Monday, October 22, 2012

Looper (Hopefully) Represents the Future of Time Travel Movies

Time travel movies are essentially about the desire to fix the mistakes of the past.

Typically, they fall into two camps: one where such disappointments can be successfully prevented or suitably altered; one where regrets just seem to grow exponentially no matter how hard we try to make things better. 

Actually, in both scenarios, things tend to keep spiraling downward for most of the movie. The divergence usually comes right near the end. For example, Marty McFly (Back to the Future) threatens his own existence before he unites his parents just in time to travel back to a new, much-improved version of his life that he never truly earned (not to mention, he no longer really knows his parents since his actions caused them to fundamentally change their personalities).

On the other side of the spectrum, a classic film example is when long-suffering James Cole (12 Monkeys) questions his sanity and eventually fails in his mission to thwart the release of a deadly virus that will devastate the human race. Making matters worse, he even becomes the unwitting catalyst of a bleak scenario that has haunted him in his dreams for most of his life.

Oh, right. SPOILER ALERT. 

Yeah, that came a bit late. Don't you wish you could go back in time now if you haven’t seen either of those movies? Don’t bother. Time travel is like scratching an itch that itches more each time you scratch it. It's usually best never to start scratching it in the first place.

At any rate, my friend Caleob and I discussed some of these ideas and he pointed out to me that the difference between the aforementioned categories inherently lies in the application or absence of free will. 

Time travel movies where the past can be changed to fundamentally rewrite the present suggest that free will exists, that we are all capable of making choices unencumbered by certain constraints. However, if changing the past still leads us to the same result, or one that is tragic along the same vein, then the suggestion is that we are ultimately not the architects of our own destinies. Even with access to time travel, we lack the ability to change things in the past more to our present liking.

Occasionally, an excellent time travel movie comes along that attempts to tread into deeper philosophical territory. Such films suggest that maybe we do possess free will, but may lack the cognition necessary to recognize the ramifications of our choices.

The root of the problem is that, no matter what we do to try to revise events in the past, eventually our emotions or faulty internal logic will compel us to act on behalf of our best interests or the interests of those we care deeply about. Unfortunately, such actions can inadvertently lead us right back down the same path that caused the initial regret in the first place. 

Or, worse, we could discover that our past-changing maneuverings have now placed us on a different path that leads to a whole new set of regrets which, in turn, motivate us to go back in time once again, creating a new timeline where our same old emotions and faulty internal logic propel us down yet another unsatisfying path that guides us towards more pain and heartbreak so that we inevitably feel a need to go back and... well, you get the idea.

Looper certainly belongs in the excellent time travel movie category and it gives me hope that the future of the genre is indeed promising.

No matter how you slice it, Looper is still about fixing mistakes at its core, as well as the ensuing bedlam and bloodshed that stems from using time travel as a form of self-help... but it's about so much more than that. It's also a morality tale.

It's the type of movie where you see one man's old self try to convince his young self how to do things differently while his young self tells his old self that he’s an idiot as he tries to kill him. Both are partially right in their way of thinking and both are partially wrong. 

During the first half of the film, I tried to decide which Joe was the hero and which Joe was the villain. Then, I realized it was even more complicated than that.

Looper will leave you with more questions than answers, but they are really good questions, such as: If you could travel to the past and shoot Hitler (or the future’s equivalent of him) before he comes of age... would you? Or, would it still be the murder of an innocent boy? What if you had to kill two kids to be sure his legacy never came to be? Three? Does the end really justify the means?

For that matter, would you even be able to perform the deed? Would time somehow correct itself in spite of the anomaly created by your efforts? Would another monster fill the vacuum you created? Would anything you do ultimately matter because every time you change one past event to benefit somebody, somebody else usually suffers as a result of it? 

Or, in other words, if you keep scratching enough, soon EVERYBODY will itch and feel a need to start scratching.

Sometimes, there is no definitive right or wrong answer to a problem. Sometimes there are only actions and their consequences. Sometimes, there are just people doing whatever is necessary to stay alive and keep what's theirs.

Then again, sometimes your head hurts a hell of a lot from thinking about all of this crap. 

Keep in mind, this movie is best watched with someone who likes to ask difficult questions and then attempt to answer them. Just be sure to save time for a meal or beverage afterward.

The premise itself, though, seems simple enough. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Inception, The Dark Knight Rises) is Joe, a hitman known as a “looper” who works in the year 2044, three decades before time travel is invented and subsequently outlawed. 

Joe’s job is to kill and dispose of people for the mob who send their victims 30 years back in time to him, bound and gagged with a payment strapped to their backs. Apparently, bodies are much harder to dispose of in the future, not to mention, it’s probably a hell of a lot cheaper to pay somebody without a few decades of inflation factored in. Then again, the mob doesn’t seem too imaginative because they aren’t using time travel to go steal Egyptian treasure or hunt dinosaurs for sport.

Regardless, it’s an easy job that any grunt can do and Joe is well-suited for it because the only thoughts he has of the future are learning French so he can one day move to France and keeping a steady flow of income so he can afford more mind-altering substances. 

Joe works under the subtle-yet-intimidating Abe (Jeff Daniels, Dumb and Dumber) who was sent from the future to oversee all loopers. Part of his job is to make sure they close their loops when the appropriate time comes. Closing a loop is when a looper shoots his older self from the future so that time travel remains a tidy endeavor. Those who refuse to do this will be hunted down and... well, it isn’t pretty.

Fortunately for the mob, Joe likes his job and the lifestyle that goes with it so he has no intention of straying from the agenda. However, one day a kill job arrives a few minutes late, untied, staring at him with all-too-familiar eyes. He recognizes his future self (played by Bruce Willis, 12 Monkeys) and a moment’s hesitation is all the older Joe needs to make his escape. 

Young Joe knows his life is on the line and he needs to hunt down his future self. His future self, however, has other ideas that include erasing a big regret from his life killing the young version of a mysterious criminal figurehead known as the “Rainmaker.” After all, the Rainmaker is the one who is directing the closing of all of the loops.

OK. Maybe the premise is not simple at all... not one damn bit. I haven’t even mentioned the fact that, in the future, about 10% of humans have developed mild telekinetic powers, just to make things even weirder. Looper is definitely strange, but in a good, unpredictable WTF? way.

