Last of the Monster Kids

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Thursday, May 31, 2018

DISASTER MOVIES MONTH: Geostorm (2017)




Roland Emmerich may be the modern Master of Disaster but he didn't get there by himself. Emmerich's partner-in-crime through most of his career has been Dean Devlin. Devlin would co-write and/or produce Emmerich's first four features, including “Independence Day” and “Godzilla.” The two stopped collaborating for a while, though they would reunite for that “Independence Day” sequel nobody saw. During this time apart, Dean Devlin would begin work on his directorial debut. “Geostorm” would resemble the disaster movies Emmerich made both with and without Devlin. Filming concluded in 2015. Following highly negative test screenings, there would be a series of costly reshoots with a different script, writer, and director. The film's release date was changed multiple times. So it's not surprising that, when it finally came out, “Geostorm” flopped.

The year is 2019. The world is being turn apart by adverse weather. Scientist Jake Lawson suggests a solution. A massive satellite is put in orbit around Earth. By deploying special probes into the upper atmosphere, it can control the weather. The satellite, nicknamed Dutch Boy, saves the world. Lawson, however, has a problem with authority and gets kicked off the project. Three years later, something goes wrong with Dutch Boy. Extreme storms begin to sweep the globe again. Lawson is re-deployed, sent aboard Dutch Boy to find a problem. He quickly comes to believe that someone is intentionally sabotaging the satellite. While Jake tries to uncover the treachery in space, his younger brother on Earth, Max, attempts to find the responsible party.

It's not hard to imagine “Geostorm” as a sequel to Emmerich's “The Day After Tomorrow.” You can imagine the government in that film cooking up this movie's plot as a wacky solution to their problems. If Devlin's film is a refutation of the disaster movie Emmerich made without him, it's not a very confident one. “Geostorm” seems to include its disaster movie elements as a half-hearted obligation. Devlin freely mixes genres and seems more interested in the additions. Parts of “Geostorm” play out more like a sci-fi thriller. There's a lot of scenes of people investigating stuff on the satellite or squinting at computer screens in agitation. There's a zero-g race against the clock near the end. One moment, featuring an astronaut nearly set adrift into space, was clearly inspired by “Gravity.” Gerald Butler even gets into a totally superfluous melee fight abroad the space station.

Devlin's debut is not content to be just a disaster movie/sci-fi space thriller mash-up. It's also a laughably half-assed political thriller too. When not destroying cities, the film is split evenly between Jake's journey on the space station and Max's espionage-tinged adventure on the ground. He gets a hip sidekick, a hip computer expert played by hip black woman Zazie Beetz, leading to some hilariously bad hacking sequences. In maybe the movie's most ridiculous moment, Jake sends his brother a coded message using one of the goofiest methods I've ever seen. Eventually, Jake is tasked with protecting the president, allowing “Geostorm” to include some gun fights and car chases. Not only is this stuff pretty poorly done, it's also in service of a very silly plot twist. The justification for the villainous plan could not be more of an ass-pull.

I don't know if “Geostorm” focuses on these other plot points because its disaster scenes suck or if its disaster scenes suck because the filmmakers were focusing on other plot points. Whatever the reason, “Geostorm” features some of the weakest mass destruction this side of the Syfy Channel. The scenes of devastation are deeply uninspired. Volkswagen-sized hale stones fall on Tokyo. A tidal wave washes away Dubai. The Great Pyramids are torn apart by tornadoes. A firestorm levels Hong Kong. All of these scenes recall other disaster movies, especially “2012” when someone outraces an earthquake. “Geostorm” is the cheapest looking 120 million dollar movie I've ever seen. The CGI is unconvincing. Moreover, the ideas behind these scenes range from uninspired to goofy. A scene where a woman outruns a human-ice-cube-creating frost cloud – also ripped off from “The Day After Tomorrow” – in Rio, is badly executed and deeply goofy. “Geostorm's” attempt at spectacle leave a lot to be desired.

Like “San Andreas,” “Geostorm” is a modern disaster flick that stretches the definition of a star-studded cast. Gerald Butler and Andy Garcia, who plays the President, are stars. Ed Harris, as the vice president, is a highly recognized character actor. But what about Jim Sturgess and Abbie Cornish, would-be stars that never really broke through? Regardless of its wattage power, “Geostorm's” cast is underwhelming. Gerald Butler gruffly scowls his way through the movie, in a deeply uninspired fashion. Stuck in the movie's most ridiculous plot, Cornish and Sturgess seem totally lost. Garcia does what he can with some awful dialogue. Harris comes the closest to giving a decent performance, because he's an adamant professional even when stuck in a weak part like this. The international-flavored cast, which includes another genuine star in the form of Daniel Wu, makes no impression at all.

I have no idea what Dean Devlin's motivations behind making “Geostorm” were. Maybe he was just trying to give people more of what they wanted. Yet “Geostorm” comes off as either deeply calculating or incredibly lazy, throwing surprisingly uninventive disaster sequences into a cockamamie plot.  The movie made 221 million at the box office, which seems like an awful lot, but was still declared a major bomb. The reshoots and rewrites might have ruined a solid genre picture. Maybe. But the studio desperately trying to save a campy mess strikes me as more likely. Devlin has bounced back, I guess. His next movie, “Bad Samaritan,” is certainly playing to empty theaters all over the country. The disaster genre will probably survive but “Geostorm” is destined to be forgotten, a laughable attempt to emulate better, more entertaining popcorn flicks. [4/10]

[THE DISASTER MOVIE CHECKLIST: 7 outta 10]
[] Awards Bait Ballad
[X] Corrupt or Incompetent Authority Figures
[X] Destruction of Famous Landmarks
[X] Grim Predictions
[X] Group In-Fighting
[] Heroic Sacrifices
[X] Massive Collateral Damage or Explosions
[X] Pets or Kids are Imperiled but Survive
[X] Romantic Couple Resolves Problems
[] Star-Studded Cast



Disaster Movies Month is ready to blow out of here. Though not my favorite themed moth I've done, as the constant excess left me a little burnt out, I still had a lot of fun/ To everyone still standing, I hope you enjoyed the ride. There's certainly enough movies in the genre left that I may do another one of these some days. For now, I'm looking forward to getting back to Director Report Cards. Soon you soon.



Wednesday, May 30, 2018

DISASTER MOVIES MONTH: San Andreas (2015)




The disaster movie has not quite receded from the public's mind. The blockbuster market is primarily dominated by superhero movies and other forms of rebooted, sci-fi spectacle these days. In this world of high-tech distraction, just watching a city get shaken apart or blown away probably seems a little quint. Yet, when paired with the right A-list star or spiffy enough trailer, audiences will turn out for such films. Despite being as stock-parts as a disaster movie could be, so much so that it's practically a remake of “Earthquake,”  “San Andreas” managed to be a decent sized hit in 2015.

Ray Gaines is a rescue helicopter pilot, working in Los Angeles. He's very good at his job. He separated from his wife, Emma, when their first daughter died in a boating accident. Their second daughter, Blake, is heading to college in San Francisco. Emma is re-marrying a famous architect. This normal day is interrupted when a series of massive earthquake shakes through Nevada. The quakes only grow as they progress up the San Andreas fault line. The biggest earthquake on record – a 9.6 – absolutely decimates all of California. Through this chaos, Ray and Emma become determined to find Blake and ensure she's safe.

