Monday, March 30, 2015

Mini-Major Discussion: Orion Pictures

by Jason

Today we have the latest entry in the “They made so many cool movies so how did they fail” sweepstakes with the bearer of that iconic constellation logo, Orion Pictures. Like so many indie studios, they lived movie to movie, with further financial backing depending on the parent company or millionaire that owned the studio. The financial rollercoaster got to the point where Orion would release the biggest hits of the studio’s existence, but they weren’t enough to save the studio from bankruptcy.

Who Were They?

Orion was founded in 1978 by five former executives from United Artists. The execs formed a partnership with Warner Bros, who would distribute their films but Orion retained creative control. In 1982, Orion split with Warner Bros and struck out on its own. Orion’s initial going was shaky, but it began to score big by distributing Mario Kassar’s First Blood in 1982, and then struck gold in 1984 when it released the Academy Award winning Amadeus. The studio also snagged Woody Allen for a few films like A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, and served as a distributor for some of Hemdale’s titles, including The Terminator, Hoosiers, and Platoon. It wasn’t long before Orion was a major player in the film market, releasing movies that both audiences and critics enjoyed.

What Were They Known For?

The only major film bio of Mozart, two of the decade’s most iconic movie cyborgs, and that cool constellation logo. Also, that Hannibal cannibal guy.

The Studio’s Peak Moment

1986-1987. Orion was on top of its game, with a steady stream of hits that included Back to School, Robocop, Platoon, Hannah and Her Sisters, and No Way Out.

You would think it would be late 1990-early 1991, the period when Dances With Wolves and Silence of the Lambs were released. Arguably, none of Orion’s other movies had such an impact on pop culture, in conjunction with their great critical acclaim and Oscar wins, but the studio was actually in dire straits. Read on further, and you’ll see what I mean.

The Studio’s Most Notorious Movie

Clifford, starring Martin Short. *Shudder*

A good runner up is Car 54, Where Are You?, a film adaptation of the TV show. This was part of the first wave of TV show-to-film adaptations, and the fact that it didn’t kill the trend off is a miracle. Sigh…and to think Orion sold off The Addams Family to Paramount.

Orion only distributed, not actually produced, the E.T. rip off/McDonalds infomercial Mac and Me, but it deserves a mention.

Finally, RoboCop 3 is notorious for being a watered down PG-13 entry that killed the franchise. Also, RoboCop 2 is sometimes criticized for its fowl-mouthed child drug dealer character. Actually, one could say RoboCop suffers from “Highlander syndrome” in that none of its sequels or remakes are as beloved as the original.

The Studio’s Up and Comers

Plenty.

Bo Derek made her film debut in 10, one of Orion’s first movies and also one of that year’s biggest hits.

Most of the cast of the 1981 hit Excalibur, including Patrick Stewart, Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne, Helen Mirren, Nicol Williamson, and Ciaran Hinds, none of which were as well known then as they are today.

Likewise, some of the cast of Amadeus, including Tom Hulce, F. Murray Abraham, and Jeffrey Jones.

Star Trek II & VI director Nicholas Meyer made his directorial debut with the 1979 film Time After Time.

The 1983 sex comedy Class saw the film debuts of Andrew McCarthy, John Cusack, Virginia Madsen, and Alan Ruck.

Orion co-produced Caddyshack with Warner Bros (but not its sequel), so it gets some of the credit for the boosts that film gave to Rodney Dangerfield’s film career and Harold Ramis’ directing career.

The 1985 surprise hit Desperately Seeking Susan starred Madonna, when she was hitting her peak as a pop star.

The Fugitive director Andrew Davis made the well received Chuck Norris vehicle Code of Silence for Orion.

Paul Verhoeven, for directing Flesh and Blood, and two years later, Robocop.

Finally, the biggie of the bunch would be Kevin Costner. Orion gave us 80s Costner entries No Way Out, Bull Durham, and then distributed Costner’s produced Dances With Wolves.

Notable Movies

Amadeus, Arthur, Sharky's Machine, Lone Wolf McQuade, A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, Zelig, The Woman in Red, The Cotton Club, Desperately Seeking Susan, Flesh and Blood, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins, Haunted Honeymoon, Radio Days, Robocop I-III, Back to School, Prancer, Three Amigos, Bull Durham, Eight Men Out, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Johnny Be Good, Colors, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Cadillac Man, Mississippi Burning, F/X 1 and 2, Throw Momma from the Train, UHF, Farewell to the King, Valmont, Great Balls of Fire!, Little Man Tate, The Silence of the Lambs, Original Gangstas, and Ulee’s Gold.

What Killed the Studio?

Really, really uneven box office performance.

It’s true Orion put out some of the most successful movies of the 80s, both critically and commercially. However, these hits were not distributed very equally year to year. Some years Orion struck gold, but other years Orion would produce nothing but stinkers, or at least just plain underperformers.

1984 had big hits with The Terminator and Amadeus, but Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club cost 58 million and didn’t make half of it back. 1985 was even worse, with only the Madonna headliner Desperately Seeking Susan and Code of Silence as major hits. But the studio came back in a big way the next year, helped by Rodney Dangerfield’s Back to School. Orion hit a hot streak until 1989, and then things went downhill. The studio took a 31 million dollar bath on Valmont, one of two dueling adaptations of the novel Dangerous Liaisons; the flick barely edged out a million. Dennis Quaid’s Great Balls of Fire! was badly received. The SCTV-alumni starring car comedy Speed Zone cashed in at just 3 million. Conan scribe John Milius saw his flick Farewell to the King bid farewell by audiences at just under 2 and a half million.

Desperate for a hit, Orion turned to music parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic. His starring debut UHF was posting great test audience numbers, so they shuttled it to the summer…where Lethal Weapon 2, Ghostbusters 2, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Tim Burton’s Batman were waiting to chew it up and spit it out. The only bright lights of 1989 were Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, a rescue from the defunct De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, and Prancer, a Christmas family film about a girl who nurses a wounded reindeer back to health.

The losses hurt Orion going into 1990. Again, most of that year’s movies flopped or just didn’t make enough to help the studio. Robocop 2, directed by Irvin Kershner, cost twice as much as the first film but wasn’t the success the first one had been. Not even Dances With Wolves, nor Silence of the Lambs, which were huge gushers, could make up for the years of losses. Orion’s dire straits became the fodder for Billy Kristol’s jokes at the Oscars. In 1992, he said on stage:

“Take a great studio like Orion. A few years ago Orion released Platoon, it wins Best Picture. Amadeus, Best Picture. Last year, they released Dances with Wolves wins Best Picture. This year The Silence of the Lambs is nominated for Best Picture. And they can't afford to have another hit! But there is good news and bad news. The good news is that Orion was just purchased, and the bad news is it was bought by the House of Representatives.”

Orion was so bad off, in 1991 it lost $102.1 million. It was no surprise that on December 11, 1991, Orion filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Over the next few years, movies that Orion had made before bankruptcy would see staggered releases over time.

It took five years for Orion to emerge from bankruptcy, but it was pretty much a husk of its former self. It made fewer films, most of them for niche audiences. It released one of Joe Pesci’s last movies before his retirement, (until Pesci returned for a couple of movies in the late 2000s-early 2010s), the comedy 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag. It acted as distributor for Live Entertainment’s The Arrival, The Substitute, and Phat Beach. The only distinguished movie of the era was the Academy Award-nominated Peter Fonda flick Ulee’s Gold.

The writing was on the wall. In July of 1997, Metromedia, the owners of Orion, sold it to MGM, laying off over a hundred employees, and the studio was dead.

Legacy

Orion stayed dormant until MGM revived the Orion label in 2014 to release the horror flick The Town That Dreaded Sundown. So the constellation logo is back in theaters, mostly to put out “specialty films” as MGM puts it.

