Whale Music

Time to dip into the vaults once again.  For this occasion, I want to present an old college assignment from 1995 that I think is worth sharing.

When you attend Mohawk College, besides taking all the classes associated with your major, you also have to take 2 Electives in order to graduate.  These are classes unrelated to your main course of study.  One of the Electives I chose was Canadian Writers which ended up being a very important class for me.

The professor loved my writing (I believe I had the highest mark in the class) and yet, she kept pushing for me to do better.  I appreciated that push.  It did wonders for my writing.

A lot of the assignments we were given in Canadian Writers were completed right in the classroom.  And then, there were the "out-of-class assignments".  I always preferred having more time and isolation to do these particular bits of writing because I felt I did my best writing when no one was looking.

My review of the movie, Whale Music, comes directly from one such "out-of-class assignment", which was really 3 pieces in one, and I rediscovered it while doing some cleaning up back in the summer.  The professor (whose name escapes me now) assigned us the following:  to write a response to a short story called "Going Out As A Ghost", to compose our own short-short story and to write a critique of a film of our choosing.  I had forgotten that, originally, I wanted to review a film called The Advocate which I still have not seen.  When I went to Blockbuster Video to rent it, incredibly, it was out on rental.  So, I chose Whale Music instead.  Re-reading my review after all these years reminded me of why the film failed to make a strong, positive impression.  I found it too depressing.

I didn’t mention it in the review but the film’s main character is very clearly based on the troubled Brian Wilson, the highly talented frontman for one of my favourite all-time groups, the Beach Boys.  Maury Chaykin (you know the face but not the name) plays a thinly-disguised variation on Wilson as best as one can expect but you wish the character had fewer distractions to deal with and that the screenplay would give us a reason to truly care about him.  

My review speaks for itself.  I have no interest in giving the film another chance.

 
 
A Review of WHALE MUSIC
By Dennis Earl

In the entertainment world, being a self-destructive artist can be both a blessing and a curse.  On the one hand, you can always channel your anger into a composition of some kind and profit from your bitterness.  (It worked for Kurt Cobain.)  But then, you have to live with your pain, your denial, your absence of faith, your seclusion and the gradual deterioration of your soul.  (Cobain committed suicide after years of battling drug addiction and a lifetime of depression.)  No one deserves to suffer for their art like this.

In "Whale Music", a Canadian film released in 1994, Maury Chaykin plays Desmond Howl, a self-destructive, has-been rocker who is so bitter and repressed that his self-inflicted behaviour becomes an integral part of his daily routine.  He’s fat.  He lives in an enormous mansion that looks older than it actually is.  He has hallucinations.  He never leaves his property.  He runs around buck naked in his home recording studio while working on an artsy composition entitled Whale Music, his gift to the whales who live in the nearby ocean.  He likes to take "a refreshing dip" in his swimming pool which hasn’t been cleaned in years.  He takes his pills with a bottle of liquor.  He watches old home movies of much happier times in his life.  And he hasn’t worn anything other than his pair of swimming shorts and a bathrobe in years.

Not only is he depressed about his sagging career, he’s still mourning the death of his musician brother, Daniel (Paul Gross), who committed suicide and his ex-wife, Fay (Jennifer Dale), a groupie who betrayed their lust with another man years ago, wants to squeeze every last penny out of his diminishing bank account.  She wants him to sell the mansion.  He refuses.

Finally, there’s Claire (Cyndy Preston), an abused teenage runaway with a heart of gold who "crashes" at Desmond’s mansion only to find a friend, and inevitably, a lover who can relate to her pain.  Oh please!  Their relationship sinks the picture.  Chaykin and Preston have no chemistry together and how this woman ends up with Desmond is both a plot contrivance and a nuisance (not to mention a distraction as well).  She is so annoying and despite her bodacious figure, she’s a terrible actor.

Because of the presence of Claire (which, at least, inspired a great song by The Rheostatics), we don’t get to spend enough time with Desmond in his shell of failure.  It’s hard to empathize with a character who doesn’t seem to have any redeeming human qualities.  But this isn’t Maury Chaykin’s fault.  He does the best he can with the role.  The screenplay doesn’t take us as far inside his soul as it should have.

I like Jennifer Dale’s work as Fay, the gold-digging groupie and Kenneth Welsh’s performance is also noteworthy.  (He plays Desmond’s heartless distributor.)  But the movie has too many unnecessary characters that get in the way of a potentially good character study.

There is a good movie to be made from this idea.  "Whale Music", unfortunately, isn’t that movie.

 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Thursday, September 28, 2006
7:53 p.m.
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Published in: on September 28, 2006 at 8:00 pm  Leave a Comment  

Favourite Quotes From Inside Hollywood Magazine (Part Two)

Here are some more interesting things numerous showbiz folks told Inside Hollywood magazine during its brief, 2-year existence:
 
“My mother was like, ‘You gotta be a doctor.’  I said, ‘Ma, I just bought you a new car [with] this money I made on acting.’  And she says, ‘I always wanted you to be an actor.  Who needs a doctor!  You’re an actor and that’s the important thing.'”
 
(Denzel Washington in the September/October 1991 issue)
 
“You bet he does.  I remind him every day.  I tell him, ‘Batman says get your ass out of bed.’  And it works!”
 
(Michael Keaton answering a question about whether his then-young son knew he was Batman in the same issue)
 
“Playing Freddy now is like summer camp.  It’s been a great summer job and almost a cottage industry for me.  We generally do the movies during the summer, so I know I’ve got to put that makeup on my face again.  It’s almost like your mom sewing your name in your underwear.”
 
(Robert Englund on playing Freddy Krueger for the 6th time in Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare in the same issue)
 
“They’re not responsible totally for the fact that I’ve got no hair, but they contributed to it.”
 
(Danny DeVito reflecting on the “strict nuns” who taught him during his formative years at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in New York in the same issue)
 
“The first time I met him, I thought, ‘How much work can there be for a type like that?  Poor guy, how’s he going to support his family?'”
 
(Unknown actor Dan Ryan on his first impressions of Andy Garcia, his friend, in the January/February 1991 issue.  For the record, after he screened Eight Million Ways To Die, Dan changed his tune.)
 
“It’s true, I see him all the time.  I believe passionately that I see him all the time.  I have conversations with him, and get his approval on whether what I’m doing has intregity or not.”
 
(Patrick Swayze on his dead father in the same issue)
 
“I have no musical training.  I tried to take music lessons but I was always told I didn’t have any talent.”
 
(former Oingo Boingo frontman turned film composer Danny Elfman, best known for composing the themes to The Simpsons, Batman and Spider-Man, in the same issue)
 
“I did everything from read the Bible to sending away for Ted Bundy tapes.  That was weird.  I’ve got a great tape collection now.  People would come over and see these Ted Bundy tapes and go, Whew!”
 
(Rob Lowe on some of his preparation for the movie Bad Influence in the same issue)
 
“I didn’t like Bird.  I didn’t like the way it was shot; too dark and smokey–rain in every shot.  I didn’t see Charlie Parker the genius, I saw Charlie Parker the pathetic drug addict–a real sad treatment.”
 
(Spike Lee on Clint Eastwood’s Bird in the same issue)
 
“Marlene is a very powerful woman.  You wouldn’t believe who this woman talks to.  If it’s not the Reagans on Friday, then it’s the Bushes on Tuesday.  Why, she’s on the phone almost regularly with [then] President Mitterand of France!  She spends her days talking on the telephone with the world’s dignitaries.  She’s bedridden, but only by choice.  Marlene can walk, but she has created a lifestyle that keeps her in bed.”
 
(Peter Riva on his famous grandmother, Marlene Dietrich, in the November/December 1991 issue)
 
“I’ve been at this since…October [1990], and I can’t wait until I can go back out in the sun again.  I look like I need a transfusion.”
 
(Angelica Huston on playing Morticia Addams in The Addams Family movie in the same issue)
 
“The perversion of Shakespeare was that it was written for the Disneyland tourists.  The theater was not allowed in London; it was outside London next to the bearbaiting pits and the hookers.  There was famine and plagues–like AIDS–and you paid a penny and got away from that stuff.  You’d come in and drink beer and watch and eat and yell and talk…Shakespeare had no respect for his plays, he didn’t even publish them.  He only published his sonnets.  They played just a few performances, and they had a tremendous amount of vulgarity, low-level humor, killing, violence and slaughter.  And the perversion is that, hundreds of years later, you have an audience that sits there in the most passive, intellectual way–and the real people that should be there can’t afford it.”
 
