Wednesday, April 28, 2010

THE COOLEST LIVING CHARACTER ACTOR

This interview is the best I've read in quite a while. Danny Trejo has been one of my favorite character actors for some time: by 1995 when he showed up (awesomely) in Desperado and (equally awesome) in Heat, I had been seeing him in stuff for so long that I started making a point to remember "Okay, that Mexican guy with the tattoos who could fuck up God, ok, Danny Trejo."

So check out that interview. We learn all kinds of shit in it, to wit:

(1) Danny Trejo really does say "hey, hippie, what kind of dude are you?" in The Hidden. He really does. This makes me so fucking happy you don't know.

(2) Nathan Rabin would make a pretty good armed robber.

(3) Danny Trejo knows this because he was an armed robbery consultant (coolest job ever? up there) on a couple movies, including Heat.

(4) Chuck Norris dresses up as Danny Trejo for Halloween.


Enjoy! Be back with more substantive verbiage soon.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

IT IS GOING TO SUCK AND THERE IS NOTHING YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT

(Ed. Note: Part one, about the first movie, is here)

There was, perhaps, an unfair level of expectation for the Matrix sequels. This may have been the first instance—and was certainly the most notable early one—of the Internet totally fucking everything up for a movie. You have to understand the impact The Matrix had on a) nerds, b) potheads, and c) pop culture junkies. It was massive. A devotee of The Matrix could fancy him/herself cooler than Star Wars nerds because of all the mangled Baudrillard, capable of getting high and, thanks to The Matrix, finding deeper meaning in Alice in Wonderland than the actual gibberish written by a pedophile tripping on mushrooms (sorry, y'all, I know the truth stings), and due to to the immense new possibilities presented to solipsists by the exponential growth of the Internet, the Matrix fan could become a Serious Pop Culture Theorist on his/her “blog.” (Ed. Note: the hypocrisy of pissing on blogs on a blog is not lost on the author. He requests that you merely nod your heads and agree.)

So long story short, nerds who thought they were cooler than other nerds had spent about three and a half years feverishly discussing what was in store in the Matrix sequels, to be released months apart in 2003. We had worked ourselves up into such a state that the fucking Warner Bros logo got a standing ovation at the midnight screenings. I even—and I swear on the immortal soul of Alain Robbe-Grillet that it was an accident—went to see The Matrix Reloaded in costume as Neo: long black coat, shades, blank expression (mine due to coming down from something rather than Reevesian mental absence). But was it really an accident? I prefer to think of it as the universe reminding me what a fucking geek I was. Am. Ever shall be. Whatever, moving on.

The Matrix Reloaded starts off with an almost desperate stab at awesomeness: Trinity flying through the air on a motorcycle, a huge fucking explosion, and a slow-motion shot of Trinity's ass in those vinyl pants as she sticks the landing perfectly. Then she and an Agent are flying through mid-air with bullet ripples all over the goddamn place, and Trinity's plummeting through the air off a fucking skyscraper with the Agent firing and firing and firing and finally he hits her just under the tit, big blood spurt . . . HOLY SHIT TRINITY'S GONNA DIE IN THE FIRST SCENE WHAT THE FUCK????? And she wipes out on a car—and Keanu wakes up. Goddammit, you cocktease ass Wachowski punks.

Well, hey, it's not like we wanted Trinity to die in the first scene (see Fast and Furious as an example: killing off a hot chick main character, no matter how shitty an actress, in the first reel is a mistake). Next up we have a scene where we see some Agents crashing a summit of several ship captains. Morpheus makes his typical dramatic entrance. We're told that the machines are closing in on Zion and within 72 hours or something, arrivederci Zion unless Neo does something. First, the presumed-dead Agent Smith shows up and asks this guy to thank Neo for setting him free (whoops . . .) and then some actual Agents show up. Neo doesn't even take it seriously. He flexes his nuts for a couple minutes and then the Agents mysteriously vanish. Neo is troubled. Keanu's brow furrows. And he goes flying off to go see the Oracle, but she's not there. A promising beginning.

However, the next fucking forty years of The Matrix Reloaded (taking us to about minute 30, objective time) are goddamn torturous. It's all in the “real world,” for one thing. Oooh, they show us Zion. Ya know what? Fuck Zion. It's dirty, there aren't any stores for the girls to buy nice dresses, the people are all a bunch of humorless religious fanatics . . . it was one thing to hear the zealot techie guy (who, hilariously, is not back for the sequels due to excessive salary demands even though nobody knows him as anything other than the zealot techie guy from The Matrix) rhapsodize about Zion in the first movie, because you could imagine this cool place. I took one look at Zion and did not give a fuck about any of the people there, and by the middle of the third movie I was actively rooting for the machines to blast this ugly shithole out of existence.

Actually, let me rephrase. If we stopped off in Zion for like five minutes, set up the plot, then took back off to go fuck around in the Matrix, I wouldn't have minded Zion so much. Harry Lennix is awesome, and he plays a good right-wing tightass, and seeing Cornel West as one of the old hippies who run the place fucking rocked, and hell, Anthony Zerbe brought a good “fuck it, I'm slumming” vibe as one of the other old hippies who run the place. But Jesus fucking Christ, we had to learn about every single nuance of Zion politics in exhaustive detail, we had to sit through that ludicrous rave scene that followed Morpheus' “I am TALKING . . . very WEIRD and very LOUD . . . as though I am the black Christopher WALKEN and moreover haven't taken a SHIT in like a WEEK” speech, and put up with the complete absence of sexual chemistry between Neo and Trinity (apparently exacerbated by actual off-screen mutual loathing between Keanu and Carrie-Ann Moss) for one of the least sexy sex scenes ever filmed.

Fortunately, at the exact moment when I'm always tempted to pick up the remote and throw it through the TV screen, Morpheus rounds up his crew—now including the criminally wasted Harold Perrineau in the stead of the dude who wanted more money; how's that for irony, ya whine about your contract and they replace you with someone more famous—and they take off to go hack into the Matrix and talk to the Oracle. And things start picking up quick.

First, Keanu makes his way through a virtual Hong Kong, and encounters a small
Chinese man named Seraph. (Phillip Chou, who although cool, is not capable of making the viewer forget that this part was written for Jet Li; oh, what might have been . . .) with this weird golden glow about him, not the typical green Matrix source code. Hmmm. He then apologizes to Neo for having to do this, which is to say he starts throwing rather deft kung fu at Neo. Wait, what's that, Neo?

“I know kung fu.”


Exactly. They fight to a stalemate, and it turns out that “the only way to truly know someone is to fight them.” This was how Neo needed to prove he was really Neo. So they go through a literal back door that is, in fact, a back door in the code of the Matrix, and Seraph brings Neo out into a housing project courtyard to talk to the Oracle.

Here we get a bunch of fairly cool exposition, written in patented clunky Matrix dialogue, about how the Oracle is a program serving a purpose in the greater Matrix. (Vampires, aliens, werewolves, and ghosts are all buggy software, which I kind of got a kick out of). After a bit though, Seraph hustles the Oracle out of there, which Neo soon sees is because the resurrected Agent Smith is approaching (after Smith has “possessed” one of the other Zionites). Hugo Weaving gets to do a bit of declaiming about the nature of purpose (sounding hilariously like an Australian Ayn Rand on Valium in so doing) and reveals to Neo his latest party trick . . . he can make copies of himself. Lots of copies.

Let the record reflect that I find the ensuing fight scene to be one of the coolest fucking things I've ever seen. I will have none of your lip about the CGI looking fake (especially if you're gonna trot out some argument about the CGI being better in Lord of the Rings; the difficulty curve is higher CGIing a person than it is Gollum or anthropomorphic trees and shit, because Gollum isn't real and trees stand still) and I'll certainly have none of this balderdash about “why doesn't Neo just fly away?” Look, people, I said it before—having shamelessly stolen the phrase from my friend Greg—The Matrix Reloaded is a movie about Keanu flexing his nuts. That's it. Bottom to the top. Flying away is not the act of a testicular being. Neo could fly away, sure, but he could also beat the shit out of 100 Agent Smiths at the same time. And that's what he does. And holy fucking shit do I enjoy this scene. They spent like two years doing the effects for this one fucking scene. Sure, at the end of the scene Neo does fly away, but that's because he flexed his nuts, he had his fun, now it's time to go. It's kinda like when you're having a battle of wits with a male cat. Eventually, when you've bested him, the cat will pretend to have never given a fuck about the battle of wits and walk away with his tail in the air. Which is exactly what Keanu does, except with a lot of Hugo Weaving clones in suits walking away and adjusting their ties afterwards.

Next up, Neo, Morpheus, and Trinity have to go negotiate with a French computer program for the release of “The Keymaker.” (Ghostbusters flashbacks permitted, encouraged, and endorsed). Not a computer program written by a French person. A computer program so nefarious, oily, and devoid of scruples that he has decided there is no other option but to be French. Welcome to 2003, where Francophobia briefly supplanted even the time-honored hatred of Negroes and Jews! Actually, Lambert Wilson is so great, and is clearly having such a blast, as the French computer program, that it's hard to complain too hard about the prevailing political climate at the time (which was terrifyingly right-wing that spring and summer) especially since the Wachowskis were such insular wackos that their thought process was actually “We really like the sound of the word 'Merovingian' . . . the Merovingians were French, so I guess we gotta find a French guy.” And the computer program has that loose, “I guess it makes sense, but then again I'm high” connection to the historical Merovingians shared by nearly all the Wachowskis' forays into academia.

Anyway. The Merovingian tells Neo and company to go fuck themselves, but his wife catches them on their way out and promises to help them if Neo will kiss her. Trinity is not amused, but Neo takes one for the team. Oh, right, the Merovingian's wife is Monica Belucci! Right, my bad, Monica Belucci is so hot Keanu actually looks hetero for a second when he's smoochin her. Fuck, I forgot. So yeah, Trinity is staring death at this Eurohussy even as she's sneaking them all into the Merovingian's mansion to go grab this little Korean guy with a gajillion keys all over the place.

Naturally, the Merovingian is pissed, and sputters Gallicly, before sending these two albino Welsh rastafarians who can walk through walls after Morpheus, Trinity, and the keymaster while Neo gets into a pitched battle with an all-star team of stuntmen (the DVD featurette about this fight was almost as much fun as the fight) which ends with their sloppy deaths and the Merovingian saying something cryptic about Neo's predecessors. Hmmm. Neo chases him through the castle, but the Merovingian gives him the slip and he ends up hundreds of miles away from where Morpheus, Trinity, and the Keymaster are.

Where they are is In The Shit. They get into this spectacular car chase involving a suspiciously high number of late-model Cadillacs that eventually takes Morpheus to the top of a tractor trailer (after blowing up the albino Welsh rastafarians) and Trinity onto a smokin-hot Ducatti (the only thing my mom remembers about any of the Matrix movies, which I find hilarious) and Keanu, at the very last second, grabbing Morpheus and the Keymaster off the top of the tractor trailer just before it explodes in flames. As Harold Perrineau says before collapsing on his computer monitor in exhaustion: “YES!”