Truth be told, I loved the movie even though its story does not always make sense to me. For example, I wondered: why not have loopers close out other loopers’ loops so there is no possibility they will hesitate when shooting their older selves? Or, better yet, why don't the criminals just kill the loopers and send their corpses back to the past where the loopers can ensure they disappear without a trace? But, time travel seems to create unforeseen messes so I can accept this aspect of the movie without having it detract from the story.

The same can be said of the paradoxes, and yes, there are a few paradoxes here and there (a time travel inevitability). However, I was OK with them because part of the enjoyment derived from a time travel movie is talking about how it does and does not make sense afterwards. Looper may leave you feeling a bit loopy at times, but that's a big reason why it is so much damn fun.

The rest of the fun comes from trying to predict what direction Looper will go next. It's brimming with elements of humor, action, suspense and drama, and there is enough surprise that will keep most viewers absorbed enough in the story to table some of the trickier time travel notions for the time being and just focus on the human struggles.

That particular sentiment is echoed succinctly when older Joe faces off with his younger self in a diner, saying: “I don’t want to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it then we’re going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws.”

Director Rian Johnson (Brick), a gifted storyteller, pays great attention to detail and giving a tangible texture to the characters and settings in his own private universe. 

He elicits strong performances from his actors and he offers up an appropriately dystopian view of Kansas City in the future that is just the right amount of wacky.

Sometime in the middle of the story, the movie takes an odd u-turn when younger Joe hides out at a farm where tough, over-protective Sara (Emily Blunt, The Five-Year Engagement) watches over her adorable ward Cid (Pierce Gagnon, The Crazies). He is exceptionally gifted and seems to be the most likely candidate to become the horrific Rainmaker. While their relationship is anything but stable, it is heartfelt and tender enough where you find yourself hoping their future can be changed for the better. 

But then, everybody in this film has just as much at stake, particularly young and old Joe who are pitted against each other on a collision course. Old Joe may be equipped with more wisdom, but he is a desperate man shaped by a lifetime of bad choices he keeps repeating. Young Joe, on the other hand, has spent most of his life feeling abandoned and lonely and has never been capable of making a real human connection. Neither are good candidates to be a hero. Yet, both stand to lose everything they hold dear and will stop at nothing to keep that from happening.

To reveal more about how this conundrum plays out would be a crime. One of the best strengths of Looper is the elegant solution to that problem and all the other problems that compound and multiply every time somebody tries to alter the course of the future. 

Ultimately, Looper ends in the only way that it makes sense and even then you'll find yourself looping the film's chain of events over and over again in your mind... trying to find a way to scratch an itch that will never quite go away.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Deep Fried, Never Tender: Killer Joe Movie Review

There is a seemingly innocuous scene during William Friedkin’s polarizing film, Killer Joe, an NC-17 adaptation written by Tracy Letts and based on his off-Broadway play of the same name. The heart and heroine of this darkly twisted southern-fried fairy tale is Dottie Smith, a young and mostly innocent girl who snaps at her brother Chris when he turns off a cartoon she is watching in a diner. She wants to know how it will end, after all. 

The joke, of course, is that cartoons don’t really end. The crazy whirligig of violence and mayhem keeps moving as the characters chase and debase each other over and over again. There does not need to be rhyme or reason. It is simple mindless entertainment... a slapstick opera of pain and pointlessness begetting more pain and pointlessness.

It would be easy to make that last sentence a metaphor for this film, but it would not be 100% accurate. There is plenty of substance underneath the extra crispy exterior of this film... even if it is often charred and bitter to the tongue. The meal itself may leave you with an upset stomach, but that does not mean it lacked plenty of nutrition.

Friedkin has long been an undisputed master of the disturbing and bizarre. He has balanced humor and macabre well before but never quite this effectively (his 2006 film Bug accomplished this juggling act until it began to collapse from its own ridiculousness). Killer Joe’s tension and stinging wit represent each side of a spinning coin that never stops until the final credits roll. 

It may be his best film since his 1973 masterpiece, The Exorcist, which alienated horror audiences in a way never seen before... it sort of played like a knife blade pressed against the frazzled last nerve of those who prefer a world where good ultimately triumphs over evil. Yet, in the Texan world of Killer Joe there is only evil and various degrees of more evil, ranging from opportunism and greed to unflinching, merciless retribution. 

Then, there is a different breed of immorality: the titular character who is calm and collected on the surface and batshit bonkers just underneath. Matthew McConaughey is mesmerizing with his unsettling performance, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The plot follows the plight of Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch, Into the Wild), a perennial loser who owes money to all the wrong people and their deadline for patience has long expired. Chris hatches a scheme to hire someone to kill his mother and cash out an insurance policy in an attempt to save his own skin. In order to do this, he needs the help of his laconic and dim-witted father, Ansel (Thomas Hayden Church, Sideways), since the policy names Ansel’s youngest child, Dottie (Juno Temple, The Three Musketeers), as the beneficiary. 

If the movies have taught us anything it’s that families usually run into trouble when they hire a hit man to kill off one of their own. 

The problem is that the gunman the Smiths solicit only takes payment up front. However, in this case, he is willing to make an exception if he can keep the young, virginal Dottie as collateral.

Now you can probably guess why this movie ventures into NC-17 territory.

If this synopsis sounds disturbing that’s only because it is. The script plays like something from the poisonous pen of Flannery O’Connor or William Faulkner, but the drama is more taut and palpable because of the immensely talented cast that makes the trailer park trash characters seem mostly real, even if their existence itself is outlandish. They may be human cartoons locked in a cycle of directionless desperation without any hope of a happy ending, but they do not seem to realize it.

Hirsch takes turns at playing angry, almost-but-not-quite tender, seemingly clever and perfectly clueless with surprising ease and Church absolutely steals every scene he’s in with his perfect comic timing and tone. His character is not overly loquacious, but his observations are so simple (though often a step or two too late) that they seem profoundly hilarious. He is fun to watch and he plays off Gina Gerson (Bound) extremely well. She is remorselessly nasty... just the right amount of over-the-top ornery as Church’s second wife, the cold-hearted and conniving Cleo, who may have bitten off more than she can chew with the Smith family.

