The Airport Franchise

How can you dislike a movie that most other people love?  It’s a question that inevitably pops up from time to time.  For instance, when I saw Airplane! on tape in 2001, despite a few funny moments, it just didn’t work for me.  Not only is it not the most hilarious film comedy of all time, despite what Entertainment Weekly has long believed, it’s not even a good movie, period.  For seven years, I’ve been baffled.  Then, I saw Airport.  Mystery solved.
One thing I’ve learned about satire is that when you make fun of something that is already funny in its own right you’re just being repetitive and not at all clever.  That’s why Scary Movie is no substitute for Scream, why National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon I, a goof on the Lethal Weapon series, failed and why Airport is superior to Airplane!.
Even though it was sold as a disaster movie, it’s actually more of a human comedy and a compelling soap opera than anything else.  Based on the best-selling novel by Arthur Hailey, it tells several stories over the course of one long night during its nearly 140-minute running time.
Burt Lancaster is an overworked bigwig torn between two women, his increasingly bitter wife (Dana Wynter) and his babealicious assistant (Jean Seberg).  Seberg loves him right back but neither have made a move on each other.  He has two kids and he worries about breaking up his family.
Meanwhile, much to his annoyance, Dean Martin is married to his sister (Barbara Hale).  He’s an airline pilot secretly involved with a red-hot stewardess (played by the always fetching Jacqueline Bisset).  Before their fateful flight, Bisset drops a bombshell.  She’s preggers.  Vanity convinced her to stop taking the pill.  (She wanted to slim down.)  This leads to a remarkably adult conversation about abortion without ever once mentioning the word.  Martin surprises both Bisset and himself by standing by her.  It’s one of the most charming examples of cinematic adultery I’ve ever seen.
There’s more.  An important runway is blocked by a plane stuck in snow.  Lancaster calls his buddy, the great George Kennedy, to lead the shovelling effort.  A desperate husband (Van Heflin), tired of his inability to keep a job, plans to blow himself up on Martin and Bisset’s flight so his wife (Maureen Stapleton) can cash in his $225,000 life insurance policy he purchases before boarding.  And a crafty old lady (the very funny and lovable Helen Hayes who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar), who has numerous methods for sneaking onto planes for free, all remarkably effective because of predictably lax security, finds herself seated right next to the bomber.  Add a neighbourhood protest regarding the constant annoyance of passing planes at all hours (there’s a very funny moment involving an interrupted prayer before a meal) and a threat to shut down the airport during a bustling night of business and you’ve got more than enough plot to follow.
Despite that abortion scene (lamely referenced in Airplane!) and the fact the movie was released in 1970, Airport has a very old-fashioned feel about it.  It could’ve been made twenty years earlier without coming across any different.  The performances are all first rate.  The dialogue is clever and often very funny, intentionally so, I might add, and even the stuff involving the desperate husband works.  The movie hooked me all the way through.
However, Airport doesn’t have the heart to offer true suspense in its final act which is pretty much anticlimactic and it’s fairly obvious how the two romantic subplots will resolve themselves.  Despite its Best Picture nomination, this is not a masterpiece.
But it is a solid entertainment smart enough to balance its soap operatic tendencies with much needed humour.
Four years later, Airport 1975, the first sequel in the franchise was shipped to theatres.  Why a movie released in 1974 would have the wrong year in its title, I have no idea.  Nonetheless, this is a ridiculous follow-up.
Charlton Heston plays a pilot involved with a stewardess with strange eyes (Karen Black).  They’re not getting along at the start which doesn’t matter because they have zero chemistry.  While Heston rests before his next flight, Black serves people like Jerry Stiller, Norman Fell, Helen Reddy, Linda Blair, Myrna Loy, Sid Caesar and, believe it or not, Gloria Swanson (doing a nice job playing herself) on a 747 that will soon collide with a private plane helmed by an old man suffering a sudden heart attack.  It’s a laughable moment, not at all believable, that completely wipes out the two pilots and the flight engineer (would you believe Erik Estrada?).  With a gaping hole on the right side of the cockpit (but no fire?), Black is called into duty by an awakened Heston, an air traffic controller and George Kennedy, once again coming to the rescue of a fellow airline employee.  He’s been promoted to Vice President of Operations, according to his wife, Susan Clark, who, along with their young son, is also on that 747.
There’s something terribly unexciting about the odd-looking Black constantly receiving instructions on how to fly that damn plane (press that button, pull that switch, turn the wheel slowly), especially when there aren’t any serious close calls regarding the safety of the passengers.  (Also, I didn’t care for the condescending way these guys talk her through everything.)  There’s simply little energy here to jolt the tension.  At some point, neither side can communicate with one another.  As a result, a plan is hatched to literally drop in a fresh pilot to steer the 747 for the rest of the trip.  The overuse of chroma key and the fact that it takes two tries to get someone in the cockpit leads to some unintentional laughter.
That being said, Airport 1975 isn’t an awful film, despite its mediocrity.  Helen Reddy, who plays a nun, offers a nice, original song.  Linda Blair is sweet as the young girl in need of a new kidney.  Sid Caesar is good as the guy who claims to have a small role in the in-flight movie, American Graffiti (which is never named).  And Gloria Swanson ended her film career on a strong note, offering charming, short anecdotes about her glory days while working on an autobiography.
But unlike the original Airport, this movie defines itself as a disaster movie.  It’s a disaster, alright, (although it could’ve been much worse) but not the type the filmmakers were hoping for.