(One note: Jada Pinkett Smith, as Niobe, a character introduced in a shitty Matrix video game, figures large in this car chase and in a bit of the story so far as a love interest for Morpheus, which would work if she and every single other woman in Zion—including, of course, the legendarily androgynous Trinity—wasn't motherfuckin Butch Patrick, dude. I guess the femmes all died out due to natural selection . . .)

So after this rather satisfying climax, there's still another 45 minutes or so of movie (Ed. Note: the structure fucking sucks) and the Keymaster gives this allegedly expository speech that's more math than text, and Morpheus gives a typically fanaticism-on-Quaaludes speech about fate and the nobility of dying for a cause, and through a series of weird events, Trinity ends up having to hack into the Matrix to save Neo, and that scene from the beginning where she gets killed starts to play out exactly as it did before.

Meanwhile, Neo's fine except for the dozens of Smiths who turn up to get in his way and plug the Keymaster just as he's opening the door he was “meant to,” and since the Keymaster's purpose is served, he dies. Thus begins what is, simultaneously, the most interesting and most incomprehensibly dense scene in the whole trilogy: Neo's conversation with The Architect, the creator of the Matrix.

The upshot of the scene is that there have been other “One”s and that they're part of the system, just like everyone else. The purpose of The One, according to the Architect, is to keep the system from crashing, but even though The One thinks his purpose is to save Zion, Zion always inevitably gets destroyed. And they've done this six or seven times so far. This is, of course, assuming that you can trust this guy. Anyway, Neo is given a choice—he can save Trinity or save Zion, even though the Architect tells him there's no way around the fact that Trinity is going to die, or around the fact that Zion is fucked. Neo chooses to save Trinity. He flies in, so fast that he destroys half the Matrix, and grabs Trinity, reaches inside her chest and starts her heart again. Sigh. Shame they ain't go no chemistry cuz those kids sure are in love.

So the Nebuchadnezzar blows up. Neo telekinetically stops a whole bunch of those stupid looking robots even though he's not in the Matrix and goes into a coma. And the ship that comes to rescue Morpheus, Trinity, Harold Perrineau, and Sleeping Beauty has found someone . . . THE GUY WHO SMITH POSSESSED! Kthxbai see ya in November!

Boy, if the anticipation for the first one was intense, May to November 2003 were ridiculous. The entire Internet slowed to a crawl as nerds freaked out about where the story was heading. Everyone had their own pet theory. I didn't really, I was willing to wait and see where the Wachowskis were going with the whole thing, because as much as Reloaded was clunky and overstuffed with crap I figured that the best was yet to come. Or at least a resolution.

There are a couple cool moments in The Matrix Revolutions. The whole bit where Neo is trapped in the train station talking to the Indian guy and his family (all computer programs, not real people) is okay, or would be if it had anything to do with anything (the fact that we briefly glimpsed the Indian guy in Reloaded getting frogmarched out of the Merovingian's restaurant doesn't make him relevant), and if it made any sense whatsoever that a computer program would be religious. Bruce Spence is always welcome to the party, but he has nothing to do. When Morpheus, Trinity, and Seraph swagger on into the Merovingian's nightclub and negotiate Neo's release at gunpoint, that's cool. (Ed. Note: All these things happen in the first 20 minutes of the movie) After Neo gains his release—and we've had no good explanation as to why his powers as The One now carry over to the real world—the rest of the movie is one gigantic turd. The whole rest of the fucking movie takes place in the boring, derivatively designed “real” world, including the most mind-numbing, interminable waste of a ten-figure FX budget in the history of the cinema, The Battle of Zion, which has no dramatic stakes, no reason to care whatsoever about any of the people under attack (since Neo and Trinity are flying a hovercraft out to talk to the machine mainframe, which is, not to put too fine a point on it, the actual drama in the narrative). If you completely excise The Battle of Zion, you save probably $50 million bucks at the minimum, the most boring 45 minutes in the history of cinema, and stop your movie from grinding to a halt and never regaining its momentum.

When Neo finally gets to talk to the machine mainframe (following the “tragic” death of Trinity), he asks to be plugged back into the Matrix, which is now populated only by copies of Smith, to keep it from crashing (in exchange, the machines agree to let Zion be). And, for some reason, despite the fact that only 100 Smiths managed to fight Neo to a draw, one of the Smiths throws down one on one. More overblown special effects. Smith kicks Neo's ass, and Neo gives his life to save the Matrix, by letting Smith absorb him. But Neo's code makes Smith's code untenable, and the whole Matrix has to do a system reset. So Neo's dead, Smith's dead, Trinity's dead, Morpheus is “fucking” Jada Pinkett Smith again, Zion's full of robot and human corpses, and in spite of the fact that there's no reason whatsoever to trust the machines, who can still wipe out Zion whenever they feel like it, the remaining Zionites are convinced that the war is over and all shall be peace forever after. There's a final scene inside the Matrix where the Architect and the Oracle talk about the coming peace, and the Architect crankily concedes that the Oracle was “right.” The End.

Unfortunately, the last movie being such a worthless piece of shit for the last hour and forty-five minutes casts a shadow over the whole trilogy. It makes the clunky narrative of Reloaded seem worse than it actually is. It casts all the dumb stuff in the first movie that you can ignore most of the time in very sharp relief. There comes a point, usually during the credits of Revolutions, where you, as a nerd, chastise yourself for wasting so much time and energy geeking out about this bullshit when the creators clearly cared so little about making a good movie. The myth, repeated endlessly by the ardent defenders of the series on the Internet, that the Wachowskis had “planned it all out ahead of time” was laid bare; they may have had a plan for three movies before the first one, but had to put a whole bunch of stuff originally intended for the sequels into the first one at the behest of Warner Bros. Then come sequel time: “Oh, shit, what do we do now? [scramble to meet deadline]”

In the interests of full disclosure, I've periodically talked myself into liking the sequels more than the above would indicate. It helps to be high, and in a really generous, sentimental mood. Even with that caveat, I always skip the stupid fucking Zion battle scene. That scene has always sucked and will always suck. The frustration I have with the sequels is that they could have been so much better, so much easier. If we can, for a moment, step into a parallel reality where Warners immediately greenlit three movies and gave the Wachowskis final cut, here are a couple quick fixes that would solve everything:

Keep Joe Pantoliano and the rest of the original crew around for the whole trilogy

This makes us care more as they all die off one by one, and makes Joe Pantoliano's betrayal in the third movie have more dramatic impact, since he will have been at odds with, befriended, been at odds with again, and so forth, Neo for the whole trilogy.

Edit the Zion time down by 90%

The series is, after all, called The Matrix. Because it's about the fucking Matrix. The fact that they have to hack in to best the machines highlights our protagonists' underdog status, and also spares us the intelligence-insulting sequence where somehow, even though the combined forces of humanity have never gotten within 100 miles of the machine mainframe, one ship piloted by two unarmed dumbasses is able to get through.

Hire a script doctor to fix the fucking dialogue

Because, ya know, I joke about the shitty dialogue being an aesthetic choice, but man there is some shitty dialogue in the Matrix trilogy, and by the third movie, that shitty dialogue is completely taking us out of the movie. While Carrie Fisher/William Goldman/Callie Khouri/Richard Price are at it, they can beef up some of the characterizations, too. The audience needs to care about the characters, not be told they do.

Still, when all is said and done, the Matrix trilogy is an impressive achievement. Not necessarily because the movies themselves are so great, but getting three movies this weird, arch, arcanely literate, and violent made within the studio system doesn't happen very often. For that, we should applaud the Wachowskis. It's a shame the movies weren't better, though, they could have started a trend. Instead, the trend is toward geeking out on TV. This decade, we've seen that large, complex narratives work better when you have 65-100 episodes over which to tell your tale. If some lunatic had greenlit The Matrix as a TV series, the Wachowskis could have had enough time to pack all the mythology in and still have their characters be more three-dimensional. But considering the pilot to Lost cost $15 million and that gave TV execs heart attacks, the idea of someone giving the Wachowkis $300 mil to make The Matrix TV show is a little unrealistic. The great thing about the “what might have been” game though, is that all it costs is the whiskey.

Friday, April 23, 2010

THERE IS NO SPOON

I would argue that year 1999, in my lifetime (which is to say, since 1978), was the greatest year for American movies that we've seen. This was largely due to the hybridization between the aesthetically and thematically adventurous independent cinema of the late 80s and early 90s and a studio system that briefly saw a fiscal value in producing mid-budget movies for adults. The result: Fight Club, Being John Malkovich, Election, Boys Don't Cry, American Beauty, Eyes Wide Shut, The Sixth Sense (hey, the first time through it was fuckin great), The Iron Giant, The Straight Story, Magnolia (love it or hate it, that was a work of balls). Even oddities like The Blair Witch Project were interesting at the time.

But the picture that opened the floodgates that year, released in early spring because Warner Bros didn't know what the fuck they were dealing with, was The Matrix. The brainchild of Larry and Andy Wachowski, The Matrix was an alternately frustrating and fascinating melange of various different kinds of SF, comic books, Hong Kong action movies, and a whooooooole lotta “look at how smart I am reading this!” college student bookshelf porn. I remember seeing the trailer in something like February and going “what in the . . . what is . . . is that Keanu . . . wow . . . this is either going to be ridiculous or awesome, maybe both!”

Turns out, it was both. The Matrix is the story of how Keanu Reeves is the one man with the ability to bring about humanity's salvation, which is pretty fuckin ridiculous. But The Matrix is also the story of how two smartasses from Emerson and Bard convinced a major studio to give them $65 million to rip off William Gibson, troll Jean Baudrillard through wanton misinterpretation of his work, invent a new kind of special FX to make action scenes look cooler, openly endorse leather, latex, and sunglass fetishism, and actually get the line “It's our way or the highway” past all the layers of people who are supposed to read scripts at studios. That, my friends, is awesome.

The Matrix opens with a mysterious, appealingly androgynous woman named Trinity in a tight spot. Whoever she is, she's got every cop in the city interested in her, as well as some “Agents” (agency not specified) who warn the cops that they've got a live one on their hands.

Cop: I think we can handle one little girl.
Agent (Smith): No, lieutenant, your men are already dead.

Cut to Trinity beating the shit out of a roomful of cops. Mid-ass-kicking, she briefly levitates in slow motion and holds position before putting a boot to some cop's jaw. This is the first “huhwha wait what the fuck” moment in a series of several dozen. So, Trinity busts out a hot-shit-for-1999 cell phone and speaks briefly with a melodious-voiced gentleman named Morpheus, who tells her to believe that she can escape. It takes a whole bunch of evasive ability, and some supernatural athletic ability, to do so but eventually she does, vanishing into thin air a split second before one of the Agents drives a garbage truck into her phone booth. However, Trinity may have escaped, but the Agents know what she was after. Someone named Neo . . .

Introducing Keanu Reeves, aka Thomas Anderson, aka Neo. Keanu is a hacker and dealer of illicit software who keeps discs of questionable legality in a hollowed-out copy of Simulacra and Simulation. He's woken up by his computer, telling him “The Matrix has you.” Keanu, predictably, is confused. The computer tells him to “follow the white rabbit.” There's a knock on the door, and the mysterious text disappears. At the door is a customer for Keanu's black market software, a dipshit who believes “mescaline . . . [is] the only way to fly” (an acceptable sentiment if you're throwing an SF-ish Aldous Huxley reference in to show that you've read books, but utterly retarded if you pretend to know anything about actual drugs). In the first of many Alice in Wonderland references, Mescaline Guy's girlfriend has a white rabbit tattoo, so Keanu goes out clubbing with them.

