Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Paul Gleason, 1944-2006

Just wanted to mention, in passing, the death of Paul Gleason. While the name may not be familiar, if you came of age in the '80s, you totally know who he is.

Paul was most famous for his role as Principle Vernon in The Breakfast Club, one of the Greatest Dipshit Roles Ever. That character was so great, he reprised the role 15 years later in Not Another Teen Movie. It's awesome when you're so good in just one role, that whenever you show up in a movie, people expect you to be nothing but that one guy.

See ya, Paul; we'll miss you. And remember: "Don't mess with the bull, young man. You'll get the horns."

Monday, May 29, 2006

When A Stranger Calls Yet Again

Everyone remembers When a Stranger Calls. You remember it because it has one of the greatest setups in the history of movies. A woman is babysitting some kids. The phone rings. The "stranger" on the other end asks, "Have you checked the children?" The shaken babysitter hangs up and goes to check the children. They're fine. The caller keeps calling, each time asking, "Have you checked the children?" The babysitter becomes so upset that she calls the police. They tell her that they can put a trace on her line, so when the stranger calls back, they can find out where he is and round him up. The stranger does call back, and asks his question. The babysitter hangs up, and the phone rings again, only this time, it's not the stranger; it's the police, with this ominous message: "We've traced the calls...they're coming from inside the house!!" Pan to the door of the kids' room upstairs, and the screaming starts.

Great setup, and one that everyone remembers. You don't even need to have seen the movie, and you know that setup. What most people don't realize is that that whole setup is only the first 10 minutes of the movie. Ask anyone what When a Stranger Calls is about, and they will recount the description I gave in the first paragraph. But that's not what it's about; that's only the setup. The rest of the movie is actually about the babysitter getting on with her life (the kids die, BTW), and about the killer thinking about the babysitter. But no one remembers that. In fact, the rest of the movie is so shitty, that I think most people just suppress the rest of the movie from their memories after those first 10 minutes.

Since all movies ever made are eventually remade or sequelized, it was only a matter of time before When a Stranger Calls' number was up. (It's already been sequelized as When a Stranger Calls Back.) And, apparently, the producers of this remake only remember those first 10 minutes, as they've made a 90 minute movie out of that 10 minute setup. But, what works as a 10 minute prologue just doesn't work as a 90 minute feature.

Basically, what you've got here is a girl babysitting for two kids in an oddball house that would make Frank Lloyd Wright jealous. It has a Japanese garden inside the house, with a sprinkler system that goes off at inappropriate times, lights that go on or off when you enter or exit a room, and a refrigerator ice machine that makes more noise than an avalanche. It's also full of every cliche known to Horror Movies: the "cat in the closet", the "oh-it's-not-the-killer phonecall", the "non-starting car", and the "pop-in by a friend"; all terrible things to experience when you're expecting a killer to maybe show up.

Amongst these plentiful cliches, we have the stranger calling. He's more of a prank caller in this one. In fact, the movie is half over before he utters the famous line: "Have you checked the children?" (After he said it, The Girl said, "Wow, it only took him 50 minutes to say that.") And then he never says it again. Actually, I'm glad he did eventually say it, because there's really no mention of the children before then, or after then, until the end.

The cops are eventually called, and they put a trace on the line, but they never get to utter the other famous line, because the killer just shows up, and decides to kill everyone before the police can even trace the call. So, what we end up with is just another dumb Chase Movie, although the killer never moves faster than a walk. Not that it was an intelligent Chase Movie up to that point; it was just the babysitter running from cliche to cliche by herself.

And the biggest bullshit in this movie? The kids live (as does the killer, for that matter). That's some emotional jolt when everyone escapes unharmed from the world's wussiest killer. Whatever.

It's a sad statement on moviemaking in this day and age when 10 minutes of a shitty movie made 27 years ago are better than the entire 90 minutes of a movie made six months ago. Haven't people learned yet that all remakes suck? What's that old saying about repeating history?

Right here's a perfect example. Avoid like poison.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

LT & GP: Ripley's Game

There are hundreds of movies made every year that go directly to video. While most of them are terrible enough to merit such a fate, there are the occasional gems that unjustly bypass the theatres and, therefore, a larger audience. And Ripley's Game is one of those gems.