If watching a month of disaster movies have taught me anything, it's that most of these films have pacing problems. It's pretty common for there to be a half-hour or so devoted to developing our characters. After that, disaster strikes. Once the mayhem cools down, we have a slower second half, perhaps building to a smaller calamity. “San Andreas” tries to get around these frequent issues by filling the film with constant calamity. A large earthquake destroying the Hoover Dam is just the beginning. A series of successively bigger earthquakes shake through the state of California, destroying each of its biggest cities. Cue a shit ton of buildings shaking, falling over, and collapsing. And, after that, the tidal waves strike!

From the perspective of navigating the genre's usual pacing problems, this is pretty clever. Yet this approach, of the film constantly topping itself with even bigger destruction, introduces problems of its own. Director Brad Peyton and his effects crew do create some memorable set pieces. Carla Gugino trying to escape a skyscraper as he falls down around her, eventually running across the roof to Johnson's helicopter, is suitably tense. A later scene has the parents racing a boat up a tidal wave, just avoiding collision with a massive freighter. That's ridiculous but pretty cool, especially when shipping crates slide across the Golden Gate Bridge. However, “San Andreas'” non-stop devastation causes few of the set-pieces to stand out. The film borders on the repetitive, maybe even the exhausting, at times.

“San Andreas” is unapologetic about the cliches it utilizes. There's an expert delivering grim warnings. A minor character sacrifices himself to save a child. The stock element the movie leans on the hardest is an estranged couple reconciling through the disaster. Carla and Dwayne confront the pain that led to their split-up and forgive each other. She realizes that her current boyfriend is an asshole. By saving their living daughter, they symbolically save their deceased one. It's routine stuff. However, the charms of Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino go a long way. The two have great chemistry together, joking and chatting in a believable fashion. The film emphasizes their sense of adventure over the destruction they see, such as when they intentionally crash a copter or make a daring escape via parachute. It's not exactly fresh but it is a lot of fun.

I'm not sure if “San Andreas'” cast quite classifies as star-studded. The Rock is, of course, a huge star. Paul Giametti, beloved and widely recognized, appears as the geologist who predicts the worse? Is Gugino, beloved character actress though she might be, a star? What about Ioan Gruffudd, as the new boyfriend who is punished for unworthiness? His leading man career never really took off, even after playing Mister Fantastic. Alexandra Daddario, who is a good choice to play Gugino's daughter, is more up-and-comer than full-blown star. (Though the movie does feature a random appearance from a pop star, Kylie Minogue which seems in keeping with the all-star cast tradition.) Either way, the supporting cast is very likable. Daddario is gorgeous and believable as a young but tough girl. Hugo Johnson-Burt is down-to-Earth as the guy who accompanies her while Art Parkinson is never obnoxious as his little brother.

“San Andreas” gets a lot out of its memorable images. Those shots of the California skyline literally rippling are so cool, the film repeats them several times. The cast, Johnson and his immense shoulders, carry much of the movie too. Otherwise, “San Andreas” is a destruction-filled disaster flick that doesn't bring anything special to the table. It was successful enough that a sequel entitled “Ring of Fire” is supposedly in development. Watching the Rock fight a volcano will probably be pretty fun but part two will hopefully – but not likely – be not so excessive that it becomes deafening. [6/10]

[THE DISASTER MOVIE CHECKLIST: 7 outta 10]
[] Awards Bait Ballad
[X] Corrupt or Incompetent Authority Figures
[X] Destruction of Famous Landmarks
[X] Grim Predictions
[] Group In-Fighting
[X] Heroic Sacrifices
[X] Massive Collateral Damage or Explosions
[X] Pets or Kids are Imperiled but Survive
[X] Romantic Couple Resolves Problems
[] Star-Studded Cast

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

DISASTER MOVIES MONTH: 2012 (2009)




People predict the end of the world all the time. Most ignore it, the self-proclaimed prophet rightfully dismissed as a nut job. For some reason, however, the 2012 prophecy really caught on. The concept had been kicking around since the seventies, giving it more “legitimacy,” I guess. The myth also had the good ol' appeal to antiquity going for it. Whatever the reason, a surprising number of people were genuinely concerned that the world might end on December 21, 2012. Surely adding fuel to the fire was Roland Emmerich's “2012.” (Considering “The Day After Tomorrow” was based on an Art Bell/Whitney Streiber book, it seems Emmerich listens to a lot of Coast to Coast A.M.) The film used the paranoia surrounding the date as free promotion but actually had little to do with the pseudo-scientific belief. In fact, it was another chance for Roland Emmerich to create an ever-bigger disaster movie.

In 2009, it is discovered that solar flares will melt the Earth's cores and cause the magnetic poles to shift.  The resulting geological reshaping of the world will be cataclysmic, killing most of the human race. The world's governments work in secret to ensure humanity's survival, building massive arcs. Now it's 2012 and failing sci-fi author Jackson Curtis doesn't know any of this. He's just trying to stay in touch with his kids, who prefer their mom's new boyfriend. On a camping trip, he stumbles upon a conspiracy theorist who promotes the belief. Massive earthquakes shake L.A. afterwards, causing Jackson to believe the crazy man is right. As the devastation begin, he works to protect his family.

When talking about “The Day After Tomorrow,” I referred to it as an excuse for Roland Emmerich to throw every natural disasters he could think of into one movie. Completely divorcing himself from even the thinnest wisp of plausible science allows Emmerich to craft an even bigger disaster movie. “2012” begins with a massive earthquake completely destroying L.A. The characters move from car to plane, experiencing several very close calls as buildings topple above them and the ground falls out from under them. Soon afterwards, the Yellowstone caldera erupts, allowing Emmerich to depict an enormous volcano on-screen. Our heroes just barely escape this catastrophe as well. And the movie's just getting started, as enormous walls of ash and massive tidal waves follow soon after. It's like the director got a chance to include every natural calamity that didn't make it into “The Day After Tomorrow.”

Through it all, Emmerich keeps his focus on the puny humans on the ground. The likelihood of John Cusack and his kids outrunning both an earthquake and a volcano are low. However, the action is well choreographed enough that you feel their adrenaline. Jackson's limo dives under buildings and bridges as they collapse, or leaps over suddenly appearing fissures. Once in an airplane, they're diving around the remains of buildings. It's directed with surprising intensity. Yet “2012” does not come off as a grim film. There's a lot of humor, the best of which is provided by the interaction between the characters. (The worst of it, bursting septic lines and Sunday-driving old ladies, is less than ideal.) Against all odds, “2012” never quite looses sight of its human element, making the mayhem a lot more meaningful.

While the disaster movies of the seventies have always been an inspiration for Emmerich, it seems “2012” is especially indebted to these blockbusters of the past. As in those films, “2012” follows a large cast spread across multiple locations, slowly brought together. And it's a good cast too. John Cusack brings a nice frantic energy to Jackson. He plays off Amanda Peet well, as his ex-wife. Chiwetel Ejiofor is humane and insightful as the geologist who predicts the event. One of the quirkier, less explored subplots involves Ejiofor's jazz singer dad, played by Blu Mankuma, on a cruise ship caught in the disaster. (George Segal, previously of “Rollercoaster,” appears as his partner.) Danny Glover can't quite match Morgan Freeman's high water mark, as fictional president in a disaster flick, but he sure tries. Oliver Platt, meanwhile, is perfectly greasy as the movie's asshole bureaucrat villain. Woody Harrselson is similarly perfectly cast as the unhinged, pickle-obsessed conspiracy theorist. In fact, that casting might be a little too on the nose.

