Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Review – The Chernobyl Diaries

Obnoxious, quarrelsome twentysomethings pay for a guided tour of the reactor-leak-ravaged ghost city of Chernobyl, where naturally they end up in a life-and-death struggle with irradiated mutants. So this could either have been an awesome use of a creepy location for a well-planned creature feature, or it could have been yet another feature-length parade of obnoxious twentysomethings quarreling with each other. Any guesses as to which path the filmmakers chose? A damn shame, too, because some of the effects shots early in the picture suggested that they could have made a good monster movie if they’d been inclined to do so. See if desperate

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Eight media moments to watch in 2013

Let me start by confessing that my crystal ball is faulty at best. Of all the items on the 2012 list, I would have predicted few if any of them 12 months ago. Still, the following eight items deserve attention even if they don’t turn into major media moments.

The current month is likely to leave a couple of interesting points unresolved. In early December the United States backed out of talks about a new international telecommunications accord. At the outset of the consideration the terms seemed completely uncontroversial, the sorts of things that would interest only telecom nerds. But then a coalition led by Russia and China began building references to the Internet into the language. Though the accord wouldn’t have imposed an actual duty on any government to censor the net, the idea of incorporating content restrictions into a purely technical bargain rubbed the United States and several other countries the wrong way. As of this writing the deal looks dead, but it’s worth keeping an eye on. At least it’s nice to know that someone in our government understands the issues at stake.

Less comforting is the FCC’s current stance on ownership deregulation. Rumors from DC suggest that the commission is poised to further relax the rules governing how much of the country’s media markets may be dominated by a single company. The name Rupert Murdoch keeps coming up in criticism of the anticipated move, though of course Newscorp isn’t the only player that stands to benefit. So far the commission hasn’t made an official announcement, so this stands to be big starting early next year.

With the election over and politicians less immediately concerned about their popularity with voters, we need to watch closely for a brain-eating-zombie resurgence of SOPA. Recall that big media companies want this draconian crap something fierce, and folks with that kind of money generally aren’t great at taking no for an answer.

The net neutrality question will also probably continue to percolate. AT&T’s back-track on the FaceTime front feels more like a strategic retreat than a genuine surrender. I don’t know exactly where the next battle will flare up, but I nonetheless feel it coming.

A couple of media industries bear watching in the coming year. For some time now I’ve been wondering exactly when non-media corporations were going to start taking a closer look at the value of advertising. With budgets tightening and audiences migrating, I expect more and more companies are going to start asking hard question about the effectiveness of spending money on ads. I’m not predicting some sudden, momentous collapse of the entire ad industry. Still, this is an area worth keeping an eye on.

The movie industry also may be making some changes. For decades now Hollywood’s revenues have steadily increased with only a few relatively small hiccups here and there. But in 2011 the studios saw a decrease in box office receipts for the first time in years. The final numbers for 2012 aren’t in yet, but if they show continuing downward progress then we may start to see some changes.

One of the more disappointing trends to emerge during the election this year was wholesale disregard for media aimed at Hispanic audiences. Spanish-language and other Hispanic-oriented TV networks saw only a small fraction of the total money spent on campaign advertising. This was likely tied to efforts by the parties in power to prevent Hispanic people from voting (because if you can’t vote, why would anyone bother trying to talk you into voting for his candidate?). That might reflect the short-term status of this crucial demographic, but it isn’t sustainable in the long term. This segment of the population is growing too rapidly to be successfully marginalized forever. So wise media planners will monitor the growth of Hispanic-oriented media.

And finally, I’m counting the days until Google Fiber actually arrives. The company’s web site currently indicates that I can expect my fiberhood to get hooked up sometime this coming fall. Let’s hope the process stays on schedule. Because if it does, the “biggest moments” list in 2013 is likely to have at least one obvious entry.

And on that cheery note, I wish you all a happy new year.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Eight Biggest Media Moments of 2012 – #1: AT&T caves on FaceTime

Speaking of American Telephone and Telegraph, the company rounds out the 2012 list with its early December decision to cave (at least in part) on its block of FaceTime use for its cell subscribers. FaceTime is an Apple app that allows users to video chat between Apple devices (especially iPhones). Neither Sprint nor Verizon had trouble with the app, but AT&T blocked it based on the claim that users would occupy too much bandwidth.

The claim was technically questionable. Worse, the decision was barred by the FCC’s net neutrality regulations. Though a service provider could conceivably charge users extra for excessive use, it can’t block software entirely. Only Ma Bell knows for sure whether the decision was prompted by potential legal woes or the possibility of losing customers to less assholish competitors.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Review – Cleanflix

Part of this documentary is fascinating stuff. A few years ago in the conservative haven of Utah, DVD distributors and rental stores started specializing in Hollywood movies that had been re-edited to remove sex, violence and profanity. Naturally the practice raised some interesting legal and ethical questions, such as “what kind of morality makes it a sin to swear but isn’t bothered by stealing?” The serious issues get a fair treatment here. Unfortunately the picture also devotes an excessive amount of time to the personal shortcomings of Daniel Thompson, Cleanflicks store owner and convicted child molester. Hypocrites are common enough that they aren’t all that interesting. Mildly amusing

The Eight Biggest Media Moments of 2012 – #2: Fiberhoods

In early September Google set its “fiberhoods,” the neighborhoods in KCK and KCMO that will get hooked up to the new fiber optic network. The run-up to the official announcement was exciting stuff, as neighborhoods competed first to get enough pre-commitments to meet the company’s minimums and then to get enough pre-commitments for a prime spot on the installation timetable.

The run-up was also disturbing stuff. The map on the Missouri side revealed a sharp division between the gonna-get-its and not-going-to-get-its, a literal “digital divide” running right down Troost. Faced with criticism about who would get connected and who wouldn’t, Google extended its upcoming reach to neighborhoods that likely would not have qualified on their own. That partially resolved the backbone issue, but it should keep us all mindful of the social, cultural and economic differences between those who can consume the most up-to-date digital media and those who can’t.

On the plus side, at least I now have a general idea of when I’m finally at long last going to be able to fire AT&T.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Eight Biggest Media Moments of 2012 – #3: The Olympics

The non-election half of the quadrennial Landru-commands-it festival of media mania is of course the Olympics. NBC hit a down note when it ran an ad with a gymnastics-performing monkey right after Gabby Douglas won gold, but otherwise we all had fun watching talented athletes from many countries competing at the top of their games.

Oh, wait. No we didn’t. Plug pullers like me got to see little or nothing of the Olympics. Even the stupid ad with Her Royal Majesty and James Bond failed to play properly, crapping out in the middle and leaving me to wonder why Betty Battenberg, Daniel Craig and a gaggle of corgis walking down a hallway was such a big deal.

I already griped about this when it happened, so at this happy time of year I’m prepared to let the matter rest. However, when the festivities move to Sochi in 2014, I’m going to be quite put out if Comcast’s atavistic self interest deprives me of my beloved biathlon coverage.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Review – Clerks

I loved this the first time I saw it. Of course back then I was a little less distant from the “customer service” phase of my own life, so perhaps I found it easier to empathize with some of the things the protagonist endures. Though I still laughed at my favorite lines and still enjoyed the general sense of absurdism, this time around I was less tolerant of the production’s many weak points. Perhaps now I just know too much about what became of Kevin Smith after he made this. Mildly amusing

The Eight Biggest Media Moments of 2012 – #4: Gangnam Style

 This video came out in July. By my presentation in November, it was the number two video in YouTube history, rapidly gaining on Justin Bieber. As of this writing, it’s now number one by a substantial margin and likely to become the first video in YouTube history to get more than a billion views.

Its immense popularity has a few lessons to teach us about media in the 21st century. First, it reminds us that our media marketplace is global. One of the few things the United States exports more than imports is media products. And here we have a piece of K-pop fluff surpassing sophisticated efforts from big record companies.

The source is also significant. South Korea tends to live in the giant media shadows of Japan and China, so PSY’s success at least got the world to recognize that Korea exists. A big part of the video’s popularity comes from viewers throughout East Asia.

Except Japan, where it seems to be more of a “meh.” Anti-Korean racism aside, the Japanese may be forgiven for their luke-warm reaction to the whole “Gangnam Style” thing. After all, Japan has been producing weird goofiness like this for decades. PSY’s magnum opus (op-op-op-op-oppa Gangnam style! damn this thing gets stuck in my head) isn’t particularly different from literally thousands of Japanese animations, music videos and other pop culture offerings.

And that’s the real million-dollar question: what makes a video that isn’t really much different from a lot of other videos suddenly catch on and “go viral”? This drives Big Media nuts. In most other realms, they’ve got success formulas all worked out. They know what makes a blockbuster movie turn a huge profit. They know which singers are going to sell tracks and get airplay. They know what works and what doesn’t in just about every medium. Sure, sometimes they guess wrong. But they’re right often enough to maintain their considerable profit margins.

