" a couple years later.

But aside from its basic awfulness (did I mention rhyming "julep" with "two lips"?), the worst thing about this song is that it forces me to imagine Bobby Goldsboro having sex.  We'll never know for sure what Kevin Clash actually did.  But the very notion of Bobby Goldsboro banging hot older chicks?  That is a crime.

Friday, November 02, 2012


I not only watched Space:1999, I proudly carried the luchbox to school every day, subscribed to the comic book, had both the Eagle 1 model kit and the much larger and more awesome Eagle playset.  My devotion to all things Planet Of The Apes-related led me to own numerous posters, action figures, comic books, the novelization of Beneath The Planet of The Apes (the first quote-unquote adult novel I ever read), a board game and so much more.

Upon starting fifth grade, I was thrilled to discover the middle school library was well-stocked with juvenile-skewing science fiction novels by the likes of Andre Norton and E.E. "Doc" Smith.  More importantly, book-wise, late in 1976 I bought a copy of Jeff Rovin's A Pictorial History Of Science Fiction Films, which was, as its title suggests, full of glorious images from classics like Forbidden Planet and This Island Earth, as well as glimpses of obscurities like the Soviet-made Ikarie XB and forgotten cheapies like Monster from Green Hell.  All these movies had one thing in common: I'd never seen any of them, and aside from the occasional lucky TV broadcast, I never would, not in that pre-cable, pre-VCR world.  I could imagine, but I could never experience.

So I was primed.  Before just happening to spot a full-page ad in the Sunday paper, I'd never even heard of Star Wars.  But that ad, running two weeks before the movie even opened, became the only thing that mattered in my world.  It was kind of hard to make out in the crappy newsprint, but it showed robots, and a girl in a gown holding a weapon, and a guy with some kind of crazy laser sword, or something.  I had to see this!

After relentless pestering of pretty much everyone in my family--I literally couldn't talk about anything else--my sister became the one to drive me all the way to Des Moines, to the cavernous River Hills auditorium, the only theater in the whole state--one of the few in the entire midwest--playing the movie.  The place was packed even two hours before showtime.  The lights went down, the curtains parted, the 20th Century Fox fanfare sounded, there was a written prologue, and then...well, once the Imperial cruiser glided implacably from the top of the screen, I felt a rush such as I'd never known.

This was it!  This was the movie--the experience!--I'd waited for my entire life.  Whatever I'd imagined, hoped, dreamed this movie would be, it was better, so much better than...well, better than anything ever.  There was nothing wrong with it, no boring parts, nothing where you had to pretend it was better than it was.  I bounced up and down in my seat the entire time, fully alive.  Surely this was the defining moment of my life.

Maybe it was.  But, you know, I had just turned twelve.  My life had very little definition to begin with.  Living on a farm in the middle of nowhere--just like Luke Skywalker!--I hated school, had very few friends and just generally felt lost.  These aren't exactly unusual circumstances, and my love of science fiction clearly indicated a desire to be taken away, to leave this farm and this life and this world, to be swept up into a galactic uprising, to destroy the Death Star and learn the ways of The Force.  Metaphorically speaking, of course.

Given all this, I was surprised to discover how indifferent I was to the announcement that George Lucas sold his company to Disney, which promptly announced plans for a new Star Wars movie.  Fandom seems divided between those who dread the Disneyfication of their beloved galaxy far far away and those who hate the prequels so much they are eager to see what Star Wars is like without the direct involvement of Lucas' increasingly heavy hand.

There's no way to minimize what Star Wars meant to me, but it was just one part of my life.  I remember a lot of things about that summer: I moved into a new room in the house, and it had an AM radio so I started listening to the local Top 40 station.  I finally read Fahrenheit 451.  Also, for whatever reason, I suddenly became obsessed with the idea of mortality, and spent a terrifying amount of time obsessing over the inevitable death of everyone I knew and loved.

I remember these things, all the profound feelings of joy and despair, but what I can't quite conjure is the person who actually experienced these emotions.  Twelve year old me is gone forever.  Sure, I'll always love Star Wars, but mostly for what it was, not what it still is.  It's just a movie, and honestly, it's not even all that good.  It's no longer vital, it doesn't matter, not in the life I lead now.  If someone wants to make a new one, good, bad, mediocre, I don't really care.

But maybe there'll be some kid out there, lost and lonely and unsure of his place in the world, and he'll see it, and it will be the most important thing in the world.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012


I had a thing in mind I wanted to write about today--it was about the summer and fall of 1977, the year I first started listening to the radio, and how the seemingly bland and innocuous Top 40 ballads We're All Alone and Dust In The Wind both featured amazingly fatalistic lyrics, and whether constant exposure to aural wallpaper that reminded me of my mortality somehow contributed to the crippling depression and suicidal thoughts that would manifest themselves a few years later.  (Short answer: Probably not, but it certainly didn't help.)

Obviously, I haven't actually written that piece.  Or the one where I explain why I'm not really obsessed with Star Wars, or the one where I wrestle yet again with my inability to make a relationship last, or the one get the idea.  I can crank out stuff about the dog and cats by the yard, but after so many times, how interesting is that?  Then again, how interesting is anything?  And what's the point, since we're all gonna die anyway?  Nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky, man.  Dust in the wind...

Sorry.  Got kind of distracted there.  The point  Something about how regular posting might resume here in the near future?  Or not?  Yes, something like that...

I should probably provide some actual entertainment here, shouldn't I?  This is all I've got.  It's more than enough, though, isn't it?

Monday, October 15, 2012


1)  I'll start, as I do with alarming frequency lately, with the obligatory "Hey-it's-been-awhile" comment.  Last month I posted seven pieces in this space.  Nothing like when I used to write here every day, but more than one a week.  We're halfway through this month, and I'm just now getting around to putting up some new content.  And not even interesting content--just a time-killing Random Thoughts post.

Has inspiration dried up?  Have I run out of things to say?  Have I had more interesting things to do?  Possibly, possibly and dear God, no.

2)  But of course, I was pulled back to writing in order to comment on the momentous news that Russell Crowe and his wife are separating.  I think I speak for everyone when I say, "What?  Seriously?  Did we start caring about Russell Crowe again?"

The Associated Press story on this treats it as a tragedy on the level of the Kennedy assassination, but what can you expect from a news-gathering organization that continues to give us updates on Pete Wentz's doings, continuing to tease us with the possibility (or, more accurately, threat) of a Fall-Out Boy reunion? 

3)  So I'm driving down the Interstate the other day, and I'm passed by a vehicle with vanity plates that read LIVNWEL.  Seeing something like that, I immediately think of KENWINS from Breaking Bad.  But at least Ken was driving a BMW.  LIVNWEL had a Chevy Equinox.

Granted, it's certainly newer than my car, and perhaps fully paid for, so in that sense this clown could be said to be LIVN better than me.  But again, he's driving a fucking Chevy--a relatively high-end model, sure, but I'm not sure that constitutes LIVN all that WEL.  Certainly not WEL enough to brag about.

After all, if you were truly LIVNWEL, you wouldn't need to brag about it--your status would be obvious.  Driving an Equinox is strictly a middle-management guy's idea of the good life.  In that sense, this poor guy's pathetic boast kind of made me feel better.  My job sucks, but at least it doesn't give me delusions of importance.

4)  I saw Argo over the weekend, and I enjoyed it, but I feel the need to point out that it concludes with a "Where Are They Now?" crawl which unfolds over a series of shots of Star Wars action figures.  This does tie in, rather obliquely, with the true-life story Argo has to tell, but let's face it, what it really tells us is that director Ben Affleck is a child of the seventies.

If you were, I dunno, fifteen or under (I was twelve) in the summer of '77, your life can be neatly divided into before or after you saw Star Wars.  It was the center of your universe, at least for awhile, and even though you moved on, it still meant something, in the same way that baby boomers were influenced by the annual TV broadcasts of The Wizard Of Oz.  Doesn't mean you think it's the greatest movie ever, but it was important to you, it's cultural impact ran deep, and if you make a "These are not the droids you're looking for" reference, you can reasonably expect that whoever you're talking to will get it.

All this is to say, no matter what most people who know me seem to think, I'm not obsessed with Star Wars.

5)  Two mornings in a row, I woke up with fresh, deep scratches on my arm.  Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to live in a world without a terrifying psychotic cat.  But then I'd live in a world without Delmar, and I'd never want that.

Friday, September 28, 2012


There's not much I can say about Paul Thomas Anderson's new film The Master.  Not to sound dismissive; in fact, I think it may be a genuinely great, profound work.  Still, it's so deeply personal--for Anderson, and for the viewer--that to try to think of something to say, to cast it into words...well, it feels inadequate and somehow disrespectful.