Disappointingly, “2012” has something else in common with “The Day After Tomorrow.” Both films begin with impressive sequences of mass destruction. After the White House is flattened by the combined efforts of a huge wave and a rogue aircraft carrier, a second half focusing on survival begins. This is simply not as compelling. Watching our heroes travel through the Chinese country side and then fight their way onto one of the arcs features fewer opportunities for crowd-pleasing spectacle. People get caught in the huge gears and water floods the ship but it lacks the immediate danger of the film's first half. A sequence especially devoted to Cusack swimming back and forth through the flooded lower half is even a bit hard to follow. “2012” drags to its conclusion, rather than ending on a thunderous note. The destruction should've been spaced out a lot more evenly.

Naming your movie after a date, and the pseudo-scientific paranoia related to it, was probably not a great idea from a historical perspective. The 2012 hysteria will only become sillier the further away from it we get. Truthfully, “2012” could've been called anything else – “Solar Flare” or “End Times” or something like that – and the movie would be largely unchanged. Either way, it's a pretty solid modern disaster flick. By focusing primarily on the little humans on the ground, and upping the carnage to previously unseen levels, Emmerich manages to craft some of the most intense set-pieces of his career. A weak second half is all that's preventing it from being a totally enjoyable popcorn flick all the way through. [6.5/10]

[THE DISASTER MOVIE CHECKLIST: 10 outta 10]
[X] Awards Bait Ballad*
[X] Corrupt or Incompetent Authority Figures
[X] Destruction of Famous Landmarks
[X] Grim Predictions
[X] Group In-Fighting
[X] Heroic Sacrifices
[X] Massive Collateral Damage or Explosions
[X] Pets or Kids are Imperiled but Survive
[X] Romantic Couple Resolves Problems
[X] Star-Studded Cast

*The Academy somehow overlooked Adam Lambert's “Time for Miracles.”


Monday, May 28, 2018

DISASTER MOVIES MONTH: The Day After Tomorrow (2004)




After two years of dueling volcano and asteroid stories, the nineties revival of interest in disaster movies burned out. 1999 would not see two rival movies about, I don't know, sinkholes. However, one man's undying interest in the genre has made sure we get a new mass catastrophe-themed movie every couple of years. Roland Emmerich's “Independence Day” was one of the films that started up the nineties disaster resurgence. Emmerich would return with 2004's “The Day After Tomorrow.” I recall the movie being widely dismissed as a cheesy throwback at the time. However, “The Day After Tomorrow” would still become a massive money-maker, proving that the public had not totally turned their back on this style of blockbuster.

In Antarctica, climatologist Jack Hall is drilling for ice core sample in the Larsen Ice Shelf. He nearly looses his research and his life when the shelf breaks apart. Hall begins to believe that global warming will trigger a massive storm and severe weather conditions, with debilitating effects on society. The government laughs him off. Hall's son, Sam, is traveling with some friends (including the girl he likes) to New York City. That's when the prophesied storm begins. Massive tornadoes destroy Los Angeles. An enormous flood brings Manhattan to its knees. Afterwards, a massive blizzard blows through. Hall begins marching towards NYC, in hopes that his son has survived the apocalyptic conditions.

Unlike Michael Bay, who has only atrophied into a more deprived filmmaker over the years, I genuinely believe Roland Emmerich is getting better. “Independence Day” paired grotesque white trash humor with cruel destruction. Emmerich's “Godzilla” was a deeply dumb remake with no respect for the original. “The Day After Tomorrow” is, at the very least, overwhelmingly earnest. For example, the movie features conversations about philosophy and the value of books in-between scenes of mayhem. The film was loosely based on Art Bell and Whitney Strieber's conspiracy theory/pseudo-non-fiction book “The Coming Global Superstorm.” I'm also certain that Emmerich got the green-light due to the success of “An Inconvenient Truth.” The film is deeply, deeply silly but seems motivated by a sincere desire to draw attention to the threat of climate change.

So the filmmaker's heart is ultimately in a good place. However, I suspect Roland Emmerich was also drawn to the material because it allowed him to make practically every type of disaster movie all at once. “The Day After Tomorrow” is the “Destroy All Monsters” of disaster movies. Emmerich gets to create the biggest tornado sequence of all time, as L.A. is literally blown off the map. New York is sunk beneath the waves by a huge flood. People are frozen to death in an instant by an extremely powerful flash-frost. The Hollywood sign is sucked up into a cyclone and the Statue of Liberty is both flooded and frozen. Emmerich engineers some striking visual in the middle of all this chaos. A janitor completely misses the huge tornado just to step outside a door and see the rest of the building torn away. A wall of water sweeping through a busy New York street generates some decent tension. There's some creativity and novelty to the mayhem.

Once the superstorm subsides a bit, New York being buried in skyscraper levels of snow, “The Day After Tomorrow” shifts focus slightly. It becomes a survival thriller. Sam, his friends, and the handful of people who chose to stay in the library try to survive the harsh conditions. The film slows down a lot at this point, turning its attention to burning books for warmth or stealing food from a vending machine. However, there are still a couple of decent sequences during this half. Sam uses a landline to contact his dad, located in a tunnel quickly filling with water. After Dr. Hall makes it to the library, a partner of his falls through the glass ceiling of the building, a solidly suspenseful moment. After Sam's crush gets sick, he sneaks aboard a wayward boat to located medicine. At that point, the heroes are pursued by CGI wolves. It's a pretty silly sequence but Emmerich executes it with enough tension to justify its inclusion.

“The Day After Tomorrow” does not quite have the level of star-studded cast I've come to expect from disaster movies. Dennis Quaid and Jake Gyllenhaal are pretty big stars but Ian Holm and Emmy Rossem were better known as character actors by this point. Quaid gets to play a squeaky-clean good guy, who heroically marches across a barren city to rescue his kid. It's a fairly bland part but Quaid works well with it. Gyllenhaal has more personality as the son, who does well while nearly panicking. Holm's subplot is pretty irrelevant, though Holm still easily makes his part charming. Rossem has decent chemistry with Gyllenhaal, even though her part is fairly thinly written.