Ripley's Game is an adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith novel of the same name. The Tom Ripley character has appeared in movies before, most recently in The Talented Mr. Ripley (also a Highsmith novel). Game has been made into a movie once before, as The American Friend, with a terribly miscast Dennis Hopper as Ripley. Ripley's Game doesn't have that problem, as John Malkovich has been perfectly cast as Ripley.

On to the plot:

Ripley (Malkovich) is a cold, calculating, psychopathic criminal. Yet he lives in a palatial villa and has tons of money. One night, he attends a dinner party. He overhears the host, Trevanny (Dougray Scott), make a crack about Ripley having no taste, which Ripley overhears. Trevanny has cancer, is dying, and really can't pay to have it treated, nor can he afford to provide for his family, post mortem.

A while later, Ripley is contacted by a former associate, Reeves (Ray Winstone). Apparently, the victims of a scam pulled by Reeves and Ripley are seeking retribution. Reeves says a man needs to be killed in order to make it go away. Reeves will pay Ripley to do it. Normally, this is the sort of thing that Ripley would handle himself, but he has something else in mind: He'll double the money and get Trevanny to do it. He knows Trevanny has cancer, and doesn't have much to lose, and he could use the money to set up his family after he dies. That, and Ripley's still seething about the remarks Trevanny made about him. Trevanny accepts, but, as you may have guessed, things to not go as planned.

The great thing about this movie, and the thing that sets it apart from every other Ripley movie, is that Ripley is portrayed by Malkovich as an unfeeling psychopath. In Highsmith's books, everything Ripley did was for personal gain. He was always a psychopath; he didn't just come into it. In the movies, he's always portrayed as a con man, but never as someone who is evil, as he became in the books. And Malkovich is the perfect guy for it. He feels no joy in murder; it's a necessary evil, something that's a means to an end. Nor is he sympathetic. When a character sacrifices himself to save Ripley, Ripley is astounded, asking, "Why would you do that?" as though he expected his comeuppance the way most people expect the sun to rise. Anyone else in this role (like Matt Damon, let's say), and this movie doesn't work. But Malkovich can play these kinds of roles in his sleep, and he makes this scary, scary character work. And the movie is all the better for it.

A great movie that totally got jobbed by its distributors. Check it out.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Blast From The Past

Remember Godzilla? No, not Gojira, the rubber monster that's been kicking the piss out of Japan for the past 50 years. I'm referring to the CGI monster from the Matthew Broderick movie from eight years ago, that no one remembers or cares about.

I never understood why there was an American version of Godzilla. It's not as though the Japanese originals were far past or long-forgotten. Toho, the Japanese studio that produces the Godzilla movies, just released a new one a couple of years ago, and has made them almost yearly since 1954. (And yes, it's still a guy in a rubber suit.) Yet, this being America, we can't stand anything foreign, and, instead of releasing a foreign movie in our theatres, we just make an American version.

And, like all remakes, it sucked. Sure, it made some money, because Sony marketed the shit out of it, but it was just a stupid action movie with a giant lizard-looking thing that didn't look like Godzilla at all. It wasn't as campy or entertaining as the Japanese versions, and it fell from memory quickly after its first-run through theatres, video, and cable. In fact, I bet you'd even forgotten there was an American Godzilla movie. It's just that forgettable.

So, I find it odd that American Godzilla is back. There's a Doritos commercial airing right now, in which a monster destroys a city to get to a semi trailer of Doritos and then eats it. You've probably seen this commercial. (I saw it twice during a episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker on the Sci-Fi Channel.) And you probably just thought it was just a giant anonymous lizard monster that ate that Doritos truck. But no: that was American Godzilla, the monster that everyone forgot.

Why would Frito Lay, who makes Doritos, use a character no one remembers to pitch their product? It's like using Clutch Cargo to pitch ChapStick. If you want to use Godzilla, use the one everyone knows: the one in the big rubber suit. Apparently, Frito Lay is marketing their wares to geeks like me, who remember shit like a Godzilla movie that no one else does. And it's working: I sure do love me some Doritos! Thanks, Godzilla, for showing me how fun eating Doritos could be!!