Most of Orion’s film library is now the property of MGM, as well as Hemdale-made films like Platoon and Terminator and the Nelson Entertainment-made Bill & Ted movies. The movies Orion made with Warner Bros, however, remain with that studio. So chances are most Orion DVD releases will come with the Leo the Lion logo on the top cover.

Of course, the biggest reminder of the Orion legacy to date was 2014’s remake of RoboCop. However, the new version only made about half of its production budget in the U.S., showing once again in many cases there’s nothing like the original.

So what is your favorite Orion picture? What do you think of the studio? Any other thoughts?
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Thursday, March 26, 2015

Kurosawa Week: Ikiru (1952)

Without a doubt, Kurosawa’s Ikiru ("To Live") is my overall favorite Kurosawa film. There is just so much to love about this film. First, it is unique. There is nothing else like it on film. Secondly, despite poor film quality, the film is very well shot and perfectly acted. Finally, this film is intensely emotional. This film will fill you with rage at some points, pride at others, and make you cry, and it has an amazing and unique message.

Plot

Ikiru is the story of Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), a middle-aged petty bureaucrat who learns that he is dying. The film is about him trying to find some meaning in his life.
Kanji tries to find meaning at home at first. He wants to tell his son and daughter-in-law, with whom he lives, that he is dying, and he hopes to become closer to them. But they won’t pay any attention to him. All they care about is his pension and what they will inherit from him one day. He quickly realizes that he will not find meaning here, so he never tells them that he is dying. Instead, he ventures out into Tokyo’s nightlife. Out on the town, he finds a novelist who guides him to a wild nightclub. He quickly realizes, however, that he will not find meaning there either.

The next day, Kanji finds himself drawn a young woman he meets at the office. She seems energetic and vibrant, and he starts to spend time with her. But she eventually begins to wonder what he’s after. He then asks her what makes her so happy and she tells him, but she also tells him that he needs to find a purpose in his own life; he can’t just take someone else’s purpose.
Kanji then finds a cause. He decides he will help a group of mothers build a playground. To do this, however, he must guide the project over a dozen insurmountable bureaucratic hurdles. I’ll let you discover for yourself if he succeeds.

In the ending, a group of co-workers, family and friends meet at his wake and they discuss, from their self-centered perspectives, how his behavior changed before he died. I have never wanted to punch a couple film characters more in my life.

This Is An Amazing Film

This is the only film I have ever seen that has received a 100% rating from Rotten Tomatoes, and it is well deserved. Once again, Kurosawa is at the top of his game in terms of storytelling and getting us to delve into what makes us who we are. At its core, this film is about how we live and how we find meaning in our lives, something we all struggle with. As if that were not interesting enough, however, Kurosawa also gives us so much more.

For example, the film criticizes the attitudes that most of display in our daily or professional lives. The film criticizes our penchant for being self-absorbed and ignoring people who we view as not important. It attacks the greed of Kanji’s family, which is a form of greed any lawyer has seen play out in thousands of families. It attacks bureaucratic laziness and fear. It attacks the “don’t make waves” attitude. And best of all, it tells us that if you truly understand what is important in life, then none of the things the rest of society values really matter.
Let me repeat that: if you truly understand what is important in life, then none of the things the rest of society values really matter.

This is a revolutionary message, particularly in conformist Japan, but even here. This is the message that tells us both how to change the world and why to change the world. It is that second part that you never see tackled in films and which so many people will never understand.

Indeed, the fact that many people will never get this is put on display at the ending, when Kanji’s oblivious friends and family and coworkers struggle to put Kanji’s life back into a box that they can understand rather than understanding why he really did what he did... a behavior that many of us will have seen by the oblivious people in our own lives.
It is this scene, by the way, which will fill you with rage, bring you to tears and fill you with joy. I can’t think of any other film that punches this hard emotionally, and yet Kurosawa does so with pure subtlety and without manipulation. There is nothing fake or heavy-handed here. There are none of the tricks Spielberg would use to manipulate you... just great storytelling. In fact, it is an awesome display of storytelling that in such a short film you can come to see Kanji as such a worthwhile character that you feel the slings and arrows of slander and misunderstanding lobbed at him even after he is dead. You will cry when he dies.

It’s amazing writing.

You need to see this film.
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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Kurosawa Week: Hidden Fortress (1958)

by Kit

Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, the inspiration for Star Wars, is rarely ranked among his best but compared to most films, especially those released today, it is an astounding action movie. It tells an amazing adventure of a general having to escort a princess from a hidden fortress back to her kingdom with 200 rho of gold needed to rebuild the kingdom —all while evading enemy armies and patrols. However, this story adds a unique twist; telling it from the point-of-view of two greedy and bumbling peasants who are not that likable.

Plot

The movie begins with the two peasants, Tahei and Matashichi, who are wandering, now impoverished after trying and failing to join the Yamana Clan, and now quarreling just over whose fault it is. Their bickering gets so vociferous they decide to part ways. But both are soon captured by the Yamana Clan and forced to dig for the missing gold of the recently defeated Akizuki clan.
After a prison uprising they manage to escape and stumble across some pieces of hidden gold, as well as its owner, Princess Yuki, now wanted by the Yamana Clan, and one of her generals, Makabe (Toshiro Mifune), who are now hiding at a fortress hidden in the mountains.

Soon, however, they have to leave the fortress with the Makabe pretending to be a poor peasant and Princess Yuki pretending to be a mute as they carry the gold hidden in sticks all the way across Yamana Clan to Yuki’s home where she and Matabe can rebuild her clan and continue the war against the Yamana Clan, rescuing one of Yuki’s slave girls in the process.

Why it Works

This is not easy but a lot easier than say, Seven Samurai. But I have noticed a few things.

First, The two comic foils, are introduced with enough time for us to understand who they are and what they will be doing for the next two hours; getting greedy and getting into trouble because of their greed. He also establishes what writing courses call a “need,” they need to stop being so greedy. Kurosawa is smart enough to do this subtly, as, though Makabe and Yuki comment on their greed, he never throws it at us with some character telling them that they “need to stop being greedy because it will get you nowhere” and bla-bla-bla. Thus, announcing to us morons in the audience what is going to happen in the movie.

He also manages to make the dramatic action story interesting by making Yuki and Makabe, two characters who could easily have become bland and boring, interesting and likable. The scenes where they are forced to act as straight men, annoyed by the antics of Tahei and Mataschichi, are funny largely because we get the scene not strictly from the point-of-view of the two peasants (how some might have done it) but from Yuki’s or Makabe’s point-of-view. They are annoyed at these two peasants for causing them trouble on what is a very important task.
And on that point, while the movie, as other films like to do, uses the characters of Yuki, the General, and the slave girl to define the greed and bumbling nature of the peasants, it also uses the peasants to define them. The peasants almost naked sense of self-interest shows the courage and determination of Yuki and the General as well as the loyalty of the slave girl to Yuki. And it does so without announcing it in the BIG BOLD WORDS most movies like to use.

He also makes sure transitions between the comic relief scenes involving the peasants and more serious scenes focusing on Princess Yuki and General Makabe flow seamlessly. We’ve all seen movies like this where you have a group of characters that are clearly comic relief plucked into a drama and the result is you have two separate, very different movies going on. And you feel it.

One example, and it will be strange referencing this in a Kurosawa review, would be Madea’s Family Reunion (see, told ya) where the comedy scenes involving Madea’s antics and the scenes with the domestic abuse plot line sometimes come one after the other creating a jarring affect. It jolts you out of the movie.