At the club, Trinity approaches Keanu, who hilariously tells her “I thought you were a guy.” Oh, Keanu. The simplest things confuse you . . . Trinity tells Keanu she can unlock the mystery of what “The Matrix” is. The Matrix is apparently a point of interest to tin-foil hat hacker types, but no one quite knows what it is. EXCEPT TRINITY.

Right when things get interesting, the club beat turns into Keanu's alarm clock. He's late for work at Metacortex, “one of the top software companies in the world.” Keanu's boss, an asshole, lectures him in very arch tones about punctuality, and the effect thereof on his job security. So Keanu, aptly chastened, goes to his cubicle, where a courier delivers him one of those hot-shit late 90s cell phones, on which Keanu gets a call from Trinity's boss, Morpheus. Apparently Bad Dudes are on their way to bust Keanu, and Morpheus tries to get him out—somehow he knows the exact layout of Keanu's office, prompting a “How do you know all this?” from our Most Blessed Intellect—only Morpheus' instructions require a leap of faith Keanu's not yet ready to take, and the Bad Dudes succeed in hauling Keanu's ass in.

At this point, we see Hugo Weaving get to be fucking stupid awesome. As the head Agent, he breaks it down to Keanu in an impossible-to-imitate monotone:

“It seems that you've been living two lives. One life, you're Thomas A. Anderson, program writer for a respectable software company. You have a social security number, pay your taxes, and you . . . help your landlady carry out her garbage. The other life is lived in computers, where you go by the hacker alias 'Neo' and are guilty of virtually every computer crime we have a law for. One of these lives has a future, and one of them does not.”


Keanu is unimpressed. He gives Hugo Weaving the finger, and (like many poorly informed civilians who watch too much TV) believing he is entitled to a phone call, asks for one. Hugo gives a great “oh foolish mortal” smile and—seemingly magically—revokes Keanu's power of speech, before getting his dudes to hold Keanu down as he drops this really gross robot with tentacles down Keanu's bellybutton.

Keanu wakes up, convinced that the previous scene was a dream, until Morpheus calls him up on the phone again and apologizes for the business with the Agents, and informs Keanu that he is “The One.” It is then incumbent on Trinity to pick Keanu up in a really cool car and remove the gross robot with a big science-fictiony looking device, which she does, following some truly vomitous dialogue from her Scandinavian lesbian friend. They then take Keanu to a beautifully photographed building, inside which is a beatific black man with a shaved head, sunglasses without earpieces, and a long leather coat. He introduces himself thus.

“Hello, Neo. As you no doubt have guessed, I am Morpheus.”


Intros don't get any better than that, man. Morpheus discourses on the nature of the Matrix, describing it vaguely but vividly as an omnipresent infrastructure of power, oppressing the entire human race. Morpheus explains to Keanu that he has two choices, symbolized by two pills. One will put him to sleep, and he'll wake up, untroubled by any of this Matrix business. The other, however, will reveal the truth to Keanu. Keanu, reflected in Morpheus' sunglasses, reaches for truth, and after a final warning that after he takes the pill, there's no going back, Keanu knocks it back. Morpheus escorts Keanu into the next room, where Trinity, the group from the car, and a bald, squirrely Joe Pantoliano await. They strap Keanu into a chair and then some Weird Shit Starts Happening.

Suddenly, a bald, eyebrowless Keanu wakes up in this weird goop with all kinds of wires sticking out of him. These wires explode off him, and he's unceremoniously dumped out his goop pod into a sewer, where a futuristic looking craft grabs him with a grappling hook and reels him into safety.

Introducing Morpheus et al once again! It turns out, as Morpheus explains to Keanu, that the reality Keanu has grown up knowing is a massively complex virtual reality simulation created by malicious autocratic machines so that they can keep humanity dreaming in goop pods while the machines use the bioelectricity generated by the human body to keep running. (This is but one of many “what the fuck?” moments that show the Wachowski's passionate fidelity to the latter half of the phrase “science fiction.”) In reality, it is somewhere in the late 22nd, early 23rd century, but no one exactly knows.

Also, in reality, Morpheus' sexy, stylish crew is grungy, pasty, and needs a shower. As Keanu's hair grows in a bit, he gets to know the crew—two of whom are from a place called “Zion” that is described as “the last human city”—and experiences the joy of direct-to-brain martial arts training. Keanu, legendarily, wakes up from this training with this timeless line:

Keanu: “I know kung fu.”
Morpheus: “Show me.”


They beam to this awesome, high-ceilinged dojo and begin to spar. The ship's dork scampers into the break room and announces: “Morpheus is fightin' Neo!” and everyone hauls ass to watch. Morpheus spends most of the fight beating the piss out of Keanu, all the while exhorting him “You're faster than this!” and coming up with gems like, “You think that's air you're breathing?” Finally, Keanu does some blurry fast kung fu, shocking the crew.

Morpheus puts Keanu to some more tests: one involves jumping off a building and forgetting that you're supposed to fall (that everyone flunks the first time, Keanu, The One or not, being no exception) and another intended to teach the lesson that hot blondes in red dresses are really Hugo Weaving in disguise (Ed. Note: the author nodded sagely at this lesson upon first seeing the movie, having always preferred brunettes). Once Keanu, like all true intellects, learns that gravity doesn't really exist and blondes are no fuckin' good, Morpheus takes him, in the Matrix, to see the “Oracle.”

Meanwhile, Joe Pantoliano is selling out Morpheus to the Agents, in exchange for being put back in the Matrix (in fairness, reality fuckin sucks in the Matrix trilogy; no running water, no clean clothes, dickheads like Morpheus walking around babbling their Zen/Zoroastrian/Christian/Hippie religious jive, and all there is to eat is amino acid snot). This, narratively, is one of the biggest no-brainers in the whole picture—how the fuck do you have Joe Pantoliano in a movie and not have him be a duplicitous scumbag? That was why The Fugitive was so innovative; the idea of Joe Pantoliano as a good guy was almost as cinematically earth-shattering as the introduction of color.

Keanu goes to the Oracle, and meets a bunch of precocious psychic kids in the living room. One little Hari Krishna with an English accent is bending spoons with his mind, and Keanu (being, presumably, stoned) sits down to dig it. The English Hari Krishna kid drops some knowledge:

EHK kid: “Do not try and bend the spoon. That's impossible. Instead . . . only try to realize the truth.
Keanu: “What truth?”
EHK kid: “There is no spoon.”
Keanu: “There is no spoon?”
EHK kid: “Then you'll see, that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.”


Keanu then bends a spoon, before being informed that the Oracle will see him. The Oracle sits Keanu down, flirts with him, calls him a retard, offers him a cookie, and doesn't really say much of anything definite, but Keanu assumes that she's telling him he's not The One—because he doesn't believe it—so she bids him a fond farewell, and warns him that something fucked up is about to happen to Morpheus, which jolts Keanu.

On the way out, he tries to warn Morpheus, but Morpheus cuts him off and won't hear it. They then, naturally, walk right into a trap set by the Agents with Joe Pantoliano's help. There's a massive gun battle where the ship's dork—in the Matrix—gets cut to shreds by machine gun fire and dies in real life since “the body cannot live without the mind” (more horseshit science: how the fuck do you explain Terri Schiavo, John Mayer, or the Knicks front office, huh, Wachowskis?) and the Agents capture Morpheus.

Joe Pantoliano gets back to “reality” and hijacks the ship, killing the two not-in-Matrix crew guys, and then, all the while creepily professing his love for Trinity over cell phone, unplugging the taciturn brown dude and the Scandinavian lesbian, before one of the “dead” crew members picks up some kind of laser gun, wastes Joey Pants, and gets Trinity and Keanu back to “reality.”

Here we have a bit of a dilemma: Morpheus let himself be taken by the Agents so that Trinity could get Keanu away safely, because Morpheus believes Keanu is The One. Keanu believes that the Oracle told him he isn't The One (even though she didn't tell him shit that could be definitively interpreted either way, the mark of any good oracle) so he's hell-bent to go back into the Matrix and get Morpheus out. Trinity is not having it, believing that if Keanu dies, Morpheus will have sacrificed himself for nothing. Keanu then contradictorily explains that he isn't The One, but that he has an absolute confidence that he can get Morpheus out, something only The One should really be able to do. So they arrive at a compromise, which Keanu articulates thus:

“Guns. Lots of guns.”


And so Keanu and Trinity beam into the Matrix and proceed to have one of the coolest gun battles of all time (watch here). After dispatching all available bad guys, they hop on an elevator and blow it up so they can get up to the top floor faster (hey, shit, I'm just along for the ride at this point, fuck logic), Keanu gets the chance to say “there is no spoon” again, and they end up on the roof. An Agent draws down on Keanu, and we have the iconic “Keanu bending backward to duck the bullet while the bullets ripple through the air toward him as the virtual camera circles Keanu, concluding with the bullet grazing Keanu's leg” shot. Which Trinity immediately almost ruins with the retarded line “Dodge this” before lickin' off a shot right through the Agent's head. But shitty dialogue is as crucial an element to The Matrix as the green tint in the Matrix or bullet time or pretentious literary and theological references, so we need “Dodge this.”

So Trinity and Keanu get Morpheus out, and the Agents shoot down their helicopter—which, in a massively awesome moment, Keanu asks Trinity “You know how to fly this thing?” and Trinity goes “Not yet” before calling her techie for a direct-to-brain helicopter pilot program download, which he gives her, and her eyelashes flutter before she up and flies the thing expertly—only to have Keanu basically stop the fucking thing from crashing into the building before Trinity gets killed with his bare hands. This, of course, leads to a push in on a breathless, aroused Morpheus murmuring “He is The One . . .” and telling Neo “There is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.” (Ed. Note: the great unresolved mystery of The Matrix is where Morpheus buys his weed.)

Our intrepid heroes get to a payphone in the subway where they can be beamed back home, only Keanu is trapped after Hugo Weaving shoots the phone. Morpheus and Trinity can only look on in horror as Keanu has a balls-out kung fu fight with Hugo Weaving, which Keanu actually kind of wins, only to see Hugo Weaving cheat and respawn, at which point Keanu says fuck it and runs. He steals a cell phone, calls home: “Mr. Wizard, get me the hell out of here!” and Morpheus' dude sends Keanu to a hotel room (the same one Trinity started the movie in, interestingly) where Agent Hugo Weaving is waiting for Keanu with a big ass gun. He puts a clip in Keanu, who collapses. Dies. AND THEN RISES FROM THE DEAD! Right as a bunch of stupid looking robots are tearing Morpheus' ship apart! Morpheus says “He is The One!” again. Keanu only truly becomes Neo in this moment, as he stops a barrage of bullets from the Agents in midair, sees the Matrix as source code while inside it—something no one else can do—and kills/absorbs Hugo Weaving by flying through his stomach, after which the whole Matrix goes BWOMMMMM and the other two Agents fucking run their asses off. Neo then remembers “oh shit, I have to get back home before Morpheus has to set off the EMP to duck the stupid-looking robots” and he grabs the phone just in time. Epilogue: Neo calls up the machines to talk some shit before flying away as Rage Against the Machine (hurf hurf hurf) blasts over the closing credits.