Much better is Airport ’77.  Jimmy Stewart is a kindly old billionaire about to launch two important ventures:  a new type of airplane (think carnival cruise ship with wings) and an art museum.  The much missed Jack Lemmon plays the pilot who will fly that plane to the museum.  But unbeknowst to him and his passengers (which include a wonderfully bitchy Lee Grant, Olivia de Havilland, a young Kathleen Quinlan, Christopher Lee (Lee’s stoic husband), and Gil Gerard (Lee’s lover)), three shady characters have plans of their own.  Hidden amongst the crew, they’re art thieves hoping to slip under the radar in The Bermuda Triangle, steal all the valuable art work on board and desert the plane on an abandoned island not used since WWII.  They attempt to accomplish all of this while knocking everybody out literally (like an unfortunate security guard and Lemmon) and with gas.  No, not the funny kind.
Unfortunately, they’re dumb art thieves.  One of them clumsily crashes the plane until it sinks into the ocean.  Once everyone comes to, Lemmon brilliantly takes charge while E. Emmet Walsh, in a rare good guy role, plays a veterinarian who looks after the injured passengers.  It’s only a matter of time before the structure of the plane gives way to immense water pressure so it’s up to our heroes to figure out how to alert the coast guard quickly without making the compelling situation worse.
Unlike its predecessor, the effects in Airport ’77 are quite good.  The tidal wave sequence and the third act, in particular, are effective, although the latter requires some patience on the viewer’s part.  Thankfully, it pays off nicely.  There’s definitely a lot more tension here than in Airport 1975.  It’s also a lot more fun.  I like how the movie spends time getting to know its characters rather than just jumping right into the action stuff.  As a result, we’re more emotionally invested in the fates of our heroes.
Ok, sure, the plane isn’t that spectacular (although I liked that laserdisc prototype) and once again, this isn’t a superb movie.  But much to my surprise, it’s funny, gripping and made with skill and affection.
I wish I could say the same for the final film in this franchise, The Concorde: Airport ’79.  Unlike the three previous chapters, it doesn’t feature the most sensational of casts.  How can it when Charo, Jimmie Walker and John Davidson are here?
See if you can keep up with this storyline:  An American airline, Federation, has bought a Concorde airplane, an invention so dazzling it can travel twice the speed of sound.  A French pilot (Alain Delon) is flying it to The States when out of nowhere appears a hot air balloon.  In it are three representatives of the environmental group, Airpeace, who are purposely blocking its path.  The Concorde gets out of the way in time and the environmentalists are detained, never to be heard from again.  Why they wanted to "stop the concorde" is never properly explained.  How are they major air pollutants, exactly?
Delon is in an on-again, off-again romance with Sylvia Kristel, a British stewardess.  (How common are these types of affairs in real life, I wonder?)  We have no idea what the deal is with these two.  Not that we care so much.  Yep, you guessed it.  They have no chemistry and their acting is less than special.
Delon’s co-pilot for The Concorde’s flights to Paris and Moscow is George Kennedy, playing the same character from the three previous installments.  He’s now a widow (the wife was killed in a car accident a year ago) and his son, who hadn’t reached puberty yet in Airport 1975, is now suddenly college bound.  Blame it on Rapid Aging Disease.
As expected, we get to know a little bit about some of the passengers on board.  Cicely Tyson (what is she doing here?) plays a desperate mother who hopes that a heart her doctor (Nicolas Coster from TV’s Santa Barbara) is keeping in a small, cardboard box filled with ice will save her young son’s life.  Talk about a shamelessly manipulative rehash of the kidney transplant storyline from Airport 1975.  There’s also a group of musicians, including pot-smoking saxophonist Jimmie Walker and formerly retired pianist Mercedes McCambridge (the voice of the devil in The Exorcist), en route to a gig at The Moscow Jazz Festival, not to mention The Russian Olympic Team, who have just completed a week-long goodwill tour of America before participating in the 1980 Games.  Among them, we meet an athlete who looks suspiciously like the Doritos guy from those old TV ads (he has a young, deaf daughter) and a beautiful gymnast (Andrea Marcovicci), a two-time Gold-medallist who is having a secret (and unconvincing) affair with sports reporter John Davidson, the dude with impossibly perfect hair.  Davidson’s colleague, Susan Blakely, is an anchorwoman with her own conflict-of-interest problems.  
During a newscast sequence that is all plot exposition we learn about a wealthy scientist (Robert Wagner) who’s about to win a prestigious award from The United States Science Foundation.  He’s married with three kids and Blakely’s banging him on the QT.  His company, Harrison Industries, has developed an anti-aircraft missile (which looks more like a giant, black dart).  Unfortunately, Blakely’s world is rocked one night when one of Wagner’s colleagues comes to her house to reveal some shocking news.  Wagner’s been secretly selling weaponry to rogue nations like Cuba and Libya as well as terrorist groups.  The incriminating documentation, complete with Wagner’s signatures, are in a safe place.   However, an assassin permanently silences the informant and comes close to elminating the comely (but dopey) anchorwoman, as well.
After failing to get a confession out of Wagner (he denies everything), just before she boards The Concorde the informant’s widow hands her the contents of the weapons deals which leads to a very funny moment where an accusation of murder is shouted for all to hear and Wagner has to slip out of the airport terminal tout suite.
Realizing he’s screwed in more ways than one, Wagner knows what he must do:  blow up that Concorde before his mistress publicly reports on his dirty deeds.
