Christmas Wrapping

As well as a time for giving and receiving presents, Christmas is also about thinking of those less fortunate, who might not be able to take part in the whole gift-exchange thing. But personally, I can’t help thinking how lucky they are, because they avoid the worst thing about Christmas – having to wrap the goddamn things.

I’m firmly with Dave Barry on this. He pointed out that the Bible wrote about gold, frankincense and myrrh, without mentioning wrapping paper anywhere. This tells us two things about the people giving the gift: a) they were wise, and b) they were men. The desire to wrap seems an almost entirely feminine trait, and the point of it largely escapes me; an extra few seconds delay before you know what it is is hardly going to make a difference. And no matter how nicely tied up with ribbon they are, handkerchiefs are still handkerchiefs.

Present-wrapping is thus one of the things I do out of a sense of traditional obligation and, to be honest, it shows. My parcels tend, like The Force, to have a light side and a dark side. From the front, all appears calm and smooth, but turn them over to reveal a nightmarish mess of multiple applications of sticky tape, gobbets of wrapping paper and blood-spatters (I can never work those sticky-tape dispensers at the best of times, no matter while one hand is holding down two recalcitrant flaps of spring-propelled festive greetings).

And that’s a best case scenario, where the present in question is relatively Euclidean. Books, DVDs and CDs are fine, but step outside those and you enter a topological nightmare of n-Space where it’ll take longer to wrap an object than it did to find it, buy it and bring it home in the first place. Just as many objects can be deformed into the same basic shape, so all presents will end up looking like a burst football run over by a Chieftain tank, if you apply enough wrapping paper. Mind you, we men do consider things like Klingon battle daggers fine presents to give and receive, if not perhaps to wrap. We only have ourselves to blame in such cases.

This is where gift-wrapping services come in, and it’s no surprise that the only present of mine which looks half-decent is the one that was wrapped in store. A younger, more innocent version of me once walked into a shop that offered such a perk, only to be sadly disappointed when told that, no, you actually had to buy the item there. This seemed terribly unfair, and ever since, it has been my dream to find a store in the mall that doesn’t just sell wrapping paper and Sellotape, they also install it for you. If it’s good enough for household appliances and car parts, it should be good enough for Christmas presents.

Alternatively, there’s an awful lot of money to be made out of duct tape with a festive theme – just wrap it around the present until it’s completely covered, and there you are, all ready to place under the tree. But failing that, I guess I’ll just have to wish for peace on Earth and goodwill to men, like everyone else. May you all have a happy festive season, and get whatever you want – nicely wrapped or not!

When Good Directors… GO BAD!!!

There’s a website, Jump the Shark, which is devoted to trying to pinpoint the moment when once-great TV shows “lost it” e.g. the musical episode in Buffy, the arrival of Joxer in Xena. It’s not, however, a concept limited to television. We’re all familiar with film-makers, on both side of the camera, who appear on the scene in a blaze of glory early in their careers, a shooting-star soaring across the firmament, only to crash and burn in an equally meteoric way, reduced to churning out a steadily-decreasing standard of dreck.

But why is the horror genre so particularly blessed with these? It seems to suck the very life out of directors, to the extent that I can think of only one who has maintained genuine quality in his work for more than a few years: David Cronenberg. Let’s take a look at a few particularly fallen angels, and see if we can find when they jumped their sharks. For assistance, we call on the surveys in the Internet Movie Database, whose users are able to rate movies on a scale from one to ten…

Exhibit A in any such discussion must be John Carpenter. In the late 70’s and early 80’s, he showed near-genius level talent, first with Halloween and then The Thing, which both remain classics even now – rarely has the slasher movie or alien invasion pic respectively been done to such good effect.

My hypothesis is this: at some point on the set of Christine, Carpenter was kidnapped by aliens and replaced by an almost-identical double. The only way to tell them apart, is that the clone lacks any artistic talent – the theme of extra-terrestrials which look just like us is a familiar one in his work, perhaps a subtle clue to those viewers able to pick up on it. The real Carpenter is probably making TV commercials on Alpha Centauri.