Of course, the highlight of the film is McConaughey who inhabits Killer Joe with a courteous charm to offset his sadistic savagery. In his day job, he is a detective so he has the skills to make murders look like accidents. He is a step ahead of everyone else, but never reveals what cards he holds in his hand.

He is downright hypnotic at times, completely unpredictable. You don’t know if he’ll laugh at a joke or beat someone senseless with a can of food. McConaughey’s always been an impressive physical force in the past, but his portrayal of Killer Joe is often more menacing when he seems soft-spoken and in control because you know his next eruption could occur at any moment. No doubt, he will be up for a few acting award nominations if the critics can look past the film’s dreaded NC-17 status. (Side Note: Since the debut of the NC-17 rating in 1990 with Henry & June, such rated films are rarely profitable at the box office. The highest grossing NC-17 film is Showgirls with just over $20 million. It had a production budget of $45 million.)

The emotional core of the film certainly belongs to Dottie. She’s a rag doll belle, a delusional waif who is beginning to see through the cracks in her own crazy family. She is a heroine who lost the battle before she was even born... but that does not stop her from hoping for a better life. Unfortunately, she may have to swim through some murky, polluted waters to get to a better shore.

But then, everybody in the world of Killer Joe is trying to do the same thing and they don't care who they drown in their wake along the way.

Overall, Killer Joe is uneven enough so that the viewer never can really get solid footing. The laughter comes often, but much of it is anything but comfortable. The drama is ever-present, but it’s anything but formulaic. The end result is certainly brutal and not compatible for every palette. However, even those who cannot find any joy from watching this depraved look at the worst of humanity can be assured that it is stunningly original and its voice is almost impossible to ignore.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Free Falling Almost Comes with a Heavy Price

So, um, Noah had an airplane, too?
After two cancelled dates due to inclement weather (heavy winds one weekend and rain the next), I was finally heading to Noah's Ark Airport (WTF?) to skydive. It has been something I have wanted to do for as long as I can remember.

One of the first things I heard when I started the sign-in process was that the jumps could be halted any minute if the winds became a greater concern. Admittedly, the thought of another cancellation seemed agonizing. How many times can you pump yourself up for something only to be disappointed?
The thing was, though, I was still pumped up, completely excited and not even remotely worried. You see, I’d gone on every roller coaster, every amusement park ride, tried ziplining... heck, my brother and I once attempted our own brand of “parachuting” hanging onto each end of a giant blue tarp and jumping off the roof of our house on a particularly windy day. We chose the side with the steep-dropping driveway so we could be in the air a good 20 feet up or more.  
That was all loads of fun, but I was ready for something more. Through all these adventures, I had never been one to get a queasy stomach or feel a nervous pinch right before the thrills started. But, I knew skydiving would be a different animal.
I was concerned that the drooping feeling of my stomach falling out from under me as I fell to the earth might overtake me so I planned perfectly to counteract the threat of potentially losing my lunch. I simply would not have one. I ate an early light breakfast and knew I would be starved by the time I landed, but then I could promptly go eat a big, celebratory meal.
Problem was, it took all day to finally jump. 
Things did not start off on the right foot, either. Upon arrival, I was taken to a trailer to watch a five-minute video on the “risk assessment of skydiving.” The dull colors of the image and the faded fashion of the narrator’s polyester suit told me it was probably produced in the 1970s or early 1980s. He bore a long, shaggy, ZZ Top-style beard and looked more like an extra from Deliverance than the inventor of the tandem skydiving process and technology that was to be employed this day. Aesthetically, he did not inspire much confidence.
His words were even worse. He proceeded to deliver a lengthy list of all the ways that you could easily die while skydiving. There is no such thing as a perfect parachute, a perfect pilot, a perfect airplane, a perfect skydiving instructor, etc. Basically, any one factor could prove faulty and the result would surely be a terrible, serious accident or, more likely, an interesting death. So, because there are approximately one million ways to die while tandem skydiving, everybody present had to sign a waiver that we would never, ever sue any of the makers of any of the equipment, the plane, or the company we were skydiving with, no matter what. 
And, if we did sue for some strange reason, we’d pay for all the court costs for both sides.
This was not the most comforting opening video to have people watch. 
My head was, in fact, bigger than the plane.
After that, the head honcho of the company stressed the importance of complying to every order we were given and he added that nothing frightened him more than people who weren’t scared (since they usually did stupid things). 

No problem there. I was scared enough at that point. Then, just to sprinkle a bit more fear on, he kept muttering that the winds were perilously close to the “unsafe” zone. Already, many jumps had been pushed back that day in the interest of safety and the winds were right at that border between “OK” and “What the Hell do you think you’re doing?”
Again, comforting.
So, my 2 p.m. jump time was pushed back for an hour. Then another. Meanwhile, I watched a pleasant video of a woman who had skydived with the company and it looked like a fun, easy five minutes of her life. So, I relaxed. I had watched all the videos and now I just had to wait my turn and hope the weather would hold.
By 4 p.m. my stomach was growling, badly. I still didn’t want to eat only to have it come up on the way down. (We were taught that if you must lose your lunch, you are to do so by lifting your shirt collar and putting your face in it, using it as an air sickness bag.) There was no way I was going to let that even POSSIBLY happen.
The jump time continued to be pushed back. The wind was up to 30 m.p.h. and higher at times. Since there was nothing to eat at the place, I had a lunch consisting of six peppermint Altoids. I cut back on the water, too. I only had a few cups all day, partly because the only bathroom was a porta-potty, and partly because I didn’t want a full bladder when I jumped.
By 6 p.m. I was dying. My body was telling me this was not acceptable. I discovered that they sold soda and snack crackers so I enjoyed half a Pepsi and six pepper jack cheese crackers in a futile attempt to silence my stomach, but keep it virtually empty.
Finally, at 7 p.m., we were told to harness up quickly as it was finally time to go and we were losing daylight. 
Harness? Check. Instructions? Not so much.
All day I had watched jumpers who were given instructions while they suited up so it didn’t seem odd to me that, as my instructor tightened my harness, he only gave me a few comments on the landing part of it. 