Like Airport 1975, this is a very silly picture.  There are more unintentional laughs here than scripted ones.  None of the romantic pairings are convincing, there’s little suspense involving the fate of The Concorde and there are huge gaps of logic.  For instance, how is it possible that a highly regarded scientist can carry on an affair with a popular newswoman out in public and no one bats an eye?  Where’s the discretion, people?  And why would he need documentation for illegal weapons deals?  Tax purposes?
The movie isn’t awful, though.  Somehow, someway, George Kennedy maintains his dignity and gives an endearing performance despite having to recite some pretty inane dialogue at times.  I like a couple of his intentional quips.  David Warner, who you might remember as the heel from Tron, does a good job, too, playing the underwritten flight engineer.  The best part of The Concorde: Airport ’79, though, is the cinematography, particularly all those glorious second unit shots of the plane in motion.  It really is an extraordinary machine.  It’s too damn bad they’re not in the air anymore.  Mixed in with that spectacular footage are some truly crappy special effects sequences.  Those explosions are really weak, the use of miniatures and overuse of chroma key transparent from the get-go.  And what about the ending?  Gee, that’s not an obvious winter background in a studio.
And what’s the deal with Martha Raye always having to whiz?  And that impromptu marriage ceremony?  Cornball!
By the end, we understand completely why this was the last Airport movie.  Oh well.  Two out of four ain’t bad.
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
7:28 p.m.
Published in: on July 29, 2008 at 7:28 pm  Leave a Comment  

No More Ebert & Roeper

It all began the year I was born:  1975.  Two movie critics writing for the two biggest dailies in Chicago were thrown into a new, scary arena:  Television.  One guy was overweight and wore glasses, the other was tall and thin and had a bad moustache to go with his thinning palette.  They weren’t snappy dressers (no ties) and they weren’t natural broadcasters.  It wasn’t a mutual admiration society, either.  How could it be when one guy wrote for The Sun-Times and the other was a Tribune employee?  Scooping the other was both their modus operandi.  Friendship was not.  Every month (later, every week) on PBS they debated the merits and demerits of the latest theatrical releases.  Movies they liked were given a hearty “Yes” vote.  Absolute stinkers were given an emphatic “No”.  Naturally, there were disagreements.  It was a simple, straightforward formula that would prove highly influential in the long run.  They called it “Opening Soon At A Theatre Near You”.
In its third season, the half-hour, commercial-free program was retitled Sneak Previews.  My earliest memory of it is from 1981.  On one particular show, they panned Halloween II but raved about Raiders Of The Lost Ark.  My dad loved taping the film clips they would show in the middle of their discussions, which was likely the only reason he watched it.  It’s a shame he didn’t tape whole episodes.  One wonders what it would be like to watch those old treasures today.  Little did I know at the time how important these ordinary figures would become much later in my teen years.   
Seven years later, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were too popular for PBS.  Disappointed with an underwhelming contract renewal offer, they bolted for the syndication market with their second show, At The Movies.  That one lasted for 4 years.  By 1986, they began their long association with Buena Vista by launching Siskel & Ebert & The Movies and the Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down rating system.  Three years later, it was permanently shortened to the more succinct Siskel & Ebert.  Despite their competitive nature, they indeed became lifelong friends.  That would be most evident in the next decade.
By the late 1990s, Gene became very ill.  A brain tumour threatened his tireless dedication to the show.  Some weeks he literally phoned in his opinions from his hospital bed during tapings.  But time was running out.  After announcing a break from The Dream Beat in early 1999, he died still fighting his brain cancer.  Roger and his staff put together a terrific tribute show which even included snippets of their hilarious appearance on an episode of The Critic.  Later that year, his partner renamed the program Roger Ebert & The Movies and had a rotating list of film luminaries like director Martin Scorsese and fellow critics like Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum and Good Morning America’s Joel Siegel sit in Gene’s aisle seat.  One such substitute, Richard Roeper, The Sun-Times’ Page 11 Columnist, would eventually become Roger’s new co-host.  After decades of suffering through second billing, the Buena Vista series was renamed Ebert & Roeper & The Movies, then simply Ebert & Roeper and finally, At The Movies With Ebert & Roeper.
Like Gene, Roger has had his battles with cancer, as well.  The most recent bouts occurred when tumours were spotted first on his thyroid and then, his salivary gland.  His weight soon plummetted.  His manner of speaking changed and took some getting used to.  He continued to tape the show with Roeper until an emergency operation changed everything in 2006.  More guest critics were called on to fill his seat.  Although he’s continued to file reviews for The Sun-Times, in between periods of much needed recovery, and bravely appeared at his own Overlooked Film Festival last year, as well as The Toronto International Film Festival, he hasn’t been on the show since.  The recent revelation that he’s lost his speaking voice was devastating, although if Gene were still around he would no doubt make a crack about finally getting Roger to shut up.
And now we have the worst news of all.  Today, both Ebert & Roeper have announced they will not return for another season of At The Movies.  (Roger’s statement is here.  Richard’s is here.)  The Thumbs disappeared after Ebert and Buena Vista publicly argued over a new contract.  (After months of nothing, the show now offers a “See It” for good movies and a “Skip It” for the crud.  Better than nothing but I miss The Thumbs.) It remains uncertain what the future of the program will entail.  My guess is that we’ll see a brief repeat of what happened in 1982 when PBS hired new critics to replace Gene & Roger on Sneak Previews.  (It lasted until 1996.)  But, really, who wants to see different critics? 
To Roeper’s enternal credit, he’s kept the show going all this time with mostly solid partners.  At The Movies, in its current form, is still an entertaining, insightful program.  I go from periods of watching it religiously every week to missing it for several months.  But with Richard’s final show approaching in mid-August, it’s time to be a regular viewer again.