(Dustin Hoffman in the same issue)
 
“So I’m doing all this research and I find there’s no difference between–I don’t like to say ‘Hollywood’ or ‘the Industry’–there’s no difference between them and the Mafia.  They just aren’t using bullets as such.  They do it in a different way.  There was a Variety review of Dick Tracy–the viciousness of it!  I am betting it was a contract ‘hit’ from a person who runs a studio.  You don’t think that happens?  Studio heads are in very tenuous positions.  First of all, they know less about moviemaking than anybody–the grips know more, they’ve been in it longer.  These guys are lawyers or accountants…what happens if they pass on a picture and it makes money for another studio?  They gotta rub out the other guy.”
 
(Hoffman again on preparing to play Dutch Schultz in Billy Bathgate, same issue)
 
“You don’t think critics can hurt you?  I picked up the newspaper and a critic said I was the only one who didn’t wear make-up.  If you don’t think that hurts…”
 
(the always entertaining Hoffman on a bad review he got for appearing in make-up in Dick Tracy from the same issue)
 
“They just eliminated me.  They erased me because I didn’t fit a sexual identity for them.  I’d never experienced that before, and it made me angry.”
 
(Hoffman once again about the time he was doing Tootsie and the reactions he got from men while dressed as the Dorothy Michaels character, same issue)
 
“I’ve never thought of myself as a Sunset Strip hooker, and I can’t imagine ever being mistaken for one, so it never bothered me that I played one.”
 
(Kathleen Turner on her role in Crimes Of Passion, same issue)
 
“I think I’m a very sexual person in real life.  I don’t flaunt it, but it’s certainly there.”
 
(Glenn Close in the same issue)
 
“When we first met, he really threw me a curve.  I said something negative about our last President [Ronald Reagan] and he sort of looked down, got very quiet and he looked at me and he said, ‘I don’t know about you.  I thought we had a pretty good four years.’  I was horrified.  My heart started thumping so I tried to get out of it.  I said, “Oh yeah, you’ve had a great four years.  You had a baby, you have this house you’re building.’  I tried to make it sound like that’s what I was talking about [starts to laugh] and he said, ‘Yeah, you’re right.  I had a terrific four years, but that son of a bitch had nothing to do with it!'”
 
(Bonnie Bedelia on meeting her Presumed Innocent co-star, Harrison Ford, in the same issue)
 
“My only regret is that when I was in college, there was a kid in our dorm who stole a hundred bucks from me.  I regret that I didn’t kick his ass.  That’s the only regret that I carry around with me to this day.  And he knows who he is.”
 
(Bruce Willis in the May/June 1991 issue.  I wonder if he ever got the money back.)
 
“I saw her eyes seem to narrow and I knew I was in trouble…She took my head in her mouth, grasping the back of the skull.  I could hear her teeth scraping bone, the sound was unforgettable.”
 
(Tippi Hedren talking about her dangerous encounter with a “200-pound, two-year-old lioness” while shooting a scene for the film Roar in the same issue)
 
“There’s just not much around for women.  Have you seen what women are in, what they’re doing?  They’re getting mutilated, raped, murdered…and they’re not getting paid!  Everybody’s afraid of saying it because it will hurt their chances of employment.”
 
(Meryl Streep on the scarcity of dignified female roles in Hollywood in the March/April 1991 issue)
 
“I didn’t know anything about the ’60s.  Jim Morrison, Van Morrison, I didn’t know the difference.”
 
(Meg Ryan in the same issue)
 
“I’m careful of not getting too fanatical, telling people what they can or cannot do.”
 
(Tom Cruise talking about the environment in the same issue.)
 
“Sometimes you just can’t worry about looking like an asshole.  I figured if I fell flat on my face, they could always hire Madonna to dub my voice.  Madonna or Pee-Wee Herman.”
 
(Michelle Pfeiffer’s response to being asked if it was “scary” to sing in The Fabulous Baker Boys, in the March/April 1992 issue)
 
“I told Al he had become much nicer, and I had become much meaner.  He’s much more relaxed these days.  And I’ve become a real bitch!”
 
(A laughing Pfeiffer on how she and Al Pacino, her co-star from Frankie & Johnny and Scarface, have changed over the years, in the same issue)
 
“I was a rotten kid, just rotten.  I was always in trouble.  I tried so hard to be good, but I was incapable.  With the greatest effort, I would manage to get a C in citizenship.  I was a bully.  I was a tomboy.  I used to beat up all the boys.  I was like the Mafia don of my elementary school.”
 
(Pfeiffer again talking about her rather exciting childhood in the same issue)
 
“I’ll never have a face lift.  When I hear actresses say, ‘I’m going to get my face done, get my tits raised and get another 10 years out of this business,’ I say, ‘More power to you.’  But it’s not for me.  On the other hand, when I’m 62, are they going to let me play opposite a 32-year-old man, which was the age difference between me and Sean Connery in Russia House?  Maybe when I’m an old broad, I’ll change my mind and say, ‘Doc, lift everything 30 feet!'” 
 
(Pfeiffer’s thoughts on plastic surgery in the same issue)
 
“Well, if I were Sean Penn, I would have killed somebody by now.  If I had male aggression, I would be in jail.  I have shoved papparazzi.  Really shoved them.”
 
(Pfeiffer on celebrity photographers, same issue)
 
“My basic nature is dark.  I alternate between openness and paranoia, candor and distrust.  What can I say?  I’m a mess.”
 
(Pfeiffer once more, same issue)
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, September 24, 2006
10:36 p.m.
Published in: on September 24, 2006 at 10:45 pm  Leave a Comment  

Favourite Quotes From Inside Hollywood Magazine (Part One)

I have finally finished reading all 11 issues of Inside Hollywood, the short-lived American publication that lasted just 2 years.  Published every two months, starting in January 1991, the magazine never did find a way to compete in the over-crowded marketplace.  Initially, it focused exclusively on movies.  Then, in 1992, they added music and TV coverage.  It was more than obvious they were trying to be the bi-monthly version of Entertainment Weekly.  It didn’t work.
 
On November 3rd, 1992, the day the 12th issue was supposed to be officially on sale, I went to a local variety store where I usually bought the magazine and was disappointed.  They didn’t have the latest issue.  In fact, no one did.  Without much fanfare, I realized the magazine had ceased to exist.  By that point, I was already big on Entertainment Weekly and much older, more established magazines, so I didn’t consider it a big loss.  Now that I’ve read every issue they ever put out, I fully understand why it didn’t survive. 
 
It was a pretty terrible magazine.  Lots of spelling mistakes, ass-kissy celebrity profiles, incorrect information, too many bad puns, and on and on and on.
 
But on the bright side, I have learned interesting things from going through all these issues.  Previously, I posted some of the things I learned from reading Inside Hollywood.  This time, I want to share with you some quotes that caught my eye.  Here we go:
 
“Sure, it’s great to know someday I will be able to say to my children or grandchildren, ‘Yes, that was Gramma when she was a young broad!'”
 
(Paige O’Hara, the voice of Belle, on doing Beauty And The Beast from the September/October 1992 issue)
 
“I just couldn’t turn it off.  I couldn’t find the ‘off’ button.  I couldn’t do anything without drugs.  I couldn’t go out the door unless I’d taken three Percodans, smoked three joints and drank an entire bottle of Jack Daniels.  That was just to get out of the door.”
 
(Charlie Sheen on his past drug addictions from the same issue)
 
“He was an excellent student.  I wasn’t.  And he became a movie star long before I did, so there was some real professional rivalry there that wasn’t always pretty.
 
(Charlie Sheen talking about his brother, Emilio Estevez, also from Sept/Oct ’92)
 
“I slid in.  I hadn’t slept for a couple of days.  I was dripping with gold jewelry and a loud jacket and a Dick Tracy hat.  When I watch the TV interviews I did at the time, I think, ‘Who’s that kid dressed like a pimp?’  I was so bloated I looked like Jabba The Hut in Star Wars.  I was really out of my mind, mumbling incoherently, spouting gibberish during the interviews.”
 
(Charlie Sheen on doing press in 1990 for his movie Navy Seals, same issue)
 
“I had to do a shower scene with her in Magnum–and it wasn’t just the water that was hot!”
 
(Tom Selleck on working with Sharon Stone on Magnum P.I., same issue)
 
“She’s such a silly girl.  I wish she’d keep her mouth shut, and just act and look beautiful.”
 
(fashion designer Bob Mackie on Sean Young in the July/August 1992 issue)
 
“I was up to my ass in Smurfs.”
 
(costume designer Ted Shell (Star Trek 2, Hook, Batman Returns) on designing 100 Smurf outfits for the Ice Capades, his first client after starting his own business, Ted Shell Designs, in 1980, from the July/August 1992 issue)
 
“It was like working for the phone company.  Very isolated.  One person painted on an eyebrow, another person painted a nose.  It was assembly line work.”
 