Next up is Tobe Hooper – you know your career is a bust, when you’ve made ten films, and Lifeforce gets a place on the podium (hey, I like it, but it’s not one of those I could defend to anyone else). If Hooper ever possessed any ability, it appears to have evaporated completely in the past decade – the last movie Hooper directed whose score reached the dizzy heights of, say, 4.0, was way back in 1989.

There is one bump on the steady road towards TVMs and video-premierdom: Poltergeist, the highest-rated film of Hooper’s career. Or it would be, if the authorship of Poltergeist wasn’t severely in doubt. Much evidence points towards Steven Spielberg, who conceived, co-wrote and produced it, as well as allegedly taking over all post-production. Producer Frank Marshall has said Spielberg was on set constantly and would step in when Hooper was indecisive, and it seems likely Hooper was hired to act as an ‘Alan Smithee’, allowing Spielberg to sidestep around a clause in his E.T. contract.

With a big warning * beside Poltergeist, it really leaves only Texas Chainsaw Massacre worthy of note. The presence of much actual directorial talent here is also questionable: looking at the subsequent filmographies of pretty much everyone involved, it seems like one of those happy coincidences, where the resulting product exceeded the talents of most of those involved. [See also Miracle Mile, Enter the Dragon and Heathers] Hooper was simply in the right place at the right time, and has been living off those pickings for more than 25 years.

Finally, a trickier example: Dario Argento. Looking at his graph, we first see an increase, through his early 80’s work, and only then a drop off. As you’d expect from a man who illustrates well the thin line between genius and lunacy (often managing both in the same movie), it’s harder to pinpoint one specific production when he lost it. At first glance, after Deep Red would appear to be the obvious choice, but you’d be hard pushed to justify calling his ‘Three Mothers’ trilogy, whose average sits above 7.0, as the work of someone past his prime.

Personally, I would pin-point the moment, not just to a film, but to the end of Opera, which is so utterly laughable and ludicrous (yes, policemen routinely mistake tailor’s dummies for corpses), it was clear that Argento had blown his talent. Once we get past that film, however, it’s clear that something happened – too much drugs, according to some reports. Being fair, we can’t blame him entirely for The Dark Half, since there’s no way for IMDB voters to separate his portion from Romero’s. But Trauma, his subsequent solo project, was hardly any better, and after a brief upshot for Stendhal, he was back down, almost to Tobe Hooper levels, for Phantom of the Opera.

However, a miracle would appear to have occurred this year, with Sleepless bucking the trend to rate a full two points higher than his previous movie – a turnaround not seen for Carpenter or Hooper. However, caution would be urged, not least because the film hasn’t had an American release, so as far as IMDB voters go, I suspect it has been seen largely by (the few remaining) sad Argento fanboys. The jury will therefore remain out on that one, and a final staking of a former great talent is on hold pending the TC review

Does this “prove” anything? Not really. But it seems that the point at which directors jump the shark is likely to be around the time that their movies are worse than their debuts. This makes sense, in that you would expect someone to get better with experience – and also, budgets will probably also be bigger, improving the technical aspects. If later movies are no improvement over your first, than clearly something pretty questionable is going on with your career.

Tidings of commercialism and joy

The pre-festive rush is in full swing, dammit. If I used to be jaundiced before about the whole “Spirit of Christmas” thing before I leapt over the counter, as it were, I’m much worse now. Among our customers, the score is roughly ten to one in favour of “Can you ship this yesterday?” over “Merry Christmas!” or any other expression involving peace on earth, goodwill to men, and other topics unconnected to express delivery.

There is also supposed to be a recession on, but I can’t say that Chris and I have noticed. In three days after Thanksgiving, we did more business than in the whole month of March, which is gratifying, but leads to much collapsing into bed at 11pm, groaning slightly at the prospect of the same again tomorrow. It’s probably safe to say that our level of customer service has suffered a little; we now insist that people use the online site to order, except in special circumstances (“I don’t have a computer” is no longer deemed special enough), and briefly toyed with the idea of replacing our voice mail message with 30 seconds of Chris laughing hysterically.