Hidden Fortress never does this, instead you never notice the transition from comedy to drama/action, making the movie an enjoyable, rollicking adventure film that will have you laughing and gripped with suspense.
Flaws

I didn’t watch the Criterion version but the Essential Art House version, instead. Now, having watched a fair number of films from the early-1930s I’m kind of used to films where the print has clearly aged so I didn’t notice any flaws there.

But just comparing my Criterion DVD of Seven Samurai with the Art House DVD of Hidden Fortress I am going to make a guess that Criterion does a better job writing the subtitles for their movies than Essential Art House does. Some of the dialogue in the subtitles was, compared to the work done on Seven Samurai, not that good. Or maybe that was just the script, but I do remember seeing a version of Seven Samurai on TCM where the subtitles were also much poorer than the Criterion version so, who knows?

All-in-all, a great movie and one worth checking out.
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Monday, March 23, 2015

Kurosawa Week: High and Low (1963)

In many ways, High and Low (aka Heaven and Hell) is my favorite Kurosawa film. This film is beautifully acted, raises amazing ethical questions, and provides rather a good bit of suspense. This film is also very accessible as it’s modern in its sensibilities.

Plot

High and Low is the story of Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune), a executive who is making a power play to take over the company for which he works, National Shoes. He is trying to stop the company from shifting to low quality shoes which will cheat consumers and ruin the brand, and he has set up a secret leveraged buyout attempt to take control of the company. To achieve this, he has gambled everything he owns.
As his plan heats up, he receives a phone call. His son Jun has been kidnapped and a massive ransom is demanded. Paying this ransom will destroy the leveraged buyout and wipe out Gondo. Nevertheless, Gondo prepares to pay the ransom because it is his son. Then he sees his son playing in the yard. The ransom call has apparently been a hoax.

Only, it hasn’t. The kidnappers grabbed Shinichi, the son of Gondo’s chauffeur by mistake. Despite this mistake, the kidnappers still demand that Gondo pay the same ransom. What will he do? I’ll save that for you to discover.

Toward the end, by the way, this film becomes a fascinating police procedural which gives you some interesting insight into Japanese culture.

What A Great Film!

This is a fantastic film. And before I say anything else, let me toss out two words that say so very much: Toshiro Mifune. Mifune is, in my opinion, the greatest actor the world has ever produced. He is amazing. He is entirely believable in any role he plays. He has a stunningly noble screen presence, but boils over with emotion just beneath the surface. You feel everything his characters feel as if it were you. He is amazingly physically gifted and he can make complex athletic moves seem as simple as sitting down, yet he can also turn every day motions into intensely meaningful gestures. And he does all of this with a subtle approach that seems impossible.

Mifune plays the lead and watching him is truly a joy. He puts you in this film and makes you feel every single punch the script sends his way. He raises this film to a whole new level.

Apart from Mifune, this film has a strong script. For one thing, none of the film’s characters are the least bit cardboard. Each character has unique traits. Some are smart and competent. Some are incompetent or careless. Some are opportunists, some are devious, and some are helpless. Each character is given a unique motivation. Even the kidnapper’s motive is examined in depth. This makes this a very real world. Moreover, little in this film happens according to the normal order of events in films like this. It zigs at every opportunity. There is no deus ex machina, nor do characters do stupid things just to drive the plot either. It feels real at every turn.
More importantly, however, this is one of the most thoughtful films I’ve ever encountered. Think about the ethical dilemma and how it develops: Gondo is fighting for the life and soul (no pun intended) of the shoe company he loves and has staked all of his assets on it. Unexpectedly, he is confronted with the dilemma of saving his son and losing everything else or losing his son and obtaining everything he wants in his business life. Then suddenly, he learns that it’s not his son who has been kidnapped. But does it matter? Should it? He is the only one who can pay the ransom and if he doesn’t, then the son of his chauffeur will be killed, but can we really put the responsibility on him? Does it matter that he is the reason the man’s son was kidnapped? Does it matter that he was ready to pay to save his son? Is it right or wrong to refuse to save this other man’s son?

When word of this leaks out, his supporters face the dilemma of whether or not to stick with a man who is likely to destroy his own plan and ruin their careers or do they turn to the other side? The police face a series of dilemmas as well about how to respond and how far to go to solve this crime without endangering the boy.
(MAJOR SPOILER ALERT) And finally, when you learn the motive of the kidnappers, you are confronted with some interesting twists. It turns out that the killers were simply jealous of the rich man whose house they could see from their slum, so they decided to take what he had. Socialists would feel a great deal of sympathy for this. But look at what they cause. First, they end up taking the son of a poor working class man by mistake, putting him entirely at the mercy of the charity of the rich man they hate. They even end up making Gondo into a national hero! But even further, they end up stopping Gondo from gaining control of National Shoe, which means that consumers will now be cheated, and shaming the company in the process, which means the company will likely fold soon enough, causing hundreds of workers to end up unemployed. Interesting. Think about the messages here! (End Spoiler Alert)

All of this makes this an amazing film experience, and I won’t ruin it for you by telling you any of the other twists and turns the film takes. This film is intense. It is thought-provoking. It is unpredictable. And driving this film is the amazing acting of Toshiro Mifune, the fantastic script, and the perfect camera work of Akira Kurosawa. I absolutely love this film.

Finally, as an aside, I find the pedigree of this film interesting. It is said to be based on the novel “King’s Ransom” (1959) by Ed McBain. However, it is very, very similar to the Glenn Ford/Donna Reed movie Ransom from 1956 (remade by Mel Gibson in 1996). I suspect that McBain may have copied the Glenn Ford movie and somehow this fact has fallen through the cracks. In any event, I recommend giving the Ford movie a peek after you see High and Low, as it too is excellent.
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Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Greatest Director You Never Heard Of: Akira Kurosawa

This week is the 105th birthday of Akira Kurosawa, perhaps the greatest film director ever. Famous for films like Seven Samurai, Rashomon and Ran, Kurosawa's innovations became movie staples throughout the world and his films were copied, with the copies often becoming mega-hits in their own rights. This is Kurosawa week around here and we plan to have an article every day. Today, I'm going to talk about a couple famous copies of his films to help explain the tremendous influence he has had on American film. Here are the biggies:

Seven Samurai: The most famous remake of an Akira Kurosawa film is the western The Magnificent Seven, which is a remake of Seven Samurai. In this case, seven expert gunmen agree to defend a helpless village against Mexican Bandido Eli Wallach and his army of pistoleros. Among the seven are such amazing actors as Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn and Robert Vaughn. The film was directed by John Sturgess and is arguably the best western ever made. In fact, not only is the film routinely ranked among the best films of all time, but this is the second most shown film on television behind only The Wizard of Oz. And what makes this film so great is the same thing that made the original so compelling, watching a group of tough, loners and drifters decide to stand for something, not for money, but because they want their lives and talent to have meaning for the first time.

Akira's version, by the way, gave us such innovations as the telephoto lens, the use of multiple cameras to capture the same action, and the image of the bad guys riding over the hill to attack. Each of these things had become standard techniques by the time of The Magnificent Seven.

Yojimbo: This one was remade as a A Fistful of Dollars. Directed by Sergio Leone and starring Clint Eastwood as a man with no name who plays two competing crime families off against each other, this was the film that made Eastwood into a superstar. It would then spawn two more collaborations between Eastwood and Leone -- For A Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, which would guarantee his movie star status. As with Yojimbo, A Fistful of Dollars involves a drifter, gunfighter anti-hero with no apparent conscience, who is undone by the fact that he does really have a conscience. As with many Kurosawa films, the inability of good people to ignore their consciences is a powerful theme he goes to over and over, and it's a theme that calls to all of us... or should.

This film was later remade again by Bruce Willis and Walter Hill as Last Man Standing, an overlooked gem.