I left a couple things out. The whole stupid-looking robot/EMP subplot is introduced way early, but everything that happens on the Nebuchadnezzar (Morpheus' ship) is so fucking stupid that I tend to either fast-forward or check my e-mail or read a book during those scenes. And, also, I left out the whole thing about Trinity and Neo falling in love, because the only screen couples I remember having less sexual chemistry are Keanu and Lori Petty in Point Break and Keanu and Sandra Bullock in Speed (for some bizarre and inexplicable reason—wink wink nudge nudge—Keanu had terrific sexual chemistry with River Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho and with Patrick Swayze in Point Break). And it's not because I'm one of those cynical shitheads who rolls his eyes every time love is the all-powerful force that conquers evil; it worked in the Harry Potter books, it works on Lost, it works all over the place. It just doesn't work when Keanu has to be interested in a chick, especially when that chick is Trinty, goddess of leather dykes.

Those caveats aside, The Matrix is a fucking terrific ride. As an action movie, it's top-notch. As an action movie to smoke weed to, it's nonpareil (sample quote, circa 2001: “Dude, did you realize the Matrix is green, dude? And fuckin the English Hari Krishna kid is clearly blazed when he fuckin tells Keanu there is no spoon, dude! That's how come he has an English accent! He's telling Keanu to smoke weed, but the machines want you to do smack. Dude that's fuckin' hardcore, dude, this movie is so smart.”) As a deep philosophical statement about the nature of autocracy or dystopian SF about recalcitrant computers, you're better off reading Neuromancer. However, The Matrix looks so cool, and sounds so cool, and has such a great cast—Laurence Fishburne joins the Eddie Sakamura All-Stars of actors who will forever be called by their most iconic character name, becoming Morpheus forever—that the plot holes and truly fucktarded science really don't matter. Look at Keanu doing kung fu, man. Just look at that man go.


STAY TUNED FOR PART TWO: THE SEQUELS! WHEREIN THE AUTHOR BREAKS HIS OWN WORLD RECORD FOR USE OF THE WORDS “FUCK,” “RETARDED,” AND “FUCKTARDED!”

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A (MUCH SHORTER THAN PLANNED) LOOK AT WILLIAM ATHERTON


Writing about Die Hard the other day, the notion of writing the sort of 5-10,000 word rant that you've all grown accustomed to on the career of William Atherton crossed my mind. Fortunately, the AV Club just interviewed him! It's a great interview, and he comes off as an awesome guy with a lot of perspective.

Since the interview does a better job capturing him than I could, I'll leave it at this: the man was in Ghostbusters, two Die Hard movies, Steven Spielberg's first theatrical feature, and The Day of the Locust. AND . . . AND . . . he was on Lost. That's a career. And he's a WASP, he's my people.

Suffice to say, the subject of Bill Murray's famous utterance, "It's true, your honor, this man has no dick," had to do some serious acting to make that line make sense.

Monday, April 19, 2010

THE TRINITY

“Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it's enemy action.”
—Auric Goldfinger


The vast majority of artists spend their entire lives without a major success. Or, since “success” is a relative term (I personally consider my play where I adapted the Madison scene from Bande A Parte, set it to “The Amazing Sounds of Orgy” by Radiohead, and danced with two women with none of us wearing anything other than sunglasses, a success; even though that play lost money, just go back and read that sentence again and tell me I don't fucking rule) I should probably say, the vast majority of artists spend their entire lives without enjoying major critical and commercial success. One artist in the select minority in this regard is movie director John McTiernan.

As of this writing, John McTiernan is in gigantic fucking legal trouble. In the criminal trial of performance artist Anthony Pellicano (nominally a private investigator but actually a metatheatrical auteur attempting to attain such a level of sleaziness as to stain the very fabric of the universe) it was revealed that McTiernan lied to the FBI about his dealings with Pellicano. Whoops. A kerfuffle (technical legal term) ensued, and federal prosecutors are sharpening their knives and muttering with unshaven, gruff malice, looking to do McTiernan jurisprudent harm. With all this mess, it kinda looks like McTiernan's directing career is done, which kinda sucks. But it sucks because it's a shame to have to go out like that, rather than due to unrealized potential, because whoa baby did McTiernan's pre-perjury body of work kick ass.

The quote from cinema's greatest villain that opens this epistlet refers to the second through fourth feature motion pictures of John McTiernan's career. These three movies, done consecutively, constitute one of the most consistently impressive one-two-threes in the history of cinema, and without question the most masculine. They are:

Predator
Die Hard
The Hunt For Red October


Bow heads in reverence.

Now think about that for a second. If someone directed one of those pictures, his career would be complete and he'd never have to pay for a drink the rest of his life. If a guy directed two of those pictures, it'd be fucking silly. But all three? These are quantum levels of badassness. Fucking John McTiernan in the late 80s was a massively parallel, five-dimensional being with sentient testicles capable of exploding universes with the power of thought.

Success, as mentioned above, is a fleeting thing, as much dependent on serendipity as it is on talent. After The Hunt For Red October, McTiernan, having danced for four years and three pictures, found himself having to pay the fiddler, which he did with the hideously awful Medicine Man (Sean Connery is Sean Connery, but remember, for every Man Who Would Be King, there's a Zardoz, and for every Untouchables there's some fucking piece of shit paycheck picture . . .) and the truly staggering The Last Action Hero. Before we get to the subject of this post, we need to digress briefly, with copious profanity.

Okay. The fucking problem with The fucking Last Action Hero is that postmodernism is something that should require a license to operate. I love Arnold more than any ten of you put together, but putting Arnold in a movie whose premise requires the intellectual level to process the interaction between observer and observed to be anything other than a stupid fucking joke, is fucking unfair. Arnold is not up to that task; he's smart, but he ain't that fuckin' smart. Casting aside the problem of Hollywood making a mockery out of an intellectually interesting premise (best case scenario, you get, what, The Purple Rose of Cairo with car chases and a couple oil tankers blowing up? What has two thumbs and wants to be signed the fuck up? Yours truly.) the rhetorical question needs to be posed: do they have some fucking factory in southern California where they manufacture retarded kids to put in movies? Listen, I know all kids are retards to some degree or other, but come on, man, the kids in my acting class in junior high (who were all there cuz we couldn't sing and didn't like the smell of photographic chemicals) were better than these dipshits who end up in movies all the time. The single most retarded kid in the history of retarded movie kids is the little Last Action Hero one. Granted, he doesn't have much to work with—the extremely expensive and highly touted spec script it began as rapidly devolved into “fuck, I gotta get these rewrites done so I can get another 8-ball from my dealer” bullshit—but man that kid is fucking annoying. Arnold spends the whole movie looking like a cue card guy is holding up The Wall Street Journal so he can check his portfolio while he acts. Arnold would only go on to make one more good movie, and that was more Jim Cameron's doing.

But anyway. That's enough of that. McTiernan, after that massive flop, was forced back to the Die Hard franchise after being too big to direct the first sequel, and did a fairly decent job (the only real flaw with Die Hard 3 was the single worst assortment of New York accents ever heard on film, despite being shot on location in New York, the rest of the movie fuckin rules ass) then did a competent if uninspired job remaking The Thomas Crown Affair, directed three-quarters of an awesome movie in The 13th Warrior before getting fired, but then crashed and burned spectacularly with the remake of Rollerball (even more retarded than The Last Action Hero) and the too-generic-for-anyone-to-give-a-shit Basic. Then he started lying to the Feds, only the problem, as he soon found, is that when you lie to the Feds in real life, your sidekick doesn't come in with a machine gun and bust you out, the Feds take out their J. Edgar Hoover model dildo and do to you what Clyde Tolson used to do to J. Edgar.

Anyway. Now that we got all the inconsistent directorial output (I didn't mention his first movie, the one before Predator, Nomads, but you didn't miss anything) and legal troubles out of the way. Let's talk about the three-sided-star and the apex of testicular cinema:


Predator (1987)

Ah ha ha, god DAMN it this is such a good movie. Arnold was still on steroids, you could still be politically incorrect in a major studio movie, Carl Weathers, Bill Duke . . . AHHHHHHHHH!!!!!

Okay. Deep breaths. We open with a space ship in near-Earth orbit putting on the parking brake, the Club on the steering wheel, and launching a little one-alien sized spaceship back down to Earth. This, we can correctly assume, is the Predator. Or . . . is it?

We can chew on that later. First things first. A helicopter lands somewhere in the middle of the jungle, and probably the single most we will fucking kill you bunch of MEN ever assembled gets out: Bill Duke, Billy from 48 Hrs, Jesse fuckin Ventura and his chewing tobacco, and two little guys—one of whom is Shane Black—whose presence is even scarier, because if these little fuckers are allowed to hang around with Bill, Billy, and Jesse, they must be fuckin fierce.

The best part about this intro is that the team all gets out and hops to, and Arnold just sits there in the fuckin chopper smokin a cigar like he's too fuckin bored to even scratch his balls. This is why Arnold rules.

Finally, Arnold summons the desire to move, and he heads inside to be briefed by this military guy, only the mission seems a little ho-hum for Arnold's boys:

Arnold: So why dun you yoos de reggala Army? Whut de yoooo need us foah?
Carl Weathers (off-screen): CUZ SOME DAMN FOOL ACCUSED YOU OF BEIN THE BEST.


Introduce Carl Weathers, old friend of Arnold's, now with the Central Intelligence Agency of Langley, VA, 22101.

Arnold: Whut is dees fockeeng tie beeznus?
Carl Weathers: Man, forget about the tie.


But Arnold can't forget about the tie. Carl Weathers leads Arnold and his guys out into the middle of fuckin nowhere to go ventilate some Commies, but he's a little stingy with details and motivation. They head on out, and Jesse Ventura offers chewing tobacco to the chopper but is rejected by everyone:

Jesse Ventura: Buncha slack-jawed faggots. This stuff'll turn you into a goddam sexual Tyrannosaurus, just like me.


As if their mere appearance weren't enough, there's some terse discussion of past missions, referred to only by the country (Afghanistan, Cambodia, etc) to establish these motherfuckers as serious. They make short work of a much-better-armed-than-anticipated bunch of rebels, and it turns out that Carl Weathers mildly bullshitted Arnold about the purpose of the mission, which pisses Arnold off, but there isn't much they can do—they're on the wrong side of the border so they have to go through some pretty unforgiving jungle to, as Arnold later says, “Geet to da choppa.”

It's at this point that some unseen entity with heat vision and garbled, digitized hearing takes notice of our protagonists. When Bill Duke knifes a scorpion on Carl Weathers' back and leaves its corpse on a log, the unseen entity regards the expired scorpion and can be seen to ruminate . . .

Bill Duke and Carl Weathers bond:

Bill Duke: You're ghostin' us, motherfucker. I don't care who you are back in the world, you give away our position one more time, I'll bleed ya, real quiet. Leave ya here. Got that?


Then something invisible starts killing Arnold's dudes! This bit is not for the faint of heart—Jesse Ventura gets his whole abdomen blown out, Bill Duke loses three-quarters of his skull, Carl Weathers loses his arm—and in short order the only people who are left are Arnold and the local chick who has warned them that in the heat of the summer, something comes out of the jungle and fucks people up. Arnold has astutely noted some glowing green shit on a leaf and come to the following conclusion:

“If eet blids . . . ve can keel it.”