But not with stuff like this. There’s no apparent formula for raising a PSY out of peninsular obscurity and selling his performance to hundreds of millions of people. This lack of predictability makes web-based media one of the most interesting things going on now and an area to watch closely in the future.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Review – Assassin’s Bullet

A State Department factotum falls in love with a belly dancer who is actually an English teacher slash Manchurian Candidate who kills terrorists and ... okay, I admit it. I lost interest in this thing early on and just let it run for background noise. So at least it was fairly noisy. See if desperate

Review – The Adventures of Tintin

Like The Spirit, Tintin entered and exited my life when I wasn’t yet old enough to appreciate its distinctive nuances. Fortunately for people like me, though there seemed to be a thing or two here that only a devotee of the comics would truly appreciate, for the most part this was a what-you-see-is-what-you-get bit of brainless action cinema. This is also director Steven Spielberg’s first foray into computer animation. His work reminded me of the heady days of the 1990s when amateur speakers first discovered the fancy transitions in Powerpoint. Suddenly everything is about what the technology will do rather than what makes for a good production. The result is video-gamey, which is a shame to see from a veteran director working with plot- and character-intensive source material. Mildly amusing

Review – The Desert Rats

Billed as a follow-up to The Desert Fox, this picture features James Mason only briefly and as more of a villain than in the earlier, Rommel-centered movie. An English officer (Richard Burton) leads a unit of Australian commandos during the extended siege of Tobruk. As war pictures go, this is par for the course. Mildly amusing

The Eight Biggest Media Moments of 2012 – #5: Penn sues The Star

Last year The Star fired Steve Penn, a columnist for the metro section. Penn had worked for the newspaper for more than 30 years, which made the termination seem odd at best. However, the editors’ allegations were damning: they said Penn had been copying sentences and paragraphs from press releases, pasting them into his stories and passing them off as his own work.

News folk have always had an uneasy relationship with press releases. In an ideal world, a reporter would start with a press release from an outside source (company, government agency, charity, etc.) and – convinced of the story’s newsworthiness – use it as a springboard to go out and find her own facts and quotes. Someone lazier – or more pressed for time, if we want to give this practice a positive spin – might use quotes directly from a press release, provided of course that the source was clearly identified in the story.

Back in my days working PR, I heard stories about newspaper folk doing what Penn did. In fact, I heard about some reporters who copied entire releases, stuck their bylines on them and passed the whole thing off as their work. At least Penn didn’t go that far. Still, what he did was bad enough, a clear violation of the ethics we all learned in J-school.

If the firing had been the end of the story, it would at best have been one of the Eight Most “That’s Just Sad” Media Moments of 2011. But then Penn put the mess on this list by filing a wrongful termination suit in June. His most disturbing allegation was that he shouldn’t have been fired for plagiarism because what he did was common practice at The Star and in the newspaper industry.

Though I hate to see a big media company get away with firing someone who worked for it for decades, I hope he loses his suit (or at least wins it on grounds other than his “common practice” argument). I’d really hate to see him successfully prove that news writers everywhere are parroting corporate spin rather than going out and gathering the news. As if the newspaper industry isn’t already beset by enough trouble. The last thing it needs right now is erosion of confidence from the few readers it has left.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Review – The Crucible

Many years ago my wife and I first met in a high school production of this Arthur Miller classic, so I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for the play. But that only goes so far. This film version is badly infected with scenery-chewing celebrities, particularly Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder. Perhaps they should have aimed this at Broadway where such play-it-for-the-back-row performances would have been more at home. Acting aside, the story remains a poignant portrait of the potentially evil effects of mass hysteria. Mildly amusing

The Eight Biggest Media Moments of 2012 – #6: Political ad files on the Internet

Once every four years we can all count on two big media moments: the Olympics and the election. On the latter front, most of the public’s attention focuses on attack ads. “They’re awful. Everyone hates them. Why do the candidates even run them? Still, what are ya gonna do?” Collective shoulder shrug.

But one of the biggest moments on the political ad front went largely unnoticed, taking place months before the non-stop onslaught got underway. In April the FCC ordered broadcasters to make their political advertising files available online.

By virtue of their use of the public airwaves, broadcasters are subject to a lengthy list of regulations that don’t apply to other media. In the realm of political advertising, broadcasters are required to accept ads from candidates and run them at the lowest rate available. Stations must keep records of all such ads and make the records available for public inspection. The new twist this year was the requirement that the records be made available via the Internet.

The National Association of Broadcasters challenged the change in court, but the suit went nowhere. Now anyone can go to the FCC’s web site and find out exactly how much each campaign is paying each TV station. Of course a lot of advertising – such as ads from pressure groups – isn’t subject to the rules. But at least now it’s possible to track at least some of the doings on the airwaves without a trek to broadcasters’ offices.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Eight Biggest Media Moments of 2012 – #7: The death of SOPA

Congress kicked off 2012 with a couple of eerie efforts to smother free speech on the Internet. The version in the House was called the Stop Online Piracy Act, and the Senate’s was the Protect Intellectual Property Act. Of course the two versions differed in some details, but the main idea was the same: extend copyright “protection” well beyond the already-generous boundaries established by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (a.k.a. The Mickey Mouse Protection Act) more than a decade ago.

The Mickey Mouse law was bad enough, but this pair were plain crazy. They would have introduced the principle of “guilty by accusation,” allowing big media companies to run crying to the federal government and get entire sites shut down based on a simple claim of copyright violation. The edges of the law’s protection are fuzzy enough – particularly in the realm of the fair use exception – to require proper adjudication, not censorship based on mere suspicion.

But more interesting than the proposals themselves was the reaction to them. Big Media (with Disney and Time Warner in the lead) lobbied hard, but they found themselves up against Big Internet (particularly Google). And worse, they faced a sudden groundswell of grassroots opposition from Internet users. After a 24-hour protest that blacked out Wikipedia and several other popular sites, legislators turned tail and removed the bills from consideration.

That alone made it a big moment. How often do you see Congress pay attention to anyone other than lobbyists?

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Eight Biggest Media Moments of 2012 – #8: The Media Survival Guide

Last month I did an Academic Symposium at the college where I work. The subject was the eight biggest media moments of 2012, and my goal was to cover things that might have gone unnoticed by people who don’t follow the media for a living. Many of the things the communications industry gets up to behind the scenes have a strong influence on our daily lives as consumers. I decided to do the events in chronological order, which I admit led me to lead off with the most self-serving item on the list.

In January 8sails officially released the Media Survival Guide. I wrote the bulk of the text while on sabbatical in the fall of 2011, and in the spring the guide underwent a largely successful “beta test.” In the summer I added a downloadable PDF and a Kindle edition. In the future I hope to release it as an iBook and on the web in a format customized for mobile devices.

Based on the “bite-sized learning” model, the guide is designed for easy reading in smaller chunks, customized for students who need to study in short bursts between other activities (such as during a break at work). If a particular topic happens to pique the reader’s interest, she can delve further by exploring the links at the bottom of each page.

Amazon makes me charge 99 cents for the Kindle version, but everything else is available free of charge, a considerable savings over the $80 or so the textbook publisher charged for the textbook I used to use for my Intro to Mass Comm class. And that’s the real importance here. In the old publishing world, creating a textbook was a costly proposition requiring students to pay the substantial costs of production. Now content is key and distribution is free (or near enough to free that publication costs don’t have to be passed along to those least able to pay them).

I’m not ready to proclaim “behold the future of textbook publishing” just yet. Too many people (professors and publishers alike) are still making too much money for this new approach to learning to instantly catch on. But at least now such a thing is possible.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Review – Beauty and the Beast (1991)

The end of this story always breaks my heart. If she falls in love with the Beast, why does he have to turn into a handsome prince? Why can’t he just be who he is? Further, this picture came out at an awkward time in movie history. Disney was trying to make the transition away from princesses who wait helplessly for their princes to arrive and toward a more reasonable portrayal of women. It kinda works, but then it kinda doesn’t. Of course it didn’t help to start with the screwed up sexual politics of a story about a monster who changes and becomes a good man because a woman loves him. It seems like setting up a generation of girls with abusive relationships with monsters who just get worse because now they know they can get away with it. On the other hand, the musical numbers are cute. Mildly amusing

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Review – Alice in Wonderland (1951)

“Alice in Wonderland / How do you get to Wonderland / Over the hill or under land / Or just behind a tree.” I hadn’t seen this movie since I was a kid, and for years I’ve been convinced that I misremembered the words to the opening theme song and substituted simple-minded nonsense the way kids sometimes do. But no, those are the real words. Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories supply Disney’s artists with plenty of fuel for the vaguely hallucinogenic fantasy stuff popular with animators in the 1950s. Do I even have to mention that this was extremely popular on college campuses in the 60s? Mildly amusing

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Review – The Amityville Curse

The curse must go something like this: “For now and forever, let all movies with ‘Amityville’ in the title have nothing at all to do with the original tale of demonic house possession. Instead, may they all be cheap attempts to market moronic ghost stories. So mote it be!” See if desperate