(Ted Shell on working at Disneyland from the same issue)
 
“Oliver Stone said he wanted it to look like a giant snake rearing its head and ready to attack.  If you print this, it’ll ruin me in Hollywood.”
 
(A laughing Ted Shell describing the director’s specifications for Jim Morrison’s prosthetic penis in The Doors from the same issue)
 
“Hollywood is so weird.  They wouldn’t hire me after Immediate Family because they thought I was fat, ugly and fifteen.  At least that’s what I heard.  They may have thought I had no sexuality because I hadn’t played the parts of bimbos or what a man’s idea of the perfect woman is.  There is either the perfect slut, the perfect mother, the perfect wife, or all these perfect archetypes, and most of the time they are not three-dimensional.”
 
(Mary Stuart Masterson in the May/June 1992 issue)
 
“Atilla The Hun would be a relief after Bette.  If I had known what I was getting into, I wouldn’t have done the film.  Her method of working makes a root canal seem like a pleasure.”
 
(Ken Wahl (Wiseguy) on working with Bette Midler on the movie, Jinxed, from an article about Bette in the May/June 1992 issue)
 
“I’ve always said we got married because there was nothing on TV.”
 
(Bette Midler on her marriage to Martin Von Haselberg, same article, same issue)
 
“Not a day goes by that I don’t see the faces of those people at the baths and realize they’re all dead now.  I lost everybody.  EVERYBODY.  I lost my best friend, who was also my partner.  He directed all my concerts.”
 
(Midler on losing friends and work colleagues, which also included her hairdresser and gag writer, from the gay bathhouses she used to perform at in the early 1970s to AIDS, from the same article in the same issue)
 
“When I married you, you had a job.”
 
(Midler to her husband after he quit his job working in commodities due to unbearable stress)
 
“It’s not easy finding female roles that aren’t written as bimbos or adjuncts to the male stars, and I’d rather stay home in New York with [then-husband] Gabriel [Byrne] and my son…than do boring trash.  It’s that simple.”
 
(Ellen Barkin from the Sept/Oct 1992 issue)
 
“What did you learn from L’Affaire Julia?”
“Referring to it in French isn’t going to make me open up any more.”
“OK, what did you learn from being dumped by Julia Roberts a few steps from the altar?”
“I think I liked the French version better.”
 
(Testy exchange between IH interviewer Frank Sanello and Kiefer Sutherland on his relationship with Julia Roberts in the Sept/Oct 1992 issue.  For the record, Sutherland says the break-up “was mutual”.)
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, September 23, 2006
3:28 p.m.
Published in: on September 23, 2006 at 3:33 pm  Leave a Comment  

Steel City Vs. Blockbuster: Who’s Best?

I recently got together with an old friend to belatedly celebrate his 31st birthday.  It was great fun, as always.  He wanted to rent a sports game for us to play which was a great idea.  We ended up settling on one of those 2007 NHL games (there were two to choose from and I can’t remember now which one we selected since they seemed so similiar) and it turned out to be the greatest hockey simulation I’ve ever played.

When he went to the counter to pay for it, I was astonished at the rental price.  12 bucks for 7 days!  Jesus.  I don’t think Nintendo rentals were even half that price back in the early 1990s.  What a relief that the game was so extraordinary.

Being in that store reminded me of something I’ve been wanting to talk about on here for some time.  Since 2001, I’ve been renting mostly DVDs from two major video chains:  Steel City Video and Blockbuster Video.  Back then, both stores were very slowly starting to realize that VHS videotapes had no future.  As a result, they started stocking DVD titles.  But because VHS still controlled the market (remember, DVDs were only 5 years old at that point and needed more time to conquer video), the majority of titles available for rent were on tape.

I remember vividly the day I rented my first DVD at Steel City.  It was September 18, 2001 and because it had been so long since anybody in my family rented anything from there (roughly 3 years) I didn’t know if our old membership card was still valid or not.  It was, thankfully, and I selected Red Planet, the so-so 2000 sci-fi film with Val Kilmer and Carrie Anne-Moss which I screened the next day.  

Looking back, there were only 3 DVD sections at the store at the time.  The blue section which featured maybe 40-50 older titles, tops; the adult section which also had very few selections and the red section which was completely made up of new and recent releases.  (There was probably 2-3 times more titles here than the blue and adult sections.)  For a brief period in 2003, there was a green section.  These were films that had been available for at least 4 months.  I don’t remember when they discontinued them.

I remember the new titles were displayed on a dark brown, wooden, rectangular shelf case near the back of the store and you had to crouch down to examine the DVD cases more closely because it was only as high as my waist.

As the years went by, you would notice major changes in the store.  Before the Public Library started circulating DVDs, I would mostly rent them from Steel City and every few months or so, you would witness the inevitable transformation in progress.  As they would get more and more popular, more space had to be made available for more titles.  Gradually, there would be fewer new VHS releases but a lot more DVD titles.  Originally, when you walked to the far end of the store you would see two full walls of new tapes (the wall directly in front of you and the wall to your right).  When that shelf case couldn’t contain enough new titles, they got rid of it and started putting the DVD cases on the back wall.  If I remember correctly, at first, they crammed so many movies on either a third or half of the back wall they couldn’t be displayed without excessive overlapping.  Then, new VHS titles were relegated to the right-side wall after even more new release DVDs were displayed on the entire back wall.  Now, there are no new VHS titles on any of the walls.  (Hell, there aren’t any new VHS tapes being released, period.)  It’s all DVDs.  And as for that piddly little blue section, it’s been greatly expanded over the years as well. 

Initially, older videotapes were organized by genre.  Now, older DVDs are organized in that matter.  You can still rent VHS tapes there but the selection is much smaller than before and they’re not as prominently showcased as they were in the past.  It’s quite a change from 5 years ago.

Blockbuster went through the same transformation, although they don’t have any VHS tapes available for rent any more.  So, they’re a little ahead of the game.  It’s only a matter of time before Steel City catches up with them.

This leads me to my purpose here.  Which video store is better?  Let’s break it down category by category.

PRICE

I remember when I started renting from Blockbuster in 1993.  A Jumbo Video outlet had just closed, much to my shock (there was no warning) and I needed a new video store to rent from.  A new Blockbuster location popped up at the right time and I started renting tapes immediately and quite regularly.  Back then, their VHS rental prices were quite affordable.  New titles cost $2.50 for the night and older titles were a little over 3 bucks for 2 or 3 nights.  Then, after a while, they started jacking up the prices.  Soon, it was 3 bucks for new one-night rentals and about 4 for the older titles.  By either 1996 or 1997, I stopped renting there (I also was going through a mental crisis and stopped critiquing movies for the rest of the decade) and would return 5 years later to rent their DVDs.

Much to my disappointment, they weren’t cheap.  It cost you $4.99 for new titles (2-day or 7-day rentals) and $3.99 for older releases (also 7-days) or Favourites as they started calling them.  (Not a bad marketing ploy.  Beats “You’ve Already Seen These Crap”.)  If you rented a certain number of Favourites you saved a little money but, in my opinion, not very much.  I once rented 8 movies for a week in 2003 (I screened and graded ’em all despite suffering from occasional dental pain.  Long story.) and it cost me over 20 bucks.

If I had rented those same titles at Steel City, it would’ve cost me a lot less.  (More on that in a moment.)  Today, Blockbuster charges you $5.19 (!) for new titles but has kept the Favourites pricing policy the same as before.  I last rented there in late August where two Favourites cost me a grand total of 9 bucks.  Of course, if I rented a third title (as the sales clerk helpfully reminded me), I might’ve saved some money.  Yes, but as I said, not that much.

For my money, Steel City has always had the best prices and unlike Blockbuster, they’re not greedy and they don’t screw their customers.  Back in the tape era, if you rented three older titles, it would cost you almost 6 bucks.  A great deal.  Today, in the DVD era, they offer the exact same deal.  Sweet.  The only downside?  You only have them for 5 days.  It should be a week like Blockbuster.

As for their new releases, it used to be about 4 bucks per title and you would only have them out for 24 hours (they would be due the next day at around the same time you rented them).  But they would offer cool deals.  You could rent 2 new releases for 5 bucks (really, just under 6) on Wednesdays and later, Sundays, as well.  (I don’t know if they still offer that or not.)  Also, if you kept the bills of a certain number of new release rentals, you would get a freebie.  (I’m not sure if that’s still offered, as well.) Today, they’ve actually reduced the price for new releases.  It’s 3 bucks plus tax per title.  Very cool. 

If I had rented those 8 movies I mentioned at Steel City instead of Blockbuster, it would’ve cost me about 15 or 16 bucks instead of the 23 or 24 dollars it ended up costing me.