The science behind “The Day After Tomorrow” is, of course, completely ridiculous. Even if the extreme weather patterns shown in the film were possible, they wouldn't happen so immediately. Amusingly, the super storm is over in just a few days. It's sort of fun to see a movie based on a book by conspiracy theorists all about what a huge threat global warming is. The conspiracy theorists these day are more likely to believe climate change isn't even real. The film's politics are pretty left in general, as a Dick Cheney stand-in is a bad guy and the day is saved by opening the borders. “The Day After Tomorrow” is an easily forgotten snack but one I found entertaining. [7/10]

[THE DISASTER MOVIE CHECKLIST: 8 outta 10]
[] Awards Bait Ballad
[X] Corrupt or Incompetent Authority Figures
[X] Destruction of Famous Landmarks
[X] Grim Predictions
[X] Group In-Fighting
[X] Heroic Sacrifices
[X] Massive Collateral Damage or Explosions
[X] Pets or Kids are Imperiled but Survive
[X] Romantic Couple Resolves Problems
[] Star-Studded Cast


Sunday, May 27, 2018

DISASTER MOVIES MONTH: Armageddon (1998)




As I wrote before, disaster movies was one of the few subjects my dad and I bonded over. My parents had separated by 1998 and I would sometimes spend weekends with my dad. Since both of 1998's asteroid movies came out only a few months apart, “Deep Impact” and “Armageddon” were released on video around the same time. I recall a day where my dad rented both and we spent the day watching them, comparing the two. Even as a kid, I preferred “Deep Impact.” I found “Armageddon” to be punishingly excessive. My dad felt the opposite. It seems the majority of the world agreed with him. “Armageddon” would become the highest grossing film of the year internationally, while “Deep Impact” was only the sixth. Its massive success would solidify Michael Bay's status as one of Hollywood's most popular directors.

Stop me if you've heard this one before. A huge asteroid is on a direct collision course with Earth. Should it strike us, all life on the planet will be wiped out. NASA cooks up a plan to land a shuttle on the space rock, drill a hole, and destroy the asteroid from the inside out with a nuclear detonation. “Armageddon” includes quite a few differences from “Deep Impact,” however. In Bay's film, the government deems it easier to teach drillers to be astronaut than astronauts to be drillers. A team composed of experienced oil drillers, led by Harry Stamper, are sent on the job. The rock is also bigger here, the size of Texas, and is proceeded by many smaller projectiles. Bay's film is also more preoccupied with the drama between the blue collar workers, as cocky guy A.J. is in love with Harry's daughter.

I know I am but one voice in the film-o-sphere saying this but: I am genuinely baffled by Michael Bay's continued popularity and success. Crowd-pleasing spectacle is his goal, and I guess he must achieve it, but his films are frequently hard to follow. The editing in “Armageddon” is often incoherent. The early scenes of New York being pummeled by small meteors is full of cars exploding and buildings being smashed. Yet there's little continuity between these special effects. To give you an idea of how badly handled this is, a meteorite heads for the Chrysler Building in one shot. We don't see the Chrysler collapse until several frenzied cuts later. When “Armageddon” isn't over-edited, its overlit. Bay is obsessed with grimy, low lighting, shooting nearly all his scenes in a dramatically lit, overwhelmingly gray fashion. All the scenes set on the asteroid look like they were shot with a turd. “Armageddon” is incredibly noisy, obnoxious, and hard to follow.

Yet “Armageddon's” crimes are not merely aesthetic in nature. Bay's film is offensive for other reasons. He shows a clear contempt for women. The astronomer who discovers the asteroid is introduced screaming obscenities at his wife. He then names the rock after her, for similarly crude reasons. The drill team is mostly composed of horny good ol' boys. When they visit a strip club, Bay dedicates several minutes to drooling over the half-dressed dancer. Later, the one female astronaut is tossed aside and insulted so a man can smash delicate equipment... Which, of course, works. Bay doesn't just hate women. The film begins with the kind of annoyingly broad black stereotype the director obviously finds hilarious. Then again, maybe I'm being too hard on Michael Bay. His sexism and racism is a side effect of his overarching misanthropy. He hates all humanity and that nihilism is evident in “Armageddon's” mindless destruction.

“Mindless” is, in fact, the best way to describe “Armageddon.” The film is relentlessly stupid. The oil drillers are all suffocatingly macho characters. They get tattoos, hit on women, ride motorcycles, yell at each other a lot, and sometimes take their clothes off for no reason. They're backed-up by a soundtrack mostly composed of Aerosmith songs, the exact kind of gonad-driven dad rock you'd expect these guys to listen to. Bruce Willis' whole character arc involves a pretty gross reluctance to letting his daughter make her own decisions. He, naturally, reacts with violence. That dick-measuring mentality is prevalent throughout the endless shouting and in-fighting that happens once the team lands on the asteroid. That location also features the film's most painfully dumb moment, when Ben Affleck successfully jumps a giant drilling machine over a space-gorge. (It only barely beats out Steve Buschemi's bout of space dementia as the film's dumbest moment though.)

And yet, as unrelentingly brain-numbing as “Armageddon” is, it also features an utterly unearned sentimental streak. The love story between Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler is goopy in its mushiness. Even though the two seemingly have nothing in common, and Affleck's character is kind of a jerk, their love is portrayed as a source of fundamental goodness. So is Bruce Willis' fatherly love of Liv, even though it actually borders on the obsessive. When Bruce gives up his life to ensure Earth's protection, the movie cuts to a dreamy montage of father and daughter experiencing happier times together. Even though Bay obviously despises all of humanity, the film's weepy streak goes into overdrive once Earth is saved. We're greeted to a montage of people having parades and telling stories of the great heroes only minutes after the asteroid is destroyed. “Armageddon” then ends at a wedding that also acts as a memorial for the men who so bravely gave up their lives. That Aerosmith's theme song, which was unavoidable in 1998, is similarly overblown in its gasping, manly-tears emotion.

So is there anything I like about “Armageddon?” Well, that shot of Paris being annihilated is pretty effective. I mean, it's dripping with the same hateful venom as the rest of the movie but it is a cool visual. Some of the cast does seem to be having fun. Bruce Willis isn't in total sleepwalking mode, blustering in a mildly entertaining fashion. Steve Buschemi plays an obnoxious character but the actor excels when playing slightly sleazy, highly eccentric, and rather jittery types. (Peter Stromere, another talented performer, sadly just mugs furiously in his role as a Russian cosmonaut.) Likable performers like Owen Wilson, Michael Clarke Duncan, and William Fichtner do what they can to humanize cartoonish roles. Billy Bob Thornton, meanwhile, is genuinely good as the NASA guy running the mission. He's funny when he needs to be and grave when the script calls for it. Sort of wish that performance was in a totally different film.

Other than his overriding scorn for anyone other than white bros, excess is, of course, Michael Bay's primary characteristic. “Armageddon” is two and a half hours long and feels closer to six. I had to watch it in installments for this review to get through the whole damn thing. Bay squeezes in as much carnage, as much over-the-top emotion, as much macho blustering, as many scrambled action sequences as he possibly can. The result is a morally bankrupt motion picture that is exhausting to watch, a headache committed to celluloid. But what do I know? The film made a shit ton of money, is beloved by many people, and is even in the Criterion Collection. Maybe I'm the one that's wrong. [3/10]

[THE DISASTER MOVIE CHECKLIST: 10 outta 10]
[X] Awards Bait Ballad
[X] Corrupt or Incompetent Authority Figures
[X] Destruction of Famous Landmarks
[X] Grim Predictions
[X] Group In-Fighting
[X] Heroic Sacrifices
[X] Massive Collateral Damage or Explosions
[X] Pets or Kids are Imperiled but Survive
[X] Romantic Couple Resolves Problems
[X] Star-Studded Cast


Saturday, May 26, 2018

DISASTER MOVIES MONTH: Deep Impact (1998)




Hollywood learns nothing. In 1997, two volcano movies appeared, vying for the public's time and dollars. While both “Dante's Peak” and “Volcano” made money, I imagine either film would've been more successful without loosing their novelty factor to a similar project. In 1998, we'd get another pair of dueling disaster movies. This time the theme was Earth being struck by a massive asteroid and the potential extinction level event that would follow. The first of the two to hit theaters was “Deep Impact.” Originally intended for Steven Spielberg, the film would instead be directed by Mimi Lender. It would take a vastly different approach to the material than the summer's other asteroid movie. In fact, “Deep Impact's” dour and humanistic style is very different from most disaster movies.

