Archive for the disaster movies Category

Murder on Flight 502 (R.I.P. Hugh O’Brian)

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, disaster movies, Hollywood (History), Movies, OBITS, Television with tags , , , , , on September 7, 2016 by travsd


Hugh O’Brian died earlier this week at the age of 91. While Baby Boomers and older probably know him best as the title character in the smash tv series The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (1955-1961), I came along later and have only had a glancing acquaintance with that show. My introduction to the tall, understated (former) leading man came when he had a sort of second (brief) hot period in the mid 1970s. Among the things I would have seen him at that time were The Shootist (1976), where he played one of three men out to shoot dying outlaw J.D. Books (John Wayne — O’Brian was fated to be the last actor Wayne ever “shot” on camera); AND the pilot episode of Fantasy Island (1977).

Now, the pilot of Fantasy Island was ripping television indeed. At least that’s how it seemed to me at the time as a tween — I’ll have to go back sometime soon and see how it measures up to my memories. In that two hour tv-movie, O’Brian played a guilty Great White Hunter who gets to experience life as the prey for a change. But I think it only fitting that I save my post about that show for another occasion — an occasion whose name ends in “Montalban“.


Instead, today I thought I would give a bit of attention to the 1975 ABC TV movie Murder on Flight 502. You will be alarmed and dismayed to know that, to refresh my memory for this post, I watched this film for the fifth or sixth time last night. Because that’s not just how I roll, that’s how I taxi onto the runway. (Warning: I always include spoilers.)

Murder on Flight 502 debuted during the height of the disaster movie craze, and is an obvious knockoff of both Airport (1970) and Airport 1975 (which actually came out in 1974). And, surprisingly, its all-star cast compares favorably with those films and others of the era like The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Earthquake (1974) and Towering Inferno (1974).  We meet most of them prior to takeoff in a corner of Kennedy Airport I like to call the Exposition Lounge. Going roughly in order of appearance:

There’s Walter Pidgeon as a soporific octogenarian with three months to live, who gets seated next to Yiddish theatre legend Molly Picon. Do they bond? Do they talk? Oy, gevalt, that’s all they do — inserts of their mundane conversations must fill a third of the film. Pidgeon must say “You’re a very lucky woman” to her about 15  times.  Little of Picon’s reputed genius is in evidence here. Essentially she’s relegated to playing the yenta from central casting. To hammer that home, familiar character actor Steve Franken plays her son, who sees her off at the airport and says things like, “Mama, don’t get so excited! You’re on vacation yet! So enjoy!”

Sonny Bono plays a fading rock star desperate for a comeback. Ironically, believe it or not, Sonny was one of the hottest stars in the cast, fresh off four years of his hit variety show with Cher, who had just left him for Gregg Allman. (In reference to that, which was big news at the time, in one particularly bathetic moment, Bono’s character stares off into the distance and says, “And the beat goes on.”)

Also in the cast is The Partridge Family’s Danny Bonaduce, typecast as an obnoxious, pranking teenager. His foil, for awhile at least, is singer Polly Bergen as a sassy, brassy, hard drinking mystery writer in sunglasses. Later, she will exchange Bonaduce for Fernando Lamas, playing a famous burglar who “once got away with seven million dollars”.

Theodore Bikel is a mysterious foreigner with a goatee — he’s clearly up to no good. Ralph Bellamy is one of the country’s top doctors, on his way to London to treat a “world leader”. And Dane Clark and Laraine Day (both actors with some name recognition in the 40s and 50s) play a tense, bickering middle aged couple.

And let’s not forget the crew! Robert Stack is the ridiculously stoic and omniscient pilot, paving his way for his performance five years later in Airplane! The stewardesses are none other than Brooke Adams (the lovable, clumsy one) and Farrah Fawcett-Majors, not yet famous as the star of Charlie’s Angels, although that was right around the corner.


And Hugh O’Brian? Why, he’s just an off-duty New York City police detective, that’s all. And that’s about to come in handy. Why?

Oops! We left out a celebrity. The airport security chief is played by George Maharis of Route 66 (not to be confused with George Chakiris of West Side Story). After diffusing a cake bomb left in the waiting area as a prank by Bonaduce (this was in the era when authorities just said to such scofflaws, “Alright now, you incorrigible rascal! Go ahead and get on the plane! We wouldn’t want you to miss your flight!), Maharis receives a letter informing him that there will be murders on Flight 502. (It’s not intended to warn him; he accidentally receives the letter early). In between complaints about a toothache (the screenwriters’ substitute for creating a character) Maharis begins investigating all the passengers to try to determine who the killer and his victim(s) might be.