Once everybody else is dead and Arnold has taken an alien rocket launcher to the shoulder at point blank range (which actually produced some blood) Arnold tells the local chick “GOOOO! GEET TO DA CHOPPA!” the line that has become half of the sole basis of any good Arnold impersonation.

The dialogue dries up for a bit as Arnold uses his wits and testicles to evade the alien hunter through the jungle. Eventually, Arnold realizes stuff like if he covers his body in cold mud the hunter can't see him, and he builds flaming arrows and booby traps and all kinds of awesome shit. He lures the hunter into a trap.

Arnold: “Camman! Keel me! Dooo eeet! Doo eet NOOOOW!”

Eventually, Arnold actually fucks the hunter's shit up. The hunter, though, has one final trick up its sleeve—a nuclear explosion, that Arnold manages to escape by jumping far enough. However, this does mean that Arnold cannot geet to da choppa, da choppa has to come to him, and it hauls his tired ass away as the closing credits roll.

Now. You'll notice one thing—I never referred to the alien as “the Predator.” The reason is this: the alien hunter only hunts things that can fight back. Arnold notices this and tells the local chick not to pick up a gun, figuring—correctly—that if she's unarmed, she's safe. Arnold, however, is so clearly dangerous and on so much steroids that even without a gun he's still trouble. I maintain, in spite of the stupid sequel and the fucking truly retarded Alien-tie-in, that the real predator in this movie . . . is man.


Die Hard (1988)

As great as Predator was, it did mainly appeal to nerds, Arnold cultists, and the kind of woefully damaged people who love gruesome cinematic violence (and yes, I'm all of the above, but I still realize Predator's a tough sell to some). Die Hard had no such problem. A number of lazy critical overviews of 80s action cinema tend to carelessly lump Die Hard in with Arnold movies and Sly movies—and, in a slightly different way, Eddie movies (he's invincible in Beverly Hills Cop)—without taking the time to notice that Die Hard is a whole different animal.

It's easy to forget now, after he's bestrode the earth for two decades as one of the biggest movie stars in the known universe, but Bruce Willis was primarily known as a TV actor before Die Hard. He was not really a name (Moonlighting cultists aside), and as John McClane he was, until you'd seen his subsequent movies, a regular guy. I mean, he's kind of a regular guy. He's a regular guy with ridiculous amounts of self-assurance and charisma, but he's a regular guy nonetheless.

To save his failing (some would even say already-failed) marriage, New York cop John McClane flies out to LA, gets picked up by a chatty limo driver, and heads out to the Nakatomi building, his once and future bride's place of employment, hosting their Christmas office party. The limo driver, like every supporting character in the picture, is written and acted to be remembered. Instead of seeming forced, he just comes across like a really nice kid, and McClane likes him immediately.

The office party introduces Mrs. McClane (irritatingly going by her maiden name Gennero at work), the yuppie cokehead who's trying to get in her pants (an excellent Hart Bochner, taking in all the sins of yuppiedom like stigmata as he bleeds the cocaine of the sinners on his thousand-dollar suit) and the avuncular Japanese dude who runs the place, Joe Takagi. (note to Michael Crichton: how can you think this guy's taking over the country? He's a fuckin sweetheart).

The McClanes have a tiff. John stays behind in the wife's office and—fortuitously—takes the advice of the guy sitting next to him on the plane to make fists with your toes barefoot on the carpet. Just as he's realizing, hey, it works, a whole bunch of well-dressed men very efficiently seize control of the building and take the office party hostage.

This leaves . . . ONE MAN . . . to foil their nefarious plans. That one man is a jet-lagged, lovesick rank-and-file cop from thousands of miles away who has to scamper away barefoot in his undershirt. And he's up against one serious adversary:

This is the one man who can challenge Auric Goldfinger. Hans Gruber. Sophisticated as the day is long. A voice you can listen to forever. And hooooooly shit is this man dangerous.

Joe Takagi: I don't know [the password] . . . you're just going to have to kill me.
Hans Gruber: Okay.
Bang. RIP Joe.


McClane sees this and shits his ass. He sets out to pick off as many of the bad guys as he can; unfortunately the first one he picks off is Alexander Godunov's brother. Alexander Godunov is Hans Gruber's right hand man, and holy fuckin shit is he scary when he gets pissed.

“I WANT BLOOD!”


He even makes Hans Gruber nervous for a second before he formulates his reply: “And you'll have it.” The complication is, McClane has a whole bunch of their C4 and the detonators, so they need to get that back before just killing his ass. But McClane is smart enough to play this to his advantage, and he recovers a walkie-talkie from Godunov's brother, with which he talks shit to Hans Gruber pretty much non-stop. Hans Gruber tries to talk shit back.

Hans: “You know my name, but who are you? Just another American who saw too many movies as a child? A product of a bankrupt culture who thinks he's John Wayne? Rambo? Marshall Dillon?” (Ed. Note: nice fuckin' reference, Hans)
McClane: “I was always kinda partial to Roy Rogers, actually. I really liked those sequined shirts.”
Hans: “Do you really think you have a chance against us, Mr. Cowboy?”
McClane: “Yippie-ki-ay, motherfucker.”


Oh, man. John McClane makes me proud to be from New York. We know how to talk shit here.

A brilliantly constructed game of cat and mouse ensues. McClane manages to establish contact with the LAPD, in the person of affable, overweight prole Al Powell, and the two bond over the radio, with Powell being McClane's one link to sanity, especially when fuckface suit cop Paul Gleason shows up and gives the typical awesome Paul Gleason performance as a belligerently stupid authority figure. As McClane kills more bad guys, Paul Gleason grows more antagonistic and insists that McClane let the impotent shitheads outside run things.

Hans Gruber kills Hart Bochner, which McClane takes hard (and Paul Gleason totally blames him for), because the poor naïve yuppie was only trying to help things in his dipshit yuppie way. So, as McClane is clinging to survival by a thread, the FBI comes in, in the form of Special Agent Johnson (Robert Davi, white, ugly) and Special Agent Johnson (Grand L. Bush, black, not ugly, also tangentially one of the only actors to be in both this and Lethal Weapon, the other landmark of 80s cop cinema) and insitutes their hostage protocol, which leads to exactly what Hans Gruber et al want: the power to get cut off so that the Nakatomi vault with gajillions of dollars in bearer bonds inside opens up. So the FBI sucks each other's dicks about a job well done while the remaining bad guys McClane hasn't killed yet count money.

After a whole bunch more bullshit—including McClane coming (at first unknowingly) in contact with Hans Gruber, who does a pretty spiffy American accent for a couple minutes, while noticing McClane is barefoot, and after the jig is up and McClane recognizes him for the Hans Gruber he really is, Hans Gruber has Alexander Godunov shoot a whole bunch of windows so McClane will cut his feet—the fuckin building blows up twice without collapsing or killing anyone except extras (good architecture). McClane works himself up into a psychotic rage and “kills” Alexander Godunov, and Hans Gruber takes Mrs. McClane hostage. After a dramatic showdown, McClane shoots Hans, who clings to Mrs. McClane's expensive, yuppie-given watch. Mrs. McClane symbolically removes the watch, and by her snipping that link to her non-McClane love life, kills Hans. Happily ever after . . .

. . . until Alexander Godunov shows up outta nowhere and Al Powell has to save the McClanes' lives by drawing his gun for the first time since he accidentally shot a kid and putting six in the crazed Godunov, which actually does kill him. Okay. Now we can live happily ever after. Oh, but Mrs. McClane has to punch William Atherton first, the asshole TV reporter who in a subplot was the one responsible for Hans Gruber knowing she was McClane's wife. Okay, goddammit, now can we live happily ever after? Yes. As the wisecracking limo driver drives the once-more-happy couple away, he says, “Man, this is your idea of Christmas, I gotta be here for New Year's.” Fuckin' a, sir. Fuckin. A.

Die Hard almost shouldn't work. It's long, it's got tons of subplots that don't really seem like they're going anywhere, but they all do. A guy who wasn't a movie star yet in the lead: that's dead risky. Fortunately that guy who wasn't a movie star yet was Bruce Willis. Oh, Die Hard. At this point it's almost redundant to say Die Hard rules, since for twenty-plus years now when something rules, we say “that rules almost as much as Die Hard.” But holy shit Die Hard is fucking awesome. Letting yourself get jaded about Die Hard just because you've seen it ten times is a dark fucking feeling, and I do not envy anyone with that cold dark canker in their heart where a warm blossom of love for Die Hard should be.


The Hunt For Red October (1990)

And so we come to the climax of the trilogy, the grace note, the single greatest submarine movie ever made (Das Boot can eat my schnitzel). Based on Tom Clancy's right-wing horseshit bestseller, The Hunt For Red October is that rare movie, like The Godfather, that transcends its origins as airport paperback crap to become cinematic genius. And, like Die Hard, a lot of that hinges on a guy nobody really knew was awesome yet in the lead role: Alec Baldwin's in the midst of a career reappraisal that has everyone pretending that they always loved him, but he had a loooooong stretch there where no one took him seriously as an actor. This stretch was unfair, he was always fucking great, he just needed good material. And, as far up his ass as Tom Clancy keeps his head, Jack Ryan is a fairly decent Everyman hero once you judiciously edit a lot of the right-wing fucktardery. Fairly decent Everyman hero part, meet highly skilled actor in his young and handsome days.

But, lest we forget, Sean Connery is the second lead. Actually, deciding which one of them is the lead is hard; it's kinda like the days when bands would put out a single as a double-A side. Sean Connery plays a Soviet submarine captain from the Scottish part of Lithuania (just like in The Untouchables he played a guy from the Scottish part of Ireland) who, having been given charge of a new sub with a nearly-silent propulsion system, decides to whack his political officer and defect to the US, bringing his sweet new ride with him.

The great thing the story does, is that even though by the end you know Sean Connery is going to defect, the Soviets can't let that happen, so they tell the Americans he's planning to start World War III by launching his nuclear warheads at New York and Washington. And so the audience isn't quite sure whether he's defecting or pulling some kamikaze first strike stunt. Alec Baldwin knows he's defecting, but shit, you try telling the Joint Chiefs the Russkies aren't acting the fool. So with CIA head James Earl Jones (good fucking GOD James Earl Jones is cool in this movie) pulling strings for him, Alec Baldwin goes out to the middle of nowhere in the North Atlantic to try to establish contact with Sean Connery.

MEANWHILE. One seriously awesome submarine full of US Naval officers is hot on Sean Connery's tail, due to the amazing ears—honed on fine classical music—of sonar operator Courtney B. Vance. Captain Scott Glenn grouches at him for “chasing an earthquake” but he's no dummy, he knows to trust Courtney B. Vance. They embark on (irony and such fail me) a thrilling, white-knuckle pursuit.

The sequence where Sean Connery captains the sub through this twisty underwater canyon is just terrific, but in spite of his best efforts to shake the Americans and the other Soviets, captained by the one and only Stellan Skarsgard—

“THESE ORDERS ARE SEVEN BLOODY HOURS OLD! Sitting on the bottom like an addled schoolboy . . .”


