Movies: Disaster!

 

I have a secret vice.

It’s one I’ve not shared with many people, but those who know me best know all about it. I’m not proud of it, but it’s part of who I am.

I’m coming out with it today, so here goes. Deep breath.

I love disaster movies.

I know. I’m sorry! I just can’t help myself. I should know better. But there’s something about a good disaster movie that pulls me in. The worst part is that I even love the bad ones, where the character types and fates are pretty obvious from the first ten minutes. I even love The Core where the characters are deep in the centre of the earth…and then go outside.

The Poseidon Adventure also started an appreciation of Gene Hackman movies for me

It started for me with The Poseidon Adventure. I didn’t really understand most of it when I first watched it as kid, but the peril and the danger seemed very real to me, especially as someone who couldn’t (and can’t) swim. It was a few years later when I watched it again that I got upset at the death of…well, if you’ve seen it, you know who I mean. (TPA also started an appreciation of Gene Hackman movies for me – I’ll watch that guy in anything!)

I followed that up with Earthquake and The Towering Inferno, the second best disaster movie ever made. The 1970s was a golden age for Irwin Allen disaster movies, and they shaped my movie-loving experiences as well. Okay…three disaster movies. Let’s not talk about The Swarm, which killed the genre just as fast…

I have low requirements for watching a movie and enjoying it

There’s something delightful about disaster movies, something I can’t really identify that pulls me in and makes me sit down and watch, and even own a few of them. I can’t define why I love them, but I do have a few theories…

* Low standards! I have low requirements for watching a movie and enjoying it. It doesn’t take much to entertain me, to be honest. As a result, I’ve watched some pretty bad movies over the years, some intentionally. Some of them even had a plot! Disaster movies are high art compared to some of those.

* It’s the end! Throw everything in the air and start again. No more mortgage payments or work tomorrow! Of course, no running water or sanitation either…

* Melodrama! I love me a bit of melodrama – I’ve read nearly all of Dickens, after all, and he loved a bit of melodrama. I don’t like excessive subtext in my movies, and there’s no nuanced performances in a disaster movie: Everyone knows who everyone is and what their motivations are. Chewing the scenery is almost a requirement. I find that refreshing in a film.

*  There are no rules! No one is guaranteed to survive to the end. It doesn’t matter how high your star billing is, you might not make it. Lends an air of tension to the whole thing, I find!

* A preparation for death. Yeah, that’s a deep one. How will the characters face the end? Saving someone else, running away, or laughing into the face of their mortality? Would I do the same? Those are pretty philosophical question to ask yourself while you’re watching Dwayne Johnson muscle his way through San Francisco in San Andreas.

All this disaster movie love does have it limits: I’ve only ever watched Armageddon once. It’s a disaster of a disaster movie…more like being inside hyperactive music video. Given what I’ve just said about being entertained easily, and having such low standards, that should give you an idea of how awful it is. Avoid it if you can, and if you can’t: Run!

So break out your emergency rations and prepare for the end of the world however you wish: giant waves, massive tectonic plate shifts, angry bees. I’ve lived the adventure and seen it all.

I’m ready, baby. Bring on the end of the world!*

Do you have a love for a genre you know you shouldn’t enjoy but do? Let me know!

*(Not a serious suggestion)

Movies: Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge

Johnny Depp realises exactly where his career has gone.

“No, it can’t be. I’ve spent years searching for… this. The great Jack Sparrow is not some drunk in a cell. Do you even have a ship? A crew? Pants?”

A few minutes into this film, my wife and I were debating what number Pirates film this was. Four? Five? Six? It took a minute to figure out, and that was only by recapping the plots of the others.

That’s the big problem here, you see…the plots. They’re all jumbled into a mass we can’t differentiate. Was the one with the mermaids the fourth film, or the fifth? The whirlpool was the third one, right? And so it went. Anyway, for the record, this is the fifth Pirates movie. It’s also the shortest, but it certainly didn’t feel like it.

It doesn’t really matter if this is the fifth or the tenth. Here’s the plot of all of them: Jack will act like a crazy drunk, there will be swordfights and some action scenes. Jack, friends and enemies will all require a magical artefact – a sword, a magic coin, a trident that controls the seas, and so on. They’ll find this artefact in the last act after many beautiful beaches are walked / run across, lots of sea spray, fights and cannon fire. Jack will somehow walk away at the end with nothing but the sea and The Black Pearl.