Advantage:  Steel City

SELECTION

So, why have I rented at Blockbuster when Steel City’s prices are so much more reasonable?  It’s because of selection.  For a while there, Blockbuster had more titles to choose from, particularly older ones.  However, Steel City has caught up.  Today, both stores are more than likely to have roughly the same kinds of movies available for rent. 

Then, there’s the matter of full screen and widescreen.  For movies made before the early 1950s (as well as some notable recent exceptions like Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster which I recommend) full screen is your only option.  Everything else should be in widescreen.  There was an annoying period in late 2002 when both Blockbuster and Steel City decided to just stock certain titles in full screen only.  There was such a public outcry, particularly in the United States, that Blockbuster reversed its policy and started stocking almost all titles in widescreen only (with the exception of those films only available in full screen as well as titles that have both full screen and widescreen versions on the same DVD). 

Steel City took a different approach.  It ordered full screen and widescreen copies of some films and full screen only for others.  Very annoying.  When titles are removed from the new release shelves and relocated to the blue section, depending on what movies we’re talking about, they’ll save the full screen and/or the widescreen copies for future rentals.  Unfortunately, they don’t always clearly mark which copy is the full screen copy and which is the widescreen copy.  Adding to the confusion is the fact that they only save one case for each movie.  Sometimes it’s the widescreen case, other times it’s the full screen case.  And they usually have 2 copies of each movie.  Some customers with smaller TVs will scoop up what they think is a full screen movie only to find out the hard way it’s in widescreen.  And, of course, someone who thinks they’ve rented a widescreen copy could end up accidentally taking home a full screen copy.  That’s why, if you’re not sure, ask.  And before you leave the store, make sure they gave you the right version.  I rented The Scorpion King in 2002 thinking it was the widescreen copy.  Instead of checking the label side of the disc before I left Steel City, I checked when I got home and was mighty pissed.  (The confusion resulted in a misplaced red tag (which represents an available copy) being placed on the wrong DVD case.)  My dad ended up watching half the movie before I went back and got the right copy which I’m glad I did. 

And yes, this has happened to me with Blockbuster as well.  2 years ago, I rented 6 titles, all of which were supposed to be in widescreen.  Again, forgetting the lesson of 2002, I didn’t know 2 of the movies I rented were in full screen until I got home.  Unlike Steel City which doesn’t always clearly mark which movies are in widescreen and full screen, Blockbuster has very clear labels on those cases you take home with the DVDs.  It very clearly said “widescreen” on both Unfaithful and Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone.  For some unknown reason, some dopey employee put full screen copies by mistake in both those cases.  (More on those shortly.)

Since the advent of Public Library DVDs, I don’t rent to the near extent I used to.  Right now, the Library has the best selection with over 9000 titles.  For a while there, of the two video stores I frequent, Blockbuster had a better and wider selection.  Steel City has since come back strong with a lot of movies you once could only rent at Blockbuster.  This is a hard one to call.  Some titles you can get in widescreen in only one store and sometimes there are films neither outlet stocks in widescreen.  Ultimately, I can’t decide.

Advantage: Neither

QUALITY

This is very easy to call.  Sometimes, you rent a title and it’s in bad shape.  I’m talking unplayable.  I’m talking stutters, freezes, shoddy playback quality, bad sound, you name it.  For some weird reason, I’ve had more playback problems with Blockbuster titles than Steel City ones.

I watch movies on my computer and it’s very sensitive to glitches.  There have been moments when I watched National Lampoon’s Animal House, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Thunderball, Sling Blade, Naked Gun: From The Files Of Police Squad and recently, Two Brothers (all Blockbuster rentals) where the computer just froze.  Fortunately, we have a downstairs player and I’ve been able to watch those parts of the DVD that just wouldn’t playback properly on my computer.

As for Steel City, I’ve only had playback problems with a few titles.  I rented Bean several years ago and parts of it were so damaged it was a struggle to get through the whole movie (but, thankfully, I did).  It was a good thing it had full and widescreen versions on the same disc, let me tell ya.  There were a couple of problems with 15 Minutes as well.  (Recommended.)  Recently, I rescreened Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare which was so badly wrecked, no matter which player you played it on you ran into problems.  Some parts would play perfectly on my computer while others would not.  On the downstairs machine, the same scenes that played smoothly upstairs would look distorted and the sound quality was off, sometimes non-existent.  Very weird.  It got so frustrating I had to skip a couple of minutes to find the next  smooth scene to watch (something I never do under any circumstances).  Eventually, I saw the whole movie, if a little out of order.  (Despite the great difficulty in getting a complete, smooth screening of that movie, I felt the same way about Freddy’s Dead as I did 14 years ago.  It’s not a good movie.)

Certain Warner Bros. releases stutter on my computer for some reason.  I found this out in 2004 when I borrowed Caddyshack and National Lampoon’s Vacation from the library.  (They played perfectly without incident on a regular DVD machine.)  I ran into the exact same problem when I rented European Vacation from Steel City.  I have no idea how to fix this or why it happens.  I don’t remember any Blockbuster titles stuttering on my machine.

I’ve only had one real problem with a Public Library DVD other than the above-mentioned stutterings (which also includes the first 6 Police Academy movies).  I borrowed Calendar Girls one time and everything was going fine until this one scene where the computer froze.  I tried it a couple of times and it froze every time.  I tried the downstairs machine.  Same result.  So, I ended up renting the movie from Steel City the next day so I could continue where I left off and my mom could watch the whole thing.  Both screenings went perfectly.

Human beings are not perfect and as a result, neither is technology.  But, for my money, I believe the Public Library has the best quality DVDs.  As for the rental places, I’ve had fewer problems with Steel City’s copies.

Advantage: Steel City

CUSTOMER SERVICE

I’ve had both good and bad experiences with Steel City and Blockbuster employees.  Let’s start with Blockbuster.

Earlier on I mentioned that I rented 6 titles from them one time in 2004.  I thought I had rented nothing but widescreen copies.  When I got home, 2 of the movies were full screen.  Some boob put the wrong versions of Unfaithful and the first Harry Potter movie in these specifically marked “widescreen” cases.  I called the store to complain and they told me to come down and they’d sort it out.

This is late January.  Very cold and lots of snow on the ground.  I was not having a good day.  Before I went to the store the first time, I stopped at a variety store to look around.  I left without buying anything and about a block and a half past the store, I get a tap on my shoulder.  This guy was frisking me and checking the contents of my plastic bag (which had movies that I had already screened and graded and was about to return to Blockbuster).  It was the cashier from the store who quickly accused me of stealing a bottle of Pepsi.  I looked at him incredulously and immediately protested his outrageous accusation.  (Side note:  I never drink the stuff because I’m allergic to caramel colouring.)  He checked my bag, my pockets and after I unzipped it, the inside of my long, winter coat.  Disappointed, he told me off and went back to the store which he had left empty and open all this time.  So, if someone wanted to actually steal a bottle of Pepsi, that was their chance.  Man, I was pissed off.  

So, imagine how mortified I was that I had to go all the way back to Blockbuster after this to straighten out my rental difficulties.  Much to my eternal delight, the employees (all women, I believe) were excellent.  They apologized for their error (always a good start) and told me they found a widescreen copy of Unfaithful but couldn’t find one of that Harry Potter movie.  We found two more copies and thankfully, there was a widescreen DVD in one of the cases.  I was most relieved.  That was the best experience I ever had dealing with them directly.

On the flip side, they once called me up accusing me of not returning Thunderball.  I reminded them that I, in fact, did.  We went back and forth and finally, they realized their error and I was off the hook.  Totally unnecessary and unnerving.

I’ve had similiarly positive and negative experiences with Steel City.  One time in 2004, a clerk (who I didn’t remember initially as the brother of one of my old Delta classmates) overcharged me for a DVD.  I rented Treasure Planet (save your money) which is an older title found in the blue section.  It should’ve cost two bucks.  He charged me four.  When I complained, he told me the store would sort it out when I came back. 

4 or 5 days later, after I screened the movie, I returned to the store and inarticulately explained what happened.  I had rented a 5-day movie but that moronic clerk thought it was a new release and billed me as such.  I can’t remember now if I paid 2 dollars (the right price) or 4 dollars (the wrong one) but the movie showed up on my record as being overdue (because new releases are 1-day rentals).  The very nice female clerk (who I haven’t seen since) gave me two free new release rentals for my troubles (I must’ve paid 4 dollars, then, since she didn’t give me a refund) and I was most grateful.  I don’t know if they’re still available or not because I haven’t used them.  It’s been 2 and a half years since that happened.  One day, I’ll remember to bring it up.  I doubt I still have them.