The Hidden Fortress: The story of two squabbling peasants who accompany a defeated General who tries to save a princess from an enemy clan, this film wasn't directly remade so much as it was completely re-imagined as a film staring two robots. What film? Star Wars. Seriously. As an aside, the defeated General in Hidden Fortress is played by Toshiro Mifune, who is an amazingly compelling actor and is perhaps the greatest actor Japan has ever produced. He and Kurosawa worked together several times.

Rashomon: Rashomon was remade by Sydney Lumet for television and then later remade as the film The Outrage, starring Paul Newman, Edward G. Robinson and William Shatner. However, I think the bigger angle is that the concept behind this film has been remade over and over and over. Indeed, what made Rashomon so innovative was the concept itself, which is that the same story is told repeatedly by different characters from different perspectives, with each telling the story slightly differently. This story also involves the use of the unreliable narrator and nonlinear story telling, and is now considered one of the greatest films of all time.


That's an impressive lineage. Anyway, join us this week as we talk about our favorite Kurosawa films. In the meantime, tell us what your favorite Kurosawa films are?

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Friday, March 20, 2015

Film Friday: Real Genius (1985)

The film Real Genius came up in our discussion the other day and that reminded me that I’ve been meaning to review that film. Real Genius is a film that I found to be ingenious in its writing, its casting and its story. It was funny, clever and inventive, and I truly enjoyed it, with one huge caveat... its politics piss me off.
The Plot
Written by Neal Israel, Peter Torokvei and Pat Proft (Hot Shots, The Naked Gun), Real Genius is the story of Mitch, an overachieving genius teenager who gets into Pacific Tech University long before his age should allow it. He gets into PTU because Professor Jerry Hathaway (William Atherton) needs Mitch’s mind to shake up his research team.
The team, led by Chris Knight (Val Kilmer), is working on a laser which, unbeknownst to them, will be used by the military to conduct assassinations from space. The team, however, is stuck and has become distracted by Kilmer’s short-timer attitude; he will graduate soon and really doesn’t care about the project.

Mitch arrives and immediately discovers that he doesn’t fit in. The team is self-obsessed and into partying. They view him as too serious. The other students ignore him because he’s too young. The bully and his friends decide to make Mitch’s life hell. In the process, they humiliate him. Mitch is soon overwhelmed and crying to his mother to come home.

Meanwhile, Kilmer finds himself threatened by Atherton. If he doesn’t solve the problem of the laser burning out every time it is fired, then Atherton won’t let him graduate and won’t recommend him for jobs.

This lights a fire under Kilmer and he decides to fly right. He helps Mitch fit in and focuses the rest of the team. Soon, they get the laser functioning. They celebrate. At their moment of success, however, mystery character Laslo, a burned out genius who keeps walking into Mitch’s closet and vanishes, comes to them and tells them that the laser they are working on is really a weapon. They are horrified and they arrange to sabotage the test of the laser the military is preparing, with hilarious results involving popcorn.
The Good, The Bad and the Angry
I really liked this film. The story was fun and original. The film was also populated with original, interesting characters with bizarre flaws, which is always fun to watch. The writing was clever too. In fact, I can still recall a bunch of the jokes twenty years since I saw the film the last time. For example:
Atherton: I want to see more of you around the lab.
Kilmer: Fine. I’ll gain weight.

Kilmer: Do you mind if I name my first child after you? Dipshit Knight has a nice ring to it.

Kilmer: If there’s anything I can do for you, or more to the point to you—
Susan: Can you hammer a six-inch spike through a board with your penis?
Kilmer: Not right now.
Susan: A girl’s gotta have her standards.
Notice that these involve completely unexpected turns of phrases. The setups to get to this point are well thought out too, i.e. these lines don’t just drop out of the blue. And what’s more, the whole film is packed with them.
Making the writing all the better, the film is very well cast. Kilmer in particular was about to hit as a major actor with serious talent... before burning out with a reputation for being impossible to work with, and he was at the top of his game here. Indeed, he displays excellent timing, a real feel for how to play each scene, and strong screen presence. Atherton too was the perfect choice for the vile Professor Hathaway. He was so convincing, that I honestly can’t separate out the character he plays from what I expect his real-life personality to be like. The supporting cast was good too. Each fit their role perfectly as the team of misfit and malcontents.

The story is strong too. The film hits many themes that appeal to us all, such as fitting in, dealing with sneering underlings and credit-stealing bosses, and getting revenge against bullies. Moreover, the plot is believable, but just insane enough to keep the story light-hearted even when its topic can get kind of heavy.
So I recommend this film without reservation, right?

Well, no. I do enjoy this film and I recommend it highly, but it has one serious problem: its politics are noxious. To understand this, a comparison to War Games is in order. War Games involved a political message that nuclear war could never be “won” and that the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction was so insane that anyone who played basic strategy games, i.e. tic tac toe, should know it was untenable.

Whether you agree with that or not is not the point, and I note as an aside that the left would soon flip flop from being anti-MAD to having great reverence for MAD once Ronald Reagan announced the SDI initiative, which they saw as ending MAD. But as I said, that’s not the point. The point is that the politics of the film doesn’t offend. And the reason it doesn’t offend is that the film makes its points honestly and it earns them. Indeed, before we are told that MAD and nuclear war are insane, we go through an hour’s worth of game play which shows us that a real nuclear war would destroy everything, i.e. there would be no winners. Moreover, the film never uses straw men characters, like evil generals who talk about acceptable losses and seem to relish the idea of killing hundreds of millions of civilians. Instead, you get earnest people who don’t want to hurt anyone, though they are prepared to do their duties, and you watch them struggle when faced with the reality of an actual war.

It’s hard to feel offended by that because the facts they present are well founded, the moral dilemma is a genuine one, and neither side is treated with disrespect.
Real Genius, by comparison, never earns its political message. To the contrary, it throws its message in your face as a fait accompli and with the assumption that everyone automatically agrees with the point... except the retarded bullies (Hathaway’s assistant), the evil money-grubbers (Hathaway), and the mouth-foaming murders (CIA). In other words, the film tells you what to believe without supporting its position, it presents its opinion as a settled matter which is beyond debate by reasonable people, and it demonizes those on the other side. That’s an offensive way to present a controversial message.

And what message does this film send? It tells us that all moral scientists will refuse to create weapons for the military. Well, that’s bullship. How anyone can argue that the building of weapons to defend a peaceful democracy against an aggressive, murderous communist empire is immoral is simply beyond me. Sure, I get that some people are pacifists, but that is a personal choice and their view does not morality make. There is nothing in morality besides pacifism which suggests that defending yourself is immoral.

Nor was this a widely-held view. In fact, I was in engineering school shortly after this film and I can tell you that not a single person I met bought this line of crap. Yet, here is the film telling you that this is the only acceptable position reasonable people could hold and that anyone opposed to it is a self-interested, murderous retard. That’s propaganda.

It really is to the credit of the strength of the film that I can recommend it despite this twisted message, but make no mistake that the message grates on me every time I see the film.

Thoughts?
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Monday, March 16, 2015

Mini-Major Discussion: TriStar Pictures

by Jason

Most moviegoers my age will remember the iconic Pegasus logo (I picked out the older version for the article, which is probably better known) of the film studio TriStar Pictures. For a while, TriStar pictures popped up regularly every year, but have you noticed you haven’t seen the Pegasus take flight much in the past decade? So, let’s sit back and re-live the glory days of the studio that gave us Robin Williams playing Peter Pan, David Bowie singing to Muppets, an army of giant bugs, a sports agent who screams over the phone, and a giant lizard who eats a lot of fish…

Who Were They?

TriStar originally began, fittingly, in 1982 as a pooled effort by three entities, HBO, Columbia, and CBS, to share costs in a film industry that had been growing expensive. However, CBS and HBO would divest their interests in TriStar, and later Coca-Cola, which owned Columbia, would sell that studio to TriStar in 1987. Columbia and TriStar were then reformed into separate film studios, later to be bought by Sony, creating the TriStar Pictures that we know to this day.