Review – Alexander the Great

I’m beginning to think that they could have cast Richard Burton in a movie about Batman fighting Godzilla and it still would have come out boring. At the very least they might have considered making more than half the film about Alexander’s conquests rather than his Byzantine battles with his father. It doesn’t help that this is one of those movies that should have been an epic except they didn’t have the money for the cast or the extras or the sets or the effects. The inevitable result is an empty-looking production that screams “a cast of dozens.” See if desperate

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Review – Airborne

The last flight out before a hurricane closes the airport. A mysterious package. A gun merchant and his thug bodyguards. War criminals. Art thieves. Sinister government agents. An ancient curse. A skyjacking. Demonic possession. Mark Hamill. And really that’s just a quick start on a list of all the junk packed into this movie. To the surprise of no one (other than perhaps the folks who made this mess), the result is a chaotic crowd of subplots that never fully develop because they keep stepping on each others’ toes. And that’s a shame, because with a little more breathing space some of the twists and turns might have made for a decent story in a general Twilight Zone groove. Mildly amusing

Friday, December 7, 2012

Review – Dead Season

Ladies and gentlemen, here we have the cutting edge of horror filmmaking. The geniuses who cooked this up are truly the masters of innovation. They start with the premise that some calamity has brought the dead back to life as flesh-eating zombies, leaving a small band of survivors struggling to make their way in a dangerous new world. And to avoid the smothering influence of the studio system, they shot this on the cheap with bad production values, using their friends rather than professional actors. How did they ever come up with such a brilliant, creative movie? Wish I’d skipped it

Monday, November 19, 2012

Review – The American Scream

Yet again a documentary team turns an eye on yet another subculture of obsessives. This time around it’s the folks who turn their yards into haunted houses for Halloween. We get a mix of three protagonists – the nerd, the good ol’ boy and the mildly mentally ill guy – with different approaches to their craft. But all of them have two things in common: too much time on their hands and too much space available to store their set pieces and props for the other 11 months of the year. Still, their creations are interesting, occasionally bordering on artistic. As obsessions go, this beats spelling bees or crossword puzzles. Mildly amusing

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Review – Coma (2012)

I’m not sure a reboot or remake or bootmake of the original movie was strictly necessary, but here it is anyway. As not exactly unusual with miniseries plots, this story seems to have a lot of unnecessary filler (not to mention fading big-name stars in supporting roles). Still, the basic story is the same: a doctor discovers that a center for coma patients is secretly using them as an organ donation bank (among other things). The new version packs a lot more “thrilling” chase crap, and it lacks the simple creepiness of bodies suspended in midair by thin wires. In other words, this isn’t terrible but the first one was better. Mildly amusing

Monday, November 5, 2012

Review – Dark House

The old evil-possessed house shtick gets a cyber twist (and yes, I meant to use a term as trite as “cyber”). A neurotic acting student seeks an excuse to return to the title location, where she had a bad experience as a child. Fortunately (or ultimately unfortunately) for her, a professional haunted house attraction designer needs actors to escort a couple of critics through the hologram-intensive show he constructed in the eponymous spot. Do I even have to tell you that the terror scenes eventually go from computer-generated illusion to deadly reality? See if desperate

Friday, November 2, 2012

Review – The Evil One

I came here for the premise: the evil spirit of Herman Mudgett (better known to the world as H.H. Holmes, creator of the notorious “murder castle”) haunts Englewood, his old Chicago neighborhood, now largely lower-class African American. The set-up provided all kinds of potential to explore Holmes’s psychosis or at least make some points about racial inequality. Instead, incompetence smothers any chance this picture has of doing anything other than wasting nearly two hours of the audience’s time. See if desperate

Review – Albert Fish

For an exploitation documentary about a perverted killer, this isn’t half bad. Most of what I’ve read about the notorious child murderer focuses on his most famous crime: the kidnapping, slaying and eating of Grace Budd, the deeds that seated him in the electric chair. But this production delves deeper into the rest of his criminal career and some possible explanations for his behavior. Though I could have gone for the whole rest of the day without gazing upon the visage of Joe Coleman, I found the rest of the picture professional and informative. Mildly amusing

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Review – Cabin in the Woods

Leave it to Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard to find a way to put a new spin on worn-out horror movie clichés. I ignored this when it was in theaters, guessing that it would be yet another tale of twentysomethings butchered for the high crime of venturing out of the city. But recently I got so desperate to see a horror movie with any kind of production values that I added it to my Netflix queue. I’m glad I did. The reflexive twist to the old tale had a certain Watchers-watching-Watchers quality, but it was still clever enough. I also liked the nearly-Lovecraftian nature of the underlying threat. Overall the picture does a great job of putting a new edge on some of the genre’s tired old saws. Worth seeing

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Review – Brüno

After Borat, I was expecting something more biting and less Zoolander. Sacha Baron Cohen gets up to his usual tricks, playing a foreign character who pulls outrageous stunts. And every once in awhile he strikes a legitimate social nerve. But for the most part “dumb Austrian gay guy” isn’t that funny a shtick. See if desperate

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Review – Boggy Creek

When I was a kid, I was way into the whole Boggy Creek monster thing, due mostly to the classic “documentary” about the creature. Honestly, that was the only reason I decided to give a chance to what looked like yet another parade of stupid twentysomethings falling victim to a monster/slasher/whogivesacrap. The beast looks like Saruman bred Orcs with Ewoks. Even so, the creature’s greatest fault is that it can’t kill the witless, whiny “heroes” fast enough to make this a shorter ordeal. Wish I’d skipped it

Friday, October 5, 2012

Review – The Devil’s Hand

Bad script (some kind of nonsense about a devil cult that uses voodoo dolls to maim and kill people). Bad acting (the high point: hey, isn’t that the guy who played Commissioner Gordon on the old Batman TV series?). Bad production values (cheap, flammable sets and a total overdose of lounge music). This thing barely claws its way up from Ed-Wood-level filmmaking, and yet it’s still better than most of the camcorder crap infecting the market now. See if desperate

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Review – Apartment 143

More “found footage.” More ghost-hunting. More families with dark secrets. Yay. The folks who made this picture must have taken a “How to Make a Horror Movie” class, paid rapt attention during the “booga booga” lecture but then skipped or slept for the rest of the semester. A handful of the shock shots supply a thrill or two, but the plot, script and characters are pure crud. Even the good moments are offset by the copious use of annoying racket such an endlessly ringing phone, that buzzing noise you get in your ears sometimes, and general cacophony. See if desperate

Monday, October 1, 2012

Review – Exit Humanity

For some time I’d been tempted to give up on blends of the horror and Western genres. Then The Burrowers gave me reason to hope. Well, abandon that all ye who enter here. The filmmakers shot for a cross of The Outlaw Josey Wales and George Romero, but what they got was more Jonah Hex dumbed down into an idiot-with-a-camcorder zombie picture. Dee Wallace must be desperate for cash or simply doing someone a favor to show up in witless, low-budget gunk like this. See if desperate

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Review – Barbarella

Journey back to the wacky days of 1968, when the “sexual revolution” gave the movie industry free reign to revel in sexuality worthy of a adolescent boy who just discovered masturbation. Jane Fonda hops merrily through an endless string of absurd perils and skimpy outfits in a realm of psychedelic sets and flimsy plot twists. Watching this movie stoned would likely lead to either the best or worst trip of your life, though either way would still be better than watching it sober. See if desperate

Friday, September 21, 2012

Review – The Best Years of Our Lives

More than six decades later this tale of three vets home from the war is powerful stuff, so I can only imagine the impact it must have had back in 1946. Fredric March, Dana Andrews and Harold Russel play three guys having varying degrees of trouble readjusting to civilian life. March resumes his everyday job at a bank and suffers from what nowadays would be diagnosed as minor depression complicated by alcoholism. Andrews battles nightmares, swallows enough of his pride to go from Air Force officer to drug store counter help, and falls out of love with his wife and in love with March’s daughter. But Russel outshines them both as a former sailor learning to live without hands. Russel was an actual disabled vet facing the same challenges as his character, and his lack of slick Hollywood pedigree helped him bring an impressive honesty to the role. Despite a touch of the melodrama typical for the time, this still stands as one of the best movies ever made about the difficulties service members can face. Worth seeing

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Six shots or only five?

Several days later, the Clint Eastwood speech at the Republican National Convention is still bugging me.

At first the whole talking-to-an-empty chair thing was just bewildering. Apparently an imaginary Barack Obama heckled Eastwood throughout his rambling, incoherent speech, repeatedly telling him to shut up. That by itself would have been odd, as I can’t say as I’ve ever heard the President tell anyone to shut up. I suppose he’s done it, but it seems more like Bill O’Reilly’s thing.

Far more chilling was the spirit of Ralph Ellison invoked by the stunt. Black people have gone from not being seen when they are there to being seen when they aren’t. That’s a funny kind of progress.

Overall the experience just made me sad. I’ve enjoyed Eastwood’s work in the past, even admired some of it. But here he was clearly trotted out by the GOP with the cynical supposition that no matter what he said, his remarks would still serve as a rallying point for the party faithful. Mission accomplished. I posted a dig on Facebook about the difference between Eastwood’s notion of who owns America and what the Constitution says on the subject. It drew an “I liked his speech” from an acquaintance who sports hunter orange in his avatar photo.