I mentioned how I accidentally rented a full screen copy of The Scorpion King instead of a widescreen copy.  After I phoned the store to complain, they told me to come down and they’d make the switch for me.  Meanwhile, my father was about halfway through the movie.  (So impatient, that one.)  The screening was interrupted so I could take that copy back and get the right version from the store.

When I got there, the clerk was very nice but not very sophisticated.  She couldn’t understand why I wasn’t satisfied with the full screen version.  Even after explaining it to her, she still didn’t get it.  Thankfully, it didn’t matter.  I got the right copy, dad finished the movie and I watched the complete film upstairs with no problems whatsoever.

Without question, despite what I’ve said, I prefer dealing with Steel City employees.  They don’t say “Hi!!” like trained robots every time you enter the store and “Bye!!” every time you leave, especially when you don’t rent anything.  (So insincere and annoying.  I hate it.)  It also helps that a number of Delta grads have worked there over the years and so I end up in brief but pleasant conversations when I encounter them.  Actually, I don’t think I ever met a single clerk there who was in a bad mood and that goes for that dope who overcharged me and who I haven’t seen since.  (I wonder if they fired him.)  During my most recent rental trip, the nice lady behind the counter actually asked for my ID and when I told her I was 31 (which was uttered after a stunned moment of silence), she laughed, completely embarrassed by her action.  (For the record, when I’m completely shaved, I look very young.)  She immediately apologized and said jokingly, “You should be flattered.”  I was.  Too bad she wasn’t hot.

Advantage: Steel City

After breaking it all down, Steel City Video is my preferred video store, despite its flaws.  It’s closer than Blockbuster, the quality of the DVDs are better, the employees are personable, and there’s no beating their wonderfully affordable prices.  Now, if only they could stick with widescreen.

 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, September 16, 2006
12:24 a.m.
Published in: on September 17, 2006 at 12:48 am  Leave a Comment  

Worldwide Anger Rightly Directed At President Bush

Toronto Sun Editor Linda Williamson is downright baffled at all the hostility directed towards President Bush and the United States in the 5 years since 9/11.  In her column today, she wants to know “what happened to that generous Canadian spirit that was so evident five years ago?”  Then she answers her own question:  “It’s been hijacked by misdirected anger at the administration of U.S. President George Bush.”

Oh, really?  So, being lied to over and over again by a corrupt administration is no reason to be angry?  People “misdirected” their “anger” over the non-existent WMDs, did they?  How many times has someone in the American government claimed to know Iraq possessed that weaponry with full certainty?  Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld even gave a location on Meet The Press.  Funny how there was nothing there after a thorough search.  Or anywhere, for that matter.

Recently, a Senate Intelligence Committee report revealed, once and for all, there was no connection between 9/11 and Saddam Hussein, despite what members of the administration had said publicly for years.  President Bush slipped up during a famous press conference not too long ago when he said the invasion of Iraq had “nothing” to do with what happened 5 years ago.  But according to Williamson’s logic, when people get angry about this and rightly point fingers in the direction of the Bush Administration, it’s somehow “misdirected”.

Does she also think the anger about the federal government’s chronic bungling of the Hurricane Katrina disaster was “misdirected”?  Harry Truman was famous for saying, “The buck stops here.”  How come it didn’t stop with President Bush?  Or am I “misdirecting”my “anger” to the wrong person?  Maybe if he wasn’t on vacation for more than 40% of his Presidency, one could ask him that question directly.  Or is bringing that up “misdirected anger”, as well?

Williamson states in her piece, “Criticizing U.S. policies is one thing, but tolerating garbage like ‘Bush is a terrorist’ is quite another.”  For someone who supposedly values “freedom” and “democracy”, isn’t “tolerating garbage” one of the by-products of those ideals?  Curious how she didn’t bother to follow-up on her line of thinking by defending Bush.  I find that very interesting.  If the statement ‘Bush is a terrorist’ offends her so greatly and she believes it’s a false statement, why not provide evidence to back up that assertion?  Does letting it hang out there without a forceful response really help your argument?

The truth is America has let down its ideals and the world by advocating torture, arresting some 83,000 Muslims, most of whom are not guilty of anything, while keeping them in custody for endless amounts of time, (as Eric Margolis pointed out in the same newspaper today, referencing a new book called Being Muslim by Haroon Siddiqui, only 40 suspects have been convicted of terrorism while 100 more died in custody), smearing and libelling opponents of their policies, blowing the cover of a CIA agent, firing disagreeable personnel, corrupting its own media by allowing fascist, anti-Muslim and anti-progressive views to dominate the debate without regular scrunity or legitimate opposing viewpoints, buying off some journalists to spread their propaganda here and in Iraq, targeting journalists in the middle of a war zone, needlessly bombing countries without the care or consideration for unarmed civilians, particularly women and children, using the Patriot Act to go after the adult entertainment industry instead of the people who want to attack us, hiding behind religion and fear to advocate policies that a majority of Americans are against, illegally spying on Americans, curbing hard-fought civil liberties under the guise of “fighting terror”, allowing the corrupt and feckless FCC to control what goes on the public airwaves and needlessly increasing fines for “obscenity”, a concept no two people can agree on, and by recklessly spending the American taxpayers’ money to the point of increasing the deficit and debt to record numbers. 

Not only that, the President refused to order a 9/11 Commission until some brave Americans (including a number of the surviving families of the 9/11 victims) pushed for it.  Then, he took credit for it.  As Kristen Breitweiser, one of the unfairly maligned 9/11 widows pointed out recently on Larry King Live, with the exceptions of John McCain and Chris Smith, no Republican officials wanted to listen and learn and help gather all the information that would answer all the lingering questions about what went wrong.  She also mentioned the collective hostility the Republicans threw her way (along with the other widows and supporters) when the push for the commission was on. 

Having said all that (and there’s even more to grouse about that I didn’t mention), it’s no wonder so many world citizens are angry at the American government.  Too bad our “anger” is “misdirected”.  Right, Linda?

 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, September 10, 2006
8:15 p.m.
Published in: on September 10, 2006 at 8:33 pm  Comments (1)  

Things I Learned Reading Inside Hollywood Magazine

There it was just staring at me.  Amongst all the other titles on display, it was the one that caught my attention.  I picked it up and paid for it.

It’s been 15 years since I bought that first issue of Inside Hollywood magazine in an American drugstore.  Incredibly, I still have it.  I also still possess every issue they put out between 1991 and 1992.  It was a bi-monthly magazine that, initially, was solely devoted to covering movies.  After its first year, it started covering music and television as well. 

I remember the day I went to pick up what was supposed to be their 12th issue, the November/December 1992 edition.  I went to my local variety store where I had bought the magazine for the last couple of years (starting with issue 2) and was shocked to discover that the latest issue wasn’t displayed.  In every issue there was a preview of what to expect in the following edition along with the date it was supposed to start circulating.  Like clockwork, Inside Hollywood would be on newsstands as expected.  But not this time.  I think I went back a couple of times to see if it was just late.  It wasn’t.  I even tried a couple of other stores in the local mall.  No dice.  Inside Hollywood was no more.

The reason I bring all of this up is because I’ve finally been reading these magazines that have been sitting in my closet for almost 2 decades.  I did read the first issue years ago but decided to read it again after all this time.  Then, I decided to read another issue and another.  Finally, I resolved to read all the issues that ever existed:  11 in total.  Why did it take me so long to read them?  Well, as I get older, I get lazier and lazier and it takes an awful lot of effort some days to sit down and read.  I am very particular about how and when I read anything.  It’s very frustrating.  But I’ve read the first 7 issues of Inside Hollywood and just have 4 to go so, slowly but surely, I’m making progress.

Over the last several years I’ve finally decided to do something about my out-of-control magazine collection.  I developed a bad habit of buying numerous titles but not reading many of them.  However, I did read some issues.  I flipped through others.  Then, I just started buying and storing with the intent of reading everything when the time was right.  As a result, I’m extremely backed up.  But as I said, I’m making progress and am determined to read all these magazines no matter how long it takes.  In the end, this has been a good thing.  I’m reading these old issues from a different perspective and it’s much easier to tell what is true and what isn’t.

This brings me back to Inside Hollywood.  It’s interesting to go back and learn things you never knew about Hollywood back in the early 90s.  Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

1. Alec Baldwin was replaced by Harrison Ford not once, not twice, but three times on a movie.  Everybody knows about the first two.  Baldwin played Jack Ryan in the very popular 1990 movie, The Hunt For Red October.  He agreed to do the sequels Patriot Games and Clear And Present Danger but then something came up.  Apparently, it was his lifelong dream to play Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway.  He decided to follow his dream and bailed on both Jack Ryan follow-ups.  Harrison Ford, who hadn’t made an action movie since Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade, took over for Baldwin.  As a result, not only did Ford star in Patriot Games, he also did Clear And Present Danger as well.  Both were entertaining action flicks and very popular. 