Basically, the tandem jumper must lift his feet up with his knees tucked as he pulls down on the handles until they reach his waist, then he continues with his hands until they reach behind his back. This creates an updrift right before you hit ground and makes for a smooth, soft landing (by theory). Piece of cake.
Since I paid for the video option of the experience, my instructor attached a small camera to his wrist and started asking me questions. Things happened so quickly that I don’t remember what I was asked or how I responded. (I’ll watch the tape later and grimace, I’m sure.) Before I knew it, we were told to rush to the plane as they were concerned about the setting sun (another load of jumpers still to go). So, within minutes from being hooked up with the harness, I was on the cramped, small plane, ready to take off. I didn't even have time to say goodbye to my wife despite the hundreds of ways I could possibly die in the next twenty minutes.
It was then that two extremely disturbing thoughts penetrated my mind.
First of all, I realized that I was a bit tired and not as mentally sharp as normal, most likely due to the insufficient dietary regime for the past eight hours. I was very disappointed in myself for my brilliant plan of not having anything in my stomach or bladder to lose during the jump because it also meant feeling weak and tired from dehydration and starvation.
After waiting all day, it was suddenly go, go, GO!
So, that was anything but comforting. 

Then, another thought struck me with a deep, primal fear: I never really received any instructions (though I was there all freakin’ day) and I was not remotely prepared for what I was supposed to do (except for the landing). I figured I should mention this before we take off. I started to, but was cut off by my skydiving instructor who filmed a quick pre-take-off interview for my stupid video. By the time I answered the question, the plane had started and we were speeding down the tiny-ass runway.
Oh shit to the highest conceivable order!
So, I quickly mentioned that I didn’t know what I was supposed to do UP UNTIL THE LANDING. He was behind me, so I could not see his face, which was probably better for both of us.
“Didn’t you watch the tape?” he asked nervously.
“What fucking tape?” my mind screamed.
“I watched the one with the crazy beard guy talking about how easy it is to die while doing this and the one with the lady jumping and talking about how awesome everything is. Nothing instructional,” I shouted, over the roar of the engines.
“Really?” was all he said.
Really? Really? Fucking really? This was not comforting. Not one damn bit. We were nowhere near the vicinity of somewhere remotely near the edge of anything resembling comfortable.
Fuck me!
Now, I just felt stupid. I probably should have made sure I received proper instructions, but had spent most of the last two hours thinking about how hungry I was and how I was going to make sure to be good and famished while I jumped out of a plane at over 10,000 feet up. I only had myself to blame.
So, my instructor proceeded to hastily describe to me what to expect... what he would do and what I would need to do, even as we quickly climbed higher and higher. First his wrist device showed us at 1,000 feet, then 2,000 feet, then 3,000... all the while, he quickly relayed to me everything I would be responsible for and I frantically tried to commit it to memory knowing I was minutes away from doing it.
Somehow, I remained relatively calm through all of this. At this point, it occurred to me my life depended on this information, literally, and I listened intently figuring that, at the very least, I am a smart guy and I will be all right. But, I kept asking him to repeat things as I had trouble remembering. For some reason, this did not strike me as odd. Of course, the rising altitude was not helping matters.
He told me when we jumped I would have to assume the “banana arch” position. I would crane my neck back, protrude my chest and stomach out and kick my feet together back towards his butt behind me, all the while holding on to the harness straps on my chest. In short, I would act as the “fuselage” and he would act as the wings and steering in this equation. 
No problem. 
I hope I don't hit a bird...
I did that much almost perfectly. However, the second we leaned out of the airplane and proceeded to breathe in the light air and feel the wind whip us at impossibly fast (and deafening) speeds, I saw my first glimpse of the Kansan landscape almost two miles up. That's when my IQ immediately dropped 70 points, maybe more. My memory also seemed to fall out of the airplane with me.
Keep in mind, I was told later we traveled through the air at about 134 m.p.h. when we jumped from about 10,300 feet. We proceeded to free fall for the next 31 seconds, which seemed like about seven hours to me as I literally had a million thoughts bounce around my head in that span. It went something like this.
Oh shit! Oh fuck! Look at that! That’s fucking incredible! That’s absolutely amazing. The ground is so far away and I am falling terribly fast towards it. This is not natural. This is not REMOTELY NATURAL. Why do people deliberately do this? Oh, right. Because it’s amazing! Fucking awesome.
Let me interrupt for a second. I wish I could say my thoughts were fluid and poetic and worth reading, but, frankly, I was a magnified mental mess at this point.
Are those trees? Where are we landing? It’s so fucking green. Fuselage position, fuselage position, or is it banana posture? I don’t really remember. I think it was both. Are my feet high enough behind me? Neck is back, good good. Holy fuck, look at that view! I hope I don't hit a bird.
That all occurred literally in about the first two or three seconds. It was about that time when a wave of complete nausea and disorientation completely overwhelmed me. 

I suddenly felt unbelievably weak and a tingling sensation invaded my body from head to toe. I was pretty much brain dead, in hypnotic awe, and suddenly felt as if I contracted an intense head and stomach flu during the middle of the most amazing and exhausting marathon sex session imaginable... and somehow I managed to drink a 12-pack of beer sometime in the middle. I was high, confused, devastated and in rapture all at the same time.

I was in ecstasy. I was sick and dizzy. I was insanely weak and tired. I was trying to remember how to think. I was wondering if I was actually dreaming the experience. And my eyes were absorbing every scenic detail below me as the ground seemed to approach dangerously fast. It was beyond surreal. 

In fact, in retrospect, part of me wonders if I was experiencing vertigo even though I’ve never had any problems with heights and actually love the thrill I get when I am high up. Or, it could simply be my body was extremely weak and fatigued from not eating, which, combined with the high altitude (and low oxygen levels) and the intensity of the experience, made things extremely difficult. I don’t know. At this point, I don’t care because (SPOILER ALERT).... I survived the experience.
Mind you, all of this was happening within the first five seconds of jumping out. In all honesty, I would have completely panicked if I had the energy, but I was just too damn tired. My first coherent thought (after the initial jumbled explosion) was: This is going to be a lot harder than I thought.
When I spoke to my brother on the phone after, I described it like this. Imagine you are fighting Muhammad Ali in his prime. You step into the ring in the first round and the first thing he does is smash you with a haymaker that rattles you harder than you have ever been rattled in your entire life and you feel like you can’t help but drop to your knees. Except you can’t drop to your knees. If you do, the fight will be over. So, instead, you have to find a way to make it to the last round even though you already feel completely defeated.
Free falling, but not Tom Petty style.
This metaphor is perfect for how I felt. 