And now is when it starts to get really silly. It turns out several people on board ARE planning murders against fellow passengers — separate, coincidental murders that aren’t even the ones promised in the letter. Bikel wants to kill Bellamy for skipping out on an operation that might have saved his wife’s life. Ironically at the very moment we learn that information, Bikel has a heart attack and Bellamy saves his life. Not only is Bikel now too incapacitated to kill him, he has to sit and listen to a lecture from him about how noble the medical profession is. (I hope he kills him later).

THEN Dane Clark tries to stab Sonny Bono with a knife! It turns out his teenage daughter OD’d while partying in Bono’s mansion. Instead of tying the man up, they make him listen to a conciliatory talk by Bono (“Kids today, they wanna be part of somethin’, Mr. Garwood. But ya oughta be proud. My roadie said she was a very special girl.” (I also hope HE gets killed later).

It isn’t until 2/3 of the way through the film that we get our first murder. A priest! Who turns out to be one of Fernando Lamas’s crime partners! Strangled and placed in a dumb waiter for maximum theatrical effect! And then stewardess Brooke Adams! Stabbed in the neck with a meat carving fork, because they used to serve real meals on planes!

Investigating all of this throughout, in conjunction with Stack and Maharis, is O’Brian, who is even more subdued and laconic than usual in this picture. Is he supposed to be “world weary” here? Drunk? On downers? Just wallowing? It seems to take him an eternity to spit out his lines, a no-no for actors. But then the big twist: it turns out HE was the killer, it’s his idea of justice since the gang of robbers had gotten off scot-free. He gathers all of the celebrities together so he can have his big dramatic moment, and then he shoots Lamas, which triggers an electrical fire. Here, in the film’s final moments, do we get our “disaster”, although the fire is soon put out and the plane has a safe landing. A little anti-climatic, but not as anti-climactic as I imagine this new Sully movie is gonna be! (“They ditched in the Hudson and nobody even got wet!”)

When last we see O’Brian, London bobbies are leading him away in handcuffs while he mutters insanely like Tony Perkins at the end of Psycho. Looks like the tables have turned, eh, Wyatt Earp?

George Kennedy: The Disaster Movies

Posted in disaster movies, Hollywood (History), Movies, OBITS with tags , , , , , on February 29, 2016 by travsd

The word just came down that character actor George Kennedy has passed away. He was an amazingly busy actor, given that he started out as military advisor to the sit-com Sgt. Bilko. He was a career army man. But he also looked the type, and so he began to act on the show. Then he got cast in a zillion westerns in film and television. And many other sorts of movies. But the ones that will always matter the most to me are the disaster movies he anchored in the 1970s when he was at the peak of his career.


The Flight of the Phoenix (1965)

I think of this quintessential “guy picture” as a bit of foreshadowing for the crop of disaster films that would follow in the ’70s. A sandstorm knocks down a cargo plane in the middle of the Sahara desert. The survivors are compelled to make tough choices in order to escape, and time is running out. Like any good disaster film, it has a familiar gaggle of A and B list stars (James Stewart, Richard Attenborough, Peter Finch, Dan Duryea, Ernest Borgnine, George Kennedy) made unrecognizable by the grime on their faces. Much like The Poseidon Adventure which was to follow years later, it depicts a group concentrated on a single task propagated by a very difficult and dubious person which may or may not be the salvation (in this case Hardy Kruger as a suspicious German engineer who devises a plan to rebuild their plane out of salvaged pieces).


