The 2nd Occasional Lee's-in-Oregon Film Festival

© 2008 by John Varley; all rights reserved



Lee is indeed in Oregon, visiting with her mother on her 94th birthday, and I’m here in Hollywood, with a lot of work to do and a lot of time to kill. I’m getting the work done, and to kill time, I’m doing what I did last time she went to Oregon alone, which is taking a look at some films she has declared she doesn’t care to see, or films I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t be interested in. My own interest in many of them is marginal, at best, and I expect I’ll be seeing a lot of real clunkers, but there’s always the fast forward button. And who knows? Last time I saw a couple that surprised me, such as 1408 and Talledega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.

So. For the next week I’m going on a steady diet of huge blockbuster action movies we decided not to see. Badly reviewed comedies. Horror movie spoofs. Stephen King bloodfests. It could even be fun.


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Black Sheep (2006, New Zealand) “There are 40 million sheep in New Zealand, and they’re pissed off!” I never saw the cult classic, Night of the Lepus, in which giant bunny rabbits terrorize Arizona, but I understand it was played straight. This one isn’t, thank god. Mutant sheep on a remote station (what they call a ranch Down Under) in New Zealand turn carnivorous and our heroes must prevent them from spreading over the whole ovine nation. The best character is a PETA-type activist, who with her boyfriend tries to stop the operation at the lab. He gets bitten, and begins to morph into a killer sheep. Dedicated Vegan that he is, he’s horrified to find himself eating a bunny! She is into every New Age fad you can think of. When she walks into a shabby little cabin with a dead man in it, she says, “Oh, yuck. The feng shui in here is just awful!” The filmmakers here work hard and achieve some success in their parody, but make the fatal mistake of beginning to take it a little seriously at the end. I won’t recommend it, but I’d look at their next attempt.


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Fido (2006) I don’t quite know what happened to this film. Box office figures from IMDb show that it basically had no theatrical release, though the reviews were mainly positive (70% at Metacritic). The cast are all good actors. It didn’t quite work for me, but it was a close call, and I know many other people loved it. All I can figure is it may have been the victim of a pissing contest between people at the studio, perhaps new faces wanting to sink the pictures of previous producers. It sounds insane, but it happens frequently. A new guy will basically kill the children of the old guy, much like lions do when they oust the old king of the pride. The last thing a new studio head wants is for his predecessor’s movies to make money, it makes him look bad. Can you believe it? Believe it, it’s standard practice in the movie biz. I don’t know if this is what happened, but the only reasons I can think of to let a well-reviewed film to go direct to DVD involve ego.

Basic premise: Sort of takes up where Shaun of the Dead left off, in a way. That wonderful shambling zombie send-up concluded by showing a few brief glimpses of what a shambling zombie could be useful for, once you had captured and subdued him. They could play video games, and do menial tasks. This movie starts out with that premise. It’s set in an alternate-universe 1950s, and the production design is very good, they have the look down pat. (And there is a glorious 1953 or 1954 Hudson, which predisposes me to like a movie!) Some radioactive gunk from outer space has infected people, turning them into flesh-eating, shambling zombies. There was a Zombie War, and now people live in protected communities where all the scut work is done by zombies. Little Timmy’s family (Carrie-Ann Moss and Dylan Baker) gets a zombie servant (Billy Connolly, pretty much wasted because he can’t talk), and he’s a bit more aware than other zombies. Boy and zombie bond, and here’s where the movie is funniest, because Fido the zombie behaves exactly like Lassie when little Timmy (even the name is right!) is tied to a tree by the neighborhood bullies; He goes to get help. “What is it, Fido? Is Timmy in danger?” “Argh!” “Hurry, take me to him!”

But the movie falls just short, in my opinion. With this wonderful set-up, it seems to miss too many opportunities, and makes the mistake of trying to get a little serious at the end. Come on, folks, we don’t want tears jerked in this kind of movie. It should have been wilder, a little edgier, a little more far out. I wanted to laugh, but didn’t laugh enough to recommend this.


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Live Free or Die Hard (2007) Nothing you see here regarding computers and/or telecommunications is real, it’s all bullshit. Everything you see concerning the ability of a human body to recover, or even survive, after impacting the ground at 90 miles per hour or being hit by a speeding car or jumping out of a car travelling at 70 miles per hour is bullshit. (Did you know that landing on the roof of a car after falling from a helicopter or a six-story building is just like landing on a feather bed? I didn’t. That’s because it would break every bone in your body and split your head open like a watermelon.) Absolutely everything you see here concerning the power grid and natural gas distribution system is laughable, ludicrous bullshit. (Did you know that shutting down the electricity to an area makes a thumping sound, when viewed from miles away? I didn’t. That’s because it doesn’t, as anyone who’s ever been in a power failure knows.) Everything you see about the probability of 10,000 bullets from 40 machine guns flying within inches of a human body (that of our hero, John McClane), and never hitting him, is bullshit.