Don’t get me wrong about this series. I loved the first movie and quote it all the time. Depp put a new spin on the old pirate and swashbuckler genre, and it’s a swaggering and rolling riot of a first movie. But it should have ended there and somehow Disney dragged this out until we’re left with this sad shadow, a poor pastiche of itself. What was fresh five movies ago is now formulaic and predictable.

The whimsy and charm of Jack is gone and replaced with a sense of pity.

Depp has always carried the movies, but here he seems uncomfortable and distracted. The whimsy and charm of Jack is gone and replaced with a sense of pity. He’s nothing now but a drunk falling into mud pits and he reeks of desperation. The thinness of the rest of the characters shows through when we’re looking at them because we aren’t distracted by Jack. The jokes and wit are weak and the humour is callow and vulgar.

Neither Orlando Bloom nor Keira Knightly return in any real sense, so we’re given two characters to replace them who are exactly the same, right down to Orlando’s accent and Knightley’s kick-assery. They might as well have called them the same names and be done with it.

The action scenes are confused and noisy, and there were times when I felt like hitting pause while I worked out which ship everyone was one fighting on. They seemed to go forever, and it was difficult at points to keep it all straight.

The real highlight was a deliciously silly part where horses pull a building through a town, chased by half the British Army. It’s delightfully daft and entirely entertaining. However the next scene immediately trashes it: The pirates are on a landlocked ship in the same town they were just chased through and my wife said, “I guess they stopped chasing them?”

The pleasant surprise was Geoffrey Rush as Barbossa. His character arc is the most satisfying and he’s the best developed character. There’s a sense of a man deeply conflicted and too far down a dark path to turn back, as much as he wants to. He was wasted in this movie, pushed to the side in favour of Jack’s desperate antics.

In fairness, I sat through the whole thing and enjoyed it more than the one with the mermaids and the weird sea-shell sailors.

But please: No more.

Movies: Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978)

Everything you need to know about this movie in one frame!

“Hey, could somebody please pass me the ketchup?”

When this film came through the post, my wife said, “I can’t believe you rented that. It’s a turkey of a movie!”

Once again, she underestimates my tolerance for bad films…and I’ve sat through a lot worse than Killer Tomatoes. At least AotKT isn’t going for high art and falling laughably short. No one making this was expecting anything but to have a blast and maybe make some cash on the side.

And let’s face it, you call a movie Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, it’s a bet you’re not going for an Oscar.

I’d mention the budget, but there was none. I’d mention the acting, but it was awfully, terribly, wonderfully bad. When the first scene has a woman doing a bad acting job while she’s washing dishes, you know this is going to be a laugh a minute.

The dancing military men was the strangest part.

That it wasn’t, but it had me genuinely laughing at some parts and just scratching my head in others. The dancing military men was the strangest part. To quote Penny from The Big Bang Theory, “The only way I could explain it would be to a therapist…with dolls.”

There are moments of genius humour though: A very cleverly edited phone call between a reporter, her boss, the man she’s following and his boss was a real standout. Brilliant! (Also, that’s pretty much the whole cast!). There was a hilariously badly dubbed Japanese scientist that cracked me up every time “he” spoke.

And kudos to the guy who did the entire film while dragging a parachute. That sucker looked heavy, and he’s getting some very physical stuff done while he’s hauling it around.

Aghhh! My eyes! My eyes!

However, I realised the real horror of this film about halfway through: It was made in the 1970s. Yes, the decade that taste forgot. And it shows.

Item! Check out that lovely dark blue sofa. With those burnt orange curtains, and the pumpkin carpeting. Colours that just scream to be together, huh? Aghhh, my eyes, my eyes!

Oh, that quilt cover! Restrained and subtle colouring there. Matches the puke green walls perfectly though, huh?

Proof that at least some of this movie was shot on grass. Or maybe that’s the carpet?

One last warning: AotK is not a film to be consumed while sober. Do not attempt to operate heavy machinery immediately during, between or after consumption.

It won’t be worth watching again…but just turn your brain off and roll with it. I’ve seen worse!

Have you watched any movies so bad they end up being good? Let me know!

Movies: Stand by Me (1986)

“The kid wasn’t sick. The kid wasn’t sleeping. The kid was dead.”

I can narrow down when I first saw Stand By Me to a period of two or three years in the late 1980s. I’m guessing ‘87 or early ’88. I remember which room of the house I was in and where I was sitting.