The most telling moment: when even Eastwood wouldn’t stoop to uttering the line for which the crowd so deeply lusted: the Reagan-co-opted line from Sudden Impact. Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle raised the only question worth pondering about this legendary moment: why the hell would a handful of heavily-armed criminals just sit there gawking while Dirty Harry reached into his jacket to draw out his trusty hand cannon? “Do 50 bullets in your ass make your day?”

Do you feel lucky? Well do you, RNC?

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Review – Adult Entertainment: Disrobing an American Idol

Not that we really needed it, but here we have another hour and a half worth of proof that there isn’t anything productive to say about pornography. The folks who create it come across as sleazy, and the folks who hate it come across as puritanical fanatics. The producers try to add some gravitas by stirring in a test of porn’s effects on a couple of average mooks, but even by the looser standards of the behavioral sciences this experiment is packed with artifacts. The result doesn’t exactly qualify as interesting. Mildly amusing

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Lesson learned

If you want to hear from a lot of people on Facebook, you needn’t bother with cute pictures of your kids, links to your favorite web sites, funny videos or fuzzy kitties. Just say something mean about a candidate.

A remark Mitt Romney made during a recent speech set me off, so this is what I posted:

“Hey Mitt Romney, here's a citizenship test for you: does being born in Michigan automatically make you a U.S. citizen even if one of your parents was Satan and the other was a jackal? I don't want to see your birth certificate, Mitt. I want you to shave your big, stupid, rubbery head on live TV to prove that you don't have a triple-six birthmark.

“Congratulations, jackass. You just made me decide to vote in November. I know the electoral college keeps you safe from the likes of me. But now I'm going to vote against state and local Republicans as well, something I might not have done if not for your birther crap. Keep up the good work.”

So as I expect you’ve gathered from that, the “birther” stupidity really pisses me off. Romney just made it worse by helping de-marginalize it.

Mass media nexus: this rant drew more feedback than anything else I’ve ever put on Facebook.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

More from Ma Bell

Speaking of AT&T, here’s the potential fruit of its latest dissatisfaction with the amount of money it makes:

When I posted a link to Freepress’s petition to the FCC on Facebook, the whole mess brought me mindful of those ancient days of yore when the Justice Department actually tried to do anything about monopolies. Seriously, didn’t this noise get broken up back in the 1970s? And now here it is again. This thing is like a T-1000. There’s no point to busting it into a thousand pieces, because it’ll just put itself back together and come after us again.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

It’s a beautiful day in the fiberhood

This post commemorates our neighborhood’s achievement of the minimum number of pre-registrations for Google Fiber. So now it’s official. When the company starts installation, we’ll get hooked up.

Oddly, it isn’t even the prospect of an internet connection 100 times faster and more reliable than our current arrangement. It’s that long-cherished dream that someday, if I was pure at heart and said my prayers by night, I’d finally get the opportunity to fire AT&T.

Because I don’t just hate AT&T. I hatey hatey hatey hate AT&T. Hate it so much that flames out the side of my face, burning ...

Well, you get the picture.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Review – The Big Uneasy

Harry Shearer serves up a documentary about the mistakes that helped turn Katrina into such a colossal mess. In its better moments it’s a fairly interesting story of government incompetence and indifference to the lives of poor people. However, it frequently strays into less fascinating subjects, such as New Orleans residents carping about how they don’t get any respect. Mildly amusing

Review – Catching Hell

On more than one occasion I’ve found myself wondering exactly why people in general and sports fans in particular have such a powerful need to fix blame on one particular person. I admit I’ve been known to play the scapegoat game myself, but not to the extent that Red Sox fans blame Bill Buckner for the 1986 World Series loss and Cubs fans heap hate on Steve Bartman for messing up a catch in the 2003 NLCS. This ESPN production covers both incidents – though the emphasis is on 2003 – pointing out that in both cases multiple problems led to the unfortunate losses. And in both cases the losing team had a whole other game to stage a comeback. The documentary goes on long enough that eventually it stops making fresh points, but it still raises some good questions about baseball fans and disappointment. Mildly amusing

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Review – Asylum (1972)

Peter Cushing? Patrick Magee? Herbert Lom? An insane asylum? Must be another dreary British horror anthology piece. This one sports a number of familiar faces, including Charlotte Rampling and Brit Ekland as her homicidal imaginary friend. Though some segments are weaker than others (an unfaithful, murdering husband pursued by his wife’s brown-paper-wrapped body parts?), overall this was reasonably entertaining. Mildly amusing

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Review – Dragonslayer

Before today I don’t think I’d watched this movie from beginning to end since my days at sci fi cons back in the early 80s. Ah, memories. Apparently it isn’t such a great memory for star Peter MacNicol, as one of the IMDb notes indicates that he leaves this one off his résumé. Can’t say as I blame him, what with the Blue Lagoon hairdo and all. Otherwise, however, this isn’t bad for a bit of sword and sorcery. Sure, I found myself rooting for the dragon, but that’s just me. The picture is also of some minor historical importance, as it employed some innovative animation techniques and represented what at the time was a rare departure from kiddie fare by Disney (working here in cooperation with Paramount). Mildly amusing

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Review – The Devil’s Mistress

Originally released as The Devil’s Whore, which I guess was too scandalous a title for the American market. This miniseries recounts some of the key political struggles of the English Civil War from the perspective of Angelica Fanshawe, a fictional, free-spirited and ultimately fallen member of the aristocracy. I was drawn in primarily by the opportunity to see Peter Capaldi play Charles I and Dominic West as Oliver Cromwell. Though it gets a little soapy in parts, overall it’s a good way to learn a bit about this important period in history. Mildly amusing

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Review – Believe

I believe I should have watched something else. The box art made this look like something menacing might be afoot, but the story turned out to be some silliness about kids trying to track down a ghost. The “heartwarming” ending was particularly hard to take. This is one for the after-school special crowd. See if desperate

Another 21st century TV casualty

I like watching the Olympics. Or to be more precise, I like watching Olympic venues. Most of the sports don’t do much for me, but I like looking at the elaborate stadiums, pretty swimming pools and the like.

Or to be still more precise, I used to like watching the venues. This is my first once-every-four-years without cable or the dish, so I’m forced to limit my viewing to what the Web can provide. Which turns out to be not much. I tried downloading NBC’s Olympics coverage iPad app, but to no avail. It required a userid and password from my multichannel service provider, which of course I don’t have.

So here’s the latest elaborate corporate relationship: NBC has no problem screwing its broadcast affiliates by allowing viewers to watch directly over the Internet. Yet it still seeks to compel us to remain thralls of Comcast, Time Warner, or DirecTV.

I suspect this will work out okay for the network this time around. But I wonder about the state of the infoscape four years from now. How tempting might it become to pick up five or ten bucks per viewer for an app for people without MSPs? And how much more of key age and income demographics will become unreachable except via the net?

Monday, July 30, 2012

Review – Creature (2011)

This got a wide release? It must have, because apparently it holds the record for worst box office for a movie that opened in more than 1500 theaters. Frankly, I’m surprised they bothered with theaters at all, as this has straight to video written all over it. A carload of nubile city kids ventures into the swamps, where they fall victim to an alligator man. See if desperate

Friday, July 27, 2012

Review – The Innkeepers

Finally an indie horror movie made by people who know and care about what they’re doing. Two desk clerks pass the last weekend before their hotel closes with half-assed attempts to look for ghosts. Needless to say, they end up finding something. The characters are believable, helped in no small part by good writing and good acting. But the best part was the scares. Ghostly appearances were carefully managed to avoid overuse and maintain the what-if-this-was-real feel. In many ways this is the movie The Shining should have been. Worth seeing

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Review – The A-Team

This is even more awful than I expected a movie based on The A-Team to be. How is that even possible? This is a goofy, G.I. Joe plus extra violence production, sort of what frat boys must think war is like. If you’re in the mood for a truly mindless action movie, you might be able to do worse. See if desperate

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

I’d walk a mile for a Morlock

Awhile back Staban was driving down Kansas Avenue when he happened to see a Morlock driving the car next to him. Or at least he thinks it was a Morlock. It had stringy, white hair. It had a shriveled face. It looked like it had never seen the light of day.

Trouble was, it was smoking a cigarette.

This prompted a discussion about whether or not Morlocks smoked. Certainly we never see them doing so at any time during the George Pal production of The Time Machine. But that doesn’t definitively answer the question, because all the Morlocks we see in the movie are at work. They’re on the Eloi-boiling production line, and of course in the food service business you can’t smoke on the job.

Further, I’ll bet Morlock smoke breaks are short. Eloi boiling seems like the kind of job where if you and your co-workers wander off for even a couple of minutes that you’d have the boiling foreman all up in your business.

“You Morlocks need to keep busy. I can’t have you Morlocks loafing off. If the boss comes up here and sees you loafing off, he ain’t gonna yell at you. He’s going to yell at me. So get back to boiling those Eloi.”