TriStar got off to a good start with their first produced film, the Robert Redford headliner The Natural, a hit that also scored a few Oscar nods. The studio also secured distribution deals with mini-majors like Carolco, Cannon, Hemdale, as well as the Salkind producers for Supergirl and Santa Claus: The Movie. TriStar also worked with Jim Henson on his film projects after Henson’s previous partner, ITC, went under. TriStar scored another coup by bankrolling a few Robin Williams projects, Hook, The Fisher King, and Jumanji, all hits or cult classics that retain followings to this day. With a lot of successes under its belt, TriStar flourished in the 1980s and 1990s.

What Were They Known For?

Having a film logo that everyone, especially children, would love to ride.

As far as their movies, a pretty well rounded collection of audience favorites, Oscar winners, and a few stinkers. Not terribly different from what most big studios would put out.

The Studio’s Peak Moment

1996’s Jerry McGuire. Big hit and five Oscar nods, and that catchphrase, “Show me the money!” Yeah, how long did we go listening to that everywhere?

The Studio’s Most Notorious Movie

TriStar had a few duds, even a few really infamous ones:

I Know Who Killed Me is credited with burying Lindsay Lohan’s film career even deeper than it already was.

Baby Geniuses was pretty horrible but its reputation was eclipsed by its sequel, which would surely have made it on here if it wasn’t distributed by Sony’s Triumph division instead. TriStar, you dodged a bullet…

And then there’s Bruce Willis’ Hudson Hawk, a movie to this day is held as a premiere example of a flop although its notoriety has faded with time.

Suspense and horror author Dean Koontz found TriStar’s adaptation of his novel Hideaway to be pretty notorious. Many of his fans would agree.

But the prize for TriStar’s most notorious flick has to go to one of the most infamous slasher flicks of all time: Silent Night, Deadly Night. Serial killers dressed in painted William Shatner masks or hockey masks, no problem. A killer dressed like jolly old Saint Nick, big frickin’ problem. Yes, the killer of Silent Night, Deadly Night is a man dressed in a Santa Claus outfit and hunts his victims with an axe. This film was utterly hated by parents who did not like the killer Santa motif in the movie’s ad campaign. It even pissed off Gene Siskel, who called out the ad campaign, called out the movie for its horribleness, then called out the movie makers by name: LINK.

After two weeks, the studio actually pulled the movie from theaters. Today, TriStar no longer owns the rights, and is no doubt happy not to. Not surprisingly, the movie spawned a lot of cheapie sequels.

The Studio’s Up and Comers

Jennifer Connelly. Labyrinth was her first major motion picture, though it would take a while for her career to really take off.

English actress Helena Bonham Carter had one of her early film roles in the Kenneth Branagh directed Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

Bruce Willis’ first feature film role was in Blind Date.

Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman got great mileage out of Glory, with Freeman’s performance garnering great notice and Washington winning an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

One of Billy Zane’s first starring roles was in 1993’s Sniper.

Future Bond girl Denise Richards and future Romulan senator Dina Meyer got early gigs in Starship Troopers.

One of Mark Wahlberg’s first starring roles was in The Big Hit.

Catherine Zeta-Jones won a star-making role in The Mask of Zorro.

Director Neill Blomkamp had his breakout hit District 9 partially produced by TriStar, and the studio would later bankroll his followup, Elysium.

Finally, TriStar gave John Travolta’s film career a big shot in the arm (he had been on the wane in the 80s since his Grease glory days) with Look Who's Talking, a comedy that nearly made 300 million worldwide (seriously). Travolta’s career resurrection would be completed a few years later with Pulp Fiction.

Notable Movies

The Natural, Runaway, the Short Circuit movies, Labyrinth, Sunset, The Blob (remake), Look Who's Talking (and sequels), The Muppets Take Manhattan, The Last Dragon, Steel Magnolias, Glory, The Freshman (1990), Real Genius, Peggy Sue Got Married, Switching Channels, Hudson Hawk, Weekend at Bernie's II, So I Married an Axe Murderer, Family Business, The Fisher King, Hook, Rudy, Philadelphia, Guarding Tess, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Devil in a Blue Dress, Legends of the Fall, The Quick and the Dead, Jumanji, Mary Reilly, Matilda, Donnie Brasco, Starship Troopers, Godzilla (1999), The Mask of Zorro, Universal Soldier: The Return, Elysium.

What Happened To the Studio?

“Gojira…Gojira…”

TriStar’s streak was stomped on by their monster-sized would-be blockbuster, Godzilla. TriStar and Sony thought they had the surest thing of surest things, a CGI-powered remake of a well known franchise directed by the guys who did Independence Day. The studio even picked out the release date to correspond with the day Spielberg’s The Lost World came out. They figured they’d beat that movie’s opening weekend with a 100 million gross on opening weekend.

Instead, the moviegoing public was largely turned off by the hype, and the final result left a lot of people cold, with the acting, script, and the new Godzilla singled out for criticism. The film was ridiculed as the worst example of studio overhype. Some people claimed the Taco Bell commercials featuring the Taco Bell dog trying to trap Godzilla to be more entertaining than the movie they was promoting.

The movie wasn’t a flop - it did make around 300 million worldwide - but the backlash and underperformance was so stinging that it knocked a studio that was once riding high on its heels. In 2000, the next year after Godzilla, TriStar released nothing except an English dub of Toho-produced Godzilla 2000. For pretty much the entirety of the 2000s, TriStar limped along with low-budget efforts, comedies like Daddy Day Care, or foreign-made films and a few anime movies.

Legacy

TriStar found a niche in the 2010s as a distributor of Christian-themed films like Soul Surfer, Courageous, Heaven Is for Real, Moms' Night Out, and When the Game Stands Tall. Since most of these films were made by the Sony-owned Affirm Films, we can say synergy was a factor.

The studio got back into the big-budget game with 2013’s Elysium, a not-well received movie that probably drained a lot of goodwill for its director Blomkamp, as his current flick, Chappie, debuted with a thud. As of today, TriStar has definitely fallen from its glory days, sticking mostly to low-budget fare, and although it’s owned by Sony, the Japanese corporation has seen fit to place its big budget movie eggs in Columbia instead.

The studio’s iconic Pegasus logo remains a fond memory for many moviegoers. The logo has inspired a number of parodies, including the “Joe Swanson Theatres” logo from Family Guy as well as this “Tri Sunn” parody on Youtube: LINK.

So what is your favorite TriStar picture? What do you think of the studio? Any other thoughts?
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Thursday, March 12, 2015

Film Friday: The Signal (2014)

Arg. I hate you Lost. You taught “writing fraud” to an entire generation of writers, and now I’ve been defrauded by The Signal. Grr. I almost liked this film until the ending.

Plot

The Signal opens with three dirty teenagers who are going toward the Nevada desert in their car. They seem like jerks and there is some emotional issue with the girl, but honestly, who cares... it’s just filler. The reason they are going to the desert is that they are tracking a computer hacker who hacked into MIT, where they go to college, and ruined several servers, including their own. In doing so, the hacker somehow shifted the blame to them and they were nearly expelled. Now they plan to find this person, who goes by the name NOMAD, and “expose’ him.

After a few minutes, they arrive at the plot. They go into the abandoned desert home where the hacker supposedly lives and they find it empty. Then everything goes black. When the main character Nic awakens, he finds himself in what appears too be a dingy hospital, where everyone wears protective clothing. On his arm, he finds the tattoo “2.3.5.41.” His friends are nowhere to be found.
With Nic awake, he soon finds himself being questioned by government scientist Dr. Wallace Damon (Laurence Fishburne). Fishburne assures him that the hacker they were following was no hacker. He was instead an alien. Nic, kind of believes him, but not really until Nic tries to escape only to be thwarted by the alien apparently escaping and causing serious damage to the facility.