Others, of course, may disagree.  :Aren't you proud of me?" the middle-aged lady in the back row asked her companion literally the second the credits began to roll, her voice so loud the whole auditorium couldn't help but hear.  "I actually managed to stay awake through that stupid thing."  After a moment of silence, and apparently in case her opinion hadn't been made properly known, she continued: "What the hell was that even about?"

The two of them had arrived about ten minutes into the movie, but considering the parade of trailers ahead of time, close to a half hour after the posted start time.  More accurately, the quieter of the two arrived ten minutes in.  His loud-mouthed companion showed up a few minutes after that, large drink and popcorn in hand, which she proceeded to slurp and munch for some time afterward.

I realize my description of the distaff member of the duo might be a bit cruel, and might make me seem somewhat snobbish.  But honestly, her behavior invited ridicule.  As they worked their way down the aisle after the show, she continued her tirade, asking a complete stranger, "Do you even know what that was about?"

An odd question to ask, since The Master has more on its mind than almost any American film this year.  But an odd question, too, because even a rough description of the plot--what it's "about"--already reveals that it's not going to be a popcorn-munchin' movie.  Google's plot description reads thusly: "A psychologically troubled drifter returns from the war and meets the charismatic leader of a new religion."

Just from that, and from the trailers, which do a fairly good job of representing its elliptical style, I can't help but wonder why this person even showed up for this particular movie.  It wasn't for her, which is fine, but even a cursory amount of research would have told her that ahead of time.  I'm not saying she's an idiot because she didn't like it.

I'm saying she's an idiot for going to a movie she clearly knew nothing about, then expecting everyone else to agree with her snap judgement.

Monday, September 24, 2012


Happened to be flipping channels this morning and caught the opening of the 1969 Oscar-bait extravaganza Anne Of The Thousand Days, with Richard Burton in full-out Master Thespian mode, and immediately thought of this great SCTV bit.

A few notes:

1) Dave Thomas' Richard Harris impression is one of the greatest things in the history of the world.

2) If anything, John Candy's plummy Richard Burton doesn't go far enough.  Was Burton ever a particularly good actor?  On stage, maybe, but we have no record of that.  As far as his work on film goes, I'll give you The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?...and that's about it.  Everything else I've ever seen is unbearably hammy, projecting to the balcony without realizing there is no balcony on a film set.  Hey Dick, you've got a close-up--tone it down.

3) On the other hand, Joe Flaherty's Peter O'Toole, while technically accurate, is a little unfair.  Unlike Harris and Burton, O'Toole seemed to master film acting right from the start.  Even while giving overwrought performances in overproduced stage adaptations (as in The Lion In Winter, one of the obvious inspirations for this sketch), he at least made some attempt to portray the character beneath the high-flown speechifying.

4) Obviously, I found this clip on YouTube.  A commenter at that site smugly dismissed this entire sketch.  Why?  It was so overacted!

I try to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, but this person is unbelievably stupid.

Friday, September 21, 2012


Earlier this week I wrote about the closing of my hometown movie theater.  One could romanticize such things and say the decline and eventual disappearance of small town cinemas is in itself the story of how movies went from being a shared, communal dream to just another time killer, how we went from palaces to multiplexes.  That would, however, completely overlook another step in the process, the type of auditorium mostly gone and never mourned: The mall theater.

Movie theaters had been built into shopping centers since the mid-sixties, but the trend didn't begin en masse until the seventies, when mall construction was ramped up under the delusion that these graceless bunkers could be "lifestyle emporiums", offering everything we could ever want--shopping, sure, but also food and entertainment.

Thus, with the same resemblance the offerings at Orange Julius or One Potato Two have to food, mall theaters had almost nothing in common with the grand cinemas that could still be found in most major cities: Two, three, maybe four crackerbox auditoriums, all with small screens, most with poor sightlines; small staffs, made up almost entirely of bored, surly teenagers with little idea how to run and maintain the projection equipment; and worst of all, a dark, dreary ambiance.

Here in Des Moines, showcase theaters still existed throughout the seventies and even into the early eighties.  The mighty River Hills and Riviera were reserved for the biggest of blockbusters--Earthquake, Star Wars, Superman and the like.  The Capri was for prestige offerings and Oscar bait, as was the Sierra.

The mall theaters were the Valley 3, the Southridge 3 and the Forum 4--or, to honor its neo-Roman logo, the Forvm IV.  They mostly showed the types of things people went to see--action, comedy, romance, Burt Reynolds pictures or Chevy Chase vehicles.  People may have enjoyed themselves, but the vibe was different.  They were no longer going out to the movies--they were going to the mall, and seeing a movie was something they did while they were there, in between swinging by The Gap and stopping at the food court.

Since most of the retail space in malls were targeted to young people, so too were most of the movies.  By the mid-eighties, the biggest blockbusters no longer played exclusively in the larger venues.  Sure, you could drive all the way downtown to see Top Gun at the River Hills, but why bother, since the Valley was closer, and you could shop at Foot Locker afterwards.  The more screens a movie played on, the easier it was to see it--no more lines, no more people being turned away.  Consequently, a hit wouldn't play all summer long, like Jaws or Grease.  It would have one, maybe two killer weekends, then head for video.

With the rise of disposable hits, theaters expanded, from six and seven screens to the googleplexes we have today.  The modern suburban multiplexes dealt a death blow to the mall theaters of old: more screens, bigger auditoriums, stadium seating, digital sound and projection.  Those out-of-focus, slightly misframed viewings of Pale Rider at the Valley 3 would officially be consigned to the past.

Miserable as they were, though, these theaters are still where I spent most of my movie-going life.  Maybe they didn't produce fond memories of the venues themselves, but they allowed me to see everything from Monty Python And The Holy Grail and Animal House to The Warriors and The Howling.  In that sense, they mattered.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012


It's like watching a loved one waste away from some terrible disease.  Bit by bit, the person you used to know disappears, and when they are finally gone, you have no tears.  Your grief has already been spent.

So it is with the announcement that dire financial circumstances forced the oddly-named Big Time Theaters to shutter three of its Iowa properties, including the 3-screen auditorium in my former hometown of Perry.  I'm completely indifferent.  I shouldn't be.

Much of my life has been lived in movie theaters.  I have regarded them with nearly sacred awe, within their walls I found the first stirrings of lust, have had my consciousness expanded, have been challenged and delighted, have been made to believe that magic is a real and tangible thing.  And it all started in Perry.

I was five, and the movie was the heavily-advertised nature documentary Cougar Country.  (Even then, I loved cats!)  I'd never been in a theater, and I remember all the details--the cheap yellow-with-red letters marquee, the glass-encased posters for Coming Attractions (including a reissue of The Wizard Of Oz), the almost overwhelming smell of popcorn in the small lobby, the cranky old guy tearing the tickets, the pop machine outside the auditorium (which struck me even then as odd, since they obviously sold pop at the concession stand), the hand-cranked paper towel dispensers in the men's room.  And the auditorium itself.

Oh, the auditorium.  The walls resplendent with huge WPA-era murals depicting the glories of rural life, as enacted by mostly faceless, godlike figures rendered in the style of Soviet poster art.  Beige curtains down in front, a small stage (never used) before the screen.  It was almost overwhelming to me, so elegant and unlike anything I had ever experienced, and when the movie started--Such a huge screen!  And filled with big cats!--I knew something in my life had changed.  Cougar Country itself faded from my memory almost as soon as it ended, but this experience lingered.  I wanted more.

Obviously, this theater holds a special place in my heart.  But this theater hadn't existed for years.  In the early eighties, it was gutted into a remarkably nondescript two-screener, the stage and the murals gone forever.  Later still, ambitious owner Robert Fridley overhauled it completely, two tiny screens and one would-be showcase auditorium, with curtains and busts of famous composers ringing the screen and stars on the ceiling.  Then it closed for awhile, reopened, changed hands.  And now it's closed again, most likely permanently.

Through all the renovations, it devolved from a shrine to cinema to just another place to see the latest blockbuster.  (The last thing I saw there was The Matrix Reloaded, a deeply unnecessary follow-up to a very well-regarded original, and something that could probably be teased into a metaphor for the moviegoing experience if I tried hard enough.)  Film-going habits have changed over the years, and the small town movie theater is no longer a vital part of the community.  From what I've heard, it hadn't been kept in very good shape, and with the changeover to digital projection, its days were numbered.

No need to mourn, then.  It had a good run, and that's more than enough.

Friday, September 14, 2012


Non-acclaimed director Joe Carnahan--or, as he insisted on calling himself a few years ago, "Smokin' Joe" Carnahan--the auteur behind such fine films as Smokin' Aces and, uh, Smokin' Aces 2, is planning to make a new movie about a relatively mild-mannered sort who takes to the streets as a vigilante after his wife is brutally murdered.  The title of this project?  Death Wish.

"Oh," you're quite sensibly thinking.  "A remake of the old Charles Bronson movie."