Thus they only get to really bust out the Winstons and relax in the car on the way home.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Abandoned – Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

For those who’ve read the novel, maybe this is a fun “hey, look who’s playing that character” experience. I haven’t read it, so for me it rapidly became an endurance exercise in watching men in meetings. If this had been about the machine parts industry or the insurance business rather than espionage, it would have been equally as boring but would at least never have made it to the screen. Somewhere around 20 minutes in, I decided I’d had enough of Gary Oldman staring into space.

Disclosing tablet 4

I hate to do disclosing tablets two weeks in a row. But I also hate to let this go so long that the next Mental Floss arrives before this one’s written up (like I did last time).

Clear spots

19-0 – This was a good stream of trivia about Harriet Tubman’s perfect record of slave rescue missions.

The Wu Tang Clan – I had no idea this apparently-silly group had such a profound effect on music marketing.

Pink spots

101 Masterpieces: Jaws – The article made some good points about the importance of this movie to the blockbuster marketing process, but it didn’t do much to justify its inclusion in the canon of world art treasures.

In Praise of Sin – Once again, Mental Floss runs a piece that’s more concept than content.

Complicated Concepts Explained Using Kitchen Items – Sadly, most of the explanations weren’t all that illuminating.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Review – Basic

Imagine somebody took Rashomon, drove the hell out of it and dinged it up so badly that it was barely recognizable, and then sold it to the Army. A DEA investigator (John Travolta) tries to get to the heart of the deaths and/or disappearances of Rangers on a training mission. We get version after version of the “facts,” each less interesting than the last. The bad storytelling wasn’t exactly helped by an unusually high dose of whispered dialogue intercut with ear-splitting gun battles. See if desperate

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Review – Absentia

See, indie filmmakers? It is possible to make a good movie with a low budget. All you have to do is think “scary” rather than “stupid.” In this delightfully creepy little tale, a woman has her husband declared legally dead only to have him resurface. He’s in bad condition, and all anyone can make out about where he’s been for the last seven years is that he was abducted in a nearby pedestrian tunnel by something monstrous and vaguely insect-like. The characters are believable, the acting is reasonably good, the script is solid and the story is genuinely chilling. I could have done without some of the forcefully arty trappings such as the use of black and white, but otherwise this was an outstanding horror movie, far better than the here’s-some-more-torture-porn box cover implied. Worth seeing

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Disclosing tablet 3

The arrival of the July/August issue of Mental Floss should probably have been a good indicator that the disclosing tablet for the May/June issue was a bit overdue. Still, better late than never.

Clear spots

The “Scatterbrained” devoted to bears – Every issue the trivia flood at the start is devoted to a theme object. This time it was bears, a personal favorite subject. I was intrigued to learn that polar bears are invisible to infrared cameras and that the Humane Association has specific rules for handling bears on movie sets. Of course part of it was bear hunters and Berenstains. But for the most part the section was good.

The Easter Island Statues Have Bodies! – And so they do.

10 Shocking Secrets of Flight Attendants – I wouldn’t go as far as “shocking,” but some of these were interesting. The height and clothing restrictions aren’t all that fascinating, but I would have figured stories about sneaking dead bodies onto planes were urban legends until I read this.

Are Dogs Really Man’s Best Friend? – Spoiler: cats win.

Pink spots

Cheat Sheet: The Kentucky Derby – Once again explain to me how doing this with animals is okay while dog and chicken fighting isn’t.

10 Essential Life Pointers from John Hodgman – Who? Or more directly to the point, why?

9 Weapons That Failed Spectacularly – Too much animal suffering. Bad enough we have to come up with new, stupid ways to make people suffer.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Review – The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training

This has to be one of the steepest declines from original to sequel in Hollywood history. While the first Bears movie had a certain underdog charm, this one just packs after school special smarm combined with a Happy Days humor level. The foul-mouthed kid with the soft spot is now mostly just the kid with the soft spot. The motorbike-riding rebel (Jackie Earle Haley) gets saddled with a mess of character development in the form of an estranged dad (William Devane) who ends up coaching the team. Some of the old Astrodome footage is sorta fun, but the rest of the picture is thoroughly missable. See if desperate

Friday, July 6, 2012

Review – Eyes of the Woods

For awhile I was holding out hope that the creators of this ultra-low-budget crapfest simply hadn’t seen The Blair Witch Project and thus weren’t aware that they were traveling in thoroughly charted territory. But then one of the characters mentions Blair Witch. Seriously, if they knew that all they were doing was making a cheap rip-off of a movie everyone’s already seen, why bother? They even manage to undo the one thing the earlier movie got right, tossing away the subtle sense of unseen menace and trotting out extensive doses of cheap gore, gratuitous nudity and rubber suit monsters. Wish I’d skipped it

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Quiz answers: Fireworks or Justified?

The fireworks are all shot. I’ve finally got the ash cleaned out of my hair and my left eye. The brush fire has been extinguished. So the final cap for the Independence Day holiday is to post the answers to the Fireworks or Justified quiz.

The first one was a giveaway, as it was both the first episode of the series and also a basic bit of pyrotechnics. The rest, on the other hand, were far trickier.

1. Fire in the Hole – Both

2. Missouri Kicker – Fireworks

3. Bad to the Bone – Fireworks

4. The Lord of War and Thunder – Justified

5. Shock and Awe – Fireworks

6. The Hammer – Justified

7. Cottonmouth – Justified

8. Total Blowout – Fireworks

9. Midnight Rider – Fireworks

10. Blaze of Glory – Justified

11. All Jacked Up – Fireworks

12. The Gunfighter – Justified

Hope you all had a great Fourth of July.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Quiz time! Fireworks or Justified?

Once again Independence Day is upon us, which means that it’s time for our annual fireworks quiz. This year’s challenge: fireworks or episode of Justified?

For those unfamiliar with the latter, Justified is a crime drama on FX. The 8sails staff got started watching it mostly because of the star, Timothy Olyphant. Who of course pretty much guaranteed that the show is known informally around the office as Not Deadwood.

The series follows the exploits of federal marshal Raylan Givens, a shoot-first-and-ask-questions-if-he-feels-like-it lawman who brings his particular brand of justice to Harlan County, Kentucky (locale of a famous documentary about the hard lives of coal miners). This testosterone festival is based on a short story by Elmore Leonard, who is also one of the show’s executive producers.

So it should surprise precisely nobody that the names of the episodes are typically bite-sized chunks of machismo that would be right at home on T-shirts from Labor Day in Sturgis. Or a Bob Seger greatest hits collection. Or fireworks.

Good luck!

1. Fire in the Hole

2. Missouri Kicker

3. Bad to the Bone

4. The Lord of War and Thunder

5. Shock and Awe

6. The Hammer

7. Cottonmouth

8. Total Blowout

9. Midnight Rider

10. Blaze of Glory

11. All Jacked Up

12. The Gunfighter

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Review - The Fields

How long has it been since I actually liked a low budget horror movie? But then, how long has it been since I saw one that employed any amount of subtlety? Further, this picture seems custom designed to appeal to those of us who were kids back in the early 70s when the nation went paranoid nuts over the Manson murders. In this tale, a boy is sent to live on his grandparents’ farm while his parents take some time to “work it out.” Though cautioned to stay out of the corn field, he goes exploring. Soon thereafter a sinister, invisible presence begins to threaten the family. The picture combines childhood anxiety, nightmares and actual threat with still unmatched by most expensive productions. The picture also features Chloris Leachman and Tara Reid, both of whom do good jobs despite not exactly sporting résumés with “subtle” written all over them. Worth seeing

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Review – Children of the Corn: Genesis

A film studies program could make an entire course out of the various entries in this series. At one point or another the children have taken just about every possible approach to mid-budget horror, from slasher to monster, all different levels of acting, writing and production values. This sequel falls somewhere in the middle ground. The technical quality is okay, but the script relies too heavily on the bickering that passes for dialogue. As in the first entry, a married couple gets stranded in the middle of nowhere, though the peril takes a slightly different form this time around. Mildly amusing

Review – The Dread

The Snooze. An over-zealous woman discovers that she has a sibling in an insane asylum, a brother she doesn’t remember because they were separated after their parents were slaughtered by an evil skeleton guy. So when one of the misguided therapists at the creepy nuthouse gives him a crappy video game to play, it summons our bony foe to resume his bloodthirsty ways. See if desperate

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Review – Blue Sunshine

What’s the worst side effect of bad acid: that it comes back to haunt you ten years after you take it, that it turns you into a homicidal maniac, or that it makes your hair fall out? From this movie’s 1978 standpoint, I’m guessing it’s the hair. In the lead role, Zalman King’s acting is as stiff and ridiculous as the pay channel erotica that later made him famous. Overall this is a vaguely entertaining relic from an era when LSD and disco seemed like they would be important to society. See if desperate

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Review – Daybreakers

I’ve griped in the past about vampires and rule obsession, but this picture really goes overboard with it. Vampires have taken over the world, and they’ve consumed almost all the humans. Bereft of fresh blood, the masses are beginning to degenerate to monster form. Vampire scientists race to find a blood substitute and/or a cure for the whole vampire thing, and small pockets of human resistance try to survive. They spent a fair amount of money on the production, which made it a little better than it might otherwise have been. Mildly amusing