Airport (1970)

The first film in the Airport series, based on Arthur Hailey’s novel, is much different from what followed, although it establishes many elements of the template. Most of the film (over an hour really) is just a soap opera about the trials of running an airport. Really, really boring stuff….politics, administrative hassles….who the hell cares? It’s an HOUR of exposition. Thematic relevance includes marital troubles…airport manager Burt Lancaster has trouble with his wife because he works long hours, not because he’s unfaithful, although he’s beginning to look at his beautiful female colleague and hooks up with her at the end. Pilot Dean Martin is a serial philanderer…he has knocked up a stewardess. He too chooses a younger, prettier, newer woman. There is some degree of a natural disaster here: a blizzard, although it feels quotidian…that aspect could have been amped way up into something far more scary. The actual “disaster” of this film turns out to be a mad bomber (Van Heflin) who is going to blow up the plane so his wife will get insurance money. It takes forever for anyone to discover it. Having found about it, it takes forever for anyone to do anything about it. Finally, the guy blows his bomb up…luckily he’s at the back of the plane so damage is minimal. There are a few scary minutes. Then it becomes about the tension of landing the plane…at the same airport the plane departed from, on the horrible, partially snow-cleared landing strips that Lancaster and Martin had been arguing about in the  beginning of the film, with George Kennedy’s airport trouble-shooterJoe Patroni finally saving the day. Not as many celebrity passengers as in the later films. Helen Hayes as an elderly stowaway (she’s supposed to be comical, but she’s dreadfully unfunny for a so-called “First Lady of the American stage”.) Vaudeville vet Benny Rubin is an extra.


Earthquake (1974)

This is one of my favorite movies. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen it. A dozen? I love everything about it. With each passing year it gains more charm as a product of its times. And it has the best, most all-encompassing disaster of the classic disaster film era, assisted by the technical innovation of Sensurround. It’s marred by some serious flaws, which only make me love it more. It’s way over-dependent on coincidence and implausible incident — ridiculously so. In a city of millions, the same ten or so characters keep bumping into each other.  Architect/ football player Charlton Heston cheats on wife Ava Gardner with Genevieve Bujold but is loyal to father-in-law Lorne Greene…meanwhile Blaxploitation/ Evel Knievel hybrid Richard Roundtree is trying to do his motorcycle jumps with his manager Gabe Dell, whose sister Victoria Principal is being harassed by grocery store/ national guard psycho Marjoe Gortner. And running through it all is LA beat cop George Kennedy (who would later play an identical role on tv as The Blue Knight). And Walter Matthau in a hilarious cameo role as a drunk. Then, the earthquake comes and shakes all these people out of these dramas like nuts out of the trees. And they keep encountering each other amidst unimaginable destruction and chaos.  Until Kennedy and Heston rescue a bunch of people trapped in a collapsed parking garage which is about to be engulfed in flood water. There’s more to be said on this film; rest assured I’ll be writing much more about it.


Airport 1975

This one may be thought of as the archetypal Airport movie, though the 1970 original is considered the best of the series. Clearly the producers of 1975 set out to inject their franchise with a lot of dross borrowed from Earthquake and Towering Inferno. Heston reprises his Earthquake role as the middle aged philanderer. George Kennedy, also from Earthquake, returns in one of many increasingly implausible job promotions for his character Joe Patroni. The opening scenes of this movie are the best, as all the main characters are introduced and there is much hilarity revolving around the twin themes of sex and booze. Erik Estrada! Gloria Swanson! Myrna Loy! Sid Caesar! Jerry Stiller, Norman Fell and Conrad Janis! Helen Reddy as a singing nun! Larry Storch as a tv reporter!  Dana Andrews plays a guy who crashed into the airplane in his Piper Cub. That’s the bulk of the excitement. The balance of the movie is boring and insanely implausible. With the pilot Efrem Zimbalist Jr incapacitated, a stewardess with no flight experience (Karen Black) takes control of the plane. On a 747, with hundreds of passengers aboard, the odds are 100% that there would have been at least one person better qualified to take over: a professional or amateur pilot, a military veteran, a policeman, fireman or other rescue worker or anybody other than a weeping, apparently feeble-minded stewardess. Eventually they dangle Heston down on a rope from another jet and he climbs in a hole in the side of the plane to land it. Don’t laugh, it happens!


Airport ’77

While every bit as implausible as the other Airport movies, this one at least has the Poseidon-esque virtue of focusing on a very few characters and stranding them. It also borrows from Poseidon the idea of putting them underwater, and entertaining us with a song (though, like the one in Towering Inferno and unlike the one in The Poseidon Adventure it did not become a hit). The song is unbelievably awful — a blind guy singing “Beauty is in the Eyes of the Beholder”. The premise is that it’s a special luxury plane featuring entire furnished rooms. It’s owned by millionaire Jimmy Stewart and is carrying many art treasures from his collection, along with Captain Jack Lemmon (trying his best to be macho), Darren McGaven, Christopher Lee, Lee Grant, Joseph Cotten, Olivia de Havilland etc . Bad guys try to steal the plane by putting everyone to sleep with gas but then they hit an oil derreck and crash into the sea and sink to the bottom…completely intact. They’re pretty much on their own (no radio contact) but George Kennedy’s Joe Patroni still manages to put his two cents in.