But you're wrong, according to Smokin' Joe, who is actually throwing a kind of hissy fit over the fact that you would even think such a thing.  To clarify, he recently Tweeted this easily-mocked message:

Guys, for the record and so I don't have to answer this question a billion goddamn times.  'DEATH WISH' is NOT a remake.  At all, in ANY way.

Well, that certainly clarifies that.'s based on the same novel as the Bronson movie, it has the same basic premise and, oh yeah, IT'S CALLED DEATH WISH!

Carnahan's defensiveness is understandable.  Hollywood has gotten a lot of flack lately for increasingly unimaginative production slates, which seem to be filled with nothing but rehashes, reboots and remakes.  And most of these are incredibly pointless: How did a redo of Total Recall seem like a good idea to anybody?

Thing is, though, remakes in and of themselves aren't a bad thing.  Plenty of movies have intriguing premises poorly executed, and despite its somewhat iconic status, Death Wish is a very bad movie.  It's well-cast, and features great footage of New York City in its mid-seventies hell-on-earth prime, but the famously maladroit touch of director Michael Winner renders the whole thing pretty much unwatchable.  His pacing and staging are downright inept, and though Bronson is quite good, other fine actors like Vincent Gardenia and Stuart Margolin stumble through in confusion.

All that, plus a source novel that is much better and more morally complex, make Death Wish a perfectly good candidate for a remake.  And it's okay to admit it, Smokin' Joe--it is a remake.  And however it turns out, it won't be the worst thing you've ever done.  After all, you directed The A-Team.  Of course, that wasn't a remake, either, was it, Smokin' Joe?  I believe the term you used back then was "reimagining"...

Friday, September 07, 2012


I first expressed this opinion when they were new, but now that I have a dog as well as cats, it's more obvious than ever: Aside from being two of the greatest animated films ever made, Up and Coraline are remarkably species-centric, and your opinion of cats or dogs is likely to color your opinion of either movie.

Consider Up.  It's...I was going to say "sentimental", but that's not quite true.  But certainly, it wears its outsized emotions on its sleeve, and encourages the audience to respond.  Most people cite the opening ten minutes, which quickly illuminate protagonist Carl Fredericksen's wonderful, heartbreaking life, as an emotional highlight, but to me, it's this scene, these lines, that caused me to blubber uncontrollably right there in the theater.

I should mention that this scene is carefully set up, with Carl's discovery that his late wife wanted him to continue to live his life in her absence, so his sudden acceptance of Dug, who'd been begging for his love for the entire movie, is absolutely cathartic.

More than that, though, it's just a dog thing--"I hid under your porch because I love you!"  Who wouldn't want to hug that dog?  And what dog isn't that devoted to its master?  It's why people love dogs.  They're awesome.

As are cats, but in wildly different ways.  There's something about them that is mysterious, unknowable.  Maybe even creepy, as perfectly illustrated by this scene from Coraline.  The terrifying final shot in this sequence is something I've wakened to pretty much every day of my life.

Unlike Dug, who simply wants his master's love, the cat--unnamed, because, as he explains, he knows who he is--is waking Coraline for a specific purpose.  He needs her, and in that sense respects her, but actual affection?  That doesn't really enter into it.

As a movie, Coraline seems to take its cue from the cat.  It's breathtakingly beautiful to behold, and is infinitely wise, but emotionally, it's a little remote.  It's so confident in its sense of purpose that it doesn't seem to care whether the audience follows it or not.  As a piece of filmmaking, it seems to me unquestionably better than Up.  But I don't enjoy it as much.

Whatever other entertainment they provide, the most important lessons we learn from these movies is that dogs are sweet and loveable (even bad dogs can be rehabilitated) and that cats are genuinely otherworldly and do indeed know everything.  That seems about right.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012


Every movie is a product of its time, and yet somehow the best films transcend whatever reputation they may have had during their initial release.  Any reasonably intelligent viewer would value the work itself, not whatever trends it may or may not have inspired.

Yet when Jaws--by pretty much any standard, one of the greatest suspense films ever made--made its long-awaited Blu-Ray debut earlier this month, literally every single review I read of it, even by esteemed critics like Dave Kehr of The New York Times, took time out to lament the fact that this one film essentially gave birth to the modern blockbuster age, and somehow single-handedly (or perhaps in collusion with Star Wars, depending on which theory you buy into) brought the glorious director-dominated era of the seventies to a close.

This has been repeated so often it is now accepted as common knowledge, even by people who weren't even born when Jaws was released.  And it's just not true.

Let's consider some of the fallacies contained in this theory.

1) Jaws was the first big-time blockbuster, and its TV-dominated ad campaign and saturation release set the model for the future.

Yes, Jaws famously made a ton of money, and was at the time considered the most financially successful movie of all time.  But even that statistic is debatable--it made its fortune in the mid-seventies, when ticket prices had risen up to three times what they were in the previous decade.  If you count the number of actual tickets sold, it was far less successful than, say, The Sound Of Music or Thunderball.

(And if you want to talk about a widely-released blockbuster that was sold heavily on TV, hell, Thunderball is a great place to start.  There were toys, there were clothes, there were records, and there were tons and tons of crappy movies trying desperately to replicate its success.  The James Bond phenom of the sixties was a huge deal, and had a tremendous influence on mainstream cinema, yet even the most passionate Bond haters would never grant it the mythical power to ruin everything so routinely ascribed to Jaws.)

It's important to remember that Jaws was released by Universal, one of the canniest studios of the era in terms of maximizing profits.  Very few of the more artistic films of the seventies came from Universal; they cranked out schlock like Earthquake and the Airport series.  They invented Sensurround, for God's sake, a creation that by itself should destroy the notion that the pre-Jaws era was some sort of filmmaker's paradise.

To the suits at Universal, every movie was product.  Sometimes, when the product was actually good (The Sting, for instance), the audience responded with actual enthusiasm, and ticket sales were higher than had even been calculated.  They expected Jaws to be a hit before it even went into production--they even considered casting reliable disaster movie icon Charlton Heston at one point--but once they saw it, they realized it had breakout potential, and the ad campaign they whipped up ("Rated PG...But may be too intense for younger children", a COME-ON that would do Sam Arkoff proud) worked like a charm.  But really, the selling of it was just business as usual for Universal.  It's what they did.

2) Jaws brought the New Hollywood era of the seventies to an end.

Universal was a division of MCA, a company with major investments in TV and music, and it had been since the fifties.  Other major studios may have been bought by other companies--Paramount by Gulf + Western, United Artists by TransAmerica--or they may have still been independent entities, like Twenthieth Century-Fox and Columbia.  But they were all still all in touch with their glorious histories.  Lew Wasserman was at Universal, Daryl Zanuck still ran Fox at the beginning of the decade.  Jack Warner himself was still at Warner Bros. at the start of the New Hollywood age, and oversaw the production of Bonnie And Clyde, the movie that really started the era.

Even better, the studio heads who weren't left over from the forties and fifties knew what they were doing.  Paramount's Robert Evans may have been a terrible, terrible human being, but he oversaw the production of Rosemary's Baby and The Godfather and Chinatown.  John Calley at Warner Bros., Alan Ladd at Fox--these guys loved movies.  And as long as the budgets were kept relatively low, they were happy to sign unknown, promising talent.

And boy, did some great movies result.  Harold And Maude and The Last Detail, McCabe And Mrs. Miller and The Long Goodbye and Nashville, Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, and so on and so forth.

But the thing is, none of these movies set the box office on fire.  The popular movies of the era were disaster movies or schlock like Love Story or action movies with the likes of Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson.  (Amusingly, the fact that Eastwood himself was one of the best directors of the era was completely overlooked by critics at the time.)  In other words, studios then as now made movies they thought would be big hits.  Jaws may have made more money in a shorter amount of time than, say, The Godfather or The Exorcist, but it was part of a blockbuster trend those films had started.  (The fact that all three were also extraordinary films might have contributed to their success as well.)

The New Hollywood filmmakers who flamed out didn't do so because of the success of Jaws.  They did it to themselves.  The poster boy for this would have to be Francis Coppola, who followed up Apocalypse Now by pouring ridiculous sums of money into One From The Heart, a movie that had absolutely no chance of recouping its budget, and which, more to the point, is completely tone-deaf.  It's not a bad movie so much as a completely misbegotten one, and it's failure put Coppola in hock for over a decade, working as a director for hire on crap like The Cotton Club and--shudder--Jack

Finally, on this topic, how did Jaws exactly end the era of the filmmaker, anyway?  Martin Scorsese's immediate post-seventies movies included Raging Bull, The King Of Comedy and The Last Temptation Of Christ.  Two years after Jaws, Robert Altman dropped 3 Women, one of his best, and followed with A Wedding and A Perfect Couple, two of his least commercial movies ever.  But he got them made, and released.  How did Jaws destroy his ability to do that?