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Climbing Mt. Everest No Big Deal

There was a story in the news a week or so ago about a double amputee that reached the summit of Mt. Everest, the tallest mountain in the world. This climber was a former mountaineer rescuer who lost his legs in a climbing accident. He kept active in the sport with the use of prosthetic legs, and has now become the first double amputee to summit Everest.

Before 1953, no one in, I don't know, 1 million or so years had climbed to the top of Mt. Everest. Since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay climbed it in 1953, nearly 2000 people have done the same. (Conversely, K2, the world's second tallest mountain, a mere 700 feet shorter than Everest, has been summited by fewer than 200.) Apparently, climbing a mountain that's five and a half miles tall is not the feat it used to be.

Climbing Everest used to be something special, and something only the bravest and most skilled climbers could accomplish. Before Hillary, numerous climbers tried unsuccessfully to reach the summit. Famed mountaineer George Mallory made numerous attempts to the top, and eventually, died up there. (His body is still there today.) After Hillary reached the top, he was promptly knighted by Queen Elizabeth. This used to be a big deal.

Now, you don't even have to be that skilled of a climber to go up there. All you need is a lot of money (to pay the astronomical fee Tibet charges climbers) and a pretty good guide, and they'll drag your ass right up that mountain. Sure, you might die (like the eight people that died on a single day in 1996), but they'll get you to the top. You have people summiting multiple times. Filmmaker David Breashears, who directed the movie Everest, has been to the top four times, including twice in one year, and another time dragging a 70mm IMAX camera with him.

But Breashears is able-bodied; he has all his limbs and vital functions. But it seems you don't need any of that, because a guy with no legs just did it. I read another story about a blind man who reached the summit. A blind man. How the fuck does a blind person climb the world's tallest mountain?!?

I guess all you need nowadays to accomplish what was once the world's most daunting feat is have a heartbeat and at least two limbs. If that's the case, sign me up; I'll kill that fucking molehill.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Communist Mecca Falls To Capitalism

Today, The Girl and I visited State Street in Madison. It'd been about two years since we'd been there last, and it's a place we've always enjoyed visiting. And what a difference two years makes.

For those of you not in the know, State Street is the five block span between Memorial Library on the University of Wisconsin campus and the Wisconsin State Capitol building. It's a common tourist attraction, and the epic Halloween party held there has put UW-Madison on the top of The Princeton Review and Playboy's party school lists. It's closed to automobile traffic, and is usually filled with people.

The reason people go there isn't because of some historical significance (although you're a stones throw from the national landmark Capitol building); they go there for the businesses located along State Street. It used to be covered with trendy little boutiques and restaurants. The shops catered to the hippie/slacker/potheads that frequent State Street, and the restaurants feature little bar-and-grills and ethnic cooking ranging from Mexican to several different kinds of Middle Eastern and Asian cuisine. Headshops and patchouli-stinking shops were plentiful. Everything was perfectly geared to the liberal-bordering-on-communist sensibilities of Madison. But, that was two years ago.

Now, a good many of the little shops and bars are gone, replaced by corporate retail shops and chain restaurants. Oh sure, a lot of the old staples are still there, but they're few and far between now. Everything is new and improved, to go with the new, more "mainstream" image. (Even long-time, trendy vintage clothes retailer Ragstock, which, ironically, is itself a chain store, has a new facade that makes the Gap store next door look like an antique.) State Street is becoming more like The Magnificent Mile in Chicago (the Midwest's premiere shopping destination) than the hippie haven it once was.

Oh well; things have to change with the times, I guess. We still had fun. And as long as some of those long-time staples (like bathing supply store The Soap Opera, one of The Girl's faves) remain open, we'll keep going back. We'll probably even still go after they've all turned into Qbodas and Old Navys. Not as interesting, but something to do, nonetheless.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Breaking The Da Vinci Code

Despite all of the incredibly negative buzz the movie has been getting, I think everyone should see The Da Vinci Code. Not because it's a good movie (which is debatable), but because of all the ridiculous shit that it postulates.