I was ready to pass out. I am at a loss to explain how I didn’t. I’ve never felt so much of a need to just give up and lose consciousness, but knowing you are strapped to another man whose life depends on yours almost as much as yours depends on him scared me more than anything. The truth is, with our combined weights, the instructor was simply not strong enough to perform certain maneuvers, especially the landing one. Passing out would be about the worst thing I could ever do, yet I felt on the verge of doing so for the entire jump.
In the meantime, I was numbly terrified and in sweet, sweet bliss at the same time. The experience was absolutely, positively, utterly indescribable.
Back to the free fall. I had to concentrate harder than I have ever had to before, knowing full well that both my brain and body were desperately working to sabotage my efforts to not create a nice big hole in the ground below. Those 30 seconds were insane. Nothing at all like Tom Petty’s Free Falling song. 
Then, the parachute deployed and it felt like going from 130 m.p.h. to like 20 m.p.h. in half a second. C-R-A-Z-Y.
At this point, I was told to hold the handles tightly with my arms stretched up as high as I could... but I COULD NOT PULL DOWN on the handles. This is not easy to do, especially when your arms feel as if they weigh 400 pounds a piece and you are dizzier than you have ever been in your entire life -- including the times as a kid that I would spin in circles in my room during the entire “I’m Henry the Eighth I Am” song before I would bounce off the walls and floors and laugh hysterically.
My instructor tried to coach me through everything and I tried to listen, but I also kept wanting to relax my sore, tired arms. We both knew the danger that presented. If I let go of the handles, that would certainly screw us completely. So, I held on.
Next, we tried to practice our landing maneuvers. This is when things got really ugly. My brain was not cooperating. I tried holding my arms all the way up (not pulling down on the handles until his say-so), then I bent my knees and lifted my legs. I was so tired that it felt like I was doing the 500th sit-up in an endless workout. I reached the right point and he signaled me to pull down on the handles, which I did, but only to my shoulders for some strange reason. I forgot to pull them all the way down to my waist. Meanwhile, my arms felt like two wet spaghetti noodles trying to support the weight of everything that has ever existed.
The first two attempts were miserable failures and this greatly discouraged my tandem partner. He began slamming his right hand on my shoulder a few times in a fruitless attempt to communicate to me what I needed to do. Again, I felt like giving up. He might as well have been a Nobel prize-winning scientist trying to explain Schrodinger’s cat and quantum mechanics to a box of tissues.
Right as I started to ask him “What am I supposed to do?” it hit me. Right. I have to pull the stupid handles down further. Got it. 
He was quite nervous because we were supposed to have achieved a couple of upswings already, but instead we kept plummeting down to the ground faster and faster with no prospect of a proper landing. Finally, we tried again and I did it right. Then, we repeated. However, the practice took what little energy I had left and basically pistol-whipped it to death.
The work part was over. Now we were supposed to just breathe in the atmosphere and enjoy the view. I still felt as if I would pass out any second. We spun around a few times. I pulled on one handle so we would turn sharply in the air. It was very cool, but I couldn’t believe how fatigued I was. Somehow, I helped to steer us where we needed to go as he barked out the orders (a bit frantically, sure, but who can blame him).
At that point I remember thinking the experience was absolutely nothing like I had expected. It was still profoundly wonderful... easily the most thrilling thing I have ever done by far... and I mean fucking far. But it was so much harder than I imagined it could be. 
At any rate, I was shocked at how fast the ground kept approaching. I thought it would feel like a slow, gradual fall... that is what it looks like from the ground, after all. But you drop fast, even with the chute deployed.
When we did the landing maneuver for real this time it was perfect. We both landed on our feet despite some nasty wind gusts. I feel this is most impressive because as soon as I was unstrapped from the chute, I hunched over and grabbed my knees trying to breathe and not collapse. 
How on earth am I still alive?
Barb, watching all of this, assumed my back had snapped in two. The truth is, the pressure and the exertion on my back muscles during this whole process was so severe that my back was the most relaxed it had been in 13 years. But, now on the ground, with the massive strain (and the adrenaline of trying to stay alive) over, I was even more exhausted. 
It took me a few moments to recover and walk back to everybody. I was completely high, and, as it turned out, I still feel that way the next morning, over 12 hours later.
It’s mostly a blur to me, albeit a very pleasant one. I am not exaggerating when I say I think that was probably the closest I had ever been to dying... and that counts the time I had an inflamed appendix for half a year before the doctors discovered why I was having horrible stomach pain and sickness AND the time a huge, heavy tree branch fell on the car with me in it.
Regardless, it was by far the best birthday gift I have ever received. It was more thrilling than every ride at Universal Studios Orlando (my favorite theme park) COMBINED.
However, when most people ask: “Would you do it again?” I have to respond honestly: “No. I don’t see how I would.” The truth is, once is enough. I am not sure I could survive another attempt, even if I ate and drank properly beforehand.
Although, it would be tempting simply because, after I became reunited with terra firma, I enjoyed the best tall glass of Boulevard Wheat and pound of spare ribs ever. Food and beverage always taste better following a long fast, but free falling adds an extent of flavor to all things that I never thought possible.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Avenging Years of Mediocre Films

I am convinced that all people — critics and movie fans alike — suffer from a neurological condition called "Jar Jar Myopia" -- which is basically defined as "a small, hard-to-detect bias bound within all moviegoers that prevents them from sometimes seeing how awful a movie is, especially if the subject of that movie is a beloved character or story from their childhood."

This explains why so many people thought Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace was a five-star film despite the fact that it featured the character of Jar Jar Binks and all the torment that ensues from having to hear him speak.

There is a flip side to this, as well, especially for comic book fans. Many who grew up reading countless issues of beloved comics have their own personal favorite stories, heroes, costumes, villains, and so on, and they have long envisioned what a movie version should encompass. No matter what final product the director ends up putting on screen, fans will scream in frustration because their dream contained some crucial difference.