I remember it so well for a lot of reasons: My brother rented it (on VCR tape!) and brought it home with some other movies and some friends. They watched the other movies first; to this day, I have no idea what they were.

Then they stuck on Stand By Me and promptly fell asleep. But I never felt less like sleeping in my life. I sat there completely captivated by it. Hey! Kids my age! And not acting like they were five years old!

By the times the credits rolled, I loved this movie.

But there was more there. The power of the acting and the strength of the characters pulled me into their world and their search for the kid killed by a train. I had a moment of uncertainty and doubt when they fell in the swamp and went down to their underwear: I’d seen quite a few films where that happened and the characters never get dressed again, but the film thankfully picked itself up and carried on. By the time the credits rolled, I loved this movie.

It was a long time before I discovered this was a Stephen King novella in a four story collection called Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption, and I was just as enchanted with the story as the film. Dig it out and read a copy when you get a minute.

Then in 1990, something happened to my brother. He was driving too fast on a slippery road, rolled the car he was in, and died.

I didn’t see SBM for another few years after that, and suddenly it had more relevance than ever. After all, the last time I’d seen it, my brother was sleeping four feet away from me. It changed from a film to become a personal where-were-you-when moment for me.

In April my older brother Dennis had been killed in a Jeep accident. Four months had passed but my parents still hadn’t been able to put the pieces back together again.

Check.

Chris:  Gordie?
Gordie:  Why did you have to die?

Gordie:  Why did he have to die, Chris? Why did Denny have to die? Why?

Check and check  again.

It’s a movie that resonates for me on so many levels. It touches the part of me that still grieves for a dead brother after nearly thirty years.

You won’t have the same experience as me watching it, I realise that. It’s a very personal journey for me, as much as it is for Gordie LaChance.

Stand By Me is more than a movie for me: It’s a memory and an experience, one of the mileposts of my life.

Movies: The Greatest Showman

* Claws sold separately.

“Do these smiles seem fake? It doesn’t matter where they come from. The joy is real.”

Two minutes into this, my wife said she knew exactly where it was going. Penniless man becomes rich, forgets the friends who helped him, has a major setback, and discovers his real richness is his friends and family.

No surprises there in the storyline, to be honest. But it’s a musical, after all, and the story really only exists to join the songs together.

I loved the way some of the shots were framed so symmetrically. I noticed it a few times – in the Jenny Lind scenes and when Barnum is leaving to go on tour with her and his kids run after him.

The colour choices were all grand as well. It was nice to see a film not done in orange and teal for a change. I liked the solid and thick colours of the costumes and sets, all with the feel of a well loved and well used circus.

I wonder how well the soundtrack will hold up.

And Hugh Jackman, as usual, looks like he’s having a blast running through all his songs and routines.

What didn’t work so well for me (and my wife) was the choice of a contemporary soundtrack. Contemporary isn’t something I listen to a lot, so for me it bounced me out of the numbers more than pulling me into them. I found a lot of repetition going on because I was analysing the music rather than enjoying it.

It felt unfamiliar to my ears, so it felt uncomfortable. I do wonder how well the soundtrack will hold up in a decade or so, but people still listen and watch Cats and Chess, after all.

But when I could relax into the numbers, I enjoyed them more: The This is Me song was a showstopper. I adored the part where the bearded lady spins while everyone else is in slow motion. I loved the Rewrite the Stars trapeze song and the routine was wonderful and inventive. I’m still humming the Million Dreams song a few days later, so they did something right!

But it felt like there should have been more wonder…there should have been more spectacle and amazement. More songs and routines like the trapeze and the slow-motion spin. I should have been blown away more.

It isn’t something I’d watch more than once all the way through, but I’d watch parts again – the This is Me song and Rewrite the Stars, in particular. It’s a shame; there seemed so much potential there that wasn’t used.

Movies: The Fog (1980)

Dave and his friends really need to look after that conjunctivitis.
“To the ships at sea who can hear my voice, look across the water, into the darkness. Look for the fog.”

 

I’m not a fan of horror movies. I really don’t like gore or excessive violence in a horror film (or any other, for that matter: I tend to hit fast-forward if it goes on for too long). But there are two movies I love that are classed as “horror”.

One of them is John Carpenter’s Halloween, and the other is this one – The Fog from 1980, the second film Carpenter made after Halloween.

There’s no gore anywhere in the film. The six deaths all happen off screen. There’s not much budget. The Fog itself is a smoke machine pouring over the set. The undead inhabitants of The Fog aren’t seen except in brief moments, and then mostly as silhouettes and shapes.