As the questioning sessions continue, Nic finds his girlfriend, who is in a coma, and makes contact with his other friend through the vents, though Fishburne assures him that is not really his friend. Nic, naturally, argues with Fishburne and doesn’t trust him. He then tries another escape attempt only to discover that his legs, which were useless due to muscular dystrophy, have been replaced by the alien with metal legs with serious superpowers.

Nic finally escapes and finds his other friend. He also manages to wake his girlfriend from the coma. The film then turns into a chase film with several more reveals before the ultimate ending.
What Pissed Me Off

Let me start by saying that I actually enjoyed this film a good deal as it progressed. No, I didn’t like the start, but once it got past that “grungy teens with emotional problems driving somewhere art film” section, the film actually started to build a really good mystery. It was well-enough paced at that point to hold my attention. The characters were interesting too, even if they weren’t all that smart. Nic in particular felt very clichéd, but Fishburne was interesting. The story also seemed to build very well, as did the mystery.
But then we hit the ending, and that ruined the film for me. Why did it ruin the film for me? Because it became obvious to me that the filmmakers had no idea how to end this film and how to answer the questions they had asked the audience to contemplate. And that made the whole film feel like a fraud.

MAJOR SPOILER ALERT

Here is the mystery the film builds. First, it presents this mysterious hacker who seems all powerful. And when the heroes find his home, it is empty. So who is he and what does he want? Why did he pick on them?

Then Nic wakes up in a government facility with Haley in a coma and his other friend missing. Nic also has this mystery tattoo, which he comes to believe means “Area 51” because that is what the numbers add up to. So where is he?

As Nic is questioned by Fishburne, you begin to wonder what Fishburne really wants. His questions seem pointless and it’s not clear why he seems to be holding Nic as a prisoner. He tells Nic that the hacker is really an alien and shows him some proof that is hard to believe. Then we see the residue of the alien attacking the facility, and that is really shocking. So is the alien evil or is Fishburne evil and the alien is his prisoner?
Suddenly, we are shocked to discover that Nic’s legs have been replaced and the new legs he has have super powers.

At this point, the film has raised so many questions. Who is the alien? Why is he here? Is he good or bad? He seemed like a malicious hacker and he seemed ultra-dangerous given the damage he did to the facility, but if he’s so dangerous, then why would he give Nic new legs?

Nic then escapes and we discover that Haley wakes up from her coma the minute they leave the facility and his friend has had his arms replaced. So the alien is good? But then we start meeting the locals and they all seem like they have been brainwashed to worship the aliens. So what the heck is going on? Fishburne also tells Nic that he can’t protect Nic from the aliens if he’s outside the facility.

But then Fishburne starts shooting people.

This is the moment, the film started to concern me because the characters seemed to become rudderless. Nic is ostensibly trying to escape, but just seems to run around randomly. Fishburne is following him, shooting everyone he comes into contact with for no reason I can tell. The alien gets dropped from the story. Fishburne then removes his protective clothing and shows us that his head is made of the same material as Nic’s leg, meaning he’s the alien? Or what?
All of this feels like the film is unwinding and the filmmakers didn’t know what to do, so they opted for chase scenes and actions that made little sense.

Then the ending arrives. The film ends when Nic runs across a bridge and breaks through a glass wall. The camera pans back and we see that he is onboard a massive spaceship. The credits role. No attempt is made to explain anything. How did Nic get aboard the spaceship? Why did the aliens do the ruse at all? It makes no sense and doesn’t seem to have a purpose that they would tell Nic about themselves or that they would do it in this manner. And why give Nic the new legs, especially as they are powerful enough to let him escape the holodeck or whatever it is, and why make him feel like a prisoner who needs to escape after giving him the legs? What are the aliens thinking?
If the aliens are good, then why pretend to be bad and why make Nic go through the whole fake prisoner thing just to give him new legs. And if they are evil, why give him powerful new super legs? It makes no sense and they don’t even try to explain it. They just give you this fake ending that is meant to trick you into thinking that they revealed the final mystery that explains it all!

This pisses me off.

If you’re going to sell a film to the audience on the basis of a mystery, then the mystery needs to be answered or it needs to be presented in a coherent enough way to allow the audience to think they understand it. Otherwise, it feels like fraud. Why? Because when these clues are presented as part of the same story, there is an assumption in the human mind that these clues will fit together as part of the same story and together will tell us something deeper about the story. Unfortunately, Lost taught a generation of writers that it is enough to just toss out clues without ever tying them into anything. But that’s bunk. In effect, the writer is asking for credit based on work they never did: judge my mystery even though I never bothered to think one through. And discovering that the writer has cheated feels like one of those moments where someone asks you a riddle they don’t know the answer to, or tells you a story to which they don’t know the ending... deeply frustrating. And that is not how films should make you feel.

Look, you can leave unanswered questions, but you need to provide enough clues for the audience to feel like they can answer the mystery. This film doesn’t do that. To the contrary, this film leaves you feeling like the writers didn’t know how the story should finish and they hoped that by throwing up a big, though meaningless, reveal to end the film that the audience wouldn’t be smart enough to see their failing.

Grrr.

Thoughts?
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Monday, March 9, 2015

Why Make A Sequel To Blade Runner?



They are making a Blade Runner sequel. Why?


Why would anyone make a Blade Runner sequel?



Blade Runner was a nearly perfect story. It is also a closed loop... a completed story. It is the story of a man who doesn't feel very human, but discovers his humanity in the final seconds of the life of a robot who was ready to kill for more life until he realized that if he truly honored the life he wanted, then he could not take the life of another. Where is there room for a sequel in that?
Will Deckard now discover more of his own humanity? Hardly. Humanity doesn't work that way. Perhaps we'll see Roy brought back to life, and thereby entirely invalidate the amazing beauty of his death-bed epiphany? Or will we see Gaff hunt down Deckard and Rachel, which really had nothing to do with the story except giving Deckard another mirror in which he could assess his humanity?

Sadly, I suspect the answer is sort of yes. Sadly, I suspect the answer is that we will see a hot young boob-heavy hottie chasing killer robots and blowing them away with an enormous phallus uh, gun, as the reborn Roy runs around kicking puppies and shooting his friends. There will be no epiphany for Roy this time. Hottie won't even question whether she's human or not, though the twist will tell us the truth 2 minutes and 58 seconds before the credits roll. Meanwhile, a more twisted, fetish-leather-clad Gaff will run around shooting Hottie's boyfriend in the plot-hole.

Why would anyone make a sequel to Blade Runner?

Seriously. What can be gained from reopening an ICONIC film with ICONIC characters? Nothing.

So why make a sequel to Blade Runner?

I don't know... but something tells me the answer is hidden in this picture below:

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Thursday, March 5, 2015

Film Friday: War Games (1983)

One of the best tests of a movie’s quality is how long audiences keep turning to it after its release. Some movies, like Star Wars have remained popular with the public for generations now. Others, like Highlander have found solid, though much smaller audiences. Others, like the putrid Avatar hit big but time has exposed them as nothing more than marketing over quality. War Games lies somewhere between Star Wars and Highlander. This was a highly popular film that continues to find a respectable audience today.

The Plot

War Games is an interesting mix of plots. The story opens with a tense moment where two Air Force missileers are ordered to launch their missiles and one of them refuses. This is discovered to be a widespread problem. To solve this, the Air Force pulls the men from the silos and entrusts the launch function to a computer, the WOPR (War Operation Plan Response).
A moment later, the film changes speeds. Now it becomes a John Hughes-like teen film about computer nerd Matthew Broderick, who is trying to woo cutie Ally Sheedy. He does this by showing her how he hacks computers and by changing a failing grade she got into a passing grade. He also shows off his computer skills by doing things like using his computer to book a first class plane ticket to Paris for her.