3) In the Lucas/Spielberg era, sensation is prized above everthing else.

When George Lucas made Star Wars, or more importantly, when Twentieth Century-Fox agreed to put up the money for it, expectations couldn't have been too high.  Lucas himself famously said he thought it would be "Disney successful"--popular with kids, maybe turn a profit, not much more.  Fox was probably expecting a somewhat higher-end version of Ray Harryhausen's Sinbad movies, which were wildly popular in the seventies.

But of course, it was huge--bigger than Jaws.  Honestly, though, it wasn't really designed to be a blockbuster.  The ad campaign was relatively modest, and it didn't have a saturation release--here in Iowa, it only played in one theater in the entire state during its initial release.

Movies in those days didn't open in 4000 theaters, or even 400.  If you wanted to see a movie right away, you had to make it an event.  If you liked it, and wanted to see it again, it wasn't going to be on TV for well over a year, much less on video.  You had to see it in the theater.  A studio could open a movie, but they couldn't make it a smash.  Only the audience could do that.

Audiences loved Jaws and Star Wars.  They made them hits.  Meanwhile, elsewhere in Hollywood, sinister forces were at work.  Michael Eisner was brought in from Paramount's TV division to run the movie studio.  Alan Ladd was forced out of Fox, which would ultimately become a mere cog in Rupert Murdoch's scary empire.  Coca-Cola bought Columbia, then sold it to Sony.

Almost overnight, studios were no longer being run by people who loved, or even understood movies, but by corporate types who cared only about the bottom line.  They wanted blockbusters because they wanted to make money, and nothing else.  This is what killed the movies, and it would have happened regardless of the success of Jaws or Star Wars.  Production costs rose so high that literally every big movie made these days is a co-production, which is why we have to sit through endless corporate logos at the start of every movie we see now.

And yes, it is true, some of the worst movies of the modern era were made under the aegis of Spielberg or Lucas.  (I say this as someone who saw both The Money Pit and Howard The Duck.)  So what?  That doesn't automatically render what they had made earlier as crap.  That just means they learned how to play the corporate game, to fit in and survive in an era that doesn't care about quality, a reality that was bound to happen with or without their earlier successes.

Some of the best filmmakers of the seventies may have crashed and burned, and some may have lost their souls, but many of them are still around.  (Brian DePalma has a new movie coming this fall, and I can't wait.)  The eighties and nineties saw the emergence of many great new directors--Joel and Ethan Coen, Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino, Jane Campion, Paul Thomas Anderson, Alexander Payne and so many more.  And for God's sake, has any decade been kinder to a director than the eighties were to Woody Allen?  Zelig, Broadway Danny Rose, The Purple Rose Of Cairo, Hannah And Her Sisters, Radio Days--That's an astonishing run, made in the multiplex era, when the director-driven movie was supposedly no longer being made.

If Jaws killed a glorious era, why are there still so many good movies being made?

Thursday, August 23, 2012


1) Today happens to be Gene Kelly's 100th birthday, so in honor of the director/choreographer/star of the greatest movie ever made, some random thoughts on Singin' In The Rain.

2) Seriously, this really is the greatest movie ever made, outstanding at every conceivable level.  The three movies I always cite as my all-time favorites--this, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Dumbo--all have in common the ability to reveal new facets with every viewing.  It may be something as simple as a slinky camera move you never noticed before, or a clever bit of editing (or, in the case of Dumbo, an unexpected hommage to Nosferatu), or just the fact that there are no bad scenes, nothing draggy that you fast-forward through on the tenth or twentieth viewing.  These three movies literally get better and better the more I watch.  And, God knows, I've watched them plenty.

3) In the first paragraph, I referred to Gene Kelly as the director/choreographer of Singin' In The Rain, but of course he co-directed and co-choreographed with Stanley Donen.  It's hard to say which of the two was the dominant voice.  Kelly's career as a director, aside from his work with Donen, was pretty dire (although I'm one of the few people on the planet with a soft spot for Invitation To The Dance),  but he'd clearly spent his career up to this point dreaming up inventive ways to put dance on film.

And Donen had been right there with him the whole time, as his assistant and finally as his co-director for On The Town.  Nobody really disputes that the actual staging of the dance numbers was pretty much all Kelly, but there's so much more to Singin' than just the dancing.  Donen would later direct such great comedies as Bedazzled and Movie Movie and such elegant entertainments as Charade and Two For The Road, so it's tempting to credit the crackerjack timing and perfect pacing to him.  On the other hand, Donen was also responsible for such utter shit as Surprise Package, Staircase and--shudder--Blame It On Rio, so let's not get carried away.

Most likely, it really was a joint effort, two guys really excited to see what they could do, bouncing ideas off each other right up until it was time to roll the cameras.  And even then, if either Kelly or Donen had a better idea, they'd use it.

4) Not to indulge in relentless superlatives, but is this the greatest screenplay ever written?  I think so.  Yeah, you might say, but what about The Rules Of The Game or The Seventh Seal or Chinatown?  Sure, I'd respond, but consider everything Betty Comden and Adolph Green do so perfectly in their script: They find an interesting setting, and evoke it perfectly, without ever making us feel like they're showing off the research they did; they tell a wholly original story, which seems almost impossible in the context of a fifties musical comedy; they pack in every conceivable type of joke, from pratfalls to sight gags to wordplay to plain old-fashioned one-liners, butthrough it all, manage to keep the humor consistently character-based.

And what characters!  One of the joys of Singin' In The Rain is the time it spends just hanging out with the people populating the story, and how it seems to like them all.  Even poor Lina Lamont, ostensibly the villain, has most of the best lines.  And she's not mean, not really, she's just acting out of her own best interests.  (Also, she's not very bright.)  When she finally gets her comeuppance, it's humiliating, yes, but not cruel--it's about what she deserves. 

5)  Let's have a moment of Lina, shall we?

How did Jean Hagen not become a huge star as a result of this, one of the greatest comic performances ever?

6) It's not my favorite number from the movie--not when you consider Moses Supposes or The Broadway Melody or Make 'Em Laugh or, of course, the title number, which is pretty much the greatest use of celluloid in the history of the medium, a blast of pure joy--yeah, anyway, this may not be as good as those, but this number perfectly demonstrates what is so great about this movie.

If done now, this would be considered post-modern: It deconstructs the elements of the very scene we're about to watch, it reveals the utter phoniness of the medium.  Then it puts those pieces right back together, and enchants us all over again.  That's Singin' In The Rain in a nutshell: It works every time.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


Been down a lot lately, for various reasons.  Janie's abrupt departure from my life is the obvious one, of course.  There's also a particularly soul-depleting presidential race which will continue to play out through what promises to be a very long fall.  And most recently, the death at age 85 of comic book legend Joe Kubert, whose absolutely brilliant work on DC's vintage war comics taught be everything I needed to know about the art and craft of storytelling, all before I was even able to read.

Still.  No matter how bleak things may get, I do know that several times each day, I will be reduced to fits of helpless laughter, and my mood will lighten.  And what brings this life-affirming gift?

Isabella T. Beagle, of course.

At first, she was as bummed about Janie's absence as I was.  She'd leap into what was once Janie's chair, where she used to curl up in her friend's lap, and stare at me helplessly, her bewildered head tilted.  Poor little dog.

Beagles, though, are nothing if not upbeat.  She rebounded and, sensing my still-morose mood, set about cheering me.  The adorable behavior suddenly ramped up to previously unimaginable heights.  It was no longer enough to come sit beside me when I'm on the computer; now she has to leap over me as I sit here, like she's Evel Knievel and I'm a row of semis.  She can't just jump up and down to tell me she wants to go outside; now she grabs the leash in her mouth and brings it to me.  And stealing one sock isn't enough anymore, not when she can root through the hamper and pop her head back up with several socks draped over her snout, because overkill is always funnier.  Swear to God, if she could figure out how to do the "Sideshow Bob steps on the rakes" bit, she would.

Obviously, she knows she has an appreciative audience.  Like any comedian, she'll do anything for a laugh.  But I think, as her vet once told me, she also has a good heart, and genuinely wants me to be in a better mood.  (In this, she's in sharp contrast to the cats.  Staley's new thing is to perch on the highest places she can find--the top of the refrigerator, top closet shelves--apparently just so she can look down on the world from a godlike perspective.  And Delmar...well, God bless him, he's showing more affection for me than he ever has, but it's wildly misplaced.  Wrapping all four legs around my arm as I'm sleeping and squeezing tight doesn't make me feel loved, it just makes me wake up thinking I'm having a stroke.)  Life may, as Dawn and Wilbur Weston observed in the current Mary Worth storyline, be brutal, but it can also be wonderful, as long as you have a friend.

And if that friend has four legs and a wet nose, so much the better.