Also, Baldwin was going to be Dr. Richard Kimble in the big screen adaptation of the famous TV series, The Fugitive, which had one of the most successful finales in history.  Walter Hill was the director at the time but producer Arnold Kopelson wasn’t happy with the screenplay and ordered a re-write.  According to Jesse Nash, the Hollywood Insider columnist, in the September/October 1991 issue of IH, the film was ready to start shooting in 1990 and “These delays may put the availability of Hill and Baldwin into jeopardy,”.  He was right.  Besides doing Streetcar, Baldwin also starred in Prelude To A Kiss, had an astounding cameo in Glengarry Glen Ross and a memorable turn in the confusing Malice.  After completing Patriot Games, Harrison Ford took over for Baldwin.  Again.  Hill, who decided to make a film called The Looters (later re-titled Trespass and whose release date was moved from July to December 1992 because of worries over the L.A. Riots), was replaced by Andrew Davis who had just scored a major success by directing the great Under Siege.  As we all know, The Fugitive was so successful it was nominated for Best Picture. 

2. Numerous movies over the years underwent interesting title changes.  Before it was called Under Siege, it was known as Dreadnought and Last To Surrender.  Far And Away, the underappreciated Nicole Kidman/Tom Cruise period piece, was originally known as The Irish Story.  Whispers In The Dark started out as Sessions.  Point Of No Return was going to be called Nikita, the same name as the French original.  Hero, the 1992 Stephen Frears gem, started out being Hero And A Half.  Here are some others:  Deceived (original title: The Mrs.), Home Alone 2: Lost In New York (original title: Home Alone, Again), Chaplin (original title: Charlie), Kuffs (original title: Hero Wanted), Medicine Man (original titles: The Last Days Of Eden, The Stand), Falling From Grace (original title: Souvenirs), Once Upon A Crime (original titles: Returning Napoleon, Criminals), The Inner Circle (original title: The Projectionist), Mr. Baseball (original title: Tokyo Diamond), My Girl (original title: I Am Woman), Made In America (original title: Change Of Heart).

3. In the January/February 1992 issue of IH, Madonna expressed interest in doing a movie about Frida Kahlo, the famed bisexual painter.  Salma Hayek ended up making the movie and received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.

4. There was supposed to be a sequel to Who Framed Roger Rabbit?  Entitled Who Discovered Roger Rabbit?, it was going to reveal how Roger met his beloved Jessica.  It was scheduled for a 1993 release.  It never surfaced.

5. Here are some other films that never surfaced: 

John Hughes was going to direct a project with John Candy and Sylvester Stallone called Bartholomew Vs. Neff.  It was supposed to be about neighbours at war with each other.  It was mentioned in a November/December 1991 interview with Candy but it was never made. 

Mel Brooks was planning to make The Fly III. 

Jack Nicholson was hoping to do Napoleon. 

In the first issue of the magazine, the Hollywood Insider claimed Francis Ford Coppola was penning the screenplay for the fourth Godfather movie and “has been trying to get Brando involved again.”  Needless to say, it hasn’t been made.

Madonna wanted to make a movie about one of her influences, dancer Martha Graham.

Besides wanting to play Peter Pan, Michael Jackson also wanted to be a superhero in the movies.  Midknight was supposed to be “a futuristic action-fantasy with Michael playing a powerful, all-knowing being who’s chased by an evil doctor hoping to use Michael’s powers for evil.”     

David Mamet wanted to revive Charlie Chan.

Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts were said to be starring in a film called Princess Of Mars, which, according to the January/February 1992 issue of IH, “is based on a novel called She, written in 1885 by H. Rider Haggard, and is about a love-starved queen who’s desperate to re-incarnate her dead lover.”

There was a Rocky Horror Picture Show sequel in the works.  It was going to be called The Revenge Of The Old Queen.

Tom Hanks, hoping to transistion himself from light comedian to serious actor, lobbied for the title role in The Passion Of Richard Nixon.  I’m not sure if this has anything to do with Oliver Stone’s Nixon but I’m glad Anthony Hopkins played the former President instead.

Brigitte Nielsen, when she was still good-looking and in shape, was going to be The She-Hulk.

Jerry and David Zucker were planning a film called Toddlers “about two adventurers who crash their plane in a land of giants – and masquerade as giant toddlers in order to survive”, according to the Hollywood Insider in the September/October 1991 issue. 

Julia Roberts reportedly wanted a cool 2 million dollars to star in the sequel to Mystic Pizza, her first hit.  According to the first issue of IH, “Producers hope Julia will ask for a smaller slice of the pie.”  It was never made.

6. Besides Alec Baldwin being replaced by Harrison Ford in 3 movies, here are other instances of actors expected to be in certain movies only to be replaced somewhere down the line:

Arnold Schwarzenegger was going to play Mr. Deeds in a planned remake of the famous Frank Capra film.  The Zucker brothers (who gave us the Airplane! and Naked Gun movies) were also “said to be involved” according to the Jan/Feb 1992 issue of IH.  10 years later, Adam Sandler ended up playing the title character which was the last time anyone saw Winona Ryder in a hit movie.

Jerry Lewis was said to be reviving his Nutty Professor character for an updated movie.  Eddie Murphy took over and even made a successful sequel. 

According to the July/August 1991 issue of IH, “Paramount Pictures hopes everybody’s favourite human cartoon ROBIN WILLIAMS will mount his horse and battle the devious Snidely Whiplash” in a film adaptation of Dudley Do-Right.  Alfred Molina (Doc Ock from Spider-Man 2) played the villain to Brendan Fraser’s Do-Right.  Furthermore, the film was made by Universal.

Tommy Tune “want[ed] to do a movie version of the cross-dressing hit play La Cage Aux Folles with DON JOHNSON in the role of the drag queen.”  The Birdcage surfaced in early 1996 with Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, Gene Hackman and a pre-All McBeal Calista Flockhart but no Tune or Johnson.

7. Plenty of false rumours get published as fact in the media.  Here are a few that ended up in Inside Hollywood:

Batman Returns was supposed to feature Robin for the first time and he was supposed to be black.  Robin didn’t appear until Batman Forever and he was played by the very-white Chris O’Donnell who reprised the role in Batman & Robin.

There was talk of an E.T. sequel and a fourth Back To The Future. 

 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Wednesday, September 6, 2006
6:05 p.m.
Published in: on September 6, 2006 at 6:21 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Specialist

Time to go back in time once again for this previously unpublished film review from 1994.  I was in my second year at Mohawk College and writing critically about the movies.  I screened The Specialist at Jackson Square on October 15, 1994.  What a dreadful movie it was.  I wrote a review for my college newspaper, The Satellite, and submitted it shortly thereafter.  For some reason, it never made the paper. 
 
I like this review, though, and I’ve decided to finally post it here because it reminds me of a movie I re-screened recently.  A few days ago, I watched the Jean-Claude Van Damme snoozefest Double Impact which has a very similiar plot to The Specialist.  I felt the same way about both movies.  They stink but I’ve seen worse.
 
A couple of things to note.  Sharon Stone and James Woods would re-team in 1995 to appear in Martin Scorsese’s very entertaining Casino.  That movie might feature the best work Stone has done to date and Woods is his typically strong self playing yet another sleazy character.  I highly recommend it. 
 
Also, this was the first big studio movie Rod Steiger had made in years after sticking with indies and foreign productions through much of the 80s and early 90s.  Not only that, he had been battling a particularly brutal chemical depression for 8 years which he finally sought treatment for after suffering needlessly for so long.  Even though he delivers one of his worst performances in The Specialist, I’m glad he took the role and here’s why.  Years after the movie’s release, he appeared on Bill Maher’s ABC show, Politically Incorrect, and mentioned that because of his mental problems he was relieved Sylvester Stallone offered him a role in that movie.  He felt that when someone of Stallone’s stature offers you a role you take it regardless of how it’s all going to turn out.  I remember hearing that and feeling a little badly for completely trashing his performance in The Specialist (even though I stand by what I wrote). 
 
Steiger would work steadily right up until his death in 2002.  I haven’t caught everything he did but I recommend Shiloh.  He does a nice job in that one.  Seek out In The Heat Of The Night from 1967 as well.  He holds his own with the graceful Sidney Poitier in his Oscar-winning performance.
 
 

THE SPECIALIST
By Dennis Earl

Her parents were brutally murdered by a trio of organized thugs when she was just a child. She was hiding in the closet while it happened and witnessed every gruesome detail. Now that she’s a grown woman, she wants revenge. In a nutshell, this is what The Specialist is all about. Other than the fact that it features Sharon Stone and Sylvester Stallone starring together for the first time in a movie, The Specialist is an awful formula film.