Review – The Caller

Mary has two problems. First, her psycho ex-husband is stalking her. And worse, a crazy dead person keeps calling her from 1979. The whole getting-into-a-phone-fight-with-someone-from-1979-who-can-seriously-mess-with-your-past thing is clever in a Twilight Zone kinda way. I also liked the twist at the end and the fact that the protagonist’s dog makes it the whole way through without incident. However, in a world where movies could be whatever length they needed to be rather than shooting for the hour and a half minimum, some of the developments along the way could probably have been omitted. Mildly amusing

Monday, June 18, 2012

Review – The Devil Inside

I admit I got suckered in by “The movie the Vatican doesn’t want you to see” ad line. Of course any student of film history knows there are a lot of movies the Vatican doesn’t want people to see. But in this case, perhaps the Holy See was just trying to save us from another piece of camcorder crap about exorcisms. The first dozen times someone tried this, it might have been bush leagues clever. But we’re well beyond that now. Honestly, this one doesn’t even have any good booga-booga moments (it has a few boogas, but they aren’t good). A video crew shoots footage in the Vatican’s school for exorcists, latches onto a couple of students who freelance on the side, and things go downhill (yes, downhill) from there. See if desperate

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Review – After Midnight

This started out looking like a slasher movie about a professor teaching a class about the psychology of fear. But then it turned out to be an anthology piece. Sadly, it was an anthology of exceptionally lame stories. Of course even a brilliant script and excellent acting wouldn’t have been a match for the sheer weight of such a huge pile of clichés. In particular, the whole just-kidding-it-was-only-a-practical-joke thing is a risk if you try it once, and after you’ve repeated the mistake you’ve ruined any chance you have at getting the audience to trust your storytelling. See if desperate

Monday, June 11, 2012

Review – Episode 50

Ghost hunters from high-band cable tackle a haunted asylum. The trick here is that it’s two shows rather than one. The first is a band of skeptics dedicated to debunking ghostly presences, and the second is a pack of true believers led by a religious fanatic. Do I even have to tell you that most of the plot revolves around disputes between the opposing “ideologies”? Oddly, the production had a couple of strong points. It was set in a modern-looking hospital rather than the wrecked-out Danvers Asylum or reasonable facsimile thereof. And it packed a few genuinely spooky ghosts. But by the end the foolish storyline drove it into more familiar, bad territory. See if desperate

Review - Fear Island

A group of people trapped on an isolated island start dying one by one. Who’s killing them, and why? This worked well for Agatha Christie (title notwithstanding). But wow does it not work here. The sole survivor of the island massacre struggles to regain her memory, telling the tale of slaughter in drawn-out chunks. Personally, my chief suspect for most of the movie was the lost chihuahua. See if desperate

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Review – The Confession

This is actually a series of short segments originally produced for the Web but edited together into movie form. A confessional priest (John Hurt) finds himself confronted by a hit man (Kiefer Sutherland) who wants to argue theology. The result is a lot of bickering back and forth, punctuated occasionally by violent flashbacks. Though I could see how this might work as a series of shorts, as a single viewing experience it gets a little tedious. Mildly amusing

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Review – The Avengers

This was marginally better than I thought it would be. The writers did a reasonably good job of meshing the various franchises and franchises-to-be into a single, cohesive story. In particular, Robert Downey Jr. is easier to take when he isn’t the sole protagonist. Of course the special effects go a long way toward smoothing over weak points in the plot (such as the remarkable ineffectiveness of bad guys who should logically have been a great deal more powerful than they turn out to be). Overall this should prove satisfying to anyone looking for an entertaining superhero movie. Mildly amusing

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Review – Best Worst Movie

The thesis of this production is that Troll 2 is the worst movie ever made. Of course the folks who made this documentary – particularly the former child star who directed it and the dentist who gets the bulk of the screen time – have an emotional and/or financial interest in promoting the Troll 2 cult thing. In the process we get a large dose of pseudo-adoring movie geeks, several embarrassed actors, a director who seems genuinely convinced that his movie didn’t suck, and at least a couple of genuinely mentally ill individuals who probably didn’t need to be made fun of. So a movie that seems laughably terrible to start just turns out kinda sad. Mildly amusing

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Review – Contaminated Man

If 24 was a movie rather than a TV show and was even more implausible than usual, this is what it would be. William Hurt is far too old for this role as a HazMat specialist on the trail of a disgruntled employee (Peter Weller) potentially spreading a terrible plague (I was never quite clear whether it was chemical or biological) throughout Eastern Europe. But here’s the deal: Patient Zero can’t die from whatever-it-is, but anyone he touches is doomed. However, his victims aren’t communicable, so as long as our heroes can track down and isolate this one guy the whole problem will be solved. Seriously, they should have named this infection Ridiculitis. Further, the picture sustains its excessive running time via a host of plot twists just as absurd as the general premise. See if desperate

Abandoned – Abelar: Tales of an Ancient Empire

If you went out to the Renaissance Festival, rounded up all the vampire-obsessed dumbasses you could find and physically forced them to make a movie, this is what you’d get. I was actually in the mood for a stupid sword and sorcery picture, and this was still more than I could take. 35 minutes

Tuesday, May 29, 2012


Pizza Hut thinks I’m going to eat this:

Actually, Pizza Hut seems to think that I’m willing to eat anything with a P and an apostrophe in front of it. What’s next, guys? P’Garbage? P’Shit? Oh, wait ...

Further down, the copy describes this thing as “heroic.” That’s either an insinuation that a P’Zolo is distant kin to a hero sandwich or just the latest lost battle in the war to assure that the word “hero” means anything at all.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Review – The American President

Imagine a lovelorn, widowed President getting the hots for an environmental lobbyist. Imagine Michael Douglas as the President. Imagine Annette Benning as the lobbyist. Imagine Rob Reiner directing. There, now you don’t have to see the movie. See if desperate

Friday, April 27, 2012

Review – The Darkest Hour

Aliens attack Moscow, much to the chagrin of American tourists who happen to be there at the time. The aliens are invisible, but you can tell when they’re around because they cause electrical disturbances. See, they’re here on Earth looking for ... okay, you caught me. I lost interest long before they ever got around to explaining exactly what the aliens were up to. My attention started to wander when it turned out that the aliens were blinded by metal and apparently lacked the attention span to follow anything that moved behind a metal object. And though I liked watching them turn their victims to powder, they would have been better off had they stayed invisible. Once they were drawn out from behind their force fields, they proved to be only slightly less dumb looking than Langoliers. See if desperate

Monday, April 16, 2012

Review – Anonymous

The thesis here is that Shakespeare’s plays were actually written by Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. I’m no expert on the Bard or Elizabethan England, so I had trouble following what was actually based on fact, what was conjecture and what was pure dramatic invention. This is also yet another production that pops liberally back and forth in the time stream, occasionally making the story hard to follow. On the other hand, I enjoyed the elaborate, effects-intensive recreations of 16th century London. And it warmed my heart to think the insinuation that William Shakespeare was actually a fraud and a dumbass would severely ruffle the feathers of an undergrad English professor for whom I didn’t care. Mildly amusing

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The soft, luminous glow of the apocalypse

How can we go on without masterpieces like this?

The 8sails staff meeting is online this week, as a scheduling conflict prevents our usual Friday get-together. Despite the odd venue, we have important business to deal with: the passing of Thomas Kinkade.

Dead at 54 of "natural causes"? Who the hell do you people think you're fooling? Apparently behind the twinkly born-again glow the guy was a serious alcoholic and poon hound. My favorite tidbit: he was ejected from a Disney theme park for urinating on a statue of Winnie the Pooh. Given the character's name, perhaps we should be grateful it was just urine.

So now I envision a painting. Sunset. Pine trees twinkling in a gentle breeze. A babbling brook. Old-timey pick up trucks parked around a ramshackle building, a warm glow emerging from the open doorway. And up top, another kind of warm glow shines forth from a neon sign announcing "Live Nude Girls." Thomas Kinkade's "Love Shack."

What a fraud, Beria says. I hope that when portal to the motel of the mysteries is first breeched, the future Carnarvon isn't assailed by the scared religious paintings of Thomas Kincaid or videos of the orgiastic gospel weltanshauung  of Lawrence Welk. They'd just pull the backhoe up and bury the whole mess.

So now I find myself wondering if civilizations get some kind of advance warning when their time comes, sort of like individuals who can sense that the end is near.

Pharaoh: Okay, everyone. I just got the word from on high. Our civilization is going to come to an end, so we need to tidy the place up a bit. We don't want archaeologists 2000 years from now to think we were a pack of idiots, so I need you all to get rid of anything that might make us look bad. Take all those velvet paintings of "Ammuts playing poker" and "My dad drowned chasing Jews across the Red Sea and all I got was this lousy T-shirt" apparel out into the front yard and set fire to it.