Friday, August 10, 2012


1)  Hey, remember when I used to pad this space with Random Thoughts posts?  How they seemed kind of lazy, because they were just half-formed ideas that I couldn't be bothered to turn into full-fledged essays?  And then how posting got so sparse around here that I couldn't even be bothered with something even that lame?

Anyway, yeah, this is one of those.

2)  Things are still weird here in my post-Janie world.  She lived here for more or less two years, so in addition to being alone in a relationship sense, I'm literally alone, with no one to talk to or greet me when I come home from work.

As you might imagine, it's kind of depressing.  In fact, my days and nights are pretty much as George Jones depicts in this song, only with a six pack of Grain Belt instead of Jim Beam.  Which might be even sadder, come to think of it.

3)  Let's say, for the sake of argument, that you have an inexplicable desire to do an impression of Jean-Claude Van Damme in Hard Target, specifically his reaction to smashing his gas-leaking bike into a gun thug-filled SUV, then blowing the whole shebang sky high with one shot: A half-hearted fist pump and a full-throated cry of, "YAH!"

Well, sure.  Who doesn't do this on a regular basis?  However, if you happen to perform this in the company of a preternaturally excitable beagle, you're bound to set the poor dog into a barking jag that will go on and on and on for at least five minutes.  If, on the other hand, you have a dull, uninteresting dog--or no dog at all, for that matter--feel free to Van Damme away.

4)  This whole Chick-Fil-A thing...see, this is the sort of thing I once would have gone on about at some length, probably wrapped in a Star Wars analogy of some sort, but, as we've previously noted, I barely write at all anymore.

I'll just say this: If you want to boycott a fast food place because its owner is opposed to gay marriage, fine.  If you want to stage a counter-protest and eat all the crappy fast food you can because you, too, oppose gay marriage, that's okay, too.

But if your fast food choices have to pass some sort of ideological litmus test, you must have a tough time even functioning in this world.  Every major restaurant or department store chain is a wholly-owned subsidiary of some shadowy corporation or other, a corporation that almost certainly has contributed funds to a cause you oppose.  Most corporations routinely funnel funds into Democratic and Republican coffers, because they never know which party they'll need to lobby to get their way.

So if you want to be ideologically pure, hey, good luck.  Where, though, does your purity end?  Do you, I dunno, refuse to go to the hospital because it uses Stryker beds, and Stryker lets its equipment be sold to abortion clinics? Because that would be really stupid, and depending on the circumstances, you could die.

So maybe you should just relax and acknowledge that life is tough enough without worrying whether your lunch mirrors your belief system.  It's a sandwich, for crying out loud.

5)  I had a Dark Knight Rises rant ready to go, or more accurately, a rant about how the reaction to the movie was muted by the shootings in Aurora, and how that's not necesarily a bad thing, but you know, the dog is still barking, and I'm distracted.

6)  The cats, on the other hand, are still sleeping.  It's what they do.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012


There would have been actual, honest-to-God New Content here the other day, but my computer glitched and...ah, it's not that interesting, trust me.

But I did want to pop in and acknowledge the passing of composer/songwriter/all-around musical genius Marvin Hamlisch at the age of 68.  He won every conceivable award, worked with everybody from Groucho Marx to Steven Soderbergh and wrote the music for a little show called A Chorus Line, the cast album for which my mom would have playing in the kitchen as she fixed our family meals.

This is the song that would reduce Mom to an absolute puddle of tears EVERY SINGLE TIME.  It's beautiful, devastating, sappy, melodramatic--perfect, in other words.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012


I've mentioned her before, here and there, perhaps less than I have some other women I knew, but that doesn't mean I loved her any less.  Quite the opposite, in fact--I wanted her to be here for the rest of my life.

Not talking about it, here or elsewhere, made sense.  There was a fear, perhaps, in making too much of it.  Just enjoy it, don't overthink it.  I'd done that before, I always do that, and the implosion always follows soon after.  Maybe this time, with less ornamentation, the simplicity of the design could be more easily appreciated.

Or something.  My metaphors need work.

The point is, Janie's gone.  There was a time when I would have used this space to explore everything, good and bad, and given full vent to my feelings.  But Janie is a good and private person.  You don't need to know the details.  Really, there aren't any details to know.  It's just the nature of things to end.

Hopefully, she's happy, or at least happier than she was with me.  For me, there's just a quiet, empty house.  I go to work, I come home.  I sleep, but I never feel rested.  I eat, but nothing has much flavor.  I go out, but I'm going through the motions.

And sometimes I look for my heart, only to find it gone.

Saturday, July 28, 2012


Alvin Sargent wrote the screenplays for Paper Moon and Ordinary People, and throughout his long, long career also turned out scripts for such directors as Robert Mulligan, John Frankenheimer and Sydney Pollack, guys who certainly knew how to tell a story.

Steve Kloves wrote the scripts for all but one of the Harry Potter movies, which are absolute models of skillful adaptation, compressed, streamlined but never abrupt.  In addition, Kloves has written such wonderful originals as Racing With The Moon and The Fabulous Baker Boys.

James Vanderbilt's credits are a little lighter, as many of his scripts have been written in collaboration with others.  One movie he wrote on his own, however, was Zodiac--one of the best screenplays of the last decade.

I mention these gentlemen's names and their distinguished credits because they are the credited screenwriters for The Amazing Spider-Man, which has one of the woefully misconceived scripts ever put into production.

Not that everything wrong with the movie can be blamed on the script.  The decision to reboot the entire Spider-Man franchise came from deep within the bowels of Sony Entertainment's executive suite, and starting over from the beginning, retelling the tale of social outcast Peter Parker's encounter with a radioactive spider, gives the movie a familiarity it could never wholly overcome.

Unlike the recent Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire take on the material, in which the characters were initially college students, this version has Peter in high school, and that's where the problems begin.  For one thing, Andrew Garfield, who plays Peter, can't convince as either socially maladjusted or as a high school student.  He comes off as a brashly confident movie star in his late twenties pretending to be a teenager.

Peter's love interest this time around is Gwen Stacy, and the only reason he's drawn to her is because she's played by Emma Stone, and hey, she's a movie star, too.  Otherwise, he might as well crush on any of the other students in his school, who are all remarkably attractive and also clearly past the legal drinking age.

The dazzling stupidity of the script kicks in as the plot develops.  In a reinvention of the character, Peter is no longer an average guy who develops great powers but a man of destiny, trying to unravel a sinister plot involving the disappearance of his parents.  This leads him to Dr. Curt Connors, a former cohort of his dad's, who works for a sinister but apparently world-famous bioengineering firm housed in what looks to be the tallest building in Manhattan.  Once Peter shows up there, he's surprised to discover the intern program is run by...Gwen Stacy?

I'm sorry...What?  High-tech corporations wouldn't hire high school kids to answer phones and make copies, much less allow them access to top-secret labs, as happens here.  The screenwriters will later need a character to run to the lab to develop an antidote for the villain's master plot, and since they didn't bother providing any other sidekick characters, they needed Gwen to do it--because what high school kid can't routinely crack a genetic code?--even though it makes absolutely no sense.

At this point, early on, the movie is pretty much telling you that it isn't taking place in anything resembling the real world.  Which would be fine, if the world it depicts had any internal logic of its own, but it doesn't.  Things happen just because they need to happen, or else the plot can't move forward.  But again, the plot makes no sense even on its own terms.

Dr. Connors--thanks to a DNA code supplied by Peter, because again, high school kids know so much more than learned scientists--turns into The Lizard, a villain whose evil plan is to...turn everyone in New York City into lizards?  Because they're cold-blooded?  Or something? 

Look, I realize the Spider-Man comic books resorted to some pretty dumb motivations for its villains (Thirty-five years later, I'm still bitter about the whole "Gwen is back from the a clone!" storyline) but honestly, my expectations for something cranked out on a monthly deadline are a little different from my expectations for a movie that cost two hundred million bucks to produce.  If you're going to spend that kind of money, I expect competence, at least.

And yes, on many levels, The Amazing Spider-Man is more than competent.  Despite being too old for their parts, Garfield and Stone are absolutely charming together, Martin Sheen, Sally Field and Dennis Leary provide fine support, and the whole thing looks great.  The digital effects, in particular, are much more convincing than in Raimi's films.  But so what?  If you build the Chartres Cathedral on quicksand, it's still gonna sink.

Thursday, July 19, 2012


Why do Christopher Nolan's Batman movies inspire such awful behavior?

Back in the long-ago past of 2008, a coterie of mouth-breathing fans of Nolan's The Dark Knight caused a minor disgrace to humanity by posting incendiary comments at the web sites of various newspapers and magazines that had the gall to print negative reviews of the film.  This week, in response to reviews of The Dark Knight Rises, they've upped the ante, threatening, among other things, sexual violence towards Associated Press critic Christy Lemire.