Teenager Leo Biederman is looking through a telescope on a school trip when he notices an odd shape in the sky. He takes a picture and sends it to an astronomer. Upon seeing the photo, the scientist realizes the object is a comet on course to hit Earth. A year later, a reporter from MSNBC accidentally discovers the government is planning a secret mission to destroy the comet. The President is forced to make a public announcement. As a team of astronauts are sent to land on the object and explode it from the inside out with a nuclear bomb, the people of Earth deal with the possibility of their impending doom.

“Deep Impact” is a little more thoughtful than your usual disaster movie. The film attempts to realistically depict how the world would react to news of an apocalyptic collision. There is rioting in the streets, though its only mentioned in passing. Leo, the closest thing the film's ensemble cast has to a hero, marries his teenage girlfriend. Jenny Lerner, the news reporter who functions as the film's secondary protagonist, reconciles with her deadbeat dad. The two have a scene where they hug each other on a beach right before being wiped out by a massive wave. A lottery is drawn to place survivors into an underground cavern, safe from the blast. The random nature of the lottery ensures that some are left behind. The President has to deal with informing the country of its potential destruction. It's a heavy subject and one “Deep Impact” breaches with some sensitivity.

In fact, “Deep Impact” is so determined to be a serious examination of the apocalypse, that it's often a dour slog. This is most apparent in the scenes devoted to the rescue mission. The astronauts all fit established character types, with Robert Duvall appearing as the grizzled but wise veteran. The scenes of the astronauts landing on the comet, digging the tunnel, and risking life and limb are shot in an almost detached manner. When the mission inevitably goes wrong, an astronaut getting blinded and the explosion being less effective than envisioned, it feels expected. At least the scenes on Earth have a human element to them. The space scenes really feel like the movie is just going through the motions. When the astronauts sacrifice themselves, to destroy the bigger comet and save most of Earth, this too feels routine.

Besides, we know the mission is going to at least partially fail because a big rock hitting Earth is on the poster. The trailer was full of destruction. “Deep Impact” is one of those late nineties blockbusters that banked heavily on then groundbreaking but now antiquated CGI effects. The shots devoted to the space shuttle landing on the asteroid look pretty good. The shots of the comet flying through space, glowing blue and red, are not quite as good. When the rock inevitably hits the Earth, tossing up a huge tidal wave and completely destroying the East coast, the limitations of 1998-era CGI becomes apparent. The giant wall of water is not convincing looking. The shots of New York City getting washed away do not hold up. Like many disaster movies of this era, “Deep Impact's” need to wipe out millions of lives and then follow up with a sentimental ending rubs me the wrong way.

“Deep Impact” did gift us with something: Morgan Freeman playing the President of the United States. Beyond the obvious gravitas Freeman brings to the role, he's genuinely good as a man struggling to prepare for the worst case scenario. Elijah Wood is relatable as the teenager caught in the disaster. I wish Leelee Sobeiski was given more to do as his love interest. Tea Leoni is somewhat flat but gets a few touching moments as the reporter. Maximilian Schell and Vanessa Redgrave are underutilized as her parents. James Cromwell makes his one scene count, as the Secretary of the Treasury shaken by loss. Rounding out the star-studded cast are Jon Favreau and nearly-Wolverine Dougray Scott (as two of the astronauts), Kurtwood Smith (as a ground control guy), and Denise Crosby (as Leelee Sobieski's mom.)

Ultimately, “Deep Impact” is more interesting in conception than execution. Lender's direction is solid, the cast is strong, and the idea of a (relatively) realistic disaster movie has merit. However, the film is a sometimes glum watch and not in an especially meaningful way. It's telling the same sort of story you expect from the genre, about the perseverance of the human spirit and people coming together in a terrible time, but with more pretensions. Occasionally, the film touches upon something special, such as that moment on the beach. It's a decent watch all together. However, “Deep Impact” does not have the strength to back up its ambitions. [6.5/10]

[THE DISASTER MOVIE CHECKLIST: 6 outta 10]
[] Awards Bait Ballad
[] Corrupt or Incompetent Authority Figures
[X] Destruction of Famous Landmarks
[X] Grim Predictions
[X] Group In-Fighting
[X] Heroic Sacrifices
[X] Massive Collateral Damage or Explosions
[] Pets or Kids are Imperiled but Survive
[] Romantic Couple Resolves Problems
[X] Star-Studded Cast

Friday, May 25, 2018

DISASTER MOVIES MONTH: Volcano (1997)




Occasionally, Hollywood becomes obsessed with one idea. It's why, a couple of years ago, there were competing revisionist takes on “Peter Pan.” Or ten thousand Houdini projects in development simultaneously. Usually, only one of these projects makes it into active production, preventing competing movies with similar ideas. However, that's not always the case. In 1997, following the rebirth of interest in disaster movies, two separate blockbusters about volcanoes hit theaters within a few months of each other. Universal would release “Dante's Peak” in February while Fox would release “Volcano” in April. The earlier film would perform better at the box office and earn slightly better reviews. However, “Volcano” has gained a reputation as a campy classic in the years since.

Office of Emergency Management employee Mike Roark has a demanding job. His rebellious teenage daughter, Kelly, sure knows it. After a minor earthquake, he makes a startling discovery: Seven utility workers dead outside MacArthur Park. Geologist Dr. Amy Barnes suspects the worst. An active volcano may be brewing underneath Los Angeles. She's right, naturally. Soon, lava begins to burst from the La Brea Tar Pits. Molten hot magma flows through L.A., massive balls of explosive rock raining from the sky. In the crisis, Roark and Barnes work together to save as many lives as possible, including his daughter.

Ultimately, “Dante's Peak” and “Volcano” have very different approaches to their volcanic subjects. Roger Donaldson's movie was set in the country. It was also a mostly serious affair. Director Mick Jackson, previously of “The Bodyguard,” sets his movie in the very urban streets of Los Angeles. Moreover, his approach is far campier. “Volcano” is full of many ridiculous scenes. While “Dante's Peak” played fast and loose with the law of convection, “Volcano” ignores it outright. There's a hysterical scene of a rescuer worker melting knee-deep into lava as he tosses a metro driver to safety. Characters dangle above lava by a few feet, maybe steaming slightly. In the movie's funniest scene, a little dog easily outruns the lava flow. There's a lot of humor in “Volcano,” sarcastic dialogue and goofy characters, suggesting that its jokey atmosphere is very intentional.

The intent behind the two film's scenes of destruction also couldn't be more different. “Dante's Peak” attempted to mine serious thrills from its scenes of lava destroying a small town. “Volcano” destroys L.A. with almost a sense of glee. The film delights in reducing one of America's most famous city to molten slag. Among the first landmarks destroyed is Angelyne's billboard. Lots of people are burned in “Volcano” but the movie doesn't seem to treat the injuries very seriously. Many people shrugged off their burns. Those who are actually killed, by the falling chunks of molten lava or rivers of lava, are usually unnamed extras. “Volcano” is violent, full of explosions and destruction, but it's a very distinct type of “fun” movie violence.