While on the subject of online shopping, I’ve been avoiding the hassles of stores and malls this year. Or at least, exchanging those hassles for the different ones provided by the Internet. Rather too many companies have realised that while a million monkeys banging away at typewriters may take some millenia to produce Shakespeare, they’ll create an online shopping experience in no time at all. Certain large, three-letter acronymed companies (names kept secret until December 25th, for obvious reasons) prompt for input of data, then three screens later, gleefully inform you that you missed a field out. It’s less shopping, than an online game of Snakes and Ladders.

Back at Trash City, we finally abandoned the late afternoon rush to the Post Office, in favour of an early-morning one. There are several benefits to this: not only is it quieter, you also get the advantage of Post Office employees who may occasionally smile, since they have not had their heads bitten off for eight hours straight. It always struck me as odd that those who “went postal” tended to shoot other employees rather than customers… [This week’s useless fact: the term “going postal” originated after Patrick Sherrill, a part-time postman in Oklahoma, killed 14 people in the post office before taking his own life.]

On the other hand, you miss the 5pm lock-in; it was always amusing to be there when they lock the doors, and watch the 5:01 pm customers bouncing off like frustrated lemmings. They’d plead with the guardian to let them in, but he was relentless – awesome to watch, he could have become a bouncer at any swanky nightclub. “Sorry, mate, you’re not coming in.” Those of us inside chortle merrily away to ourselves, even though it is surely only a matter of time before a bad set of traffic lights condemns us to the same fate. Another reason to go early, perhaps.

But we cope, and meanwhile continue in the ceaseless battle to stop our icicle lights from falling off the roof, sending our offspring up there to apply ever more adhesive tape. For, after all, isn’t that what Christmas is all about?

Incredibly Bad Film Show: Battlefield Earth

Dir: Roger Christian
Star: John Travolta, Barry Pepper, Forest Whitaker, Kim Coates

It doesn’t actually begin too badly, though I don’t know about man being an endangered species, as the opening text claims – it’s John Travolta’s career that’s about to be put in extreme peril. In the year 3000, humanity has been reduced to a primeval state, harbouring vague memories of civilization, gods and demons. We can tell it’s primeval, because all the men look like Swampy. Hell, all the women look like Swampy. Our hero, Jonnie (Pepper, in his last starring role – trust me on this one) leaves the sanctuary of the mountains to find these mythical gods in a ruined city. I have to say, the effects and sets are excellent, and I was wondering if this was perhaps more a misunderstood gem.

How wrong I was. For then the invading alien race, the Psychlos, turn up and start firing. For some reason, the movie suddenly acquires a virulent green tint, the first of many totally gratuitous filters director Christian puts in front of the camera. Green, blue, orange – even more than one in the same shot. And when he hasn’t got out his Crayolas, he’s tilting the camera: initially, it didn’t make much difference since, hey, mountains are kind of tilty anyway, but this gets old fast on any level playing-field. The drinking game for this movie should involve taking a swig each time the camera moves off the horizontal: should ensure oblivion is reached by about 30 minutes, a best-case scenario for any viewer.

All  together now...  LEAN...
Roger Christian’s direction: “Tilt the camera MORE! Put another filter on!”

Anyway, Jonnie gets captured, pausing only to crash through a succession of plate-glass windows, all remarkably intact, despite the passage of enough time for cities to crumble. His attempts to escape bring him into contact – literally – with Terl (Travolta), the Psychlo security officer who is mean and grumpy even when he isn’t stuck on Earth “with endless options for renewal”, after being caught shagging a senator’s daughter. Bizarrely, there’s much in the film that revolves around office politics of the most banal sort, which is wildly out of place in a supposed SF-action pic.