The obvious question: What message, exactly, are you trying to send?  Do you think threatening someone will automatically convert them to your point of view?  Wouldn't that more likely cause them to dismiss you and everything you have to say?  (Okay, that was more than one question, but you get the point.)

Even more embarrassing is the whole Bane/Bain thing.  You know the meme: Bane is the villain in the film, Bain Capital is Mitt Romney's money management firm, which one is the greater villain, ha ha ha.  Sensible people would take the whole thing about as seriously as all those Hitler-reacts-to-whatever clips on YouTube, but never doubt the ability of right-wing crazies to overreact.  This was intentional, they say, as if the makers of a movie that went into production two years ago somehow knew who the Republican presidential nominee would be in 2012, and that there would be a fuss over this particular business he ran.

This is nonsense, of course, but it would be equally ridiculous to believe The Dark Knight Rises has no political agenda.  Nolan has claimed all along that the film was inspired in part by the Occupy Wall Street movement, and it seems unlikely his sympathy will be with the 1%.

Still, most networks and cable outlets--who have inexplicably covered this story as if it somehow can be considered, you know, "news"--have treated this particular flareup as a throwaway, gently mocking some of the more rabid conspiracy nuts for believing that a movie based on a comic book could have any deeper meaning.  That "lighten up, it's a superhero" attitude is incredibly condescending, exactly the type of thing to inspire rabid Fanboys to believe no one takes them seriously, that causes them to see every bad review of something they hold dear as an affront to their very existence, thus causing them to write threatening letters--and the whole cycle starts again, a sequel to a movie nobody liked in the first place.

Monday, July 02, 2012


I rewatched 1978's Superman the other night.  It's very much a movie of its time, in good ways and bad, but one thing can definitely be said about it: We'll never see anything like it again.

In a sense, of course, we're seeing lots of movies like it.  Every month seems to bring another big-screen superhero epic, and they're all indebted to Superman, the first mega-budget attempt to bring a comic book adaptation to the big screen.  Watching it now, one can't help but be struck by its sometimes campy attitude, as if the high-powered supporting cast couldn't quite be bothered to commit to the material, but at it best, it succeeds admirably.

What I meant was, we'll never see a movie like it again.  Many of its most impressive visual whammies were created on set, with wires, rear projection and practical floor effects.  It was made well before the CGI era.

And is all the better for it.  Recent special effects extravaganzas, from (the already-dated) 2012 to The Avengers, have showcased apocalyptic visions, buildings, forests, whole cities crumbling into dust, every meticulously-rendered pixel landing at just the right place.  It's the very perfection of these sequences that keep them from fully convincing--no matter how much the computer tries to render some sort of chaos, it looks too designed, too assembled, lacking any of the randomness we would see in real life.

Consider this sequence.  Forgive the picture quality--it seems to be from a badly-dubbed VHS source--and focus on what is shown.

The big effect here, of course, is the falling helicopter.  It's not, in most shots, a real copter--in the long shots of it dangling from the building, it's a miniature, and Lois is hanging from a fiberglass mock-up.  But it still exists, not in the digital world but in real life--when Superman lifts it, it has heft.  We don't just see it, we feel it, and it feels real.

My eye is immediately drawn to the small things that really sell this sequence--the drops of rain on the copter's windshield, the steam and the fog on top of the building, little things that we instinctively recognize as real.  CGI artists could try to simulate these things, of course--though it's amazing how often these things are overlooked --but it would remain a simulation, inorganic, processed food shaped to look like the real thing but utterly lacking the flavor.

There's more to it, though.  CGI is routinely deployed now to enhance everything--even something as prosaic as a car chase is usually somehow digitally enhanced.  But in the days of practical effects, filmmakers were limited to what a vehicle could actually do--they couldn't show it cartoonishly spinning or twirling or hurtling around in a manner defying all laws of physics.  And when real vehicles were being used, when real stunts were performed, the danger on the set was real, too.

As a result, there was a respect for human life you could see in older movies.  As silly as a movie like, say, Earthquake was even in 1974, when it shows buildings collapsing, you see people crushed and killed by the rubble, and we're meant to feel that loss.  The Avengers is a wonderful movie in many ways, but the wholesale destruction of NYC in its climax is remarkably bloodless--we see buildings shattered, but we don't see the bodies falling from them, rubble hitting the ground but no people crushed.  It's devastation as pure spectacle.  It's terrifying, alright, but not in ways the filmmakers intended.

Monday, June 18, 2012


The huge drop at the box office for the second week of Ridley Scott's Prometheus is pretty easily explained: People don't particularly want to see it.

Fanboys, however, who had inexplicably based their whole summer around this film--well, this and The Dark Knight Rises, and I'll get to that--feel compelled to offer their own tortured explanations for its less than stellar grosses.  Audiences just didn't get it, they say, what with it being so sophisticated and all, or its sophistication (they love that word, and will use it even when it doesn't apply) was somehow a bad fit for a summer movie release, thus ignoring that Alien, the very film to which Prometheus is a prequel (although don't get them started on the whole prequel thing, either) was, of course, a summer release, and was instantly iconic in a way the new film could never hope to be.

The belief that this would be a good movie despite all evidence to the contrary is a hallmark of fanboy behavior.  Harder to explain is why they thought Prometheus would be any good.  I love Alien as much as anybody, and admire Ridley Scott's direction of it, but he was clearly not the dominant voice in that film's creation.  It was screenwriter Dan O'Bannon who suggested bringing designer H.R. Giger on board, and everything so well-remembered about the film--the Space Jockey, the row of eggs, the face-hugger and, of course, the title character--seemed to have sprung fully-formed from Giger's head.  Scott filmed it all well, sure, and he assembled a great cast, but O'Bannon's script and Giger's designs are the reason the film is so beloved.

But to the fanboys, all that mattered was that the director of Alien was returning to the same universe.  Never mind that he hadn't made a wholly satisfying movie since...well, since Alien, actually, and that was over thirty years ago.  A long string of dismal work (Black Rain, 1492, Robin Hood) gave no reason to believe this was anything but a desperation move, but Fan Nation was out in full force.  Mere mentions of the film online, in any forum whatsoever, were met with unasked-for comments promising the film would be great--presumably because Harry Knowles said so--and after it came out, Fan Nation threatened to eat itself, as rabidly pro-and anti-Prometheus factions popped up to argue the merits of a film that really can't support the attention..

But hey, great news.  Soon this will all be behind us, as The United States Of Geekdom will turn its easily-provoked focus to The Dark Knight Rises.  Fans have met even the most insignificant news items about this film with orgasmic glee--It has a running time of over two-and-a-half hours!  Epic!--so by mid-July, some sort of official consensus will have formed around Prometheus, and even the fanboys themselves will be left wondering why they made such a big deal about it in the first place.

Saturday, June 02, 2012


Men In Black 3 may have finally knocked The Avengers from the top spot at the box office, and what with Ridley Scott's deeply unnecessary Alien prequel Prometheus opening next weekend, the summer movie season is finally here.  But however all the upcoming releases may fare financially, I doubt any of them will do what Joss Whedon does so astonishingly well with The Avengers: Make it look easy.

Make no mistake, this is just a popcorn movie, and on some level, a fairly cynical one, the latest attempt by Marvel (and its new Disney overlords) to implant its brand on the consciousness of every moviegoer everywhere.  As such, it's the culmination of a series of movies now clearly revealed to be mere prequels.  These ran the gamut from good (Captain America) to bad (Iron Man 2), with most falling somewhere in between, but they all carried the unmistakeable air of Product, branded entertainment meant to provide a momentary diversion, then be forgotten.

And yeah, The Avengers is itself just a disposeable piece of entertainment.  But what entertainment!

For TV auteur Whedon, the architect of such beloved series as Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Firefly, this is strictly a job for hire.  He's a well-known fanboy himself--hell, he's written for Marvel Comics--but this isn't one of his own creations, and he can't do anything with the characters beyond what Marvel will allow.

But he can scribble in the margins to his heart's content, and it's in these small character moments that the movie finds its heart, rising above its purely mercenary origins.  Whedon realizes that this is primarily a story of broken souls who come together to find a common purpose--the type of thing he specializes in.  And, by showing how they fall apart and reassemble, he somehow finds a way to make the whole thing--dammit--moving.

Which is great and all, but where the success of The Avengers may actually bode well for future Big Summer Movies is in its expertly unfussy storytelling.  Even its massively cliched opening sequence--Good Guys battle Bad Guys over a Macguffin, complete with a hokey "outrunning collapsing ground" bit--is thrillingly put together, its action cleanly staged and instantly readable, with none of the whip pans or frantic overediting so common to modern action cinema.