I suppose the same could be said of Dan Brown's book on which the movie is based. All of the theories about the "Holy Grail" are interesting, but, ultimately, ridiculous. Some simple homework blows most of the theories out of the water:

-the "Holy Grail" is never mentioned in The Bible. Its first known mention is in the late 12th century, in fictional works about the Arthurian legend. And in those, it's an actual cup;

-the "Mary Magdalene" supposedly depicted in Da Vinci's The Last Supper is actually John the Apostle;

-the Priory of Sion was not an ancient organization that protected the Grail, but a debunked hoax by a couple of Frenchmen;

-the "rose line" (which allegedly leads you to the Grail) that runs through the Church at Saint-Suplice and the gold markers that denote the Prime Meridian that once ran through Paris are not along the same line of longitude;

-while it's not mentioned and is an unintentional side-effect of the book, I sure I.M. Pei, who built the glass pyramids in front of The Louvre, would be offended by the implication that he helped conceal the hiding place of the Grail;

-and, for any of these theories to be true, you have to able to prove that anything in The Bible actually happened. (Good luck with that one.)

Oh yeah, we were talking about a movie, weren't we? (This post was starting to turn into this post, which started out about a movie, and went somewhere else entirely.)

The movie is about what you'd expect, except about nine hours longer. (Your watch will say you've only been there for two and a half hours, but it sure does seem longer.) Most of the running time comes from the fact there is at least an hour's worth of expositional dialogue explaining the whole conspiracy. The screenplay for this thing must have been 500 pages long. In fact, before you go, read Brown's book first (which you could probably read in less time than watching the movie), so that you understand all of the theories, and you can sleep through all the talky parts. The movie will just fly by that way.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

GE Tries Mind Control

General Electric is known as a deadly serious company with a long line of innovation. They are the ninth largest company in the world, and, based on performance, lay off the bottom 200 of their workforce every year. You don't get to be known as the "inventor of the light bulb" without being serious.

So, it's nice to see that GE is lightening up a little bit as they enter a new field of innovation. (More on that later.) There's a commercial out there for GE's new hybrid locomotive. You know the one: All the turn-of-the-century folks get covered with soot from the old coal-powered locomotives. A funny little commercial. But there's something in the commercial that hints at what GE may be innovating next (and I'm not talking about hybrid locomotives).

Toward the very end of the commercial, before all of the icons for GE's various businesses flash on the screen, there's a flash of something else; something red. It's too quick to see. In fact, you probably didn't even notice. But, if you slow it down, there's about eight frames of something called "One Second Theatre." (Film moves at 24 frames per second, so you have some sort of idea how fast this flies by.) It's a clever vignette about what happened to all the folks in the commercial. If you can't see it, there's even a website you can go to to see this little thing. But, I'm not going to give you the web address, because, if you've seen the commercial, you already know it; you may not think you know it, but you do. Yep, that's right: GE has gotten into subliminal advertising.

Ever watched a airplane engine commercial and suddenly felt the need to watch NBC? Or seen a commercial for an open MRI and wanted to buy lightbulbs? Probably not, but if GE is willing to subliminally sneak dumb shit into their commercials, imagine what they would do if they really wanted to sell you something. You don't get that big without being able to control peoples' minds a little bit.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Lost Treasures & Guilty Pleasures: The Stepfather

I could have added this to the Horror Movies You Should See post, but this one deserves it's own post.

The Stepfather tells the story of a reverse-"black widow": a man who marries into families, and then kills them, not for their money, but because he likes killing people. The "stepfather" is Jerry (Terry O'Quinn), who marries into the family of Susan and Stephanie ('80s staples Shelley Hack and Jill Schoelen). At first, Jerry seems like the world's nicest guy. At least to Susan. Stephanie never trusts her stepfather, and with good cause, because he's actually a serial killer on the loose. It's all good as long as Jerry is happy, but once Stephanie starts raising questions about his past, look out: it's gonna get messy.

This was probably the first time I'd ever seen Terry O'Quinn in anything. In fact, this movie is essential viewing if you're a Terry O'Quinn fan. If you think he's creepy on Lost or any of the other hundred things he's played the "Creepy Guy" in, you don't know what creepy is until you see this movie. He goes from perfectly normal to Freak City in a heartbeat. He's even got the great scene where he beats a guy to death with a 2x4 during an open house. Absolutely classic shit.