As Broderick plays around, he discovers a system with no identifying information. On this system, he finds, mixed in among other games like Chess and Checkers, a game called Global Thermonuclear War. He decides to play this game. He will soon find out, however, that he has hacked into a military computer and he swears off playing this game. Unfortunately, the military computer (Joshua) is determined to play this game to the end and it begins calling his house. It also begins running surprise simulated attacks which NORAD is unable to tell from the real thing.
Panic ensues.

Soon enough, the FBI discovers what Broderick has done and they come after Broderick. He is taken to NORAD, from which he must escape to find the creator of the computer program – Dr. Stephen Falken, to get his help to shut down Joshua. And thus, they race against the clock.

Why This Film Excels

War Games is an excellent film. The plot is interesting. The characters are likable and you pull for them. At no point do they act stupidly or irrationally just to make the story work. The action, which hardly rates with action-movie standards, is nevertheless quite engaging and nail biting. The dialog is clever. And the solution to the film is surprising, tense, unexpected and yet completely believable. This is also one of the few films to make a story that revolves around computers interesting, and it does so without turning the human-computer interface into an unrealistic videogame. What ultimately makes this film work, however, is the humanity. Oh the humanity!

What do I mean by the humanity? At its core, this is a film about our humanity. Think about it. The story takes place because some percentage of human missileers were incapable of pushing the button when the time came. Their humanity wouldn’t let them kill millions of people in a hopeless cause. So the Air Force replaced them with a machine that wouldn’t think twice about doing so, and that machine proved to lack the humanity needed to understand the difference between games and reality.
Matthew Broderick’s character initially seems content having only a computer for a friend, but he slowly learns that people matter more to him than machines. Dr. Falken has given up on life because of the death of his son, and he must regain his humanity if he is to save the human race from the uncaring machine he created.

Even the minor characters are deeply human. In the middle of this crisis, the Air Force guard finds time to flirt. The General too proves to be anything but a Hollywood stereotype. He trusts the judgment of men, not machines. He must put his faith in hope and trust the humanity of the Russians rather than mechanically responding to what appears to be a knock-out attack by the Russians, an amazingly difficult decision as he could well be costing the US the war. And the whole time, he displays the essence of humanity by telling biting jokes to alleviate the pressure, by abandoning rank and talking as a friend to try to comfort the soldiers he thinks are about to die, and by reaching out to God.
We can easily relate to each of these characters as they represent the parts of us where we understand right and wrong at a fundamental level, a level far deeper than logic or learning. Indeed, these people show their human side at its best at an almost instinctive level, the level where you just know what you need to do no matter how badly that conflicts with what you’ve been trained to do. And it is in their struggles with that conflict that we come to respect these people and to empathize with them. It makes us feel what they are feeling and thereby invest in them. This is rare in any film, much less a doomsday thriller.

Everything flows from this too. The jokes and levity in the film work because they arise from the conflict between the character’s duties and their humanity. The ominous aspects of the film are because we understand the danger of removing humanity from the equation, and the tension at the end is because we just aren’t sure that a computer can be taught to be human... even though that is the only solution. The ending even becomes surprisingly joyous, and the reason is that the ending is about redemption rather than victory, i.e. the computer must learn to be human, as must each of the characters who allowed this problem to develop. In their redemption, we find joy, much more than we ever would if they had just unplugged the computer.
I think there really is something important in this. Most doomsday films fall flat because they attempt to personalize the story by showing us what the characters will lose in the way of family and friends. Few give us characters who face genuine conflicts, even though it is in those conflicts where films produce the genuine feelings that make us care about the characters.

In fact, let me illustrate the difference by making this point. People cheer when cities get destroyed in most doomsday films, because those films are little more than special-effects laden films about cardboard characters no one cares about. Thus, the destruction of famous cities in those films is little more than a game to the audience... a joke.

But this film is different because people fall for the characters. Indeed, I think that is why this film remains popular (and very re-watchable) today even though the film is super dated, because you are watching for the people, not the plot. That’s also why the film remains tense even after you know how it will end, because you are feeling their tension rather than needing to build your own based on the plot. And because of this, this film differs from other doomsday films. If the director chose to show a city destroyed in this film, I doubt the audience would have cheered. They would instead have responded with revulsion because this film makes us feel a part of its world and connected to its people, and thus such an act would feel like the destruction of a real place.
All told, this film is a brilliant piece of writing that anyone interested in writing stories about doomsday-like challenges or stories involving computers (or other “dry” action stories) should study. This is how you make your audience care. In fact, I suspect that these characters could have faced any challenge from nuclear war to an alien invasion to a zombie plague and audiences still would have responded the same.

Thoughts?
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Monday, March 2, 2015

Mini-Major Discussion: Cannon Films

by Jason

In the 80s, Cannon Films was the undisputed king of the action B-movies. Much like Carolco, Cannon knew its audience and went for it, only Cannon turned out many more films, with budgets that weren’t exactly top-dollar, and the movies could be pretty bad, if not trashy. They made big explosive action films that also played well in international markets, while occasionally pursuing prestigious projects. The same studio could put out Runaway Train, an acclaimed action film based on an Akira Kurosawa script, or it could release a flick about Kathy Ireland falling into the depths of the Earth to find an underground civilization in Alien from L.A. Today, Cannon is pretty much a memory, but a fond one for many moviegoers of that era.

Who Were They?

Cannon started out in 1967, founded by Dennis Friedland and Chris Dewey. In the 1970s the studio mostly put out foreign films, comedies and exploitation flicks. The studio hit hard times and in 1979 the duo sold Cannon to Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, two Israeli-born cousins who were also filmmakers. Golan and Globus then proceeded to turn Cannon into a B-movie powerhouse with a few deft moves. Paramount had released the Charles Bronson revenge flick Death Wish, but Cannon decided to turn it into a franchise, so they signed Bronson for what became four sequels. The studio also collaborated frequently with martial arts star Chuck Norris and struck gold with the Missing in Action series and the original Delta Force. The cousins also got Sylvester Stallone for the hit movie Cobra. In all, it added up to a successful combination.

What Were They Known For?

Action B-movies, mostly featuring Norris and Bronson, and on a few occasions Stallone. But text can’t capture what Cannon was about better than this rockin’ promo: LINK.

Still, that may be selling Cannon’s catalog short, for they also had a good repertoire of comedies and even musicals. Ever wonder where the weirdly-titled Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo came from? Both Breakin’ movies were released by Cannon. The studio also released the teen cult classic The Last American Virgin. Cannon also had its share of prestige movies. Runaway Train was a big hit and snagged Oscar nominations for stars Eric Roberts and Jon Voight. The studio also distributed a number of foreign-made films like Otello, some of which would go on to critical success.

The Studio’s Peak Moment

Arguably 1984-early 1986, when many of their bigger hits were released, such as the two Breakin’ movies, the Chuck Norris headlined Missing in Action flicks, up to Norris’ Delta Force. After DF, the studio’s fortunes started plunging.

The Studio’s Most Notorious Movie

Superman IV. Cannon had scored a big coup in getting the film rights to Superman after Superman III underperformed, and even better in getting Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder and Gene Hackman back to do the film. Unfortunately, the end result was a mess, as Cannon robbed most of the film’s budget for its other projects, leaving sub-par special effects and a movie that was severely cut down.

Robotech fans may count the very limited release of Robotech: The Movie as their pick for Cannon. The original series was a splice of three anime shows produced by Harmony Gold, and the same company attempted to adapt a straight-to-video anime called Megazone 23, but the studio ordered more changes and cuts, and the result was a disaster that disappeared from theaters quickly and today still has no VHS or DVD release.