The Concorde…Airport ’79

In this one, Kennedy’s Patroni character is elevated to the Captain of the endangered aircraft, putting him front and center for once instead of the periphery of the disaster. On the other hand…it’s the cheesiest of a very cheesy series. They try to generate interest by setting it on the trendy, relatively new supersonic plane, but that doeesn’t really add anything to the story. And the celebrities in this one are a new low….Charo! John Davidson! Jimmy “J.J.” Walker! Martha Raye! And what happens to them? Evil arms dealer Robert Wagner keeps trying to shoot the plane they’re on out of the sky with missiles, because reporter Susan Blakely is about to do an expose on his illegal arms sales. Ya know, like ya do.

At any rate, soon after this the Airplane! spoof movies made any more Airport movies impossible. But those were followed by the Naked Gun films …in which George Kennedy appeared.  Because there’s always a role for George Kennedy.


Hurricane (1974)

Posted in disaster movies, Hollywood (History), Movies, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 23, 2015 by travsd


As we speak, Hurricane Patricia is bearing down on Mexico. It also happens to be the birthday of character actor Frank Sutton (1923-1974). Are you thinking what I’m thinking? What? You’re not? Well, as Quick Draw McGraw, used to say, “I’ll do the thinking around here – -and don’t you forget it”.

"Move it, move it, move it!!!"

“Move it, move it, move it!!!”

Now I COULD devote a post about the situation comedy Gomer Pyle USMC on which Sutton appeared as the hypertense Sgt. Carter from 1964 through 1969. But that’s so easy. Been done. And besides, like I said — hurricane. And so we write about Sutton’s last screen role ever, as happy go-lucky party boy “Bert Pearson” in the 1974 ABC TV Movie of the Week Hurricane. (Not to be confused with John Ford’s BRILLIANT 1937 disaster movie The Hurricane, a post for another occasion).

The choice of Hurricane isn’t arbitrary. As I’ve written here many a time I was a huge aficionado of disaster movies as a child. The Poseidon Adventure (1972) was and is one of my favorite movies. And so I watched the television premiere of Hurricane when it aired in September, 1974.  A few months ago I purchased a DVD of the film, which I had not seen in (ulp!) four decades, for a little refresher. And it was quite an eye opener. I see with a very different pair of eyes now. For example, I would say roughly a third of the film is made up of blatant stock footage, obviously taken by tv news crews, the National Weather service and the like. The remainder of the film was likewise shot on a tv budget, so this is less about the special effects (and I think we were expecting special effects – – hello, disaster movie?) and much more about people having conversations. In one, Will Geer and Michael Learned (both taking time off of The Waltons) play a couple of bickering weather reporters, with different methods. In another, Martin Milner as “Major Hymie Stoddard” and his fellow air force pilots fly above the storm to observe it. In another, Larry Hagman and Jessica Walter are stranded on a boat whose motor has conked out. In another, Barry Sullivan waits too long to evacuate his cabin and then his pick-up truck won’t start.


“Hey, c’mon…Whattaya so scared about?! Have a li’l drinkie!”

And, in the film’s most memorable story thread, Frank Sutton plays an obnoxious drunk who decides to wait the storm out and have a Hurricane party in his flimsy house. Here’s where all the tension is, for not only is it him and all his plastered friends carrying on like it’s New Year’s Eve, but there’s his wife and a couple of young neighbors (including a pregnant woman) who are both sober and increasingly nervous, and then terrified. But the guy keeps persuading and then pressuring them to stay. As a kid, this filled me with great anxiety, for a great many personal reasons. At any rate, I hope you don’t think this is a big spoiler when I say that Sutton gets his come-uppance, in a scene reminiscent of The Three Little Pigs. 

The fact that Sutton died prior to this film’s release, gave his death in this film a rather strange vibe (I can’t say a “poignant” one because his character is so abhorrent). And lest you think I’m being too jokey about a very serious subject, I now use the occasion to turn the post on its head. Frank Sutton’s character dies in this film because he is an IDIOT. Don’t be an IDIOT. If you live in the hurricane zone and are able to do so, EVACUATE.