Both critics are not saying what direction Buena Vista is going in or even what their future in TV will be.  (Roeper hints at starting his own show.)  Regardless, it’s a sad day for both broadcasting and film criticism.  As previously noted in this space and elsewhere, the movie critic is an endangered species, a victim of ruthless corporate firings.  The fewer critical voices we have for film, the more difficult it will be for audiences to make informed choices on how to spent their entertainment dollars.  With the theatrical experience getting more expensive these days, not to mention needlessly loud and riddled with those incessant pre-movie ads, critics are needed now more than ever.  Even if you’re like me and would rather watch every movie on home video (cheaper and far more enjoyable), we still need smart reviewers to direct us to the best of the best rather than the safe and obvious.
The good news is that both Ebert & Roeper will continue writing for The Sun-Times.  (Ebert’s even started a blog which you can check out here.)  But without the former’s speaking voice and the latter carrying on in his name, a worthy tradition is dying.
Not with a bang but with a whimper.
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Monday, July 21, 2008
6:06 p.m.
UPDATE:  Buena Vista has already announced their replacements here.  Call me crazy but At The Movies With Lyons & Mankiewicz just doesn’t sound right.  The new show kicks off in early September.
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
2:44 p.m.
UPDATE 2 & CORRECTION:  Ebert has a funny and insightful story reflecting on the end of his old show here.  In the piece, he mentions that Opening Soon At A Theatre Near You originally aired once a month, then became a weekly program.  I’ve made the necessary correction above.
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Thursday, July 24, 2008
1:51 p.m.
Published in: on July 21, 2008 at 6:06 pm  Comments (2)  

The Last Shot

It’s always a bad sign when the best scene in your movie is the opening title sequence.  Consider The Last Shot as a prime example.  Following a quick zoom on a name tag other names start appearing on various items related to the cinema.  Items like your ticket stub, your aisle seat, mustard and ketchup packets for your hot dog, a copy of that day’s newspaper that someone left on the floor, a bucket of popcorn, a coin someone dropped, the usher’s flashlight, even a patron with a tattoo, an incoming cell call and an arm cast.  If only this much attention was spent on the actual screenplay.
Alec Baldwin plays an FBI Agent desperate to nab some mobsters.  When we first meet him, he’s being threatened by a couple of them behind a screen at a Texas movie theatre.  It’s part of a sting operation but the guy’s a little nuts.  In order for his fellow agents (who are monitoring the situation closely in an unmarked vehicle thanks to a strategically placed hidden camera) to swoop in to make the arrests he has to give them the signal.  They have enough incriminating material to nab the two thugs but Baldwin waits until one of them follows through on their threat to cut off his fingers before giving them the go ahead.  We find out later that the one finger that did get severed required a three-day search before it was finally found.  Call me crazy but when an important part of your body is separated from you for that length of time, when it comes down to re-attaching it, wouldn’t that be rather impossible?  If doctors couldn’t successfully reattach Def Leppard drummer Rick Allen’s arm (because his body ultimately rejected it), which didn’t go missing for 72 hours, how could a long detached digit fare better in the operating room?
At any event, when Baldwin returns home he’s shocked to discover that his beloved dog, Sasha, has drowned in his jacuzzi.  An apparent suicide due to excessive loneliness, claims his maid.  Really?  Well, at least it wasn’t an overdose or a hanging.  That wouldn’t have been believable.
Ray Liotta plays Baldwin’s superior.  He reassigns him to Providence, Rhode Island where his next target is Tony Shalhoub, who is miscast as a distant cousin of John Gotti.  (Quick aside.  This story is based on real events that happened in the mid-80s.)  Shalhoub, like Chili Palmer in Get Shorty, would love to work in the movie business.  In the meantime, he’s busy illegally earning a cut from the local Teamsters union.
Baldwin has an idea on how to nab him.  He’ll pretend to be a big shot Hollywood producer looking to make a film in Rhode Island.  But he needs a screenplay first.
Enter Matthew Broderick.  He’s a bearded usher at Mann’s Chinese Theatre who has been trying for 10 years to get someone interested in a screenplay he co-wrote with his brother, Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother, Where Art Thou?), about their dead sister.  Nelson gave up years ago.  Three times a day, he plays the bad guy at a Bonanza tourist attraction (The Ponderosa, naturally) where he gets shot dead by their father who portrays Ben Cartwright.  He’s a miserable guy.
Broderick lives next to a Kennel Club but not just any Kennel Club, it’s a celebrity Kennel Club!  His girlfriend, the always sexy Calista Flockhart, has reached her breaking point.  In the middle of sex, she can’t take the barking from the caged dogs and proceeds to go outside and curse them all out.  Lovely.  She ends up dumping the aspiring auteur.  Temporarily.
Eventually, Broderick and Baldwin connect.  Is it just me or shouldn’t Broderick be just a teensy weensy bit suspicious of Baldwin’s enthusiasm for Arizona, the name of his pretentious script?  After 10 years of failure, wouldn’t you be a little bitter?  Maybe a little jaded and cynical?  Broderick never stops being positive and it’s quite sickening.  He’s just not a credible character.