—Courtney B. Vance still picks him up the second they get out of the canyon. Ah, hell. At a very tense moment, Sean Connery and right-hand-man Sam Neill sit down and have a conversation about what they'll do when they get to America. And Sam Neill, who's heretofore been the paragon of rectitude, yes sir, you heard the captain, hop to itness, opens up and has this fucking AMAZING monologue about wanting to live in Montana and raise rabbits and have a pickup truck and “drive state to state . . . do they let you do that? No papers?” Fuckin' scene kills me. Then poor Sean Connery talks about his bleak life, his wife dying at sea, his whole life comprising a war with no monuments, only casualties, capping it by sighing that his wife died while he was at sea. This scene . . . man, it's good.

Right when Scott Glenn's sub has Sean Connery, Alec Baldwin's chopper shows up. He had to nag aircraft carrier boss Fred Thompson (later senator, at the time still the best character actor in the business at playing powerful Southern dudes) to let him have a chopper, and finally did, only to arrive, near frozen to death and terrified due to his fear of flying, to find a very cranky Scott Glenn, pissed that he had to break off from tracking Sean Connery. When some orders come in, courtesy of Soviet ambassador Joss Ackland (awesome as always) that the Red October needs to get blasted to kingdom come, like, five minutes ago, Alec Baldwin has to do some very fast talking to get Scott Glenn to entertain the notion that Sean Connery's defecting. Turns out . . . he is. Whaddaya know?

So a selected bunch of Scott Glenn's dudes join Alec Baldwin and they board the Red October after Sean Connery gets the crew off with a fake nuclear reactor accident. Sean Connery officially announces his intention to defect. But fuck it, there's a KGB mole or somebody who starts blasting away, shoots poor Sam Neill, who dies saying “I would like to have seen Montana . . .”and so Alec Baldwin and Sean Connery have to go chase the fucker before he causes a real reactor accident and blows up the sub (Alec Baldwin shoots him just in time). Not to mention goddamn Stellan Skarsgard is still out there fucking things up, so Scott Glenn and Courtney B. Vance have to take evasive maneuvers, the guy on Scott Glenn's actual sub has to pull this awesome risky maneuver to keep the Red October from getting blown up, and GODDAMMIT PEOPLE STOP THIS SHIT AND SETTLE DOWN!

Eventually Stellan Skarsgard blows himself up and Alec Baldwin and Sean Connery sail the Red October into a river in Maine to hide it out. Sean Connery quotes Christopher Columbus. Alec Baldwin says, “Welcome to the New World, sir.” The final shot is of Alec Baldwin, sleeping like a baby on the plane on his way back home, a new teddy bear for his daughter in the next seat.


And thus concluded the truly transcendent part of John McTiernan's career. Everything that came after, sure, it was rocky, parts of it even tragic. But over that four year period, Predator, Die Hard, The Hunt For Red October, he had one of the finest bursts of any movie director ever. Sure, others came close. Some may have even surpassed. But that period was truly special.

Friday, April 16, 2010

BOOK TO FILM: MICHAEL CRICHTON

(Ed. Note: This one's really fucking long. Sorry.)

Back in my high school days, I read a lot and had a hard time relating to people. The two were not unrelated: I was reading people like Dostoevsky, Proust, Zola, and Kerouac, with light reading consisting mainly of either classic hard-boiled cats like Hammett, Chandler, Jim Thompson, James M. Cain, or bizarre shit like Howard Waldrop and Mark Leyner, or swashbuckling Dumas. There were, however, two writers I could share with my classmates—with the girls it was mainly Anne Rice, who is not relevant for our purposes here because the only good movie made from one of her books was Interview With the Vampire, and I can only properly channel how I feel about that movie on Oscar Wilde's birthday (so that's gonna have to wait til October 16th). With the guys, it was Michael Crichton.

Michael Crichton's most popular books were an entertaining hybrid of SF, thriller, and out-of-the-box politics. Later in life people gave him a hard time for being right-wing, but I think of him less as a rightist than as a smart guy with low tolerance for fuzzy-headed bullshit. A prevailing theme in his work is the struggle against shitheads with an improper ability to deal with money and power. Related is the frequent Frankenstein theme that keeps popping up, of people doing things because they can and then getting their fucking asses kicked by the consequences. Whether it's wiring a mentally ill man with electrodes that boost his intelligence and ruthlessness (The Terminal Man), creating dinosaurs with the intent of having them be theme park/zoo attractions (Jurassic Park, The Lost World), letting Japanese people (Rising Sun) and women (Disclosure) run corporations, or sending 20th century academics to medieval France (Timeline), people who aren't as smart as they think they are do dumb stuff in Michael Crichton books that Only One Man can fix. That one man is usually a smart guy with a doctorate in a narrative-relevant science, fitting Michael Crichton's background as an MD.

Crichton's prose style is to-the-point, and his dialogue—when not lapsing into “as you know” expository laziness or author surrogate soapboxing—is mostly utilitarian and kinda square. But his stories are page-turners, and his facility with Everyman protagonists unmatched, making his books naturals for cinematic adaptation. Not to mention, there's usually cool shit like gorillas and dinosaurs wreaking havoc, providing the opportunity for lots of flashy FX. As a result, most of Crichton's novels have been turned into movies, most of them pretty successfully. Here, then, an overview (only the ones he put out under his own name):


The Andromeda Strain

Book—1969
Movie—1971 (dir. Robert Wise)

Both Crichton's first book and first movie adaptation are kinda cool. Both are paced a little weird for modern audiences, but the antagonist—a deadly bacteria FROM OUTER SPACE—is badass. It kills, baby, and it kills fast and disgusting. The movie is a pretty good example of post-2001, pre-Star Wars SF, though it's a little long and clunky as fuck to people used to modern FX, but still, it's pretty good.


The Terminal Man

Book—1972
Movie—1974 (dir. Mike Hodges)

A much better book, this one about a guy named Harry Benson who has epileptic seizures that cause blackouts, during which he behaves violently and erratically. So, some smartass decides to treat the epilepsy with strategically placed electrodes, controlled by a tiny computer in his chest.

Here, the One Man who can Stop Things is a woman psychiatrist, Janet Ross (Michael Crichton loves the surname Ross and uses it all the goddamn time, including George Clooney on ER). Ross warns the surgeons (typical God complex big swinging dick types) that Harry might be psychotic. He doesn't differentiate between Man and Machine, and Ross thinks if they hook Harry up to a computer that it might exacerbate his psychosis. The surgeons are like, “oh, you're just a woman, what do you know” and go ahead and do it anyway. And whaddaya know, Harry escapes from the hospital, having attained some degree of control over the computer and making it cause seizures more frequently, turning him into a sex-crazed violent—and very happy—psycho. So Harry breaks into the hospital to shut down the mainframe computer (because the computers are going to kill us all; this is the clearest indication of his psychosis, sane people know that it's not computers but evil white guys in suits who are going to kill us all) and Ross, terribly upset, gets a gun and lights Harry up before he can fuck anything up too badly. Great fuckin' book, just the right hybrid of intelligent and retarded.

The movie, part of Mike Hodges' post-Get Carter, pre-Croupier two-decade fugue (that also included Flash Gordon) is kind of all right. Casting George Segal (the poor man's George Hamilton) as Harry was a stroke of genius, and for once even better than casting George Hamilton because George Segal is just sleazy enough to pull something like this off (and it's not only illegal to kill George Hamilton at the end of the movie, it constitutes division by zero and will cause the universe to turn inside out and cease to exist). Actually, in a weird way, this is one that can benefit from a remake, because the technology actually exists nowadays and we know how to shoot stupid climaxes where the girl shrink (pretty good Charlize Theron comeback part, actually) shoots the bad guy with her mascara running decoratively better now.


The Great Train Robbery

Book—1975
Movie—1979 (dir. Crichton himself)

A change of pace, The Great Train Robbery is a fictionalized take on a real-life ginormous gold heist in Victorian England. It's a little slower than most of his books, and Crichton gets a little too bogged down in trying to write Victorian, but it's a pretty cool read, even if the heist goes blooey and no one gets the gold.

The movie, however, is awesome, primarily because Donald Sutherland and Sean Connery are in it, secondarily because Lesley-Anne Down is decorative, and tertiarily (or whatever the fuck the adverb form is; if you still read this damn blog you don't care either) because Donald Sutherland and Sean Connery get away at the end. I mean, it's not gonna change your life, but it's a fun flick.


Eaters of the Dead

Book—1976
Movie—1999 (re-titled The 13th Warrior, dir. John McTiernan)

Crichton's second historical novel is pretty goddamn fantastic, in a couple different senses, the first being it rules, the second being, it's a metafictional riff on Beowulf where an Arab ambassador sent to establish contact with the Vikings ends up tagging along on a journey to go fuck up Grendel, whose hordes Crichton coyly implies might be a lost tribe of Neanderthals. Can I get a hell yes?

The book is presented as a scientific commentary on a found text, the account of a man named Ahmad ibn Fadlan who is tasked by the Caliph of Baghdad to go to what's now Russia and go talk to those crazy tall white people; ibn Fadlan jumps on the opportunity (he needs to get the hell out of town after tripping on his dick kind of epically) and heads north. After a whole bunch of fairly-well-written culture clash, ibn Fadlan joins up with this stone badass named Buliwyf (hmm . . . something very familiar about that name) and bonds with the one guy in Buliwyf's group who can speak Latin (Arabic being too much to ask for in 10th century). They then go in and do battle with the Monsters of the Mist, the Eaters of the Dead, who are so badass they scare Vikings.

(Take a second, I know that shit's deep)

Narratively, that's pretty much it. They go in and kick ass, and most of them get killed, except our hero and his buddy. Intriguingly, when ibn Fadlan finally says goodbye and goes home to file his report with the Caliph, the manuscript abruptly ends, and Commentary Guy comes back to explain that the manuscript was randomly found somewhere along ibn Fadlan's travels with pages missing or something, implying that he went on to further adventures. The best part about Eaters of the Dead being only about 160 pages is that when that happens, you're like “I wanna know what happens to ibn Fadlan next, now that he's loosened up, gotten fucked in half on mead, and banged white chicks!” Commentary Guy then goes on to advance the Neanderthal theory, which is a tasty idea. Commentary Guy's footnotes throughout the book give a whole lot of flavor and academic context, making this the perfect book for someone like me: the academic paper as thriller.

The movie is pretty special, even if it has a slightly different feel than the book. I have a lot of affection for the movie for its value in helping me talk movies with civilians, because civilians fucking love this movie. The 13th Warrior is to civilians what Nicholas Ray pictures are to French semio-Marxists, they fucking freak out. And it's easy to see why, I mean, cammmmmaaannnnnn, Antonio Banderas rides a fucking horse and fucking has a fucking sword, man. And fucking Omar Sharif is in it (another nerd/civilian bond, nerds are like, “Well, it's Omar Sharif for crissakes,” and civilians are like, “OMG LAWRENCE OF ARABIA” and nerds are like “Lawrence of Arabia fucking rules!” and much hugging and coming-together ensues and eventually Doctor Zhivago gets brought up and there's more hugging). Sure, there aren't any footnotes or Neanderthal theories, but who needs that when you've got a movie that fucking kicks ass.