On “The Towering Inferno”

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, disaster movies, Hollywood (History), OBITS with tags , , , on October 1, 2015 by travsd

Literal Melodrama: Look at this poster! “The Wife”. “The Con Man”.

I just heard from the grapevine who shares my apartment that John Guillermin has passed away. Even if you don’t know the name, you know his work. He directed several films in the 1960s’ Tarzan franchise reboot (more about that here), and he directed Death on the Nile (1978) and Dino de Laurentis’s 1976 King Kong remake. And I just have to think he got the latter gig on the strength of his previous film, the subject of this blogpost. de Laurentis must have been like “Dis new Kong film is all about a skyscraper!  And dis guy Guillermin, he knows how to shoot a disaster on a skyscraper!)  And much like Ronald Neames, the director of The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Guillermin was a very solid British director, which is undoubtedly why Irwin Allen chose him for 1974’s The Towering Inferno. 

Now, I often think of The Towering Inferno as “the only other time Irwin Allen got a disaster movie right (contrary to his reputation)”. The Poseidon Adventure happens to be one of my favorite films, but most of Allen’s other films are, well, disasters. But having first experienced this film at a young age, I can’t tell how much of my fondness for it is a case of my nostalgia and love of camp (definite factors here) overwhelming ALL of my better judgment. But I don’t think so. For I freely acknowledge the film has many serious, obvious flaws and am happy to talk about them, even though this is a film I have enjoyed watching repeatedly throughout the years.

If you’re too young to have seen the film or know the premise….a bunch of people are trapped at the top of a burning building (in contrast with Poseidon, in which a bunch of people are trapped at the bottom of a sinking boat). In recent years we have watched several real-life disasters of both types unfold before our eyes in real time and it’s horrible. I don’t know if young people find movies like this too disturbing now — certainly part of the population won’t be able to watch this sort of thing as entertainment any more. Actually for me, part of what makes this pair of movies WATCHABLE is that we care about these people, root for them, and hope they’ll make it out of their predicament. We are engaged with them emotionally, which is the opposite of becoming desensitized and callous. (Whereas I find Rolland Emmerich’s sensibility quite objectionable on these grounds). At any rate, I assure you that this film was regarded as implausible science fiction at the time. Reality has surpassed it in awful strangeness many times over.

Still The Towering Inferno has its implausibilities.  The (then) science fiction concept of a 130 story office tower is fine, but one hardly thinks they’d have built it in the San Francisco earthquake zone! (Then having done so, it’s a head-scratcher that they made the film about a fire rather than an earthquake — except for the fact that another disaster movie — called Earthquake — was being made at the very same time). I used to say that the screenplay’s reliance on an unlikely combination of faulty wiring, an absence of a sprinkler systems and other convenient snafus was a flaw in this film….but 9-11 was a kind of symphony of such Achilles’ Heels, and so was the sinking of the Titanic. It happens.

You know it's too many stars when they have to take the publicity still in Widescreen

You know it’s too many stars when they have to take the publicity still in Widescreen

As a show, The Towering Inferno is an Embarrassment of Riches. It is top loaded with much bigger stars (notably Paul Newman, Steve McQueen and Fay Dunaway) and flush with a much larger number of stars at the Poseidon level (former top stars and current cheesy ones) such as William Holden, Fred Astaire, Jennifer Jones, Robert Vaughn, Robert Wagner, Richard Chamberlain, and yes O.J. Simpson). It was made by the combined resources of two different studios (Warner Brothers and 20th Century Fox – -the first time in history that had ever happened), and was adapted from two separate novels (The Tower, and The Glass Inferno), thus the rather silly, bombastic movie title. The film is twice too long, has too many gratuitous star turns, and contains too much romantic melodrama. It’s as though Irwin Allen, in attempting to replicate the success of The Poseidon Adventure, decided he’d have a bigger hit just by adding more of everything.