In fact, the greatest delight of The Avengers is how essentially old-fashioned it is.  Despite a huge budget and all the technology in the world, Whedon never feels the need to show off.  He's like Howard Hawks or Raoul Walsh, here to tell a story, not make a spectacle of himself.  Or, to phrase it another way, he's the Captain America of filmmakers: A solid tactician, always to the point and eminently professional.

Friday, June 01, 2012


Janie and I drove down to the cemetery where her parents are buried, about forty-five minutes south of Des Moines, but, at first glance, a different world.

Rows of crops on either side of the lonely paved highway.  Gravel roads branching off to who knows where.  And, as we entered the town where her grandparents once lived, a modest little sign: WELCOME TO MILO, then below that:  Please Help Our Boy Scout Can Drive.  For a moment I thought I'd been transported back in time, maybe to the very small towns I'd grown up in myself.

But of course, no.  We passed by a park, where a small child played on the merry-go-round as her mother talked on a cell phone, oblivious to her.  We drove past the farm once owned by Janie's uncle.  Many of the buildings she remembered from her childhood had been torn down, and what remained had obviously been converted to other uses.  A Lexus sat in the driveway, and two pickups, but no farm equipment was in sight, and a few horses represented the only visible livestock.  The surrounding fields were obviously owned and maintained by somebody else, somebody who didn't live around here.

Sure, we all know change is the only constant in this world.  It's a given, as certain as the ultimate destination of our trip: a cemetery.  We laid flowers on the graves, the graves of people I'll never meet, then we moved on, past the same lush fields and through the same town, but somehow they didn't look as inviting as they did only a few minutes earlier.    

"I don't get down here as often as I'd like," Janie said as we headed back home.  "And every time I leave, I feel like I'm leaving something behind."

"You're not, though," I said.  "It left you.  All you can do now is live the rest of your life."

She took my hand, and we drove back in silence.

Friday, May 04, 2012


I've had a couple things I intended to write about, but since I never got around to actually, you know, writing, I'm beginning to think the will wasn't that strong in the first place.  So there's that.

But also, Blogger has redesigned its dashboard, and in the process made this site an absolute pain to use.  Seriously, it was fine and easily understood the way it was.  Why do a redesign that makes even the simplest function difficult?

Anyway, the combination of these two things has me pondering the future of this space.  Not going away permanently, necessarily, but...well, I don't know.  But since my words here provide no entertainment whatsoever, here's a very Early Eighties Marshall Crenshaw--check out the pink shirt!--casually knocking out an absolute classic.  Enjoy, and whenever the hell I come back, hopefully I'll actually have something to say.

Saturday, April 28, 2012


As I sit at my desk, the Beagle feels the need to remind me of her presence.  She scampers up to my side while chomping a squeaky toy, which she promptly drops on the floor.  I pick up the rubber turkey leg and toss it into the living room.  Immediately, she brings it back and drops it on the floor.  I toss it back into the living room.  Immediately, she brings it back and drops it on the floor.  Changing it up, I toss it into the kitchen. 

Immediately, she brings her food dish and drops it on the floor.

A simple, perfect gag, impeccably executed.  Of all the many reasons to treasure Isabella, this may rank above all others: She makes me laugh.  Not smile warmly or chuckle fondly, but full belly laughs.  She's been in my life for two years this month, and the joy I feel for knowing her is present in that laughter.  My life is richer, more whole, in ways I could never have imagined.  No matter what nightmarish turns life may take, I know she'll be there, head tilted, tail wagging, eager to please, effortlessly sweet, eternally loved.

Sunday, April 15, 2012


Sitting in a Sears Auto Center, noticing a poster for a particular brand of brakes, I turned to my wife and, adopting the hyperbolic tone of a movie trailer announcer, loudly proclaimed, "Antonio Banderas IS Raybestos!"

Without missing a beat, Sue Ellen, rolling every r, responded, "Now, Antonio Banderas returns in Raybestos 2: The Reckoning."

I mention this exchange not because it was particularly witty (though it seemed hilarious at the time) but to give an idea what my marriage was like.  Every quip had to be met with another, each one funnier or more elaborate than the last.  We'd improv entire conversations in character, or suddenly start singing and dancing in the living room.  It was like being trapped inside a mid-nineties Friends knockoff; everything we did--everything we did--became self-conscious and ironic.  We were always on.

Which, as you might imagine, was exhausting.  And doomed to failure--this month marks the ten-year anniversary of the spectacular, and spectacularly ugly, end of my marriage.

I'll skip all the details because, frankly, I don't want to remember them.  The point is, there was a lot of anger, a lot of resentment, but also a gradual realization that Sue Ellen and I were the only two people in the world who knew exactly what went down.

So we started talking again, partly to work out some lingering issues, but mostly because we realized we still had a lot in common.  We became friends, which is maybe all that we should have been all along.  Friends can trade funny lines back and forth, but then leave it alone because they don't have to live together. 

Time moved on.  We met other people, and discovered the happiness we somehow could never quite provide for each other.

And I'm very happy now with Janie, who has absolutely nothing in common with Sue Ellen beyond their shared amusement at my insistence that I'm not obsessed with Star Wars.  (I'm not, really.  Try getting me started on Batman: The Animated Series and we'll be here all day.)

Whatever my obsessions are (for that matter, you can easily get me going all day on the greatness of John Carpenter movies or Mystery Science Theater 3000), Janie doesn't share them.  That's okay, though; she has her own enthusiasms and interests.  We can be together and still live our own lives, as long as there is love and mutual respect.

As for Sue Ellen and me, we still talk occasionally, but not so often or at such length.  We had what we had, and it still matters, but not like it did.  It blends into an increasingly hazy past, a fading that is perhaps the only constant in life.

Monday, April 02, 2012


I don't read Salon.  It's the type of thing aimed at well-off kinda-sorta liberals, a slightly more interesting online version of The New Republic and not my sort of thing.  So I can't tell you if their political articles are any more well-researched or knowledgeable than this piece, a hugely uninteresting article with a questionable premise that is just wrong in every conceivable way.

Author Michael Barthel details the way movie trailers have changed in the digital era.  For the first century of film, even into the late nineties, movie previews were staid, hidebound things, designed to put seats into asses but certainly nothing innovative.  Trailers today, Barthel argues have changed in so many ways--where they used to rely on stentorian narrators, now they use onscreen text.  Whereas they used to feature dull soundscapes, now they are far more sophisticated in their aural design.  And most of all, trailers have become marvels of fast, innovative editing.  All in the last twenty years!

Uh-huh.  Here's a trailer from 1963.

Almost subliminal cutting, an inventive use of sound, no narrator (except to give the title, and even that's done as a joke)--pretty much gives the lie to everything Barthel claims, doesn't it?  Of course, maybe I'm being unfair.  Dr. Strangelove is one of the greatest films ever made, and director Stanley Kubrick personally obsessed over the ad campaigns for his films.  Barthel, presumably, is talking about more obviously commercial movies, big blockbusters, popcorn entertainment.

Specifically, he seems obsessed with the ad for Ridley Scott's upcoming Prometheus.

"It is amazing," Barthel gushes.  "There's no narration...few shots last for more than a second, and it builds from a quiet beginning to ear-shredding shrieks accompanying micro-second glimpses of huge effects shots."  That's an accurate enough description of the Prometheus trailer (though I don't find it particularly "amazing")...but it would also--right down to the shrieking soundtrack, something Barthel claims "simply didn't exist twenty years ago"--describe the 1979 trailer for Scott's Alien, the movie that inspired Prometheus.

In other words, Barthel doesn't know what the hell he's talking about.  There's been a "revolution" (his word, not mine) in the crafting of trailers in recent years, but not in the way he suggests.  Where ad campaigns used to be carefully tailored to each individual movie, the same generic style is used for pretty much every movie made these days.  Barthel's breathless description of the Prometheus trailer could as easily apply to The Dark Knight Rises, The Avengers or any Michael Bay movie ever. 

In fact, sitting through the trailers has become one of the most painful aspects of moviegoing, a joyless slog through the same overly familiar editing patterns, the same library music, the same thing over and over and over again.  This type of thing doesn't make me want to see the movie.  It makes me want to run in the other direction.

Saturday, March 31, 2012


Apparently it's been out for awhile and I just hadn't paid attention, but the "Director's Cut" of Kate & Leopold is available on DVD and Blu-Ray.

You response to this news is likely, "Wait.  What?  Huh?"  It's an understandable response, since you likely don't remember this Meg Ryan/Hugh Jackman time-travelling romcom in the first place, and even if you do, you would find it hard to believe that the world needed an alternate version.  It was directed by unambitious studio-approved auteur wannabe James Mangold, whose movies can invariably be described as adequate.