Hilariously, for a movie this knowingly ridiculous, “Volcano” also attempts to express some weightier themes. During the destruction of Los Angeles, there are some minor mentions of looting. Instead of focusing on this, the movie pays more attention to people working together to survive. “Volcano” doesn't depict its situation as hopeless. Instead, the movie's heroes put their heads together to quickly think of solutions to the problem. This scenes of unity is eventually spun into a message about prejudice. There's a racist cop among the law-keepers, who attempts to arrest a random guy for the crime of being black. Later, in an incredibly heavy-handed scene, a little boy points out that everyone looks the same when covered in volcanic ash. It's ridiculously hammy, this thematic concern of people putting aside all their differences in a time of need, and adds to the movie's campy atmosphere.

The cast understands how tongue-in-cheek the film is supposed to be. Tommy Lee Jones is the perfect leading man for this film. His righteous sense of frustration and straight-faced reaction to anything crazy makes him ideal for this part. Jones' Miles is ready with a quib even in the middle of an emergency. Anne Hache is more than willing to play along, bouncing off of Jones' dry sarcasm extremely well. Don Cheadle is more blatant comic relief, as the guy responsible for informing Tommy's boss of every crazy thing he does. The cast is rounded out with Keith David and John Corbett, in mostly thankless roles as a good cop and an asshole land developer.

Approach can make a big difference. “Dante's Peak” went for seriousness but was still a schlocky disaster movie at heart. “Volcano” is a schlock, knows its schlock, and embraces its schlockiness. The latter is much more enjoyable. We're all here to see shit blow up. Let's dismiss with the pretensions, shall we? “Volcano” gets shown on TV on lazy weekends frequently, which is the ideal way to watch it. Turn off your brain and bask in a movie that dares to ask who would win in a fight: A million tons of lava or Tommy Lee Jones' scowl? [7/10]

[THE DISASTER MOVIE CHECKLIST: 8 outta 10]
[] Awards Bait Ballad
[X] Corrupt or Incompetent Authority Figures
[X] Destruction of Famous Landmarks
[X] Grim Predictions
[X] Group In-Fighting
[X] Heroic Sacrifices
[X] Massive Collateral Damage or Explosions
[X] Pets or Kids are Imperiled but Survive
[] Romantic Couple Resolves Problems
[X] Star-Studded Cast


Thursday, May 24, 2018

DISASTER MOVIES MONTH: Dante's Peak (1997)




Another reason, perhaps, the nineties birthed a new wave of disaster movies is due to the public's growing awareness of natural catastrophes. News stories about “storm chasers” led to “Twister.” And the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, the deadliest volcanic eruption in U.S. history, certainly pushed volcanoes into the public imagination more than ever. Even though the event was over a decade old by that point, I recall hearing a lot about Mount St. Helens as a kid. And it's obvious that this is where “Dante's Peak” drew its inspiration. The film mentions the Washington mountain by name and filmed inside its crater. The public showed that they were willing to watch real life tragedy transformed into cinematic entertainment. “Dante's Peak” would be a decent money-maker in 1997.

Volcanologist Harry Dalton is still reeling from a personal tragedy. While escaping a volcanic eruption in Columbia, his wife was killed. Years later, he obsesses over his work. When he gets news that Dante's Peak, a scenic town in Washington state, has reported some seismic activity, he's not impressed. The longer he stays in the town, the more concerned he becomes. The local hot springs are boiling people alive. Poison gas is seeping out of the ground. The local drinking water is overtaken by sulfur. As Dalton grows closer to mayor Rachel Waldo, and her two kids, Dante's Peak explodes. Lava, ash, and toxic smoke rains down on the small town.

It's normal for disaster movies to wait a while before the shit hits the fan. You've got to set up the characters before putting them through hell. “Dante's Peak” follows this formula. Upon arriving in the town, Pierce Brosnan's Dr. Dalton immediately has sparks with Linda Hamilton's Mayor Waldo. The busybodies in town quickly decide the two are a couple. They go hiking, despite only knowing each other for a few hours. The couple is ready to leap into bed when the volcano erupts. He even gets along with her kids, most notably in an adorable scene where he performs magic tricks for them. And, honest to God, it actually sort of works. As a hacky romance about a grieving man finding new love with a busy single mom, “Dante's Peak” is mildly charming. This is mostly thanks to Brosnan and Hamilton, who play off each other nicely.

Unfortunately, “Dante's Peak” does not maintain a consistent tone. The film's opening sequence, inspired by the 1993 Galeras tragedy in Columbia, is harrowing. We then leap to the sweet scenes of Brosnan and Hamilton flirting or cutesy banter among the volcanic research team. This is intercut with intense moments, like a skinny-dipping couple getting boiled to death. That all-over-the-place approach continues even after the volcano bursts. Hyper-violent scenes of landslides wiping out traffic co-exist with ridiculous scenes of the family dog being rescued. Or goofy scenes of Brosnan's indestructible Chevrolet Silverado surviving all sorts of stuff.

Unlike previous volcano movies, which usually focus on rivers of lava, “Dante's Peak” utilizes every volcanic reaction you can think of. The town is blanketed gray with ash. Landslides wash away vehicles, including the expected skeptical expert. Poison gas kills people and animals. Lava incinerates everything around it. In one of the film's most infamous sequences, a lake is transformed into sulfuric acid. If destruction is all you're after, “Dante's Peak” delivers. The disaster sequences are intensely executed, more often than not, and the special effects are realistic and convincing. (Though the science is, of course, utterly dubious.)

A big element undermining “Dante's Peak” is its atrocious direction. Okay, yes, you can always understand what's going on. Director Roger Donaldson, previously of “Cadillac Man” and “Species,” never veers into the incoherent. However, many of his choices are baffling. A number of early scenes are shot at Dutch angles for no particular reason. These moments sometimes also feature some distracting handheld camera-work. Once the disaster begins, Donaldson also throws in some tacky slow-motion. A car crash at the end throws in several super perturbing crash-zooms. One of the most embarrassing moments features a poorly deployed Wilhem Scream too.

“Dante's Peak” was a widely discussed film among my elementary school playground. The scene where the grandma gets melted in the acidic lake was deemed especially 'dope.' The film spurned on a briefly burning interest in volcanoes among kids my age. Despite this, I never got around to watching the movie when it was new. Turns out I wasn't missing too much. The film has two likable leads and some decent special effects sequences. All together, I don't think “Dante's Peak” totally works. [6/10]

[THE DISASTER MOVIE CHECKLIST: 7 outta 10]
[] Awards Bait Ballad
[X] Corrupt or Incompetent Authority Figures
[] Destruction of Famous Landmarks
[X] Grim Predictions
[X] Group In-Fighting
[X] Heroic Sacrifices
[X] Massive Collateral Damage or Explosions
[X] Pets or Kids are Imperiled but Survive
[X] Romantic Couple Resolves Problems
[] Star-Studded Cast


Wednesday, May 23, 2018

DISASTER MOVIES MONTH: Twister (1996)




After a decade of complete irrelevance, the disaster movie experienced a brief revival in the late nineties. I'm not sure what led to this sudden burst of new interest. There were a few quasi-disaster flicks in the early part of the decade, like “Alive” or “Backdraft.” Maybe it was just seventies nostalgia. Maybe new advancements in special effects allowed filmmakers to create more expansive vistas of destruction. Many point to “Independence Day” or “Titanic” as kickstarting the genre but all these films were in development at the same time. So was “Twister,” the first of this new wave of disaster films to come out. The movie would be a huge hit and remains a fondly recalled piece of nineties ephemera.