Over the Top raises eyebrows because it’s a Stallone movie about…arm wrestling.

Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo is notorious for just its perplexing title.

The Studio’s Up and Comers

Jean Claude Van-Damme. The “muscles from Brussels” got his film career launched thanks to Cannon. The studio had planned to make a sequel to their Masters of the Universe film by setting it on a post-apocalyptic earth. At the same time, the studio was planning a Spider-Man film, to the point that costumes and sets were built for both movies. However, both projects fell apart, and director Albert Pyun quickly wrote a script based on the props and materials created for the two movies, and the result was the Van Damme vehicle Cyborg. Cannon would also release the Van Damme martial arts flicks Bloodsport and Kickboxer. In fact, Van Damme had an uncredited role as a dancer in Breakin’.

Michael Dudikoff may count if you consider the American Ninja flicks, but he pretty much stayed in the B-movie ghetto and never became a major star.

Movie tough guys Danny Trejo and Tommy "Tiny" Lister also made their feature debuts in the critically acclaimed Runaway Train. These two would have a long trail of credits to follow.

Finally, Morgan Freeman, two years before his breakout roles in Driving Miss Daisy and Glory, received Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for his role in the 1987 Christopher Reeve headliner Street Smart.

Notable Movies.

Cobra, Death Wish II-IV, the Missing in Action films, the Ninja films, Delta Force, Masters of the Universe, Cyborg, Superman IV, Bloodsport, Kickboxer, Breakin’, Breakin II: Electric Boogaloo, The Last American Virgin, Exterminator 2, Robotech: The Movie, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Kinjite: Forbidden Objects, Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold, Invaders From Mars (1986), Runaway Train, King Solomon’s Mines (1985), Firewalker, Invasion U.S.A., Lifeforce, Alien from L.A., Behind Enemy Lines, Otello, 52 Pick-Up, The Hanoi Hilton, Appointment with Death, The Assassination, Hero and the Terror, and Platoon Leader.

What Killed the Studio?

Making too many movies.

Cannon put a lot of projects in the pipeline. In 1985, Cannon released 16 movies. In 1986, 15. For 1987, they released 23. It got to the point where they were releasing films week by week. From January 30, 1987 to February 13, Cannon released a movie each week.

Cannon had so many movies in production that it started choking off their finances. This came at a horrible time, as Cannon had just secured the rights to make a fourth Superman movie. Cannon partnered with Warner Bros to make the movie, and WB put in around 37 million…which Cannon promptly took, distributed most of it to other projects, and left Supes with just 17 mil. The financial drain also impacted shooting of the final battle sequence in Masters of the Universe, causing it to shut down before it could be completed; it was finally patched up two months later on a different soundstage. The impact also destroyed a proposed Spider-Man adaptation, although we can be thankful it went nowhere as Golan and Globus had no idea what the character was really like and thought it was about a giant tarantula.

Cannon was on the verge of entering the comic book movie market and had it succeeded it could have saved the studio. Instead Cannon choked on too many projects. The failure to create a breakout hit plus the cooling of the film market took its toll. The action B-movie was beginning to wane, and with the rise of straight-to-video, making cheapies for the big screen wasn’t as practical any more. Add to that, Norris and Bronson had been playing more or less the same roles for too long, and audiences weren’t as interested any more, going instead to see newer guys like Willis and Seagal. Ironically, Cannon’s television division would help transition Norris from the big to the small screen by producing the first three episodes for Walker: Texas Ranger before the company went under.

Cannon was taken over by the Italian company Pathé Communications, allowing the studio to continue into the early 1990s, but the studio was a husk of its former self. Their releases barely made a blip; most of them didn’t break a million at the box office, and some just went straight-to-video. By 1994, the studio was dead.

Legacy

Menahem Golan continued making movies post-Cannon, including Bronson’s final theatrical movie, Death Wish V. Golan died in 2014. After Cannon folded, Globus returned to Israel and has worked in that country’s film industry since.

The studio is still fondly remembered today. With costs of filmmaking having risen so high, ironically it has helped resurrect B-movie making in certain quarters with the use of “found footage” flicks or CGI effects to help shave down costs. And the growth of the international film market has caused many studios to gear their own releases for what foreign audiences want as much as Americans’. Current mini-major giant Lionsgate has recently released a number of Stallone-Schwarzenegger flicks like Escape Plan and the Expendables franchise, serving a niche action market much the way Cannon did with Norris and Bronson.

So what is your favorite Cannon picture? What do you think of the studio? Any other thoughts?
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Monday, February 23, 2015

The Best of Reality TV

On several occasions, I've reviewed shows that are essentially classified as "reality TV," even though they are anything but what people think of when you say "reality TV." Today, I'm going to give a quick rundown of some of the best shows out there that might interest you.

Alaska State Troopers... This show is somewhat similar to COPS, only it includes the added challenges of being in Alaska. The result is a fascinating look into law enforcement in some of the harshest terrain in the world. What's more, the officers they follow really prove themselves to be some of the best examples of how law enforcement is done right. These are not badge-heavy gunslingers, they are true professionals who spend as much of their time helping people as they do stopping criminals... or angry moose.

Booze Traveler... This is a surprisingly interesting show. Boston drunk Jack Maxwell travels the world looking for interesting local drinks in various countries. In the process, we learn a bit about the history of alcohol, we learn a lot about the culture of the countries he visits, and we see some really cool drinks that get you checking out the internet to see if you can order them... and I'm not even a drinker. Hmm.

Chopped... This is one of the best cooking shows in a long time. Essentially, host Ted Allen pits four chefs against each other as they cook meals using mystery baskets of food items. Sometimes, these items are normal, like chicken cutlets. Other times, they are things you (and the chefs) have never heard of. The coolest of these episodes, by the way, involves a series of episodes using children and then teenage chefs. These kids are amazingly talented and they really represent themselves in a way that should make everyone proud.

Underworld/Drugs Inc.... I have no idea how National Geographic Channel gets their access, but these two related shows are amazing. They literally ride along with drug dealers, drug kingpins, cartel killers, guys looking to rob drug dealers, cops, DEA and anyone else who is part of the story of the underworld of drugs, people smuggling, gun smuggling and counterfeit products. The reality presented by these people is amazing, especially as it differs so much from the official story. If you want to understand what is really going on in the war on drugs, watch this show.

Carnival Eats... This show is amazing. More so than any other show on the Food Channel, this show highlights the amazing combinations of food that you've never thought of before, but which you now cannot live without trying. "They deep fried what???!!! How far is the Alabama County Fair from my house?!" This show is the ultimate in food porn.

Buying "___"... This is a real estate show, but so much more. Coming in several flavors like "Buying the Beach," "Buying Alaska," "Buying the Bayou" and "Buying Hawaii," this show gives you a really cool sense of what the real estate is like in other "exotic" parts of the country. This is where I learned that Cajuns drink out of dirty rivers, Alaskans are nuts... they use outhouses and need to fend of f**ing bears, and Hawaii is INSANELY expensive. This show provides an interesting perspective. As an aside in a similar genre, Celebrity House Hunting is not only a guilty pleasure but it shows you what a couple million can get you. You see some pretty amazing homes.

Hotel Impossible... Anthony Melchiorri has a well-deserved reputation for turning around some major New York City landmark hotels. He now roams the country offering advice to struggling independent hotels. What makes this show so interesting is that it's honestly like a master class in hotel management. Seriously, if you are in the hospitality industry and you haven't watched this entire series to see all the ideas he shares, then you are negligent.

These shows really are worth checking out. They provide lots of interesting insights and give you a cool perspective on the world around us and in particular our own country.

Anything I missed?
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