We should be so lucky.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Review – The Diary of Anne Frank (1959)

I wish there was some way to watch this movie without knowing anything about it going in. Knowing how it ends makes every positive moment ironic rather than joyful. And though this may be a natural consequence of setting a drama entirely in an attic, the production has a theatrical quality to it. I would also have liked to have been able to view this from the perspective of an audience member in 1959. Nowadays we have no shortage of media treatments of the Holocaust, but back then this was groundbreaking stuff. Still, the story is amazingly emotionally effective even today. Worth seeing

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Review – The Debt (2010)

I’m a sucker for any kind of Nazi-hunting drama, so I thought I’d like this better than I did. It had enough Munich flavor to compare unfavorably to Munich. But the big problem was the amount of screen time devoted to the romantic woes of the three Israeli operatives sent to kidnap a former concentration camp doctor. Action movie, fine. Espionage thriller, better yet. Soap opera, not so much. Mildly amusing

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Review – The Diary of Anne Frank (2009)

The problem with this story is that even though I know exactly how it’s going to end, I keep hoping everything will turn out okay. But of course it never does. This 21st century adaptation seems a little less like a stage play than its 1959 predecessor did. Otherwise it’s the same tragic tale. Worth seeing

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Review – Conan the Barbarian (2011)

I don’t know if this officially counts as a “remake” or a “reboot,” so I’m just going to call it “unnecessary.” The original wasn’t exactly a masterpiece of cinema art, but it had enough good qualities to justify its existence. This one, on the other hand, barely rises above SyFy quality fare. Jason Momoa’s turn in the title role is symptomatic; he seems to have been hired exclusively for his brow ridge. Supporting cast, script and special effects are likewise unimpressive. Honestly, guys, if you can’t produce a movie that holds its own against a 30-year-old picture starring a bodybuilder who at the time barely spoke English, then why bother trying? See if desperate

Review – The Devil’s Rock

Producers of war-horror combos face an uphill battle with me, because I want to like them and my interest makes me pickier about quality. But this one did a surprisingly good job. To be sure, the plot – British commando and SS occultist trapped together in a bunker with a seductive demon – was more of a Twilight Zone episode than a feature-length movie, so things tend to meander here and there. However, the script and acting are reasonably good, and the gore has its merits as well. If this isn’t your cup of tea you probably won’t want to drink it, but it it’s in your wheelhouse then take a swing at it. Mildly amusing

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Review – Apollo 18

I wonder how many other movie reviewers have already called this Apollo 13 meets Paranormal Activity. The “found footage” element of this picture is particularly galling, because supposedly it was shot by the crew of a secret post-Apollo-17 mission to the Moon. And yet when the mission runs afoul of vicious rock spider alien things, somehow all the footage left behind in the abandoned 16 mm cameras manages to find its way across the gulf of space and back to Earth where it gets cut into this masterpiece. That’s stupid even by the loose standards of the sub-genre. It has a good booga-booga or two, but otherwise the only interesting part of the whole picture was getting a glimpse of what a Soviet lunar lander looked like. Mildly amusing

Monday, March 12, 2012

Review – Comic Book Confidential

Or “A Hipster’s-Eye View of Comic Book History.” If you genuinely know nothing about the subject, you’ll walk away a little less clueless than when you started. But don’t expect an in-depth examination of the business as a whole. Rather, this starts out with the typical early history, golden age, Comics Code Authority and the like. But it seems like it just can’t wait to break free of the mainstream and start digging into 60s undergrounds, 80s small press and other counter-culture divergence from the mainstream. Normally I’m grateful to avoid spending a ton of time basking in the glory of Stan Lee. But when big figures such as Lee and Jack Kirby get just a few minutes of screen time, yielding to loving recitations from the likes of Bill Griffith and Harvey Pekar, you start to get the idea that the focus isn’t on comic books in general as much as it is on the Crumb-obsessed, comics-as-art-to-the-exclusion-of-entertainment crowd. I appreciated the effort to include Lynda Barry and some of the other often-neglected women who make their livings in this corner of the world. Beyond that, the documentary is a little too navel-gazing for me. Mildly amusing

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Review – Elizabethtown

Scientists warned us that this could happen, but most of us never really believed that Cameron Crowe would ever actually manage to reach Critical Quirk. And yet apparently that day is upon us. After causing a financial catastrophe at a shoe company, a moody young man (Orlando Bloom) heads to the hinterland of Kentucky to make funeral arrangements for his father. There he meets an endless supply of local eccentrics and finds himself distracted from his task by an idiosyncratic flight attendant (Kirsten Dunst). And if I'm using words such as “idiosyncratic,” that’s a good sign that I’ve run out of synonyms for “quirky.” Which is really all I have to say about this. The whole thing’s so self-consciously clever that it’s downright embarrassing to watch. See if desperate

Friday, March 9, 2012

Laws, sausages and shipping

I recently ordered a few items from Cafe Press. They arrived yesterday after sitting in the UPS warehouse in KCK for two days.

I honestly wish the Internet didn't facilitate package tracking. Before I could peek behind the scenes, I just figured that if something took awhile to get from the source to my doorstep, it spent most of the time in transit somewhere. But now I know that more often than not an item will cross the country in less than 24 hours and then spend the rest of the time sitting on a shelf less than ten miles from my house.

Maybe they could introduce a you-pick-it-up service. At least then it would be my own fault if it just sat there for awhile.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Review – Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

I almost really liked this picture. Small monsters seeking to escape their subterranean prison. Ancient tomes. Terrifying art with an all-too-real subject. The whole thing was sufficiently Lovecraftian to draw and keep my attention. Normally I’m put off by child protagonists, but the girl in this one did an acceptable job. I didn’t even object to Guy Pearce or Katie Holmes. Still, the whole time something in the back of my head kept whispering “Pan’s Labyrinth 2.” Mildly amusing

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

More fun with album covers

Awhile back I posted about a blog that specializes in album covers with dead band members removed. In that general spirit, here’s another attention-worthy album cover blog:

The idea here is to recreate classic covers using nothing but clip art and Comic Sans. I’m not sure exactly what lesson I’m supposed to be learning from this, but clearly it’s a good one.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Small House of Uncle Thomas

Amid the hustle and bustle of uploading the Books chapter of the Media Survival Guide this morning, I paused to examine one of the external links a little closer.

One of the chapter’s “key players” is Harriet Beecher Stowe. And as standard practice (to increase student comfort with the material) I’ve been including Wikipedia entries. Stowe’s just happened to have a “this article may include inaccuracies” flag at the top, so I hopped over to the discussion section to see what the problem was.

As if I didn’t already know. And yes, there they were. Crypto-racist trolls insisting that the entry should include a mention that “Stowe never actually visited a plantation.”

Problems with this argument:

1. It implies that you can’t accurately depict the horrors of slavery unless you’ve seen them first-hand. I hope the next stop on the troll journey was over to George Lucas’s Wikipedia entry, demanding that it point out that Lucas has never actually been to outer space. Though Star Wars includes no end of disconnect with reality, Stowe’s writing was based not only on proximity to the problem (she lived right across the river from a slave state) but also on extensive research.

2. It implies that Stowe unfairly portrayed slavery as an unending hell of pain and misery. Not so. The protagonists begin Uncle Tom’s Cabin on a relatively benign plantation. But their owner falls on hard times and has to sell some human beings in order to make ends meet (breaking promises to them in the process). And that’s when the trouble really starts.

3. It side-steps the issue. What’s the counter argument to Stowe’s abolitionist thesis? That slavery wasn’t all bad? That some slaves were happy just like Stowe’s contemporary detractors claimed? Are such claims subject to proof? How could you possibly reliably demonstrate the happiness of a slave?

More directly to the point, is anyone really claiming that it should be okay for one person to be the legal property of another, to be forced to work without compensation, to be bought and sold at will, to be treated in whatever manner the master sees fit? Even under the best of conditions, on a hypothetical plantation on which a kindly, generous master provides good food and comfortable homes, plenty of time off to rest and pursue cultural activities of the slaves’ choosing, and never overworks, sells, tortures, rapes or murders any of them, slavery is still wrong.

A century and a half later, are we still having this debate?

No we aren’t. The entire Confederacy-was-misunderstood jerkweed coalition needs to come to grips with the rotten roots of this belief. If you think slavery is such a hot idea, go to one of the countries where it’s still legal and sell yourself to someone. Send us all a postcard letting us know how it works out for you.

Until then, take your traitor flags down and join the rest of us in the 21st century.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Review – Being Elmo

This documentary about Kevin Clash – the puppeteer behind Sesame Street’s immensely popular Elmo – turned out to be a lot less cloying than I expected. To be sure, a lot of it was fairly Muppety-cute. But Clash managed to take a childhood obsession and turn it into a viable career and a legitimate performing art, qualities brought out well by the filmmakers. Mildly amusing [note: this review was written before accusations emerged about Clash’s record as a child molester]

Friday, March 2, 2012

Review – Battle Beyond the Stars

In the wake of the Star Wars phenomenon, everyone jumped on the science fiction bandwagon. Even Roger Corman. This comes across as a combination of the aforementioned sci fi hit, Corman’s usual low-budget charm and – oddly enough – The Seven Samurai. The result is a minor-league genre classic better known for its camp value than anything else. Mildly amusing

Disclosing tablet 2

I just happened to notice that we still have the January / February issue of Mental Floss (Vol. 11, issue 1) lying around. So if you don’t mind it showing up somewhat out of order, here’s another disclosing tablet.