So, I hear you say, What’s new? And you’re right, of course. This movie breaks no new ground in violating the laws of physics, because there’s very little new ground to be broken, we’ve seen it all 1000 times and we either dig it (pathetic fan boys), have learned to accept it (most of the rest of us), or don’t watch this kind of movie anymore (Lee, and anyone else with a lick of sense). I have learned to accept it, some of the time, at least, and can have fun … and in fact I did, for about the first hour and a half. Then it moves into realms of physical impossibility at which one can only laugh. The saving grace here is Bruce Willis as the long-suffering (and, oh, how he suffers!), eternally complaining, wisecracking John McClane, who is by now resigned to having shitstorms descend on his head about once a year. It worked very well in the brilliant original, Die Hard, and middling well in the sequel. (You know, I’m sure I saw the third one, Die Hard With a Vengeance, but I can’t remember one thing about it.) But this sort of tripe makes me all the more appreciative of the very rare action thriller that doesn’t insult my intelligence too often, like the Bourne franchise, the Italian Job movies, and one-offs like Ronin. If we get one movie like those per year, it’s a damn good year.


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Mission: Impossible III (2006) Ethan is getting tired of impossible missions and wants to marry and settle down. Fat chance. MI3 is pretty much like the other ones, an enjoyable hoot if you can put your brain in neutral and ignore the impossible way these people know their way around everyplace, always have the right equipment which never fails … you know the drill. But it’s no longer possible for me to see Tom Cruise’s patented intense stare without seeing him on stage at that Scientology shindig, saluting a big portrait of that most unlikely Messiah, Lafayette Ronald Hubbard. What a maroon.


* * *


The Mist (2007) Stephen King may be the best story teller of his generation. His imagination is awesome. He writes two kinds of story. One sort is thoughtful, character-driven tales that draw you in by making you care about the people involved, like The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile (both directed by Frank Darabont, who directed this one, too) and Hearts in Atlantis. The other sort is gore-fest schlock like his recent, perfectly awful book, Cell (soon to be a major awful motion picture!), and Dreamcatcher.

(Actually, there is a third type, the head-scratching megastory The Dark Tower, which ran to seven long books, not nearly as interesting as the Harry Potter series. I, for one, hope he has that out of his system now.)

This one falls into the second category. It’s done well enough, for what it is, but what it is isn’t anything to shout about. A selection of small-town people are caught in a supermarket as a mysterious mist closes around them. There are off-the-shelf monsters out there in the mist. People start to die. Who will be next? Who cares?

SPOILER WARNING: This was one of the most awful endings I have ever seen. Simply terrible. I do not object to unhappy endings, as if, for instance, the alien creatures took over the planet and everybody died. But here’s what happens: Our hero, his little son, a woman who has been strong in the face of terror, and two older people who also showed a lot of common sense, manage to get to the hero’s car and try to make their escape. No one else has the nerve to go. The car runs out of gas. Now they’re waiting for the monsters to arrive and eat them alive. They have a gun, and four bullets for five people. Without really talking about it, they agree that a quick death would be better than being eaten alive. So our hero shoots them all in the head, including his own son … then the ground begins to shake, and the brave man waits to be eaten … but it’s the Army, arriving in the nick of time! Hooray, we’re saved … uh, oops!

What stupid drivel! What execrable writing, what willful avoidance of everything that went before! These people had fought hard to get real close to survival. And then, with no monsters in sight yet, they just fucking give up? They agree to be killed? And he agrees to do it? I don’t think so! You at least wait until you’re under attack, then, sure, I’d kill my son to save him from that. But not until they’re ripping into the car. And he wouldn’t have, either. I just can’t understand this. Was it done to shock us? If so, it was a cheap and dirty and below-the belt shock … and fuck all of you who had anything to do with this abomination. You should only never work again in this town.


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Mr. Bean’s Holiday (2007) Rowan Atkinson’s “Mr. Bean” series is one of the most brilliant things ever to come out of British television, right up there with “Fawlty Towers” and Atkinson’s other masterpiece, the “Blackadder” series. So why was the first movie, Bean, absolutely dreadful, to the point that I couldn’t bear to watch beyond the halfway point? What happened?

Mr. Bean is … almost impossible to describe. He apparently is some sort of alien, as we see him beamed down to Earth at the beginning of each episode, and he wanders off, clueless. He understands some things about being human, but just enough to get him in trouble. He can be sweet—he has a teddy bear that seems to be his only friend—and he can be vindictive. Most of what he does in that line is in the nature of a prank … but it usually goes a lot farther than he planned. His attempts to cover up his involvement invariably get him in deeper, then he usually manages to make his escape and let someone else take the blame for his disasters.