Sadly, it wasn't much of a hit, because for some goddamn reason John McTiernan thought it'd be a good idea to go so far over budget (the check at the end of the night was $80 mil) that the studio would have to fire him and bring in Crichton to finish shooting, and Crichton hadn't even directed a movie since he torpedoed Tom Selleck's career in the 80s (in fairness, Michael Crichton did direct one balls-out classic in his untercareer as film director, Westworld, where Yul Brynner was deployed masterfully). But the fact that it lost $20 million in theaters is of concern only to Disney, and they'll make that $20 mil back by the tears of dying children, like they always do.


Congo

Book—1980
Movie—1995

This is the first book where the style and a lot of the tropes normally associated with Michael Crichton today are on display. There's a sinister corporation, looking to corner the market on a particular kind of boron-infused diamond that will in turn allow them to control the nascent Information Age. Cuz ya know, if you're going to be a grown-ass-man sinister corporation, world domination is the entry level position. There's an Everyman scientist, in this case a gorilla researcher who accompanies his “talking” gorilla Amy to the titular jungle because the sinister corporation has apparently had an expedition wiped out in spectacularly bloody fashion by gorillas (even though Everyman scientist guy is like, they look and act weird, there's More To This). There's rampant fucking political incorrectness, in many highly entertaining personifications—a white hunter type who on the page oozes with Sean Connery and is a little less than reverent about Africa and Africans, a good-natured, superstitious bunch of Kikuyu who actually come off kind of all right if you're not feeling too cynical (“good-natured” and “superstitious” are kinda code words), in which case they vibe a little meh, but last but not least . . . a malicious tribe of cannibals! Hell yeah, baby, Crichton's not fuckin around, he is very old school here, he even has the balls to throw in an aside about how cannibalism actually exists and so fuck you if you find it racist. So there. Take that, sensitive people. (Seriously, he totally could have cut all the cannibalism stuff and the book would have been juuuuuuust fine, though I guess when you're paying homage to H. Rider Haggard you're paying homage to H. Rider Haggard . . .)

It transpires that there's this lost city in the middle of the jungle that was always assumed to be mythical, but the talking gorilla dreams and finger-paints a dead-on match for an artist's rendition of the lost city (that was in a book the gorilla had not read). So the sinister corporation has her tag along on their follow-up expedition, and they get on a gigantic, peril-fraught adventure (economically written, well-paced, kick-ass) on their way there. When they get there they figure out that the dudes who built the city were fuckin stupid rich off the diamonds they had there—they barely even had to dig mines, the fuckin things were just laying around, practically—until the volcano that was the reason there were so many diamonds there farted, and the super-gorillas they had bred to be security guards went apeshit (zing!) and killed everyone and had been pretty much hanging around that section of jungle killing everything in sight ever since. AND THEY'RE RIGHT OUTSIDE . . .

The people go “Damn, we're in a tight spot!” but get distracted by the blue diamonds (the sinister corporation's avatar, one Dr. Ross, an emotionally remote blonde the feminists probably had a word with Crichton about) and the new species of gorilla (the Everyman scientist guy, who's kind of a whiny dipshit) and the super-gorillas kill a bunch of the Kikuyu before Dr. Ross accidentally makes the volcano erupt, which makes the super-gorillas (who are more competent and have a better sense of focus and purpose than the people) fuck off and gives our flawed heroes a chance to escape. So they do, no diamonds for the sinister corporation, no proof of the new species of gorilla for the Everyman scientist . . . sigh. The only one who has a semi-happy ending is Sean Connery Guy, who managed to pocket some diamonds on the sly.

Now. Having hopefully established that the book—some queasiness over Crichton's blend of modern and retro Africa aside—kicks ass, it would appear as though making a movie should be no problem. Well, provided that you have a good gorilla wrangler or some good FX nerds to fake one. And also provided that you're not a fucking dumbass and don't make changes for no apparent reason. And provided that you realize that in order to do it right you gotta spend a little money because a cheap, half-ass jungle movie is going to look like shit.

Well. Looks like someone at Paramount took their stupid pills, because the movie version of Congo was a larger, stinkier piece of shit, in a more spectacular shade of brown, than cinema has often seen. It's not the director's fault; Frank Marshall is a buddy of Steven Spielberg's, and he made Arachnophobia and Alive before this, but I guess he can only direct movies that start with the letter A, because wow. The cast is like either the casting director lost a bet and did pin the tail on the headshot, or checked into rehab the day after casting this movie, or some such other explanation. Deliberate sabotage? I don't know. Laura Linney's great, but she's miscast here (and she's too short, which isn't her fault, it's the goddamn casting people). Dylan Walsh is one of those generic guys who does fine on TV but doesn't have the charisma to be in a movie. Casting Ernie Hudson in the Sean Connery role gets credit for sense of humor, but Ernie Hudson's so awesome he's actually okay in spite of his not being Sean Connery. And Mr. Eko/Adebisi (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) is in it in a very early role but they even fucked THAT up because he's too tall to be the head Kikuyu guy, and he's also from the fuckin wrong part of Africa, dude, Yoruba and Kikuyu ain't the same ballpark, ain't the same league, ain't even the same fuckin' sport (speaking of a good movie people in 1995 were watching).

The next thing is more the writer's fault—and I hate saying this, since I met the guy once and he was really nice—but John Patrick Shanley fuuuuuuuuuuuuucked up, and one of the worst ways he fucked up is writing in the Tim Curry part. Tim Curry's cool, but he's not known for underplaying, and he's one of those cats who gets in a shitty movie and starts overacting like hell. Now, when people are making a shitty movie they don't usually realize they're making a shitty movie, and so they don't think stuff like, “okay, let's get actors who won't make our shitty movie shittier by overacting” and end up casting Tim Curry. (Ed. Note: see what I did there, with that meta reference to the bit in the book where the gorilla calling the scientist “shitty” over and over again in sign language? People, I know what I'm doing).

So yeah, not gonna dwell, but fucking goddamn it the movie of Congo sucks.


Sphere

Book—1987
Movie—1998
(dir. Barry Levinson)

In a world . . . where Michael Crichton has not yet whipped it out and written straight up SF . . .

One man . . . named Michael Crichton . . .

IS ABOUT TO BREAK EM OFF SOME!



Sphere.

So yeah. I first read Sphere in one sitting—which considering that it's like 400 pages long and contains several seismic mindfucks, probably explains a lot of my severe mental and emotional problems—back in like 1993 or 4 or something. It was one of those things where you pick up the book, read the book jacket, the book jacket says it's about a spaceship that crashed in the ocean 300 years ago, you go, “Tell me more,” and next thing you know it's 7 am, ya gotta be at school in an hour, you haven't slept and spend the whole day babbling about voluntary psychological lacunae and everyone gets mad at you for spoiling the ending. Oh wait, that's just me? DAMN IT.

Sphere is really kind of half-ass SF. Actual SF writers could have pulled it off better, but Michael Crichton's still Michael Crichton so it's A Michael Crichton SF Novel, which is better than nothing by damn sight. The plot starts off with The Everyman Scientist, in this case a shrink—an interesting wrinkle—being flown in by chopper to this random Navy flotilla in the middle of the South Pacific, where there's been a plane crash (not, sadly, Oceanic Flight 815). The shrink counsels plane crash survivors as part of what he does, so he's like, okay, this'll be fun.
But the Navy guy running things is like, nope, this ain't no plane crash. What this is . . . is a spaceship crash. And it crashed at least 300 years ago (maybe even 1000). Duh duh duhhhhhh. One of the other things the shrink did was write a report on the psychological effects of first contact with aliens, and the Navy guy assembled the first contact team the shrink recommended. The shrink has this “oh shit, I wrote that report to pay for a house moment” (familiar to Michael Crichton from all those pieces of shit he wrote to pay rent under the name John Lange) and goes to meet the team.

There's a bubbly astrophysicist who I mentally cast as Ron Howard (you can trust me on this shit, I'm good at casting), a moody mathematician I mentally cast as Samuel L. (and this is before Pulp Fiction, mind you), a workout-mad, tense biologist (Sharon Stone, no other options possible), and one random seasick dude they end up not bringing with them. To round out the Bowes cast, I had James Caan as the shrink and Scott Glenn as the Navy guy. In case you care.

So they go down to the bottom of the ocean to this “exotic-gas” habitat and get acclimated. They check out the spaceship, and there's a lot of bubbling from the astrophysicist about first contact . . . then they get a better look at the instrument panel by the door . . . and it's in English. Fuck! Man, that knocked me on my ass first time through.

The astrophysicist and the mathematician, who've been bitching at each other because the mathematician is grouchy and kind of playing this “I know everything three steps ahead” game, end up accidentally figuring out that the spaceship must have traveled in time, mid-bitchfest. They scribble equations and figure stuff out. Then everyone goes to explore the ship.

Most of what they find is kind of what they expected—future stuff—but they find this weird sphere. There are markings on it, and the mathematician figures out they're hiding a door. There's something inside. FUCK oh man oh man *flips pages*

After much trying to figure out how to open it up, the mathematician just does it without warning anyone. And then Weird Shit Starts Happening. People get killed (including the poor astrophysicist). Mucho drama. The “alien” from inside the sphere starts talking to them through the computer, and after a while they figure out that the mathematician is causing all the Weird Shit, so the shrink and the biologist overpower him and knock him into dreamless sleep so all the Weird Shit will stop.

But then the biologist goes into the sphere and Different, Weirder Weird Shit starts happening. The shrink soon finds himself facing mortal peril, and runs away to the spaceship and himself tries to enter the sphere. But he can't. Until he surrenders and just mentally pictures it open. Voila. Into the sphere.

Some of the worst writing of Michael Crichton's career ensues, like someone who's never done drugs trying to describe tripping and totally getting it wrong. But eventually, the shrink Figures It Out. The sphere causes one's wildest dreams to be manifested, and because the shrink is psychologically well-adjusted, no Weird Shit will happen when he comes out of the sphere. EXCEPT . . . he starts to make a run for it, abandoning the mathematician and the biologist. Whoops. He realizes his mistake, goes back to rescue them, and yay they all escape!

They get rescued by the Navy, and put their heads together to figure out what to do next. They all agree, even the “well-adjusted” shrink, that none of them handled the power granted to them by the sphere well. They don't even know what the sphere is, since as the mathematician points out, it could have some purpose that has nothing to do with granting human beings the capacity to manifest their subconscious. So they decide, as one, to forget the sphere, thus paradoxically erasing it from existence. OR DOES IT????? Shit, now you see what the fuck I had to deal with that day at school?

When the movie adaptation of Sphere was announced, I was very excited, because of all the Michael Crichton I'd yet read—and I'd read it all—Sphere always was the most cinematic of his novels to me. With a little second-act tightening, I thought it would kick ass left and right and leave bodies in its wake. When I heard who was going to be in it, I got real stoked, because I'd called Samuel L. and Sharon Stone like five years before. Dustin Hoffman? Hey, sure, not exactly what I'd pictured. Liev Schreiber? Wow, not Ron Howard. Okay, I guess. Okay, who's directing . . . Barry Levinson? For real? What the fuck are they gonna do, talk to the aliens about the fucking Baltimore Colts? Man . . . okay, okay, I'll give him a shot. But if Roy Hobbs comes out of the sphere I'm gonna be pissed.