“In order to feel safer on his private jet, John Travolta has purchased a bomb-sniffing dog. Unfortunately for the actor, the dog came six movies too late”
Tina Fey, Saturday Night Live

Hard to say which is worse, Travolta’s appearance or his acting. Things the movies teach us, #391: it is hard to exude menace, when you have tubes stuck up both your nostrils. And that’s excluding Terl’s funky dreads and the platform soles, clearly intended to increase his stature, but which actually make him resemble a former member of Slade as he clomps around. Travolta’s performance is no more comfortable, and would be barely acceptable as a pantomime villain at the Fairfield Halls, Croydon.

Forrest  Whitaker wonders,  'Does my bum look big in this?'

Our hero, meanwhile, is stuck with the other “man-animals” and fed something green and lumpy; it must be good, as a fight breaks out over its distribution, albeit only so Jonnie can give the “we humans have to stick together” speech. Terl, meanwhile, has his own plans. The Psychlos came to Earth in search of gold (coincidentally, also a rare element on their planet), and he wants to use humans to operate the mining machinery, which would be a breach of the rules. He also lets Jonnie and two colleagues out, purely in order to find out what humans like most to eat – I guess asking them would have been too much trouble – and comes to the conclusion that it’s rat.

He plugs Jonnie into a learning machine, force-feeding him, not just the knowledge necessary to work the machinery, but the entire Encyclopedia Galactica, including the bits on military technology. Oops. If Terl is supposed to be one of the elite, you wonder how such a dumb species ever discovered the wheel, never mind interstellar teleportation. He then brings Jonnie to the destroyed Denver public library, just to emphasise that knowledge is useless. Jonnie picks up from the rubble…well, for one glorious moment, I thought it was going to be a copy of L.Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics, but it’s even more cliched – the Declaration of Independence.

Terl can’t survive outdoors because radiation makes the atmosphere the Psychlos breath explode [This an Important Plot Point, once you can get past wondering about the dubious physics involved]. So he leaves Jonnie and his crew to mine for two weeks and wanders off. Jonnie uses his new-found knowledge instead to sprint around the United States, dropping off local cavemen at flight simulators so they can learn to fly fighter jets [miraculously still in working order after a thousand years or so], picking up nuclear bombs, oh, and looting gold from Fort Knox. Terl, of course, barely questions why his gold mine is miraculously producing bullion bars, probably stamped, “Property of US Government”.

Jonnie kicks off the revolt, and then…to be honest, I’m not sure what happens, exactly, as the story is edited in such a way as to border on the incoherent. Must have been damn fine flight simulators though, as the cavemen are now flying like Tom Cruise on amphetamines. The nuclear bomb is snuck through the teleportation gateway to the Psychlos home planet, where it blows up, causing the entire atmosphere to go with it. Kinda lucky such an unstable planet had survived the four billion years necessary to evolve intelligent life.

A potential  Scientologist tries to evade recruitment

Terl meanwhile, gets his arm blown off – reacting with much the same depth of emotion you’d get if someone told him there was a thread on his suit jacket – and is kept hostage by Jonnie for reasons which remain unclear to this day. Estimated cost: $73m. American box-office: $21m. Watching John Travolta’s smug Scientologist face as his career goes down the plughole: priceless.

It’s impossible to list all the ways in which this film is jaw-droppingly awful. The plot makes no sense, the acting is awful, the direction woeful. I’ve read the original novel (hey, so shoot me) and it’s actually not bad, or at least not disastrous, in a pulp SF kinda way. Its miserable box-office doesn’t tell the whole tale, since it’s widely known that Scientologists were asked to go and see the movie multiple times on the first weekend. About the only thing in its favour is that, while I’ve no doubt Hubbard’s name is largely what got Travolta interested, it surely is too bad to contain any kind of cult-indoctrination message. lists the final critical score at 69-4 against, an unprecedented tidal wave of hate. The Battlefield Earth FAQ goes even further, cherrypicking the bad ones. Believe the hype on this one: it’s every bit as poor as you imagined, and then some.