Clear spots

14 Essential Talking Points for the Constitutional Enthusiast – I already knew a fair amount of this, but it was nice to know that it was nice to know.

101 Masterpieces: American Gothic – I like this series. Though this particular painting doesn’t number among my favorites, I do like it a little better now that I know a little more about it.

The Most Important Questions of 2012: How secure are electronic voting machines? Not very, apparently. Sorta creepy, if you think about it.

Pink spots

Pop Quiz: Name that Cereal – The quiz is interesting enough, but it was better when it was originally published on the web. Whenever I encounter shovelware (regardless of which direction it’s being shoveled), it leaves me wondering why I’m paying for content that I could be getting for free.

Octopus Wrestling! – Return with me now to the ancient days of yore, when people apparently had nothing better to do than bother wildlife that wanted nothing more than to not be bothered. The Washington state legislature tried to dump this “sport” in the dustbin of history in 1976. Thank goodness Mental Floss dug it back out again.

The Meticulous Patriot’s Guide to Celebrating Presidents’ Day – This too-clever bit divides 24 hours up proportionally based on presidential popularity based on a Gallup poll. Ronald Reagan, Abraham Lincoln and Bill Clinton (in that order) take up nearly half the day all by themselves. I get that we don’t collectively think too clearly about The Great Emancipator, but I’m deeply saddened by the notion that anyone would consider either a traitor-coddling dimwit or a tail-chasing jackass “history’s greatest president.”

The Most Important Questions of 2012: What’s the future of tattoo removal? – Because everyone who gets a tattoo will eventually want to have it removed, right? Assholes. Actually, other than the voting machine “clear spot,” most of the cover story was pretty useless.

Forget About Garage Bands – It’s All About Garage Science – Normally I’m a big fan of DIY tech, but these are some genuinely non-inspirational examples, stuff that bears the same relationship to serious science that garage bands have to actual, talented musicians.

No Business Like Shoe Business – I started reading this with a heavy dose of skepticism about the need for “The Story of the Sneaker.” Oh boy, right again.

The Airplane Graveyard – More reverse shovelware. Or is it just that this place has already been covered by so many other sources that it doesn’t really matter if this is new to Floss or not?

A+B=BBC – I already griped about this in a previous blog entry.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Disclosing tablet

Back when I was a youth, dentists supplied little pink pills called “disclosing tablets.” After kids brushed their teeth, they could dissolve these things in their mouths, producing a bright pink stain on any spot the brush missed.

Fast forward to last year. Mental Floss magazine changed hands, and the new corporate owners naturally made some changes. And naturally some were better than others. The switch came at a bad time for me, because as a reader I’d reached the end-of-the-honeymoon point where I’d stopped reading it cover to cover anyway.

So I find myself wondering if the time has come to part company with this publication. To get a little longitudinal perspective, I’m going to write a “disclosing tablet” Floss critique each time I finish a new issue.

Starting now, with Volume 11, Issue 2, March-April 2012.

Clean spots

The Greatest Greeting Card of All Time – A few brief paragraphs about the Pansy Card, which has outsold every other card ever printed.

Visa: An Underdog Story – What a pleasure it was to read about the rat bastards at Bank of America taking a multi-million-dollar loss. Too bad the tale has a “happy ending.”

101 Masterpieces: City Lights – This entry wasn’t quite as good as some of the other installments in the 101 series. Still, I do love Chaplin in general and this movie in particular.

Going Viral – I’ve been in the computer business long enough to remember the first legends about Brain, the world’s first computer virus. So it was kinda cool to learn the real details.

The Oldest Living Things on the Planet – Because trees rule, especially impossibly ancient ones.

Arbitrary Throwdown: The Architecture Edition – Too clever for its own good, but the ancient vs. new comparisons were interesting enough.

Pink spots

Poker Lingo Worth Knowing – Is there such a thing? If so, it isn’t to be found in this quartet. Everyone already knows about Wild Bill’s legendary, fatal eights and aces. And is a pair of fives really known as a “Sammy Hagar” by anyone other than those sad individuals who self-identify as Sammy Hagar fans?

The Unauthorized Biography of the Easter Bunny – This is an example of one of the new ownership’s less attractive practices: working too hard to make stories clever. A straight presentation of Easter Bunny trivia would have been more readable than this working-it-too-hard “celebrity tell-all.”

Science on the Rocks – Maybe this was just a matter of taste, as I don’t personally give much of a crap about either molecular gastronomy or cocktails.

Hard-Drinking Hamsters – Always nice to know what inventive new ways scientists have found to mistreat animals.

A.J. Jacobs Is Your New Personal Trainer – No he isn’t.

The Fix: $100 and a Box – Journalist Jonah Lehrer assembles a “creativity kit” that apparently includes a DVD of Robin Williams Live on Broadway. Maybe if you gathered your friends together and used it as inspiration for a contest to come up with the most creative way for Robin Williams to die. Extra bonus for anything especially painful and lingering.

The Quiz – These have sucked consistently since the format change. The magazine’s online offerings are way better in this department.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Review – Battle Los Angeles

I admit to walking away from Independence Day with the feeling that the experience would have been more enjoyable with less yakkity-yak and more alien battles. So perhaps I have no right to gripe about this highly similar picture, as this certainly serves up plenty of action. However, the pauses between firefights are downright excruciating. After a brief flash-forward, the picture gets underway with a maggot-gagging dose of grabastic buddy bullshit. The crap takes a back seat and the story turns good after the aliens begin their attack, and as long as things keep moving the movie is reasonably entertaining. But anytime the shooting stops the jarheadery returns in full force. Of particular note is the sorry-your-dad-died-Marines-never-quit speech, one of the least inspirational moments in the long, sorry history of combat speeches. Maybe some nice person will digitize this picture, edit it down to the fighting and post it on YouTube. Until then, if you decide to take this on, keep your finger on the fast forward button. Mildly amusing

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Satan, you can’t have my child-molesting husband

Mental Floss recently ran a quiz in which the object was to distinguish between Guns n’ Roses song titles and the titles of inspirational books available at CVS checkouts. At the risk of giving away one of the answers, one of the books was called Satan, You Can’t Have My Children. With such a tempting title, I just had to look it up on Amazon.

The book was pretty much what you’d expect (evangelist Iris Delgado shares fundamentalist family value hogwash). But one of the reviews was absolutely priceless. I reproduce it here in its entirety:

False advertising. Satan still got my kids. After buying this book, I put into practice all the recommended techniques. But the dark one still got my kids. He used their weakness, taffy, to lure them out into the back yard where they were escorted aboard his star-cruiser (which I've heard is roomier on the inside than it looks). For all I know, they're half-way to the Death Star by now! I've only received two calls from them, and it turns out Satan is treating them OK. But still, I want my kids back. Iris Delgado is a crook!

One of the other (actual serious) reviews of the Satan book pointed out that moms should make their daughters dress in demure, conservative outfits so that their fathers won't become aroused and molest them. Which makes me wonder how reliable an anti-Satan guide can possibly be if Satan himself actually wrote it.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Review – Bag of Bones

Stephen King does a reasonably good job with novels. Mick Garris is okay at the hour-long horror TV series episode. This, however, is neither. One of King’s lesser novels gets turned into a two-part miniseries that suffers from a lot of the faults of the source material, particularly the bad pacing and general dullness. Pierce Brosnan stars as an author suffering from writer’s block in the wake of his wife’s death. His retreat to a lake house in the Maine backwoods brings him afoul of a small town with a sinister past. Almost all the actual plot points occur in the second half, though I suppose you’d miss a little important set-up if you skipped the first half entirely. In the alternate, you could just watch Ghost Story and get a similar story without a lot of the filler. Mildly amusing

Review – The Amityville Haunting

The Amityville thing gets the Paranormal Activity treatment, swiftly turning into a worst-of-both-worlds production. Other than being set in the notorious DeFeo/Lutz house, it has only the most marginal connections to the Amityville thread. Nor does it take advantage of low-budget benefits such as the freedom to include chills that an expensive production wouldn’t have the guts to try. Everything here is mediocre booga-booga crap. Indeed, the story can’t even stay true to its supposed “real footage” format, frequently including shots and edits that would have been unlikely if not completely impossible for a teenager with a camcorder to have captured. The result is one of those pictures that in no way rewards the amount of attention you have to pay to it to even see the spooky stuff. Wish I’d skipped it

Friday, February 10, 2012

Review – Bad Teacher

It’s entirely possible that if you’ve never worked as an educator that you won’t appreciate this silly sitcom as much as I did. But I reluctantly admit that I got a real chuckle out of Cameron Diaz’s turn as a middle school teacher who goes from simply irresponsible to downright awful when she learns that if her students get top marks on the state’s standardized tests that she can win a bonus big enough to get a boob job. Mildly amusing