He barely talks, just mumbles from time to time. These TV shows are basically silent two-reelers, and that may be a clue as to why, as I was astonished to learn, the original Bean made a ton of money. (It was at one time #85 of the IMDb’s world-wide top grossing films. It’s since dropped to #261, as there have been a lot of big movies since then, but you need to have made $232,000,000 to take that place.) It’s the same reason Charlie Chaplin was for a long time the most popular film star in the world. His jokes were all visual, no language barrier, and you liked him. Mr. Bean is not as harmless as the Little Tramp, but I can’t help pulling for him as he makes his way through the world.

This movie is actually funnier than the first, which used a lot of recycled gags from the TV show. Here we have mostly original gags, and many of them work. It doesn’t tie into a coherent whole, but neither did the TV show. The only thing I really objected to was the attempt to soften it a little by giving him a child sidekick. Is he inviting comparisons to Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid? He shouldn’t; he’ll lose.


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Mr. Woodcock (2007) There is a short film on the DVD titled something like “Gym Class Horror Stories,” where many of the cast and crew of this film go back to those awful days of misery, pain, and sadism known as Physical Education. Of more than a dozen people interviewed, only one admitted to never having had any problems in gym class with a sadistic teacher. Even Billy Bob Thornton, whose dad was the basketball coach in his high school, said he dreaded PE. So I am forced to accept what I have a great deal of trouble believing, which is that the humiliation, degradation, and sometimes even physical abuse I suffered in junior high school is the norm, not the exception. I fear that at least 50% of children had to go through what I went through, and may even be going through it today … though the film also included a present-day gym teacher who disavows the practices of the past. (“Humiliation never taught anybody anything.”)

I had not one but two tormenters, Coach S and Coach E. Coach E was a hairy little hominid who enjoyed making little boys suffer. He was short and wide, football was his life, and he carried a Coke bottle with him at all times to spit tobacco juice into. Just the memory of that Coke bottle gives me the shivers. He hated fat kids, and he hated tall kids. My best friend, Calvin, was fat, and basically spent the whole period running laps after failing at some task set for him by Coach E. I was taller than E in the eighth grade, and clumsy, unable to hit a baseball or throw a football, so he enjoyed singling me out, too.

But the real killer, in retrospect, was Coach S. You could hate Coach E, his malevolence was right out there on the surface. But Coach S just wanted to help you. He wanted to make a better man out of you. He was buff, tanned, a perfect physical specimen; the girls melted when he walked down the hall in his spotless white Polo shirt and spotless, ironed and creased white shorts, socks, and sneakers. And he was always hurt when you failed at some impossible task yet again. You had let him down. You weren’t giving it that old team spirit. It took me years to figure that out what he had done to me. His “swimming lessons” are the reason I cannot swim, and am phobic about having my head underwater. And yes, I do still obsess about PE class, as I’ll bet a lot of people do. Near the end of this film, Mr. Woodcock, in the closest he ever comes to any empathy with a male, says something like “It was only a gym class.” That’s why Woodcock would never understand the harm he’s doing these boys, because of course it’s much more than a gym class, it’s Darwinian survival of the fittest, it’s life or death, it’s a daily humiliation that will stick with you for the rest of your life.

Sorry, I just have to vent when this subject comes up. I’m 60 years old, and I still hurt from those junior high days. So what about the movie? Well, I liked it. I know I’m in the minority, but I noticed at Metacritic that the man that liked it the most (75%) was Roger Ebert, who I’ll bet was another hopeless fat kid.

Here’s the set-up: Our Hero, who was tormented by Woodcock in school (and the flashbacks are painful to watch), returns home for a brief visit. He’s a highly successful author of self-help books, and one of his themes is to let go of all the negativity of the past. He finds that his mom (Susan Sarandon) is dating Woodcock! He instantly reverts to the seventh grade. He is helpless to stop himself. He has to compete with Woodcock for his mom’s affections … and he is doomed to lose. Because Woodcock is not a bad man, except to young boys. He is the prototypical alpha male when around men, and it’s easy for him. He has no self-doubts, he’s seen it all and knows how to deal with it all. And with women he is charming, strong and understated and thoughtful … and in fact, though I hate to admit it, he’d probably be a good husband. Coach S was probably a good husband. (Coach E would have been a wife-beater, no question, if he could ever have convinced a female to kiss those tobacco-juice-drooling lips.) So Our Hero makes a fool of himself, repeatedly, and that’s my only complaint about the movie, some of that is a little too much to believe.