Release date comes along. Nervous. Watch the movie. About ten minutes in, I just started going “Man, fuck you.” About halfway through, I was saying “Man, fuck you” like the Vietnamese guy in Robocop. By the time the movie ended, I just just pissed. This movie is the reason why I understand when people want to firebomb the studios, this shit was just fucking lazy. They threw $80 million bucks at it and went to the golf course. It's not even marginally redeemable due to camp value like Congo, which if you catch someone who doesn't really love the book and stick a joint in their mouth, they could have a decent time. It was this movie that made me realize if you could meet Samuel L.'s rate, he would literally do any movie, no matter how bad. And it only got worse . . .


Jurassic Park

Book—1990
Movie—1993 (dir. Steven Spielberg)


Like a lot of people, I'm sure, this was my introduction to Michael Crichton. My junior-high science teacher was raving about this book one day, and I read it, knowing I was going to be the only kid in class who would, and I figured, hey, maybe he'll think I'm less of a dipshit if I mention, hey, I read Jurassic Park too. Tried that, failed fucking miserably, he thought I was more of a dipshit for my complete lack of ass-kissing dexterity. Win some, lose some. So some junior-high science teacher who's long since forgotten me thought I was a dipshit . . . but I got to read a really fuckin good book about dinosaurs eating people.

Let's pause for a moment, and reflect on the beauty of this premise. You have man. Frail, fallible, fallacious man. Tortured by his own self-awareness, torn between his wants and his ability to obtain them, constantly reminded of his own mortality. Then, you have dinosaur. Dinosaurs kill shit. Dinosaurs kill, and then they eat, and then they kill some more, just to show mahfuckas who's gangsta. Two dominant life forms enter . . . one dominant life form leaves. Welcome to Thunderdome, motherfucker.

Jurassic Park is just fuckin perfect. It's got the poker-faced Michael Crichton fake “this is a true story” prologue, a couple chapters where he teases you with dinosaurs but doesn't call them dinosaurs. Eventually, after the Everyman Dinosaur Scientist is introduced along with his comely young assistant, the genius mathematician who Actually Knows What's Up (who fortunately has more of a sense of humor than the iteration of same in Sphere), and the eccentric billionaire who's Up To Something are all introduced, everybody heads to an island in Costa Rica. Where there are fucking dinosaurs.

Look, fucking dinosaurs fucking eat people in this fucking book. No plot recap. Fuck that. The mathematician tells the eccentric billionaire building a zoo/theme park with dinosaurs in it is a dumb idea. Wow, I hope you didn't sprain your wrist pulling that idea out your ass, doc. Of course it's a dumb idea to genetically engineer dinosaurs. You'd have to be fucking retarded to genetically engineer dinosaurs. They will fucking eat you. That is what they do. If it wasn't for that comet or whatever extinction level event that wiped them all out, dinosaurs would still be killing and eating everything. Which they do plenty of in this book, boy. And at the end, after the Everyman Scientist gets the billionaire's grandkids off the island, some dude comes up to him and basically tells him, “Dude, there are dinosaurs in Costa Rica. I don't mean that politically, like the rest of Central America, we're actually hip here. Actual fucking dinosaurs are fucking running loose. WE ARE FUCKED.” YES!

Now. I love Steven Spielberg. I don't “Armond White love” Steven Spielberg, because Charles Nelson Reilly and Liberace giving lapdances to Rock Hudson and Cary Grant with the DJ playing Judy Garland isn't that fucking gay. But I'm a big Steven Spielberg fan. Make no mistake. And I thought he was the perfect guy to make a movie of Jurassic Park, because he's just about the only guy who was around at the time who could make the dinosaurs look cool enough. But part of me always wondered . . . is Steven Spielberg really going to show as many shots of dinosaurs eating people as I require? Keep in mind, I'm the worst fucking candidate in the universe to have directed this movie: I would have made Tampopo with the dinosaurs as the truck drivers and the people as the noodles. I would have made Big Night, with Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub showing the dinosaurs into the restaurant and give them plates and plates of people to nosh on. (The ultimate fate of Messrs. Tucci and Shalhoub would have been a plot hole: wouldn't the dinosaurs eat them too . . .?)

Anyway, yeah, my problems with this movie are entirely due to my own monomaniacally misanthropic bliss at the notion of human beings being noisily and bloodily reduced to their basic elements in the large, powerful jaws of dinosaurs. Spielberg made a hell of a movie. Sure, Sam Neill was a dork, but fuck, if a scientist isn't allowed to be a dork, who is? Samuel L. was cool (and gets eaten by a dinosaur . . . SCORE ONE FOR THE OLD SCHOOL!) and Jeff Goldlbum was fun, and the only thing really wrong with this movie is that the ending is a little abrupt and convenient—suddenly there are no dinosaurs between the main building and the helipad? Meh, whatever. The rest of the movie fucking rules, even if the whole PG-13 thing meant all the people getting eaten by dinosaurs happens off-screen. But that makes it like a sex scene in a Code movie, you have to imagine it, which makes it better. And, no, I refuse to be self-conscious about the fact that I just compared dinosaurs eating people to sex.


Rising Sun

Book—1992
Movie—1993 (dir. Philip Kaufman)


Aaaaaaand we have Michael Crichton's political phase. Oh boy. The basic premise of this novel is that Japanese people are sociopathic, racist maniacs who are going to buy America and then kill us all. (Fundamental flaw, Mike, how many fucking times do I have to tell you it's evil white guys in suits who are going to kill us all . . .) Everybody in the fucking book bellyaches about “the Japanese” for pages apiece. There's kind of a cool who-done-it hidden underneath all that shit that becomes a how-done-it but Crichton pisses all that away by having the guy who actually killed the blonde white chick be a fucking Japanese guy, in full inscrutable glory.

It'd be one thing if, like he one-loved H. Rider Haggard in Congo, he was giving Sax Rohmer a scratch behind the ears here, but this isn't a self-conscious Yellow Peril homage, it's just a fucking rant about Japan buying up America. Now, in the aftermath of the skullfucking we got from Reagan, the American economy was in shitty enough shape that foreign investors came in and bought a lot of stuff for cheap, and a lot of those foreign investors were Japanese. They had money, we had shit to sell. That's global capitalism. But back in the early 90s, people were fucking losing it over this. Michael Crichton tapped into it, wrote Rising Sun, got a shitload of press, sold a lot of books, got rich(er).

Rising Sun sold enough books they decided to make a movie ASAP, giving Rising Sun Crichton's quickest turnover from book to film yet. Fortunately, Philip Kaufman is a reasonable man. He got the gig, he decided, all right, all the racist shit, bloop, gone. He cast Wesley Snipes as the protagonist, who wasn't really much of a character in the book, but as played by Wesley Snipes he was suddenly interesting (it also meant, thankfully, that the cringe-inducing line in the book where the Sean Connery character tells him, of living in Japan, “I felt like a nigger,” was cut). Sean Connery was a layup—Michael Crichton decided to make it so fucking obvious in this book, calling him John Connor, that to cast anyone else would just be tarded—and he rules, as redundant as that is to say. The killer's identity is changed; in the movie it's a white guy, proving that Philip Kaufman is a wise man indeed (need I even mention he wears a suit? Didn't think so).

The main thing the movie Rising Sun has is Eddie Sakamura. Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, to me, became Eddie Sakamura after this movie, to the point where all I ever call him is Eddie Sakamura. He figures centrally in one of the funniest opening scenes ever; he's singing “Don't Fence Me In” in a karaoke bar with four Yakuza dudes with shades on and cigarettes hangin out the side as his backup singers. Eddie Sakamura is cool enough in this scene, but fuckin' hell his backup singers are awesome. They've got the perfect balance between bored cool and “hey, he's the boss, when the boss sings Don't Fence Me In, we fucking sing backup, BECAUSE THIS IS HOW MEN DO THINGS.”

Actually, if you don't have a whole lot of time, just watch the first scene. That scene alone is worth the price of admission; and the serviceable murder mystery plot that follows is okay, I mean, I have seen the movie like five times, but without all the racism there isn't a whole lot left.


Disclosure

Book—1994
Movie—1994 (dir. Barry Levinson)

Oh, so that's how Barry Levinson ended up directing Sphere. Reinforces my point about laziness, huh? Anyway, Disclosure. Disclosure is a nifty bait-and-switch; you think it's going to do for feminism what Rising Sun did for Japanese-American relations with the central premise that a guy gets sexually harassed by his female boss who then accuses him of sexually harassing her, and the boss character is enough of a raging, one-note bitch that it sure looks like Crichton wants us to think “yeah, once you start letting women out of the kitchen and into the vice-president's chair you're bound to have problems, unless she's in the chair cuz she's fuckin im! Amirite? Eh?” until you realize a ways into the book that the Everyman protagonist is being framed so his intel about his company fucking something up in Malaysia will be discredited. Problem is, the bad guys are so stupid, Everyman doesn't even realize what the damaging information is until he does some digging, so they basically went to all the trouble to have his boss sexually harass him and then sue him for sexual harassment for nothing. And, in the end, the female boss is the one who has to fall on the grenade. So, in a weird, awkward way, it's almost a statement about how women get shafted. Except she's too one-dimensional a character for you to really give a shit.

Anyway, the movie's better than the book, just because all the political horseshit everyone monologues about in the book is basically cut out, leaving a not-half-bad corporate espionage thriller, marred only by Demi Moore being, as always, godawful. Swap her out for someone who can actually act and you've got a rock-solid picture.


The Lost World

Book—1995
Movie—1997 (dir. Steven Spielberg . . . hey, shit happens)

Sequel to Jurassic Park. Piece of shit. Boring. If the sequel had picked up where the first one left off, that would have been great. Instead, there's a second island? For real? Fuck you, man.

The movie, naturally, sucks too, and is notable only for giving Vince Vaughn a (presumably) nice paycheck post-Swingers.


Timeline

Book—1999
Movie—2003 (dir. Richard Donner)

Good premise (quantum-physics based time travel), nice atmosphere (they travel to a well-researched and vividly realized medieval France), stupid fucking characters. The only memorable ones are Marek, who's there to dispense facts about the High Middle Ages and while impressively knowledgeable and adept at coping with the culture shock when they end up back in France, is kind of a dork, and Doniger, the bad guy, who's mainly memorable because he's so pointlessly assoholic to everybody. Well, there's the medieval chick Marek ends up wooing chivalrously, she's cool, she plays both sides against the middle in this really subtle way that's archaic in our day and age. And the lines in Middle English are cool. I mean, it's a good read if you've got a plane/train ride. But nothing earthshattering, and definitely not up to Crichton's previous standard.

The movie's fucking worthless. If you absolutely must see Gerry Butler in something because you just fapped that hard to 300, sure, check him out as a much-more-retarded-than-in-the-book Marek. Paul Walker shows up with his dazzling thespian skills as one of the most annoying characters in the history of literature, who in Paul Walker's hands actually becomes much less annoying, so good job, Paul. Guess those blue eyes and that modest charisma you got works in something other than a Fast and the Furious movie. If you could film a fart, you'd get Timeline.


As for Airframe, Prey, State of Fear, Next, Pirate Latitudes, and the untitled posthumous one, go to a book review site. If someone didn't film 'em, I don't give a fuck.