He’s also not very bright.  Baldwin’s character’s name in the film is Joe Devine but for this assignment he changes it to Joe Diamond.  Unfortunately, one of his fellow agents (Ian Gomez) discovers an ad in the Yellow Pages for a plumber with that name.  So, it’s decided that he needs a new surname even though he’s already introduced himself to Broderick as Joe Diamond.  During a get-together with the people who will form the crew during Arizona’s shoot, Baldwin suddenly tells him that his name is actually Joe Wells and that it’s always been Joe Wells!  Broderick never considers this a serious problem.  (Question:  what does it matter if Baldwin’s fake undercover name is the same as some plumber?  Can’t there be two Joe Diamonds in the same state?  Sorry, that was two questions.)
Although he complains about having to shoot his desert tearjerker in Rhode Island (don’t ask about a plot synopsis), he doesn’t exactly insist on moving the shoot to the right state.  He’s so desperate he’s willing to make incredibly lame compromises in order to get the damn thing completed.  I’m just not buying it.
But the silly fool is completely unaware that the movie isn’t supposed to be made, it’s all a scam to catch Shalhoub.  Baldwin, however, gets caught up in the whole operation and is determined to make this stupid film so that he can go higher up the mafia food chain and possibly nail Gotti.  He pleads with his superiors to let him proceed with casting.  Soon, they’re giving him notes on fixing the script.  They suggest a motorcycle chase.
Did I mention that all of this is played for laughs?
I first heard about The Last Shot on July 28, 2004.  There was a trailer for it when I went to see Fahrenheit 9/11 at the Silvercity in Ancaster.  Apparently, it never played in Canadian theatres.  In America, it opened on four screens in September that year.  At its peak, it was exhibited on 40.  Its total domestic box office take:  just under half a million.
Having now screened the movie, I can understand why.  This might be the worst flick about filmmaking I’ve ever seen.  I laughed a grand total of 4 times.  That’s it.  Honestly, it’s hard to find humour in a movie this dark and depressing.  There are jokes about murder attempts, threats of violence, actual violence, suicide, abortion and my personal favourite, peeing at a restaurant table.  That’s quite the talent, Toni Collette.  (She plays a wacked-out, washed up actress hoping Arizona will usher in her comeback.)  Even an inside joke about Disney bombs.  Furthermore, not one female here is normal.  Collette’s out of her mind, Joan Cusack is a supremely bitchy producer (although I did laugh at one of her quips) and Flockhart spends much of her time screaming her head off at Broderick and those damn dogs.  And what’s the deal with her threat to do gangbangs?
We don’t care about any of these characters, the almost completely unfunny situation and, most especially, the secret that haunts Matthew Broderick regarding the inspiration for his script.  Not only that, the pacing is far too slow and sluggish.  This movie needs energy big time.  Maybe if everyone got addicted to Red Bull during the shoot.  The results couldn’t be any worse.  When Flockhart flips out against those canines at the Kennel you wonder if her rage is coming from a different place, that part of her that wonders why she agreed, along with everybody else here, to participate in this mess. 
The Last Shot completely wastes its terrific cast who you’ve definitely seen in better movies.  Was the screenplay they read far different than the one used for shooting?  Paging Mr. Monk.
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Monday, July 14, 2008
12:32 a.m.
Published in: on July 14, 2008 at 12:32 am  Comments (2)  

Yours, Mine & Ours (2005)

He’s a widow with 8 kids.  She’s a widow with 10 kids.  He’s an Admiral in the United States Coast Guard.  She’s a fashion designer.  He’s obsessive about control and cleanliness.  She’s an open-hearted hippie with a messy workspace.  They were high school sweethearts who married other people.  But after years of losing touch, a reunion at sea brings them back together.
That’s the set-up for Yours, Mine & Ours, one of the worst movies I’ve seen this decade.  Apart from being remarkably unfunny, this formulaic remake of the 1968 original is mean spirited, gross, cloying, manipulative and completely at odds with reality.  How three different Hollywood studios (Columbia, MGM and Paramount) were convinced of its worthiness makes me question their sanity.
Dennis Quaid plays Admiral Frank Beardsley, a walking stereotype.  With his trusty whistle and booming voice, he uses his military training to keep his kids in line.  He gets more than a little carried away with the lingo.  Rene Russo is his ex-girlfriend, Helen, who lets her obnoxious brats do whatever the hell they want whether it’s playing electric guitar, blowing tunelessly into a saxophone or chasing after the family’s dog, cat and pig in their front yard.  She’s more into group hugs than actual discipline.
Frank’s on the verge of getting promoted to Commandant while Helen, thanks to a big push from a sadly wasted Jerry O’Connell, is close to securing a major deal with Saks Fifth Avenue.  How either of these dimwits have any kind of time for personal ambition while their degenerate spawn continually fill their lives with unrelenting noise pollution is a mystery I could care less about.
While on a blind date in a restaurant, Frank spots Helen walking in with O’Connell’s character.  They briefly catch up but never have the slightest inclination to ask about each other’s love life.  Frank spots a wedding band on her finger, notices she’s not alone and internally jumps to the wrong conclusion.  A half-hearted, late night Google search of her name generates too many hits and he gives up immediately.  Nonetheless, he is eager to run into her again.
Lucky for him, he gets another chance when they both attend their high school reunion which takes place on a cruise ship.  Finally realizing the truth about their situations, they decide to elope which infuriates all of their kids.  You can pretty much guess what happens next.  They all move into a dilapidated mansion, complete with lighthouse, and proceed to be as annoying as humanly possible while getting settled in.  There are fights over bathroom time, a pretty boy comes between two of the teenage daughters, and there’s a disastrous sailing trip that is too gross to describe.
Inevitably, the kids set their phony differences aside in order to team up for a more important mission:  breaking up Frank and Helen.  How cheery.  It doesn’t take an Einstein to see where all this is going.