The movie itself is actually pretty good. Movies like this were a dime a dozen in the late '80s, but this is one of the better ones. Sure, it's a Cheesy '80s Movie, but a very well-made Cheesy '80s Movie.

It's a damn shame that his movie is essentially unavailable in the States. It's a great horror flick that everyone should see. Psycho killers don't get any creepier than this. Check it out.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

ABC Causes Panic

I love it when people play off of a hysteria-causing phenomena to sell their wares. Or, in this case, to get people to watch their TV shows...

For about a year now, there's been talk of the "bird flu," or avian influenza, that has been running rampant among birds. There is a particularly deadly strain spreading amongst birds as we speak, one of the kind of strains that has caused pandemics in the past. Fairly scary shit, but let's get some things straight.

Influenza is a virus. It is found in birds and other mammals. (And yes, there is probably some influenza virus inside you right now.) The thing with viruses, though, is that they tend to be specific to a particular species (for example, mammals can get influenza, but not fish or lizards). The influenza that is killing millions of birds is relatively harmless to humans. In order for it to become harmful, the virus would have to mutate into something that would infect humans. Right now, it's just harmful to birds. It may never be harmful to humans.

Still, this didn't stop ABC from making Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America, an Outbreak-esque thriller about the "worst case" scenario of bird flu becoming harmful to humans. I'm not sure, but this was probably sponsored by some drug company who makes an influenza vaccine. No need to worry, though; you got your flu shot...

Here's the thing about that: Vaccines are derived from existing strains of a virus. In order for there to be a viable vaccine, it must come from an existing virus. Let's go another direction and look at smallpox, a virus that was extremely fatal to humans. Edward Jenner developed the smallpox vaccine in the 1700's. (It's somewhat ironic that the vaccine for smallpox is cowpox, a virus that is fatal to some humans.) Due to this vaccine and, well, death, smallpox ceased to exist in the wild by 1980. That particular form of smallpox no longer exists. But, let's say another strain of smallpox came to exist. (It's suspected that smallpox may have mutated from a strain of monkeypox. Yes, monkeypox.) You're safe because you got the smallpox inoculation, right? If by "safe," you mean "dead," you'd be correct. Ya see, all of our existing doses of smallpox vaccine are for a disease that doesn't exist anymore. If it turns up in another form, that vaccine would do about as much to that smallpox as Robitussin does to cancer: a whole lotta nothin'.

Same deal with bird flu. That flu shot you got at Wal-Mart last summer was derived from whatever flu strain was going around at the time. If this strain of bird flu mutates into something that affects humans, they got nothin' for ya. Well, that is, until a couple of thousand people die and they can cobble together a vaccine from their corpses. Otherwise, you're perfectly safe.

But, all of this hysteria revolves around that fact that bird flu has to mutate into something that will affect humans, something that might never happen. Chances are you'll catch mad-cow or chronic wasting disease (two more diseases that have never been linked to human death, yet cause panic) before you get bird flu. I know I'm not holding my breath. Or maybe I should...?

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Sony Prices Self Out Of Market

Everyone is waiting for the PS3. It's the next generation of Sony's market-leading game console. Its groundbreaking technology allows it to play Blu-ray hi-def video discs, a first in the gaming market. Needless to say, any info Sony releases on this thing is a big deal, and is anticipated by everyone.

Except when the news is bad. Today, Sony announced the release date and price for the PS3. It comes out November 17 (waaaay later than the previously announced summer release), at a cost of (hold your ass) $499. And that's for the "base" model, which comes with, well, nothing. The most awesome part about this one is that it come with (get this) no HD video-out jack. It has an HD video player, but can't play them in HD. Talk about defeating the purpose.

However, this is a function on the "deluxe" model, which will cost you another $100. And, just for comparison's sake, the top-of-the-line XBox 360 costs $100 less than the base PS3. Oh sure, that PS3 come with USB ports and flash memory slots, but, did you need those things back when you were rockin' the Sega Genesis? Guess what: You don't need them now, either. (It's worth noting that $500 will buy you the deluxe XBox, two controllers, and a game. $500 buys a PS3 with...I don't even think it comes with a casing; it's just the guts.)