Stone plays that woman with vengeance being the only thing on her mind. In order to seek revenge on those 3 killers, who are members of the Miami underworld, Stone decides to fictitiously romance the man she thinks ordered the hit (Eric Roberts). Her plan develops well in the beginning but she needs someone else, a professional, to take out the 3 assailants.

Enter Stallone.

He’s an ex-CIA man who ratted on his partner (James Woods) 10 years ago after he refused to abort a strategic bombing of a moving vehicle when it was discovered that the young daughter of "the target" was also in the car. The bomb went off anyway and Stallone left the Agency to become an independent assassin-for-hire.

Stallone, an accomplished explosives expert, can only be contacted by phone and you can find his ad in the classifieds. Stone looks him up and offers him the assignment. He accepts but he insists on maintaining a low profile. The problem is Stallone is always hanging out at all these high-profile establishments, which the Mafia control, in full view. He doesn’t wear any disguises and is so obvious in his intentions that it’s hard to believe that anyone wouldn’t notice that he’s been setting off plastic bombs for 3 unsuspecting mafiosos.

Also difficult to accept is the fact that these killers aren’t being protected all the time. Rod Steiger, who plays the mob boss and the man who did order the hit on Sharon Stone’s parents, doesn’t even bother to hire protection for his own son, Eric Roberts. Is he an idiot? Doesn’t he care for the well-being of his son? Doesn’t he know that Stone is a complete fraud and only wants to see Roberts and the other henchmen die? Obviously not.

Meanwhile, James Woods, the vindictive CIA agent/Mafia henchman, wants to get Stallone in his clutches so he can bring him back to the Agency. Since he is unaware of Stallone’s whereabouts, Woods makes a deal with Sharon Stone and it goes something like this: He will sit back and let the 3 killers meet their demise in order for Stone to have her revenge and then, she will deliver Stallone to Woods.

I will spare you the results of the climax and any other plot developments that occur simply because it’s a waste of my precious ink. But don’t worry. The film maintains its happy ending, if you can call it that, and our heroes drive off into the Miami sunset without a scratch on them.

Anyway, The Specialist is a downright tedious, unsexy, boring explosives drama that relies heavily on boom and not enough on intelligent thought. I didn’t believe the performances by Sharon Stone and Sylvester Stallone and when their obligatory romp in the shower scene occurred about ¾ of the way through the movie, I sat there in my cushy, theatrical, ringside seat feeling absolutely nothing. I wasn’t turned on at all.

But thank God for James Woods. It is his performance as the crooked CIA guy, who is also a Mafia henchman, that kept me entertained for at least a few minutes of this picture. He can play this type of slimy character in his sleep. In fact, he plays the part all too convincingly.

Believe it or not, the worst performance in the film is delivered by none other than Rod Steiger (Oscar winner for In The Heat Of The Night) who recites his lines as if he were having a hernia. And, exactly, what type of accent is he attempting to mimic? I’m telling you, this is a movie that started out as a bad idea and got worse as the shooting began. And worst of all, we don’t even know why Stone’s parents were killed in the first place.

At any rate, The Specialist is a terrible popcorn film that forgot to pop the kernels.

 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Monday, September 4, 2006
2:57 p.m.
Published in: on September 4, 2006 at 3:11 pm  Leave a Comment  

Double Impact

Double Impact opens with an unveiling.  Two businessmen who have spent 6 years and 200 million dollars on an important project together officially declare it open in the movie’s opening scene.  It’s an underground tunnel connecting Hong Kong Island to Mainland China and its "new territories". 
 
Later that night, one of the businessmen (Andy Armstrong) is driving his wife (Sarah-Jane Varley), their 6-month-old twin boys and the nanny back home.  For some unknown reason, he notifies his bodyguard (the much-missed Geoffrey Lewis) via CB Radio (couldn’t they afford cell phones?) that his services won’t be needed tonight.  The bodyguard usually tails the businessman’s car until he’s safely home but, without any reasonable explanation, he’s given the night off.   Also not explained is why he has the bodyguard in the first place and more importantly, why he only hired one.  (Considering what happens when he arrives home, I would’ve hired a private army.)
 
Soon after Lewis, an ex-Vietnam soldier, goes his own way, a car full of bad guys tails the businessman’s car.  Lewis is quickly informed of the situation and hauls ass to try to save the family.  By the time he arrives on the scene, he sees the aftermath of a terrible ambush.  The businessman lies lifeless on the ground right next to his wife.  It’s a bloody mess.  (I remain appalled at the way his wife is executed.) 
 
Lewis manages to take out a few bad guys and discovers, much to his horror, the twins and the nanny still hovering in fear in the back of the family car.  He tells her to take the twins and get the hell out of there but she only manages to escape with one of the kids.  Lewis notices this and as he cradles the abandoned child in his arms, one big-ass Asian baddie (who hilariously overacts in close-ups in other scenes) pops a cap in his shoulder.  Just before he flees completely, he discovers the businessman’s partner (Alan Scarfe) on the scene and utters his surname with as much contempt as humanly possible.  "Griffith!"
 
Shortly thereafter, the twins go in opposite directions.  The nanny drops off one twin at an orphanage while Lewis decides to raise the other as his own (although he pretends to be his "uncle") first in France, then in California. 
 
25 years later, we are reintroduced to the twins who are now played by Jean-Claude Van Damme whose mighty thick accent, once again, gets in the way of his awful performances.  We first meet the American twin named Chad.  He leaves his short curly hair as is, teaches karate and aerobics with Lewis, and is a ladies man.  He’s also very happy-go-lucky and naive.  He’s also a show-off.  (Ok, we get it.  You can do the splits and thrust your body in a way that makes every woman want to scream your name.  Let it go, guy.)
 
Lewis informs him that his twin brother is alive and well and living in Hong Kong.  That twin named Alex slicks his hair back, smokes cigars, is a smuggler (mostly cars and cognac) and has a beautiful blonde girlfriend (Alonna Shaw) who just happens to work for Griffith, the guy who conspired to off his partner and his wife.  (Incredibly, she can’t believe a decent and legitimate businessman like Griffith would commit murder.  Sounds like someone’s been dipping into Alex’s hooch.)  Alex has her snooping around trying to find proof of his dirty dealings.  Here’s a better idea.  How about hiring Gil Grissom and his team to examine the bullet-riddled bodies of the mother and father?  Maybe the bullets lodged in their various parts would match the bullets found in the bad guys’ guns?  Or would that require actual thought and effort on your part?
 
In a very helpful scene (typical of a high concept Van Damme movie) Lewis explains what happened in the movie’s opening 10 minutes.  Apparently, his boss ran out of dough while in the middle of constructing that tunnel.  So he turned to Griffith who apparently has ties to the Chinese mafia and once everything was completed and the tunnel declared open, his family was declared redundant and it was decided they would be executed so Griffith and his pals would be the sole owners.  (Would it have killed the guy to do a background check first?)  Unfortunately, the twins escaped and now that they are informed of this important link to their past, they vow revenge.  They also have a legal claim of co-ownership of this tunnel, being rightful, surviving heirs, but I’m not sure anyone wanted to see a Van Damme courtroom drama.  It’s bad enough he makes dreadful action films like this.  I wouldn’t want him to butcher any more genres. 
 
From that point on, the twins argue with each other over pretty much everything (including Alex’s girlfriend which leads to the inevitable battle of the two Van Dammes which is a huge, unconvincing letdown) and declare war on Griffith and company leading to all the inevitable fight sequences one would expect from a very thin story like this.
 
Double Impact was issued in the summer of 1991 (I originally screened it on tape in 1992) and it is easily one of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s worst films, which is saying a lot because most of his films can be filed under Dreadfully Forgettable.  It is so clear that he harboured ambitions to be the next Arnold Schwarzenegger.  (He co-produced and co-wrote this movie.)  But unlike the great Austrian, he never could connect with audiences beyond his core constituency and for the most part, critics were collectively indifferent.  I’m part of that latter organization.  I swear if I hear him say, "black silk underwear" in that regrettable accent of his one more time…oh never mind.
 
Schwarzenegger has always known what he can and can’t do on-screen.  Unlike Van Damme, he made his accent work for him, not against him.  He was never going to be Hamlet or become a great method actor like Robert DeNiro.  He is a popcorn entertainer.  He looks like he can rip you to shreds and still crack you up like James Bond.  So, in essence, he kills you on two levels.  Van Damme always had the charisma but never the credibility.  His comic timing is frequently off and his athletic ability has always been limited to those roundhouse kicks, quick fire punches and the splits.  After seeing Jackie Chan in Rumble In The Bronx 10 years ago, I’m surprised Van Damme is still trying.
 