Being an only child, I’ve never understood Hollywood’s fascination with big families.  Honestly, what is so great about having little privacy, almost no peace and quiet and constantly competiting for everything in your own household?  It sounds like a nightmare.  Indeed, Yours, Mine & Ours is more of a horror movie than a family comedy.  It makes you seriously consider having a vasectomy.
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, July 12, 2008
11:15 p.m.
Published in: on July 12, 2008 at 11:15 pm  Leave a Comment  

Jesse Jackson’s Preventable Mistake

It should be The Golden Rule of Broadcasting:  beware of what you say in front of a microphone.
My TV Broadcasting professors at Mohawk College could not stress this enough.  One day during class, we were shown something that hammered this point home.  We were watching a student newscast when the weather segment began.  Everything went fine but when it concluded, something disastrous happened.  The weather girl doing the report was outside at the time on her way back into the studio.  It was not a warm, summer day which inspired this comment:
“It’s fucking cold out here!”
Needless to say, her spontaneous outburst was picked up by her microphone.  We all had a good laugh at her expense.  It’s a damn good thing this was a student production, though, where she could afford to make silly mistakes like this.  (These amateur shows were made for MHWK-TV, the campus closed circuit outlet.) But what if it was a professional broadcast and her moment of stupidity was seen and heard by a lot more people?  Chances are, she’d be out of a job.
The rule of thumb is very simple:  when in the vicinity of any microphone, whether it’s a lav (the kind that’s clipped on you), a handheld or a boom (the type used to record dialogue for movies and TV shows), always assume it’s “hot”.  Never assume it’s off, especially if you’re off the air.
This is a lesson Jesse Jackson has had to learn the hard way.  Recently, he made an appearance on the Fox News Channel.  During a break when he wasn’t on the air, he turned to his colleague seated next to him and proceeded to complain, in a very soft voice, about Senator Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee for President.  He was upset about Obama supposedly “talking down to black people” regarding his recent announcement to expand President Bush’s Faith-Based Initiatives policy.  At one point, channelling Tony Soprano, he whispered, “I want to cut his nuts off.” 
Needless to say, the moment was captured on tape even though it wasn’t aired at the time it happened.  (As sports broadcasters will tell you, even while on a commercial break, a special tape machine records everything that happens during a live event.  We just don’t get to see and hear what happens during those moments, unless somebody forgets to kill the mics and/or switch to the ads.)  According to this, it may very well have gone unnoticed were it not for a Fox employee who picked up on it while doing some routine digital transfer work.  Also, it’s been reported that Jackson had much more to say.  How long before we see that footage, I wonder?
Whether Jackson was accurate in his remarks or not isn’t the point here.  What matters is that, despite using a low tone of voice, his microphone clearly picked up every word he said.  (He’s been dealing with the media for decades.  He knows how TV shows are put together.  Why didn’t he wait until he was out of that studio and far away from any cameras and mics before speaking his mind?  His life would be less aggravating right now.)  And now the national media, Fox News and Bill O’Reilly, in particular, are having a field day with it.  Although Jackson has since predictably and unpersuasively apologized for what he said, it will be next to impossible for him to completely disassociate himself from his original words.  In this YouTube era, his comments will be available for viewing forever.  
And none of us would be talking about it if only he remembered The Golden Rule of Broadcasting.
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, July 11, 2008
11:04 p.m.
Published in: on July 11, 2008 at 11:04 pm  Leave a Comment  

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

July 3, 1991.  After waiting for almost a decade, the next chapter finally arrived in theatres.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day is one of the greatest sequels ever made.  I initially screened it with my mom during an afternoon exhibition in a United Artists multiplex in a mall in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina exactly a week after it opened.  We foolishly didn’t grab a bite to eat for lunch before entering the theatre which was pretty small for such a blockbuster and as a result, we were pretty starved by the time it was all over, just after 3 o’clock in the afternoon.  I mistakenly believed that the film would be rated R in my native Canada (no persons admitted under 18), which was why I was so eager to see it during our two-week trip with friends in America.  (It ended up getting an AA rating.  Persons under 14 need to be accompanied by an adult.)
Three months later, when my friend, Dave, and his parents came by to visit our house in Hamilton, we decided to see it at the nearby Centre Mall.  I screened it again on videotape in the summer of 1992 and wrote an assessment which differs greatly from the version you’re about to read.  Yes, this is yet another revised review from my unpublished travesty, The Movie Critic: Book One.  Yesterday, I posted a reworked opinion on The Terminator.  That was movie number 24 in the original manuscript.  T2, curiously, was number 11.  Why I screened them out of order remains a mystery.
Nevertheless, this movie is so familiar to me I’ve been able to perform much needed surgery on the original draft.  There are so many famous moments that recounting them from memory proved quite easy.
One last thing.  I forgot to comment on the music of The Terminator in my earlier review.  It does a good job of establishing mood.  In my original draft, I noted that it was "funky", although, looking back, that wasn’t quite the word I was looking for.  At any event, music plays such a key role in these two movies, most especially T2.  The opening title sequence, in particular, really gets you fired up for the movie.
Adult Accompaniment
139 minutes, 1991
Arnold Schwarzenegger–The Terminator
Linda Hamilton–Sarah Connor
Edward Furlong–John Connor
Joe Morton–Miles Dyson
Robert Patrick–T-1000
Earl Boen–Dr. Silberman
Produced by James Cameron
Screenplay by James Cameron and William Wisher
Music by Brad Fiedel
Directed by James Cameron
Every once in a while, Hollywood releases a movie that is best viewed on a big screen.  Terminator 2: Judgment Day is an excellent case in point.