I'm not sure I understand Sony's gameplan on their electronics rollouts. First they get beat to the HD video market by HD-DVD, with a player that costs $500 less than Sony's still-unreleased Blu-ray player. And now, they're delaying the release of their overpriced game console, while Microsoft will have had the XBox 360 out for a year before PS3 debuts. Six months from now is a long time. I wouldn't be surprised if Microsoft puts an HD-DVD player (their player of choice) in their machines, and adds $100 to the price sometime before PS3 debuts. Better machine, still cheaper than the PS3.

I've posted on Sony's missteps before, and they appear to be setting themselves up for another one. (Notice how my prediction of them getting a jump of the HD video market failed to happen.) We'll see how it pans out, but it ain't lookin' good.

Apple Jobs Apple

It's no secret that there's no love lost between Apple Computers and Apple Corps, which, as some of you might remember, is The Beatles record imprint. Apple Corps has been on the other Apple's ass since Day One. When the computer company was first started, the record company sued them for copyright infringement. They eventually settled, with Apple Computers agreeing to stay out of any music-related business. Apple has been sued twice more over the years, most recently for the advent of the iPod and iTunes. They lost the second lawsuit (which had to do with music making software on Apple computers), but that's not the important one.

Yesterday, a British judge decided that Apple Computers did not violate the terms of their previous settlement with Apple Corps by producing and distributing iTunes and iPods with the "apple" logo on them.

Don't know about you, but I think that's fucking awesome. The previous two times that Apple Corps sued, they got quite a great deal of money in settlements. And those were over some Mickey Mouse bullshit, back when Apple wasn't making any serious money and only weirdos bought their shit. But now, they are just rolling in money, by means one of the most important pop-cultural creations of the millennium, and Apple Corps doesn't get a fucking penny. That's awesome.

Fuck you, Paul, Ringo, and the families of the dead ones! Way to go to the well too many times when it's dry. If you're that hard up for money, maybe you should try buying your music catalog back; I hear it's for sale.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Ashlee Simpson Nearly Worth Looking At

There are now photos surfacing that seem to prove out what was widely reported last week: that Ashlee Simpson appears to have had a nosejob. Her transformation into Jessica Simpson is nearly complete.

Now, if she could just get rid of the witch chin that went with her witch nose, she might be what we in the biz call "attractive." But just maybe.

Friday, May 05, 2006

The Most Roundabout Post On The Information Age Ever

Digital cable is a buggy invention. This is, of course, the "upgraded" version of cable. It's more channels, better picture, better sound, more features. Most people don't realize they have digital cable in their home. It's piggybacked on the basic cable signal. But you can't watch unless you have the cable box that decodes the signal. The problem with that box is that the decompression of the video signal causes a lot of glitches: video artifacts, missing sound, loss of signal altogether. Adding TiVo to the mess compounds the problem. The signal runs through TiVo, and it controls your cable box. Any problems the cable signal might have with the cable box are amplified by TiVo. If your cable box loses the signal for a couple of seconds (a common occurrence), TiVo will just lose it altogether. And this is how my TiVo ended up only taping the first 15 minutes of Wednesday's episode of Lost before recording 50 minutes of blackness. (The Girl watched the episode live, and saw the whole thing, no blackout. Fucking TiVo.)

Now, normally, when I miss an episode of something, I'd wait for the reruns, or procure it in some "other" manner. And then I remembered something...

Remember like 10 years ago, when all these media companies started merging? AOL bought TimeWarner, Disney bought ABC, Viacom bought Paramount and CBS. Back then, the buzzwords were "synergy" and "multimedia." They all wanted to come up with new means to offer their content to people (and make shitloads of money); they wanted to put content on the internet. It was all pretty much big talk, until a month ago, when ABC announced it was going to offer episodes of its most popular shows for free over the internet. (It already offers these shows for $1.99 a pop on iTunes, but this is FREE, with limited commercial interruptions.) And this is how I ended up watching the last 50 minutes of Lost over the internet on ABC.com. It's pretty fucking slick if you have a broadband connection fast enough to run it. Check it out.

Oh, BTW, happy Cinco de Mayo.