Besides his terrible acting and writing, there’s the pace.  Unlike Death Warrant which clocks in at barely an hour and a half, this formulaic movie goes on for almost two hours!  This movie is so slow and obvious it makes the Catholic Church’s journey to modernity seem faster.
 
The movie has so many holes in it I’m amazed it wasn’t produced by the Swiss.  Really, wouldn’t someone in law enforcement notice the strange murders of that couple and how, just maybe, it might have something to do with the tunnel being somewhat funded with dirty money?  Where are the investigators?  And how come the bad guys never bother to follow up on killing the twins?  Why would you wait 25 years to eliminate them when by that time they both turn into Jean-Claude Van Damme?  And one of them doesn’t even bother leaving the country!  Not exactly hard to find that guy, eh?
 
What more can you say about a film that has two bad Van Damme performances for the price of one, has a story which bored me endlessly, contains numerous action sequences which are not very exciting, takes too long to get to the obvious conclusion and is simply not fun to watch?  The answer?  I’ve seen worse.
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, September 1, 2006
10:40 p.m.
Published in: on September 1, 2006 at 10:57 pm  Leave a Comment  

Death Warrant

I used to hate Jean-Claude Van Damme.  His deplorable acting skills, his pitiful choice in material, his very existence.  I never could understand how he was able to pursue a very successful film career.  Truth be told, I still don’t but I now recognize something I didn’t pay attention to initially.  The man has a tremendous amount of charisma, perhaps more so than other actors with more talent.  When you see him in close-up in a movie, he fits Gene Siskel’s definition of a movie star. 
 
Van Damme hasn’t been on a North American movie screen since 1999 when he made his only sequel, Universal Soldier: The Return (which was actually the fourth film in the series; numbers 2 and 3 went straight to video) and it’s amazing how much he isn’t missed on this side of the world.  Overseas, however, he is still wildly popular.  Despite the arrival of new action heroes like Jackie Chan, Jet Li and now Jason Statham, just to name a few, he continues to churn out cinematic action fare at a fairly decent clip.  (Those same films go right to the video store over here.)  I wonder if those recent titles are as bad as the movies he made in the 1990s.
 
Take Death Warrant, for instance.  Released in September 1990 and distributed by MGM, Van Damme plays a French-Canadian Mountie who, in the first scene in the movie, tracks a notorious murderer named The Sandman (the aptly named Patrick Kilpatrick who looks a lot like the William Shatner mask Michael Myers always wears in those Halloween movies) to a decrepit, abandoned building in Los Angeles.  Why does he want The Sandman without relying on back-up?  He killed his partner.
 
After putting five bullets in him (how does he manage to get that gun in his hands so fast when it appears out of reach?), he gets a new undercover assignment behind bars.  9 prisoners and an Assistant Warden have been mysteriously executed with an ice pick to their brains and no one seems to know why.  Van Damme’s assignment is to pretend to be an armed robbery convict (a respectably violent crime to be convicted of, we learn), ask questions and find out why they were all killed and why.  To help him, he’s paired with a very green Cynthia Gibb who inevitably becomes his love interest.  When she visits him in prison, she’s supposed to pretend to be his wife.  (There’s an appalling moment when she’s molested by a guard supposedly checking for weaponry.  Afterwards, he tells her to strip nude.  (Nothing is shown.) Right afterwards, she gets it on with Van Damme in a trailer.  Really, would that put a girl in the mood?  Honestly?)
 
Robert Guillaume (yes, Benson, of all people) plays a fellow inmate Van Damme saves during a cafeteria confrontation involving a Latino convict who comes right out of the stereotype handbook.  (Van Damme later kicks his ass along with his Asian buddy during an action sequence set in the laundry room.)  We find out the reason he has a "dead eye" is because someone jabbed a knife in there.  (I don’t know about you but it just looks like he’s wearing a cloudy contact lense.)  Either way, he has a weird relationship with Van Damme.  He keeps telling him to "stick with your own kind," but then, inevitably, helps him out in numerous ways during the course of this tight but dopey and remarkably not-so-action-packed misfire.  He tells him he doesn’t owe him anything for saving him and yet, he keeps sticking his neck out for him.  Make up your mind, will ya?
 
But the white prisoners Guillaume wants Van Damme to "stick with" seem a lot scarier than the black ones.  One such prisoner actually has the first names of all the people he killed tattooed on the side of his head.  (No wonder the guy got caught.) Van Damme’s rare humourous reply?  "That’s very special." 
 
When we find out why the prisoners and the Assistant Warden were murdered, it’s a pretty interesting revelation but the explanation doesn’t make any sense.  Without giving anything away, would a rich person really have to resort to these means in the real world?  Would they really be as disadvantaged as those without their wealth?  I found all of this rather ridiculous, just like the entire movie.
 
And then, The Sandman returns!  (Shouldn’t he be dead?)  Then, Van Damme’s cover is blown.  (Even the unintentionally hilarious guards didn’t know he was a cop.  Why weren’t they informed?)
 
Death Warrant (love that title) is one of those movies where you watch a scene and you have questions which are never answered.  For instance, why did The Sandman kill Van Damme’s partner?  How the hell did Van Damme track him down?  Why was The Sandman hiding in that closet in that abandoned building?  Why would the real bad guy allow Van Damme to infiltrate the prison and investigate the crimes when at some point he would be exposed?  How and why does The Priest get his own cell to himself?  Why does he have a cell phone?  When the prisoners are let out of their cages, why do they stick around to watch a routine battle to the death with Van Damme and The Sandman?  Wouldn’t they all rather, oh I don’t know, LEAVE THE PRISON???
 
It’s all so silly except for one thing:  the casual racism against blacks.  Every once in a while, a character will say something horrible about black prisoners that just makes you cringe.  It also makes you wonder why it’s necessary.  If you have racist characters in a film, there’s gotta be a point you’re making with them.  If Death Warrant had a brain, maybe it would’ve made an effort along those lines.  But then again, when you have freed prisoners enthusiastically watching a prison fight instead of making a spontaneous bid for freedom, you’ve pretty much abandoned rational thought.  
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, September 1, 2006
7:16 p.m.
Published in: on September 1, 2006 at 7:23 pm  Leave a Comment  

Why I Haven’t Been Writing Much Lately

It’s been a deeply disappointing couple of months for this website.  Back in July, I posted two entries which outlined what I hoped to accomplish throughout the sticky days of summer.  I was planning to write lots of original pieces, I wanted to add new lists and update the existing ones, and to continue to post previously written material from my past.  Unfortunately, with the exceptions of several movie reviews, I haven’t managed to follow up on most of these promises.  The reason?  My continuing problems with advertising.
 
As mentioned earlier this summer, I gave up on putting Kanoodle advertising on the site.  (Read Bad News: No Sponsored Links and 3 Weeks Of Total Frustration for the whole story.)  But I’m still holding out hope with regards to my Amazon book list.  After not hearing from Windows Live Spaces for what seemed an eternity to an impatient man like me, after firing off yet another grumpy email to them they responded by saying they still don’t know why my books won’t link to amazon.ca.  They understood how I felt and will let me know when the problem is resolved, if it ever gets resolved at this point.  It was good to hear from them but I don’t understand why it’s taking so long.  I’m no computer nerd but perhaps this is unfair but does it usually take two months (and counting) to solve a small problem like this? 
 
The reason I’ve made such a big stink about all of this is because it was supposed to be a big surprise for the website.  My first opportunity to make a little money off of my writing.  In retrospect, I really should’ve waited to see what was going to happen before announcing it here.  I also shouldn’t have talked about all the writing projects I wanted to explore on here because, despite the best of intentions, you don’t always get to accomplish your goals.  From this point on, I won’t hype any surprises until I have taken care of every little detail.
 
Anyway, this whole Amazon/Kanoodle nonsense pissed me off so much I didn’t feel much like writing which angered me even more because I had a nice rhythm happening.  I would post things like crazy for a while, then take a break, then post, then another break, etc.  I’m closing in on the 100th Blog entry and I’m very proud of that.  With almost 1500 views, it’s been an encouraging comeback for my writing career.  At any rate, that’s the reason why things have slowed way down on here.  But that’s about to change.
 
I’ve decided that I’ve been distracted and annoyed long enough by all of this and should get back to the business of writing for my website.  (When my Amazon book list problem gets straightened out, I hope to make an announcement about that.  When that happens, I won’t be distracted any longer.) 
 
I won’t make any promises about writing as much as I did from the start but I do hope to slowly get back to where I was earlier this summer.  I have a lot of catching up to do. 
 
I will see what I can do about those ideas I had planned for the summer.  Maybe I’ll get the chance to finish some of those projects after all.
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, September 1, 2006
6:20 p.m.
Published in: on September 1, 2006 at 6:24 pm  Leave a Comment