It's tornado season in Oklahoma. Two separate teams of “storm chasers,” scientists that track and study tornadoes, trying to save lives, are on the trail of a major meteorological event. Bill Harding, a former storm chaser, meets with his ex-wife, Jo Harding, to sign divorce papers. However, Bill quickly gets caught up in Harding's latest mission. She hopes to deploys scientific probes into a funnel cloud, gaining new insight into how storms form and move. That same day, a massive series of storms strikes the state. Meanwhile, a rival team of storm chasers, led by Dr. Jonas Miller, is also tracking the same twisters.

Despite boasting a screenplay co-written by Michael Crichton, “Twister” is not an especially literary movie. The characters are all walking cliches. From the moment we meet Bill and Jo, we know they are going to get back together, despite Bill having a new fiance. The film's villain is a cartoonish asshole. He is soundly punished for his crime of being a selfish prick. The plot is silly. This is essentially a story about Jo seeking vengeance on the tornado that killed her father. It takes characters the entire movie to come to simple solutions. The film's internal logic is dubious and inconsistent. We see winds strong enough to throw around full-grown cows, houses, and tower trucks. Yet Bill's vehicle is never blown off the road! Even when a tornado is directly above it!

So, yes, “Twister” is a very silly, even dumb movie. However, one very important element makes it lovably dumb. Instead of packing its cast full of A-listers and slightly washed-up screen icons, as was the way in the seventies, “Twister” stars likable character actors. Bill Paxton's hero isn't just afraid of tornadoes. He's also in awe of them, enthusiastic about the science behind the phenomenon. Despite her deeply inane motivation, Helen Hunt imbues Jo with human emotions. The film's supporting parts are extremely broad. This allows talented performers like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Alan Ruck, and Jeremy Davies to get as colorful as they want. Cary Elwes puts on a ridiculous accent as the villain but he's happily hamming it up too. The cast clearly having such a good time implores the audience to have a good time too.

Following “Speed” and a year spend on a pretty awesome sounding “Godzilla” remake, “Twister” was cinematographer Jan de Bant's second directorial feature. De Bant clearly enjoyed filming some high-speed action scenes. More than once, the film takes a car's perspective as it runs headlong into a storm. This intimacy helps prop up several suspense sequence. Such as an early scene, where Bill and Jo hide under a bridge while a twister blows over top. Paxton's indestructible Dodge pick-up truck avoiding explosions and flying buildings are also well simulated sequences.

Not all of the film's flash-and-bang works. That ridiculous flying cow scene, heavily featured in the advertisements, is just one example of the film's overly whimsical scene of humor. “Twister” is having so much fun that the characters' safety sometimes seems too self-assured. This is most evident during a moment where Bill and Jo just shrug off twin water spouts. Or the deeply dumb ending, which our heroes' survive through baffling means. While the film's special effects hold up fairly well, there definitely is some shaky CGI utilized once or twice.

“Twister's” status as a pop culture juggernaut is evident in the number of low budget knock-offs it inspired. Both “Night of the Twisters” and “Tornado!” would be rushed onto TV before the real movie hit theaters. “Twister” is exactly the kind of dumb blockbuster I associate with the decade of my youth. However, compared to the nihilistic mayhem of  “Armageddon” or the inhumane chaos of “Independence Day,” “Twister” at least has entertaining actors visibly enjoying themselves. That, combined with some decently directed sequences, makes it a mildly diverting distraction that almost makes up for a stone-cold stupid screenplay. [6.5/10]

[THE DISASTER MOVIE CHECKLIST: 7 outta 10]
[X] Awards Bait Ballad
[X] Corrupt or Incompetent Authority Figures
[] Destruction of Famous Landmarks
[X] Grim Predictions
[X] Group In-Fighting
[] Heroic Sacrifices
[X] Massive Collateral Damage or Explosions
[X] Pets or Kids are Imperiled but Survive
[X] Romantic Couple Resolves Problems
[] Star-Studded Cast


Tuesday, May 22, 2018

DISASTER MOVIES MONTH: Airplane II: The Sequel (1982)




The first “Airplane!” became a surprise hit. Apparently after a decade of watching cheesy disaster movies, audiences were ready and willing to line up for a parody of cheesy disaster movies. Of course, “Airplane!” was also hilarious, an instant comedy classic. Perhaps Paramount figured that, since “Airport” spawned a long-running series, perhaps “Airplane!” could support a number of sequels as well. “Airplane II: The Sequel” crashed into theaters in 1982. The Z.A.Z. team, however, expressed no interest in returning. For years, I've always heard how mediocre and shitty “The Sequel” was without actually watching it. Now, for the first time, I sit down to watch the widely dismissed continuation.

Like many shitty sequels, “Airplane II” begins by undoing all the growth the characters went through in the first film. It's the future, the moon has been colonized, and people regularly travel between it and Earth. Ted Stryker crashed an experimental lunar shuttle, loosing his composure again, and ending his relationship with Elaine. Ted escapes the mental hospital he's in to sneak onto the space shuttle Elaine and her new boyfriend are working on. Once again, something goes wrong. The ship computer goes crazy, forcing the shell-shocked Ted and the quiet Elaine to once again save the day.

Perhaps suspecting that audiences were already forgetting about the disaster craze of the seventies, “Airplane II” shifts the focus of its parody slightly. The movie is still slightly mocking disaster movies. The subplot, concerning Sonny Bono sneaking a bomb onto the space vessel, is obviously inspired by the first “Airport.” The plot still concerns Ted being forced to pilot an aircraft, making this an imitation of an imitation of “Zero Hour!” “The Sequel,” otherwise, is a half-assed riff on science fiction. E.T. attempts to use a payphone in the lunar airport. A HAL-9000 style computer, gone mad with power, briefly motivates the plot. There's a one scene reference to Darth Vader's heavy breathing and several loose jokes about “Star Trek.” However, “The Sequel” doesn't really seem interested in science fiction. These jokes come off as toothless and directionless.

Comedy sequels are tricky. Too many are content to simply repeat gags from the previous movie. This is a habit “Airplane II: The Sequel” ritually indulges in. Some of your favorite gags from the first movie are hammered into the ground. Following up some goofy wordplay with “But that's not important right now” is drained of all its silly power. Ted's drinking, tossing a full glass into his face, is repeated lifelessly. His habit of literally talking passengers to death is reprised. The jive-talking black guy and panicking, slapped woman return, doing the exact same gags they did in the first movie. Lloyd Bridges and Peter Graves are back, performing the most minor of variations on the jokes they told before. They couldn't get Robert Stack but Chuck Conners is here to fill in a basically identical part. Even the jiggling titties show up again. Many of the original film's hits are played again, with none of the conviction or fun of the first go-around.