Let me tell you how much this movie resonated with me … and believe me, it’s uncanny. I haven’t mentioned the name of Our Hero. It’s John Farley. I swear! And god help me, every time Woodcock shouted out “Farley!” my bowels turned to cheese whiz, because I heard the dreaded Coach E shouting out “Varley!” I tell you, they shouldn’t make movies that hit that close to home.


* * *


Norbit (2007) Eddie Murphy used to be a comic genius. What the hell happened? He’s still a big-money player in this town, with his voice work on the Shrek series and his Oscar nomination for Dreamgirls. But how do you explain The Haunted Mansion, Daddy Day Care, The Adventures of Pluto Nash, The Klumps, and this piece of shit? (I haven’t seen all of these, I admit it, but the reviews were awful. Pluto Nash got a 12 at Metacritic, one of the lowest scores ever. The best review said: “Eddie Murphy's latest comedy, The Adventures of Pluto Nash, takes place in the year 2087, which is about the earliest he can hope to be forgiven.”) But he’s got 5 movies in the pipeline, including Shrek 4 and a Romeo and Juliet “reimagining” (color me dubious), and three of them have interesting premises. I sure hope they work. This film worked for about ten minutes, when I laughed at Norbit’s back story. Then it descended into horrors. Apparently black people like to see racial stereotypes of themselves up on the screen, or at least enough of them do that crap like this gets made for them. Pimps and hos, pimps and hos. Sigh. Eddie plays a lot of parts in this one, too: A Chinese man, Norbit, his totally disgusting, obese wife Rasputia, and, I think, the little pug dog Rasputia runs over in an unfunny scene. I started FFing at about the 30 minute mark. The only thing positive I can say about Norbit is that fat suits have gotten incredibly good. All that jiggling flesh on Rasputia looked as real as could be … oh, the horror … the horror …


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Spiderman 3 (2007) I get awful tired of films with a 3 in the title. Sometimes a 2 is good, but that’s seldom the case with a 3. And you know if it’s gone to a 3, then a 4 can’t be far away. I’m dreading Pirates of the Caribbean 4. Number 3 was already looking a bit tired.

That said, this wasn’t all that bad. Plot and character seem to matter more in these Spiderman movies than they do in most SFX extravaganzas. (I must note, though, that the opening credits used more CGI than any ten movies combined, ten years ago, could have afforded.) At the same time, they have a nice sense of humor about the improbability of all these shenanigans. After battling Sandman the first time, Spidey sits on a wall and empties a ton of sand out of his boots, and says “Where do these things come from?” Yeah, life is tough for a superhero who lives in a shitty apartment and is trying to get through college, and is always beset by girlfriend troubles, which he handles ineptly. That was the source of his original popularity, of course, his appeal to the pathetic nerds (like me, though I was never a big comics fan) who read his adventures.

There is a brief cameo by Stan Lee, who created all this. He tells Peter Parker what a great guy Spiderman is.


* * *


Transformers (2007) To my considerable surprise—nay, even astonishment—I actually liked this movie until the obligatory over-the-top gun battle/fist fight/car-wrecking/mega explosion ending. I was prepared for it to be about as deeply characterized as those crazy Hasbro toys it was based on, but it was a lot more than that. The transformers themselves were dazzling, as we’ve come to expect, but this was on a whole new level of spatial complexity. The kinetic energy of the thing was enormous. But that’s all technical, and what you take for granted in a Michael Bay movie (director of the awful Armageddon, the action-packed but stupid Pearl Harbor, and the almost incoherent The Rock). What I didn’t expect was a clever script, with wit, good jokes, some interesting characters, and a way of winking at its inherent preposterousness that lets us feel we’re in on the joke. The last 20 or 25 minutes is a yawn, naturally, one boring explosion after another, but I had a great deal of fun getting to that point.

One observation: Several times in the film young people, ages maybe 6 to mid-teens, react to the mayhem going on around them by observing how cool it all is. The first reaction of the people in Cloverfield to the arrival of the monster was to make videos on their cell phones. It’s as if the new generation spends so much time watching events on television and/or playing violent point-of-view video games that they regard life as a show staged for their benefit. Nothing that happens could have any real-world consequences. You just press the RESET button and start over. In fact, their whole concept of “real world” seems a bit hazy. Like Chance the Gardner in Being There, when something unpleasant happens to him he points the TV remote at it and tries to change channels. Is this the new paradigm of human consciousness?

Our beloved Griffith Park Observatory appears briefly in this movie, crawling with Transformers. (Hey, watch where you’re stepping, Bigfoot! That’s our new planetarium and it shows every little scuff mark!) This is its 39th appearance in a film, most famously in Rebel Without a Cause.



April 14, 2008

Hollywood, California



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