But apparently he has enough pull to issue his own version of...a Meg Ryan romcom.  I mean, look, I'm sorry, as these things go, Kate & Leopold is on the high end of the scale--based on the five minutes of it I saw on cable once--but let's not get carried away.  This isn't Diego Rivera vs. Rockefeller.  This isn't a masterpiece destroyed by philistines.  This is a piece of studio product that its director inexplicably confused with art.  We didn't need Mangold's, um, vision brought to us in full strength.

As compromised as they may be, I generally believe the released version of a movie should be the definitive version.  Yeah, Walter Murch thought he was doing the world a favor by recutting Touch Of Evil to a version closer to Orson Welles' wishes...but however heavy-handed some of the studio-imposed aspects may be, it was that original version that critics have known and loved for years.  And Francis Coppola can claim all he wants that the Apocalypse Now Redux cut is what he originally intended--though I'm pretty sure he's lying through his teeth--but it's not the movie he originally released, not the movie I saw and loved back in '79. 

Sometimes a recut version isn't a bad idea--the studio really did butcher David Lean's original cut of Lawrence Of Arabia after the film had gone into release, so his altered version of it thirty years after the fact was an attempt to put back what was originally there--but generally speaking, I'm not a big fan of changing film history after the fact.  Maybe the version we have isn't all that it could have been.  But it's what we've got.

Sunday, March 18, 2012


Finally got around to seeingJohn Carter, and hey, it's really terrific.  In particular, the visuals are way more ambitious and unusual than anything that had been shown in the previews, which gave absolutely no sense of its epic scale or its sly wit.

Recent stories in both The New York Times and New York magazine have the Disney marketeers blaming director Andrew Stanton himself for the lackluster ad campaign, but that feels like finger pointing from studio lackeys who failed to do their job.  How hard could it have been to sell an adventure picture based on an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel?  American International Pictures knew how to do that sort of thing back in the seventies.  True, John Carter doesn't actually feature an exploding lizard--and is poorer for it, I must admit--but it should have been easy to put together a trailer featuring some exciting highlights.  Because, let's face it, this makes At The Earth's Core look like a ton of fun.

Sunday, March 11, 2012


The weekend isn't even over, but people who do such things for a living are already proclaiming the massively expensive new science fiction epic John Carter a flop.  This failure has nothing to do with the quality of the movie itself and almost everything to do with its incredibly incompetent marketing campaign.

Really, though, when was the last time the trailer for a movie made you want to see it?  If you're predisposed to see, I dunno, a Sandra Bullock romcom or a hyperactive action movie starring a bunch of real-life Navy Seals, well, the ad campaigns for such movies pretty much let you know they exist.  But they won't make you feel like you must see it, like this movie might be the most important thing in the whole world.

People don't go to the movies as often as they once did. The batch of Oscar nominees this year were all box office underperformers.  Not surprising, since even the good ones were sold in a safe, respectable manner.  Maybe if the ads for War Horse had managed to work in the phrase "A Rebellion of HUMAN GARBAGE" more people would've shown up in theaters. 

Wednesday, February 29, 2012


The great if unheralded cinematographer Bruce Surtees has died at the age of 74.

His dad was the Golden Age cameraman Robert Surtees, who toiled at MGM at the close of its Dream Factory days, but the son's work would be the polar opposite of the father's easily read Classical Hollywood style.  His most frequent collaborator, Clint Eastwood, dubbed him the Prince Of Darkness for a reason.

After serving as an apprentice to his father and others, Surtees' first film as director of photography was Don Siegel's The Beguiled, the first of several outstanding collaborations, including Dirty Harry, The Shootist and Escape From Alcatraz.  He provided tabloid squalor for Bob Fosse's Lenny, low-key naturalism for Arthur Penn's great Night Moves and a touch of glamour for Stanley Donen's wonderful Movie, Movie.  Why he didn't become one of the superstar cinematographers of the seventies, joining the ranks of Laszlo Kovacs or Vilmos Zsigmond or Gordon Willis, is frankly beyond me.  He could shoot in any style, and it always looked good.

But his preferred style was the underlit naturalism of his work with Eastwood, one of the great director/cameramen collaborations in movie history.  In particular, their work on three great Westerns--High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales and Pale Rider--feature some absolutely stunning imagery.

High Plains Drifter has a strange, stylized appearance, its colors just slightly oversaturated.  Pale Rider, by contrast, is almost monochromatic, its overcast skies and drab clothing giving it a feeling of black-and-white in color.  And The Outlaw Josey Wales--well, look, I pretty much consider it as close to perfection as any movie ever made, and Surtees' visuals are surely one of the major reasons for that.  I can't think of any film that so subtly conveys the passing of seasons, the feeling of moving from place to place.  Every frame is gorgeous and gritty in roughly equal measure.

Sadly, Pale Rider would be his last film for Eastwood.  He'd work with other good directors in the eighties, like Sam Fuller and Paul Brickman, but his A-list days were behind him.  He wound down his career toiling away on TV movies obviously unworthy of his talent.  But at least he kept working, a pro to the end.

Sunday, February 19, 2012


According to E! Entertainment News--the only information source that matters, if you're really, really stupid--Josh Duhamel is "not sure" he'll be back for the latest Transformers movie.

I think I speak for all Americans when I say, "Who's Josh Duhamel?"

Since I have cable TV, I've seen huge chunks of the Transformers movies, and all I remember are giant but weightless CGI robots, plenty of offensive caricatures and Shia The Beef running around screaming, "OPTIMUS!"  Whoever Josh Duhamel is, he clearly made no impression on the films whatsoever.

Then again, I'm pretty sure he's made no impact on anybody whatsoever.  I'd be willing to bet that if you asked ten random strangers who Josh Duhamel is, none of them would know.  Some of them might say, "Yeah, wasn't he the guy in Pearl Harbor who was even less interesting than Ben Affleck?" and while that was my first thought, too, it turns out that particular nonentity was Josh Hartnett, who has himself gone from being hyped as The Next Big Thing to toplining direct-to-video horror movies, a career arc that should surely give pause to Duhamel. 

What I'm saying is, Josh Duhamel should be fighting like hell to continue doing whatever minimal, uninteresting work he can get in a new Transformers movie because hey, a paycheck is a paycheck, and I'm guessing a check from a shitty Michael Bay movie has more zeroes in it than a check from some celebrity autograph fest.  Sure it may be humiliating to find yourself billed below the guy who does the voice of Optimus Prime, but it beats sitting between Billy Mumy and Jonathan Frid at a table in some suburban convention center, with a placard in front of you identifying you as a "former Transformers star" and gritting your teeth the whole time because Mumy's got a huge line in front of him and you're just sitting there.

And he deserves it, dammit, because Billy Mumy recorded Fish Heads and you...well, you're just Josh Duhamel.

Thursday, February 16, 2012


Mom didn't care much for Peter Jackson's King Kong.: "Why did it take so long to get to the island?  Why was it three hours long?  And that dinosaur stampede!  What were they thinking?  And that scene on the ice--cute, cute, cute.  No, I didn't like it."

This was late December of '05.  Earlier that month, she'd been given six months to live.  As it turns out, she had considerably less.  To many of us, the reality of impending death might cause us to give in to fear, or despair, or introspection, or something.  Mom...just became more like she always was.

On the movie version of Rent: "Oh, it's terrible.  He dies of AIDS, and we're going to try to make you cry by reminding you about it over and over, 'Oh, it's so sad,' like we've forgotten what happened ten minutes ago.  Was it this bad on stage?"

On Lost, then in its first season: "Maybe there's a monster, maybe there's not a monster.  But if there's not, they need to stop pretending that there is and get on with the plot.  And if there is a monster...that would be kind of stupid, wouldn't it?"

On Brigadoon, which she's stumbled across on cable and called me immediately after just to gripe about: "It doesn't work that way.  You can't say, 'These are the rules, this is what happens,' and then do something else and say, 'It's a miracle.'  Why did you make the rules in the first place?  And I don't think Cyd Charisse was Scottish..."

Six years since her death, I admit I don't think about Mom as much as I used to.  I don't miss her anymore, not really, not like I thought I would.  But sometimes, when I'm in the middle of a rant, when I'm asking a sales clerk to stop talking to his friends and actually give me some service, when I see through the lies of a politician...These are the times when I am thankful Mom was there to teach me how to question, to stand up for myself, to see what is really there.

Mom liked everyone, and everyone liked her.  She had a sentimental streak a mile wide, any rendition of Bein' Green would automatically reduce her to tears, she had a goofy sense of humor and laughed easily.  But beneath her easygoing manner was a fierce determination to say what needed to be said.  In the wake of my divorce, I was unloading my feelings about my ex, but she seemed to be taking Sue Ellen's side.  Why, I asked, are you sticking up for her?

"Because she messed up, but she wasn't stupid.  You were stupid."

I remember that, and I've used that to guide me since, in relationships and everything else.  Because she was right, of course.  She was always right. 

Well, except for her weird obsession with Murder, She Wrote...