For me, I have been a huge fan of The Avengers comic book since I was eight and it first occurred to me that the only thing better than an individual comic book featuring Captain America or Iron Man or some other favorite hero would be one that featured all of them, together, fighting even bigger threats.

Well, over 30 years later, Joss Whedon, the ultimate fan boy, finally had the opportunity, budget and technology to make The Avengers into a film (finally!), and I'll be the first to admit, it was nothing at all like I have long imagined it to be.

In many ways, it was so much better.

Visually, it's a living, breathing comic book, full of slick fight scenes that don't pull punches. Thor and Iron Man destroy part of a forest in battle. The Hulk rampages recklessly throughout the S.H.E.I.L.D. Helicarrier. All the while, clever quips keep popping out of everybody's mouths (Robert Downey, Jr. should get a Lifetime Achievement Award for Wisecracking for his work as Iron Man in three films to date). The dialog is pitch perfect.

Somehow, the movie is non-stop action without short-shrifting us on the character development. Even the scenes designed to advance the overall plot don't waste any time with fluff or filler. Whedon shows us everything for a reason (and sometimes that reason is just to produce a big smile on the faces of fans). The first half of the film is carefully crafted so the payoff in the second is well worth the wait.

At the core of The Avengers is a clashing cadre of obstinate, larger-than-life heroes who don't know how to play well together. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is a god with little patience for mortals, even super-powered ones. Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) is a billionaire-playboy-genius who is one step ahead of everybody else and has the ego to prove it. Captain America (Chris Evans) is a man displaced by time and hasn't adjusted to his modern surroundings. The Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is a poker-faced spy who keeps her motives hidden. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is headstrong and not keen on taking orders.

Then, there is Bruce Banner who keeps the "other guy" (Hulk) locked up inside. Mark Ruffalo brings a cool, calmness to the character that was lacking in the films with Eric Bana and Edward Norton. He also displays a refreshing sense of humor. Admittedly, I assumed the Hulk would be the weak link in the film (the Hulk films have been the worst ones Marvel has produced in recent years), but he was one of my favorite parts of the movie, both in a lab coat and as a green rage monster. Either way, the character was just plain fun again.

All actors bring their A-game and make the characters every bit as colorful as their costumes. Also adding a strong performance is Samuel Jackson as Nick Fury, the head of a shadow organization who is willing to manipulate the heroes if it suits a greater purpose. 

Tom Hiddleston is memorable as he reprises his role as Loki, Thor's evil half-brother who serves as the cold, calculating main villain. He's the perfect choice (not just because Loki was the original villain in the first appearance of the Avengers series) because his duplicitous tactics serve to bring the group to the boiling point before they even get started. 

The tensions remain thick as the situations grows more dire... aliens called the Chitauri invade New York. They get little screen time until the big fight scene at the end, but that is sort of the point. We don't know all the details of why they are attacking, only that it will take the combined might of the Avengers working together to ward them off… provided they can stop fighting among themselves. 

Of course, they are heroes, so they can be counted on to fight the good fight. I must say, the climactic battle is worth the price of admission alone and it demands to be seen in 3-D. Demands. It is absolutely awesome.

But then, who am I trying to convince to see this film? Has anybody NOT seen it yet. It reached a billion dollars in worldwide box office in only 19 days. It becomes only the 11th film to reach that pinnacle and it's the only film ever to gross over $100 million during its first two weekends.

Fans are lining up to see the film again and again. The reason is simple. It flat out shines. It succeeds on every level.

Most comic book films to date had been lacking, even with "Jar Jar Myopia" factored in. But, Marvel has gotten much better at them in recent years, all part of its master plan to craft The Avengers. All the effort and hard work has paid off. The Avengers is far better than any of its predecessors as it wisely builds on all of the strengths of the previous films. It takes the action, humor, drama and fun to a whole other level. I can't wait until the inevitable sequel.

For now, though, I am content to where the first film has taken me... back in time to the first time I pried open a comic and let my imagination run rampant with vivid colors and epic battles. It took me back to a place where all things are possible, regardless of logic or reality… a place we all could stand to visit more from time to time.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Top Ten Worst Films of All Time (Part Two)

So, you've survived Part One. You know about the #6 through 10 worst movies of all time.

Here is a quick recap:

10) Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus (2009)
 9) Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot! (1992)
 8) Howard the Duck (1986)
 7) Battlefield Earth (2000)
 6) Catwoman (2004)


Now, I shall proceed to list off the five worst films ever. 

Personally, I believe we should lock these movies away in a time capsule so the next time (yes, I said next) aliens attack the Earth with one of their many planet-dominating strategies, it can be used as a defensive weapon. After all, it is highly unlikely that a well-cultured and vastly intelligent race could ever survive watching them, but even if they do, they will probably lose interest in conquering a planet that is capable of producing such senseless schlock.

Please Note: The author of this article is not responsible for any negative health effects, including spontaneous blindness, erectile dysfunction, brain shrinkage and fits of depression caused as the direct result of viewing the following films. 

5) Showgirls (1995)

This film is so bad that it should be studied in film school. It's a perfect example of what can happen if you make every conceivable bad choice during the production of a film.

The first mistake they committed was to grossly overpay for a banal script. As the story goes, screenwriter Joe Eszterhas (Basic Instinct) originally scribbled the idea for the story on a napkin while vacationing in Hawaii. That explains so much.

The idea and subsequent script lacked any original thought: Girl goes to Vegas to become a dancer, even if she must lie, cheat and steal her way to the top. She's also willing to stab and screw anyone with a pulse and cuss like a drunken rapper along the way.

Does that sound like a $2 million script? 

OK. In all fairness, I'm just kidding. That wasn't the actual amount paid out for the screenplay. That was just the advance Eszterhas was given to write the script. He actually received an additional $1.7 million when the studio produced the film! If my math is correct, that's $3.7 million altogether, or about $100,000 for each time someone says the word "whore" in this film.

Next, the studio decided to make the film NC-17 (not a commercially viable rating even to this day) and the filmmakers refused to edit it down even though it desperately needed it. This fiasco clocks in at an agonizaing 2 hours and 11 minutes long. 