The movie opens with the last climactic scene of its predecessor where we are reminded of just how painful it can be to be crushed under a hydraulic press.  As you may recall, a stressed out restaurant waitress named Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) was shocked to discover that a merciless cyborg (Arnold Schwarzenegger) from the year 2029 had returned to her time to eliminate her.  Why?  Because she will be the mother of John Connor, the leader of a human resistance movement at war with other merciless cyborgs in that year far off in the future.
Ten years after the events of the first film (1994, to be precise), it is a very different Sarah that we are reacquainted with.  Institutionalized for a decade in a state mental hospital for women, her demeanour and physical appearance have both completely changed.  She’s more muscular, less feminine (her hair is long and stringy, not at all flattering) and there’s no mistaking that look of anger and frustration in her face.  Hamilton does a marvellous job transforming this terrific character into her current incarnation. 
Her ten-year-old son, John (Edward Furlong making his feature film debut), is being raised by foster parents.  Along with his buddy, Tim (Danny Cooksey from Different Strokes), they’re young offenders who love to steal money out of ATMs by cracking PIN numbers.  Needless to say, he’s a handful.
Meanwhile, we learn something startling about the future.  Sarah informs us through narration that a nuclear holocaust will happen on August 29, 1997.  Three billion people will perish, unless our heroes can somehow prevent it from ever happening.  The man responsible for that terrible tragedy, Miles Dyson (a terrific Joe Morton), has no idea just how pivotal a role he will play in the movie’s exhilarating third act.
As with the first movie, two visitors from the year 2029 have travelled back to 1994 for an important mission.  Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a very different Terminator this time around.  Although he remains as lethal a presence as before, he’s been reprogrammed to protect Sarah and John from a much more durable enemy, The T-1000 (the superb Robert Patrick).  This thing has to be seen to be believed.  It’s a shape-shifting, liquid chameleon that can impersonate any human being it wants to.  While in human form, it can run like the wind and also transform its arms into long, jagged knives.  It’s one of the most incredible cinematic villains I’ve ever seen.
Inevitably, mother and son are reunited and soon find themselves on the run from the supremely adaptable T-1000.  Without question, the best scenes in this movie are those chase sequences, the backbeat of this franchise.  If you thought Schwarzenegger was relentless in The Terminator, your understanding of that term will completely change while watching Terminator 2. 
But at the heart of this story are two key relationships.  The familial bond that John and Sarah share and the most unlikely friendship between a killing machine and a pre-teen pacifist.  As the movie progresses, Schwarzenegger’s Terminator and Edward Furlong’s John draw closer together in moments of comic delight and surprising poignancy.  In a nice touch of irony, even though he’s destined to be a military leader as an adult, the younger John Connor doesn’t want his protector to do what he’s programmed to do, namely kill people.  That leads to a brilliant scene late in the picture where The Terminator manages to defuse a tense situation with a large police force without causing a single fatality.
Movies like this benefit greatly from being exhibited on a large screen.  Why?  Because it’s a spectacle.  From the phenomenal Academy Award-winning sound, make-up and special effects to the crisp cinematography to Brad Fiedel’s stunning score (which includes a much improved version of the electronic theme from the original), nothing about it is small.  It is that rare sequel that makes its predecessor look pedestrian and amateurish, which is amazing considering how skilled a thriller The Terminator actually is.
The movie is loaded with memorable scenes.  The moment Sarah meets the good Terminator and completely freaks out, that sicko mental hospital worker who licks her while she pretends to sleep, Dyson’s moment of heroism, an innocent water pistol fight transcended into a profound comment on human fragility, Sarah’s recurring nightmare about the nuclear holocaust, and all those fabulously exciting action sequences.
All of the performances are first rate.  Robert Patrick never steps wrong as the villain.  He’s the embodiment of boundless, single-minded obsession.  Schwarzenegger finds the right comedic and dramatic notes to make his seemingly emotionless cyborg a warm and endearing bodyguard.  Edward Furlong makes a fine debut with a tough character to play.  Despite his numerous flaws, we care about him deeply.  And Linda Hamilton, in easily her gutsiest performance, takes her Sarah Connor to places we never thought possible.  Her work reminds me greatly of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Aliens.  Not only is she a bad ass who has learned through experience how to survive one ordeal after another, she has that maternal instinct which comes in handy in the movie’s heartbreaking final scene.
Ultimately, it’s this surprising sense of optimism and hope, this fearless trust of the uncertain, the unknown, the unforeseen that elevates Terminator 2: Judgment Day into a place of excellence you never saw coming.  This was one of the best films of 1991.
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Thursday, July 3, 2008
11:35 p.m.
Published in: on July 3, 2008 at 11:35 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Terminator

The New York Times has a report about Terminator Salvation, the fourth, and hopefully, last film of this widely popular franchise.  It’s being filmed throughout the summer in New Mexico despite the very real possibility of another needless and potentially crippling labour dispute, this one involving The Screen Actors Guild.  Their most recent contract expired two days ago and so far, despite an offer already put on the table, no deal has been set.  Let’s hope for a swift resolution here.
After screening the dreadfully unnecessary Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines five years ago on DVD, I’ve had no desire to see another sequel in this series.  When you end the third movie on a note of pessimism rather than the optimism of the earlier chapters, not only are you insulting the intelligence of the audience you’ve pretty much destroyed the credibility of James Cameron’s work.  Quite the accomplishment.  Curiously, Arnold Schwarzenegger won’t be appearing in Terminator Salvation.  If he wasn’t the Governor of California, would that still be the case?