In short: there’s nothing in this film that should make it any more than a tame B-Movie.

But here’s the genius of it: None of that matters. Carpenter takes what he has and ratchets up the tension and isolation of the characters until you’re locked into the movie and it carries you right to the (literal) killer of an ending.

There’s a haunting (that’s the best word for it) sense of utter emptiness that fills the landscape of the film. The movie feels post-apocalyptic, like these people are the last remnants of humanity, cut off from the world by the enveloping Fog. There’s no help for them coming anytime soon.

Our movie watching experiences tells us that California shouldn’t look like this.  Something is wrong about these solitary beaches and deserted skies and landscapes. They should be filled with beautiful people and happy sunbathers, but instead Carpenter fills the screen with emptiness and a sense of foreboding with his eerie soundtrack.

In one scene, the main character drives from her home to the lighthouse where she broadcasts her radio programme. There’s no dialogue but a radio announcer and a voice on a tape. There’s nothing but the keening sound of the wind and the empty, empty landscape. And always, always, the sea is there, almost seeming to watch and wait for the night and The Fog we know is coming.

In another, a young boy walks along a completely deserted beach. There’s nothing there but the sense of an ocean watching him and waiting for him. It is eerie and somehow unsettling, and it works wonderfully well.

It’s left to our imaginations that fill in the blanks of what’s going on, and that’s what works best for me in a horror film. Like The Woman in Black, it’s what we’re expecting that keeps us watching for The Fog to come rolling towards us.

So rent it for Halloween, turn the lights down low, curl up under a blanket and wait for midnight…

…and if you hear an odd knocking at your door…probably best not to answer it.

Movies: Suffragette (2015)

“What you gonna do? Lock us all up? We’re in every home, we’re half the human race, you can’t stop us all.”

 

Do you know what I studied in school? Triangles. Lots and lots of triangles. Angles, cosines, tangents. Right angled and isosceles. Squares and rectangles too, and oh my god, the endless circles!

Never used diddly of it, to be honest. The same with the volume of a cylinder and all that sum-of-the-square-on-the-two-side stuff.

You know what I didn’t study? Women in history. I did nothing on Suffragettes. Not a day or even a lesson on them. I didn’t know any of their names, I didn’t know what they were fighting for. I didn’t even know they were fighting. I didn’t know they wore white (That goes for all women, not just suffragettes: I’d never heard of Lisa Meitner until this year either).

I found out later – vaguely – that there was a woman named Pankhurst. And another woman threw herself under a horse once. Something called “The Cat and Mouse Act”. That was it.

So where does Suffragette come in to this?

In a 106 minute blast, I learned more about these women and what their lives were like than I learned in ten years of education. How they were regarded as too stupid to vote, how their rights were non-existent in the workplace, in the home, in society. A whole section of society weren’t even counted on the ten-year census.

In one scene, the women are protesting legally outside the Houses of Parliament. Brutally, the police move in to break the protest up. I thought they made that scene up, but no….that did happen. On the orders of the Home Secretary, one Winston Churchill, no less. (For a more in depth look at Churchill’s complex relationship with suffrage: https://tinyurl.com/y8mtcacu).

The men in this world are for the most part, useless (and of course antagonistic), but it’s not their story anyway. The main character leaves her husband and son behind, the husband complaining that he can’t look after their child and work at the same time…even though he expects her to. In a heart-breaking scene, he actually sells their son to another family because he can’t manage.

A woman is introduced named Emily Davison. If I’d studied anything about women in history, I would have known her fate instantly. I would probably know her face and when she was born. But I knew nothing about her until she threw herself under the Kings horse.

As a comparison, if the name of a character in a movie set in World War Two was “Robert Oppenheimer” I would have known where they were going with it from the first introduction.

Poster by ‘A Patriot’, showing a suffragette prisoner being force-fed, 1910. A doctor pours liquid food down a tube which has been stuffed up the struggling suffragette’s nose, while prison officers hold her down and tie her legs to the chair.  (Photo by Museum of London/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

The movie doesn’t pull any punches in its brutal treatment of these women, and nor should it. Women are arrested and stripped, and one is force fed through the nose, which is as horrific as it sounds and as bad it looks in that poster.

Women go through workplace abuse, societal abuse and home abuse (I wish they were all restricted to the past!) to fight for the right to be considered human beings.

You know what I studied in school? The wrong damn things.