So “The Sequel” is pretty dire, as far as comedies go. Are there any gags in the film that work? One or two got a tiny chuckle out of me. Stephen Stucker reappears, bringing some of his anarchic comedy talent to a few lines of dialogue. In the one funny reprise of a joke from the first film, Lloyd Bridges now owns two identical portraits of himself. There are a few gags that are almost funny – such as two suitcases barking at each other as if they were dogs or William Shatner's Kirk-riffing supporting part – but the timing is off. Many of the gags that aren't blatantly copied from the first movie come off as overly mean-spirited, like the film repeatedly toying with killing a dog. Or Herve Villechaize being cast strictly for a cheap, visual gag.

Zucker, Abraham, and Zucker have always been dismissive of “Airplane II.” They say they've never seen it and have no desire to see it. I can't say I blame them. The sequel ends by promising “Airplane III,” in a joking-but-not-really manner. While “The Sequel” was somewhat successful at the box office, making 27 million against a 15 million dollar budget, the reception was muted enough to put the kibosh on any further sequels. And thank goodness for that. “Airplane II” is a pathetic attempt to replicate the first's success, lamely copying many of the same jokes while contributing new jokes of little value. It is a worthless sequel. [4/10]

[THE DISASTER MOVIE CHECKLIST: 8 outta 10]
[] Awards Bait Ballad
[X] Corrupt or Incompetent Authority Figures
[] Destruction of Famous Landmarks
[X] Grim Predictions
[X] Group In-Fighting
[X] Heroic Sacrifices
[X] Massive Collateral Damage or Explosions
[X] Pets or Kids are Imperiled but Survive
[X] Romantic Couple Resolves Problems
[X] Star-Studded Cast


Monday, May 21, 2018

DISASTER MOVIES MONTH: Airplane! (1980)




As the seventies ended and a new decade dawned, the once-prosperous disaster movie genre was widely considered a joke. The writing team of Z.A.Z. – composed of Jim Abraham, David and Jerry Zucker – decided to take this very literally. The trio, previously of the brilliant “The Kentucky Fried Movie,” got inspiration by recording late night TV. One night, they caught “Zero Hour!” in its entirety. Realizing this was the perfect blueprint for a series of gags taking the piss out of disaster movies, they started working on “Airplane!” The trio would direct the project themselves. The film would become a big hit right out of the gate, showing that the public was ready to laugh at the disaster genre. It has remained a beloved classic, widely considered one of the best parodies ever made.

Having already reviewed “Zero Hour!,” it's probably unnecessary for me to summarize the plot of “Airplane!” But I'll have a go at it anyway. After loosing most of his squadron during the war, pilot Ted Stryker is too traumatized to fly again. His fear is messing up the relationship he has with Elaine, a stewardess. Ted grabs a last minute plane ticket onto the plane Elaine is working on, in hopes of saving the relationship. Aboard the plane, bad fish leads to food poisoning among the crew and passengers. It's up for Ted, and his help on the ground, to save the day. But none of that is really important.

Coming after nearly a whole decade of disaster movies, you'd expect “Airplane!” to riff heavily on the genre. Truthfully, most of the parodied moments are only taken from a few film. Yes, “Zero Hour!” provides most of the material. Lines about the fish, quitting smoking, and Ted's job history are taken directly from “Zero Hour!” It only takes a little exaggeration to transform scenes about a little boy entering the cockpit or an out-of-control female passenger into comedy classics. Among newer films, “Airplane!” draws the most from the first two “Airport” movies. There's a pretty good gag involving a guitar-playing nun and a sick little girl. A passing line between airport announcers concerning an abortion is probably an off-hand reference to the melodramatic romantic subplots in those films. More importantly, the film is goofing on the self-serious atmosphere of these films more than anything else.

The best jokes in “Airplane!” rely on a freewheeling sense of goofiness. The film is packed start to finish with absurdist gags. I think everyone has their favorites. The constant wordplay is beautifully executed, leading to instantly quotable lines, circular conversations, and reporters stealing photos off the wall. A sequence that really shouldn't work, when Ted flashbacks to how he met Elaine, is elevated by Z.A.Z. just shoving in as many goofy gags as possible. There's no reason for there to be horses in bed, wildly attacking dogs, or Robert Stack navigating through various rear-projected scenarios. Other than that it's really funny, of course. There are so many jokes in “Airplane!,” that it's easy to miss them. Little gags about magazine racks, announcements on the plane, or the Mayo clinic might not be caught immediately. That packed-to-the-gills mentality is what makes “Airplane!” a classic.

Recently, it's become common to look back on comedy classics from the eighties and realize they push the boundaries of good taste a little too often. “Airplane!” does this too. There's joke about big, jiggly titties, fellatio on an inflatable pilot, and little girls liking their men like they like their coffee. Luckily, most of these gags are silly enough to avoid being offensive. Jokes about jive-talking black passengers are honestly hilarious, the film pushing the comedic premise as far as possible. Among the ground crew is Johnny, a mincing, camp-gay stereotype. Luckily, Stephen Stucker is energetic and insane enough to get a lot of laughs anyway. Only a gag about African native playing basketball feels misplaced. Otherwise, I doubt “Airplane!” will upset any delicate, modern sensibilities.

As consistently hilarious as “Airplane!” is, I honestly don't know if it wouldn't have worked without the perfectly committed cast. These days, Z.A.Z. casting stately character actors in ridiculous roles is widely recognized. Peter Graves keeping an utterly straight face while attempting to seduce a child or Robert Stack reacting to increasingly silly situations without cracking a smile makes the material even funnier. Leslie Nielson was so hysterical as the character given some of the most globose dialogue that his career would be completely redirected. Lloyd Bridges slowly loosing his shit is certainly a sight to see.

Topping the cast is Robert Hays and the whisper-voiced Julie Haggerty. Hays delivers some of the film's screwiest running gags, about his drinking habit and long-winded stories, with ease. Haggerty, meanwhile, is always willing to play along with the script's absurdist directions. Lastly, I have to mention Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's self-aware cameo. Abdul-Jabbar's acting abilities may be pretty sketchy but the guy is clearly having a good time. Just his mere presence constitutes one of the film's most memorable gags.

It's a testament to “Airplane!'s” comedic power that very few of the gags falter. A running gag parodying a then-relevant coffee commercial is pretty baffling to modern eyes. Like many comedies of this style, “Airplane!'s” energy does start to falter a little in its last third. For the most part, the film is still hysterical. The Z.A.Z. team would produce a few other parody films of varying degrees of quality, with the first “Naked Gun” and “Hot Shots!” holding up fairly well. Their solo work, especially David Zucker's, is harder to recommend. But none of this takes anything away from “Airplane!,” a film that remains hilarious all these years later. [9/10]

[THE DISASTER MOVIE CHECKLIST: 7 outta 10]
[X] Awards Bait Ballad*
[X] Corrupt or Incompetent Authority Figures
[] Destruction of Famous Landmarks
[X] Grim Predictions
[X] Group In-Fighting
[] Heroic Sacrifices
[] Massive Collateral Damage or Explosions
[X] Pets or Kids are Imperiled but Survive
[X] Romantic Couple Resolves Problems
[X] Star-Studded Cast

*Parodied by the singing nun