Still, a film can be overbudgeted, badly rated by the MPAA and run too long, but at least you can minimize the damage by casting it correctly, right? Apparently, Drew Barrymore was courted for the titular role, but she wisely turned it down. However, Charlize Theron actually auditioned for it. I don't think she could have made lemonade from this pile of refuse, but she would have been more interesting.

Instead, the part went to Elizabeth Berkley of Saved By the Bell fame. That sealed the fate for the film, basically. There was no way it could avoid being an absolute retch-fest.

It's not that Berkley can't dance (she regularly worked 16 hours a day in high heels while filming the dance sequences) and she certainly had the body to play a stripper (it has been reported that she is completely nude for a whopping 20 minutes of screen time), it's just that she has all the charm of a rabid pit bull adorned in a Nazi uniform. In fact, that is pretty much the way she approaches the role (minus actually wearing the uniform, of course).

She can't act. That is a given. That possibly could have been forgiven since she's naked and dancing for so much of the film (or gyrating as if she's being electrocuted during her unintentionally hilarious sex scenes). What can't be forgiven is that she is the most unlikable protagonist in the history of cinema. 

She resonates pure seething hatred in almost every frame. It's impossible not to despise her or root passionately for her to fail. 

She's so catty and full of venom that it's even frightening to watch the stripping scenes. I half expected her to stop licking the stripper's pole, rip it out of the ground and start beating everyone around her to death.

In the end, Showgirls can be summed up as an NC-17 film that is about as erotic as a root canal without novacaine. At the time it was released, it was nominated for an unprecedented 13 Golden Razzie nominations (winning seven), which is a strong argument in itself to make it the worst film in history (and to think, it's only #5). 

Certainly, it's undeniably entertaining to watch. It's sort of like a train wreck that keeps going for over two hours as the debris and carnage continue to pile up.

4) Kazaam (1996)

What could surpass an awful film about a hateful harpy whose only desire is to eat hamburgers and dance topless in Las Vegas? How about the touching story of a seven-foot tall rapping genie (with attitude) who befriends an adolescent boy who is about as adorable as syphillis.

It's a shame, really. Shaquille O'Neal had the potential to be such a great actor (at least as great as he is on the free throw line). All he had to do was find the right role, such as, say, that of an inanimate corpse badly lit in the background of a wide angle shot. I think he would have been perfect for that. Anything else, however, is asking for trouble.

Especially a rapping genie, for #@$% sake!

I don't even know where to begin with this film. The story is downright insulting. Imagine for a moment that a white kid accidentally frees a large black genie from a boombox. How cute, right?

The boy is rewarded with three wishes. Until his three wishes are granted, the small white boy realizes he is the MASTER of the large black man who must do whatever he orders him to do! So, it's a movie about slavery, Disney-style. Seriously. 

Making things much worse, there is a fair share of (accidental?) overtones of pedophilia, as the relationship between Kazaam and the kid is often uncomfortably inappropriate, but let's not go there.

Undeniably, the film's premise is a stupid one. It's made much worse by the fact that it is so poorly executed. The film has a pretty dark tone that simply doesn't work because — hello!?! Rapping genie!

Then there is the small matter of the movie's climactic scene featuring Shaq compressing the stereotypical villain into a big round ball and slam dunking him through a hoop. It's criminally moronic. 

However, listening to the actual dialog in this film (especially the rap lyrics) feels exactly like scooping large portions of your brain out and frying them on the stove.

Random Rapping Sample #1: If you wanna be number one, I'm sorry boy, that's been done! But if you got the itches for a sack of riches don't matter how avaricious, I'm the man that can grant your wishes! Hey, don't turn your butt on me! I'm the man of the ages, straight out of the pages. Hang on! I'm contagious, outrageous, spontaneous! You can't contain this. I am KAZAAM! 

Random Rapping Sample #2: As Romeo said before Juliet, grab hold your prince we'll have a sextet... And if you girls are hungry, let's green egg and ham it.

3) Batman & Robin (1997)

This may be the one movie on the Top Ten Worst list that I can watch repeatedly without ever becoming bored. It's so bad that it's hypnotic, literally. The film begins with a Nite-Brite Batmobile that looks like it's powered by aspinning disco ball. Robin (Chris O'Donell) sees it and quips: "I want a car. Chicks dig the car!" And it's all downhill from there.

Clearly the set and costume designers were on copious amounts of crack. The heroes' suits all irrationally include bat nipples. Adding to the fun, every major movie set looks suspiciously like the aftermath of a tragic Crayola factory explosion. 

I can honestly say, withou fear of hyperbole, that this film makes the campy 1960s TV show starring Adam West look like a Shakespearean drama in comparison.

On the plus side, Uma Thurman is quite sexy as the ludicrous Poison Ivy, well, at least until she inexplicably speaks her lines like a 1920s sexpot. 

As over the top as Uma acts, she's nothing compared to Arnold "The Governator" Schwarzenegger. His perpetually vacant eyes are a nice complement to his rigid immovable lips that choke on his irritatingly dumbed-down dialog (which is simply inexcusable because 90% of it involves puns with the words "ice" or "cold").

I remember the first time I saw this Bat-astrophe in the theater. All I could say to myself was: "They shelled out a $140 million budget for THIS!" My jaw dropped after the first 30 seconds and I was never able to close my mouth properly until hours after the movie was over.

I'm not exaggerating. 

The film actually features a car chase up and down the limbs of a giant statue! When Batman and Robin compete in an auction bid for Poison Ivy (while under her love spell), the caped crusader (George Clooney) whips out a credit card with the bat logo on it and actually says: "Never leave the cave without it!"

That alone might be the greatest moment in all of movie history.

The climax of the film features a scheme where Poison Ivy and Mr. Freeze try to freeze all of Gotham's citizens with a gawdy, super-sized observatory telescope (this may be one of the more believable moments of the film). 

Fortunately, Batgirl (Alicia Silverstone) hatches a bat-brained strategy that is just crazy enough to work. She decides to use space satellites to reflect the “sunlight from the Congo” back to Gotham and thaw it out. There may be one problem with her plan: reality.

This is nothing short of an aboslute celluloid nightmare. It is a full-on bat-sh$t crazy cataclysm. It single-handedly destroyed the lucrative Batman franchise for almost a decade. That alone makes it a prime candidate for the number one spot, but somehow there are still two films ahead of this Bat-Bomb.