Since last year, I’ve been posting reviews of movies I screened between June 1992 and March 1993.  During that tumultuous period of my life, I tried to write my own Roger Ebert’s Home Video Companion which I called The Movie Critic: Book One.  After 152 pieces, I abandoned the project.  For the most part, the reviews are awful.  Contradictory opinion, sloppy grammar, too much plot summary and not enough solid criticism.  We’re talking way-off-the-mark material here.  After I finished watching a film, I would whip through an assessment without looking it over and making the necessary changes to finish it off properly.  A regretful error on my part.  Although I did try to rework a few assessments at the time, for the most part, this stuff is pretty much unpublishable in its original state.
However, six such articles have been rescued for the purpose of being showcased on this website.   If you go to my Movie Reviews section, you’ll find my revised takes on Batman Returns, Housesitter, Under Siege, The Silence Of The Lambs, The Crying Game and Scent Of A Woman.  You can now add The Terminator to that list.  Next year, the film will celebrate its 25th anniversary.  (Terminator Salvation, by the way, is scheduled for a Memorial Day weekend release in 2009.) 
Although this review is far different than the original rough draft, it retains my thoughts and feelings about the film after screening it on tape in the summer of 1992.  As usual, some of the original lines have been maintained, other parts have been tightened up and new lines have been written in.  Add it all up and it’s a much better piece than the sloppy original.
105 minutes, 1984
Arnold Schwarzenegger–The Terminator
Michael Biehn–Kyle Reese
Linda Hamilton–Sarah Connor
Lance Henriksen–Ed
Paul Winfield–Police Lieutenant
Earl Boen–Dr. Silberman
Produced by James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd
Screenplay by Gale Anne Hurd
Music by Brad Fiedel
Directed by James Cameron
The year is 2029.  The location:  Los Angeles.  A full-scale war continues to rage on between a defiant band of rebellious humans and the unstoppable killing machines.  It’s not been a good year for our heroes.  Millions of skulls and other bones fill our field of vision.  But they still fight for freedom and refuse to give in to technological oppression.
This is the opening sequence of James Cameron’s The Terminator, a flawed but thoroughly engaging thriller that all but assured the ascendancy of Arnold Schwarzenegger to the throne of 80s action movie stars.
He plays a cybernetic killing machine programmed by his brethern to return to L.A. in the year 1984.  His mission is simple.  He must kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), the future mother of John, the leader of the human resistance.  The good news for the villainous cyborgs is that she’s not yet pregnant.  Extinguishing her in the past before John is even conceived, in their minds, will alter the future for their benefit.  How this can be remotely possible is ultimately irrelevant.  It’s a compelling idea that invites us to go along for the ride.
The Terminator makes his presence felt immediately when he arrives in 1984.  Stark naked (who knew time travelling could be so kinky?) and appearing human, he runs into a small band of punks who offer him nothing but comic derision.  They say things like "Nice night for a walk!" and "No clean clothes!".  Big mistake.  After repeating their insults, he firmly demands their clothing.  When they refuse to comply, it’s an ugly scene that instantly establishes how much of a psychotic menace Sarah Connor is up against.
The good news is that Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) has also done the time warp.  He has volunteered for the mission to protect Sarah (Linda Hamilton) from this relentless assassin.
When we first meet her, she’s having a very bad day working as a waitress at a family restaurant.  She mixes up orders, she spills some food on a customer and a little kid dumps a scoop of chocolate ice cream right down her apron.  Her day is about to get worse when she watches the TV.  A 35-year-old mother of two has been killed.  Her name?  Sarah Connor.  With only two other women with that name in Los Angeles, it won’t take long for the ruthless Terminator to track her down and fulfill his deadly assignment.  If only the puzzled Sarah could figure out why all of this is happening.
Stripped to its barest essentials, The Terminator is a horror movie that’s all about the thrill of the chase.  There are some tense-filled moments here like the famous scene at the police station, a gripping sequence involving Sarah’s sexy but oblivious roommate or the moment where Sarah is shocked to discover a red laser on her forehead that gives her only seconds to process a situation she never asked to be thrown into.
Written by longtime comic book fan Gale Anne Hurd, the film does a good job of quickly establishing the characters and the basic premise.  Linda Hamilton earns our sympathy throughout her ordeal.  Being an overworked waitress in a busy restaurant ends up being a strong training ground for the far more serious ordeal involving her possible assassination.  I liked her chemistry with Michael Biehn who helpfully fills us in on important elements of the plot.  He is an effective action hero.
But the movie truly belongs to Schwarzenegger who wisely decided to tackle the role of the heel.  Like Clint Eastwood, The Terminator is a man of few words.  His presence alone is menacing enough.  You frequently wonder how in the hell our heroes are going to stop him.  It’s an iconic performance.
That being said, the special effects in the opening sequence look too fake.  Budget restraints hurt its conviction.  And, as expected in movies like this, there are dumb authority figures like Dr. Silberman (Earl Boen) who are slow to understand the dangers that Sarah and Reese are facing.
As for the possibility of changing the future by changing the past, that’s an old science fiction convention impossible to explain authoritatively.  The Terminator doesn’t have near enough time to even pause for a philosophical discussion about it.  And quite frankly, why should it?  As I said, it’s all about the chase and that’s reason enough to see it.
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Wednesday, July 2, 2008
10:39 p.m.
Published in: on July 2, 2008 at 10:39 pm  Leave a Comment