2) The Room (2003)

Some movies are so godawful they simply refuse to die. 

Case in point, The Room made a paltry $2,000 during its initial theatrical run and yet somehow it survived. 

Initially, critics departed early during screenings because they were appalled at the film's amateurish acting and sophomoric script which came across as an R-rated afterschool special, only a bit cornier and with none of the insight.

However, the movie's writer/star/director/producer Tommy Wiseau was soon bombarded with almost a hundred fan e-mails shortly after the movie was considered DOA. These were the same people at the badly-attended debut who were literally laughing so hard they cried during the film, which is supposed to be a dark drama. It's more like an entertaining enema.

That praise encouraged Wiseau to keep pushing for the film to be shown in more theaters. Over time, The Room built up a cult following ala The Rocky Horror Picture Show. In fact, fanatical viewers in Los Angeles and New York have been known to show up at the film dressed in the costumes of its characters and scream out the dialog as it is delivered onscreen.

Such insanity can only be inspired by something truly remarkable or abysmally bad. I'll let you decide which category this film falls under.

The Room follows the story of sleepy-faced man named Johnny who struggles mightily with human emotions and the English language even as he has trouble keeping his psychotic "future wife" Lisa happy. He dotes on her constantly and buys her roses every four minutes, yet still the She-Beast sleeps with his best friend Mark.

There are subplots, as well. Johnny and his friends like to play catch with a football (but only from about three feet away from each other). A partially retarded kid named Denny tries to climb in bed with Johnny and Lisa whenever they are about to have sex (which is every five minutes during the first half of the film). Denny also decides to dabble in drugs, but which ones are never mentioned. Meanwhile, Lisa's mother scowls constantly as she babbles about breast cancer, real estate problems and failed relationships of her own, yet still she has to listen to her self-absorbed daughter constantly complain about how stupid Johnny wants to buy her a stupid house.

Of course, the plot doesn't matter and the subplots are incomplete ideas, at best. The pleasure derived from this film comes from its inexhaustible idiocy. It strives to be a profound examination of the human drama, but it comes off as a clueless and puerile parody.

Characters shift from outraged to nonplussed in mere seconds. Extras deliver simple lines of dialog with uncomfortable clumsiness, yet still somehow they steal scenes from the leads. 

Unnecessary characters show up and abruptly disappear, leaving behind subplots that are never pursued again. It's almost as if the script was created by the actors at the same time the director started filming. These people are making it up as they go and they don't even have interesting imaginations.
This film must be seen to be believed. Really. There is no point in me telling you anything more about it because my poor, pathetic words will only fail to do this monstrosity justice. It's like trying to describe the pain of childbirth. You just can't adequately do it. It's just something you must suffer through in order to gain a true understanding of it.

1) Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)

At least this campy classic was created by a man with a major league imagination. Unfortunately, writer/director Edward D. Wood, Jr., lacks the talent or budget to keep up with the crazy fantasies concocted by his own vastly unstable brain.

Cutting corners in every possible aspect of production, it is painfully obvious that Wood never once bothered with a second take. This film features bouncing UFO models (clearly car hubcaps on strings) and actors propped on crate boxes bouncing up and down in front of a shower curtain while they pretend to fly a plane. 

Did I also mention that there is no continuity whatsoever? Scenes flash back and forth, rotating from daytime to dusk, repeatedly, without rhyme or reason. 

Then there are the lightweight fake headstones that wobble and fall over from wind. Boom mikes bob in full camera view. Furniture from one set inexplicably moves to another. Spaceships impossibly give off shadows in space. The special effects for the Army's exploding rockets consist of cheap firecrackers. Corpses blink... before they are reanimated.

The list could go on forever as the film is riddled with goofs and gafffes to the point that it is an absolute affront to human intelligence. 

Perhaps the worst insult to the audience is the mishandled cameo by famed horror veteran Bela Lugosi, who died during filming. Undaunted, Wood opted to use footage of Legosi that he actually shot for another film. Then, he hired his wife's chiropractor to cover his face with a cape and pretend to be Lugosi's character for the rest of the film. He fails miserably at hiding his face, but at least he admirable turns away from the camera whenever possible.

The only thing worse than Wood's incompetent directing, however, is his incomprehensible writing.

The plot of the film is as follows: alien elitists with extremely poor fashion taste decide to take over planet Earth and all of the "stupid minds" of its inhabitants by incorporating Plan 9 from their wacky Alien Invasion Handbook. 

It's unclear what exactly Plan 9 entails, but it does involve resurrecting three dead humans back to life (yes, that number was three). The zombies aren't terribly mobile or lethal, but hey, at least it's a start. How this is a basis for world domination is never quite explained. 

Instead, the rambling narration of an overtly serious man named Criswell simply informs the audience at the start of the film: Greetings, my friend. We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. And remember my friend, future events such as these will affect you in the future.

Criswell is probably not the most logical choice to help illuminate the audience; after all, he speaks like a robotic game show host and disucsses the future in the past tense. 

Not surprisingly, most of the characters in the film are simply too bizarre for words -- kind of like the the actors Wood employed to play them. In addition to using his wife's chiropractor as a stand-in Legosi, Wood scraped the absolute bottom of the barrel for two of his zombies: an ex-professional wrestler named Tor and a late night TV b-movie host called Vampira.

He couldn't have picked two more lifeless choices. Tor and Vampira move so agonzingly slow and rigid that it becomes apparent that they can't possibly kill anybody unless their would-be victims politely stand still and wait to be attacked. 

I suppose the same thing will likely happen to those who end up watching this movie. You can either opt to walk away and distance yourself from this hapless heap of horrors, or you can continue to watch as the damage it inflicts upon you slowly, slowly, slowwwwwly increases with every passing second.

Sample Dialog: Visits? That would indicate visitors. 

More Sample Dialog: But one thing's sure. Inspector Clay is dead, murdered, and somebody's responsible. 

Still More Sample Dialog:
 Now toddle off and fly your flying machine. 

Yet More Sample Dialog:
 You know, it's an interesting thing when you consider... the Earth people, who can think, are so frightened by those who cannot: the dead.