But he concentrated on the wrong elements. He’d have had a better picture (if a redundant one) if he’d used Poseidon’s formal template, i.e., concentrated on the journey of a few survivors as they tried to get back to the ground floor. (In fact, that would have been a kind of premonition of some of the folks’ actual experiences on 9-11). Unfortunately Allen noticed only the superficial ingredients of his hit: an all-star cast, special effects and a hit song, and he let his story sprawl all over the place. The film’s climax is ridiculous, a choice made for its value as spectacle but completely implausible — evacuation of everyone, one by one, in apparent real time, by helicopter. With 20/20 hindsight I can see that seen as a dry-run for the egregious The Night the Bridge Fell Down, and various other mis-steps in the film can retroactively be seen as the harbingers of big bungles he would make in his films of the late ’70s. But at the time…the audience ate it up, the spectacle is phenomenal and I always love this movie, warts and all). It’s a classic of its kind, and without a doubt the high point of both Mr. Guillermin’s career and Mr. Allen’s as a popular success.

The Myriad Faults of “San Andreas”

Posted in BUNKUM, disaster movies, Movies, Movies (Contemporary) with tags , , , , , , , on June 9, 2015 by travsd


Unlike probably nearly every other critic, I did not attend San Andreas predisposed to hate it, or scoff at it, or rag on it. The disaster movie is one of my favorite film genres, although producers and directors seldom seem up to the task of putting together the right magic ingredients. Aside from several examples in the 1930s and a couple in the 1970s, producers almost never get it right. But somehow I’ve managed not to become jaded and I keep hoping.

I am a sucker for the spectacle of course. (Does it surprise you that I am a fan of apocalyptic destruction? “Destroy them all”, that’s my motto). I’ve watched even the bad examples of the genre dozens of times on the strength of special effects alone. And, as I anticipated, San Andreas will be another I’ll have to file in that category.


Let me be clear: my praise for this element is not faint. The film has grossed $287 million at the box office to date for a reason and that reason is the ride. First Hoover Dam breaks and then both Los Angeles and San Francisco are destroyed, not once but several times. And then, after every single building has fallen down, a 300 ft tsumani puts the coup de grace to San Francisco. Director Brad Peyton (and his special effects people) are to be commended — highly commended — for the technical achievement. These astounding events look real. I can provide you with a very long list of films in which such spectacles look phony (or at least like a video game).


But there are even more positive things to say about Peyton’s direction (in fact I have nothing negative to say about Peyton’s direction at all.) He got really good performances out of the cast. This is not to be shrugged at. In fact, the acting in most disaster movies is generally blown off, mostly, I assume, because the scripts are so terrible, or because the director doesn’t think the acting is the most important element, or important at all. In Roland Emmerich’s films, for example, we are clearly never meant to take any of it seriously. But I assure you, actors, when the script is terrible that is when we need you the most.

Peyton seems to get this, and I know it’s he who’s responsible because I saw several really good performances by actors who were investing their cardboard parts with serious emotions, enough to involve me despite the many flaws we’ll soon get to. I am in particular awe of Paul Giamatti. I am ANYWAY, but nothing I have ever seen him do — Sideways, American Splendor, John Adams — impressed me as much as how much he gives to his role in this film as a Cal Tech seismology professor. Truly, he could have just shown up and mouthed his words, as so many do, but he goes all out, he affects you, he gives appropriate reactions to unprecedented events — he imagines what those might be and he goes there. Most actors in similar roles underplay it to an absurd degree. And, at the other end of the talent scale, I found myself really impressed with The Rock a.k.a Dwayne Johnson, and I’m not being arch or ironic. I had no idea he could do what he does in this movie, but right before your eyes, he does it. He’s giving a real performance, a moving, convincing performance. Are we grading on a scale? Maybe, but that doesn’t matter. It is a positive take-away from this movie. He’s a former professional wrestler, okay? And he does a really good job of acting in this movie.

So, it’s very well directed, very well acted…but?

There’s a little thing called a story and a little thing called a script. Back in the day when novelists and playwrights used to undertake such tasks (granted, under supervision of producers), the movies made by Hollywood weren’t so utterly idiotic. It’s really to the credit of Peyton and the cast that they carried me along despite the idiocies of the script. Actually, they’re not just idiocies. They were idiocies when they were first committed many decades ago. Now they are repeated idiocies, copies of idiocies, and to be so functionally bankrupt as to commit them you either have to be completely cynical (I believe that) or completely illiterate and retarded (I also believe that). Now when I say “novelists” and “playwrights” I’m not suggesting we do Chekhov here, okay? Hollywood people always jump immediately to this conclusion. The thing still is what it is. I am not suggesting that people run around spouting Shakespeare. But I am suggesting that they at least be people. Or that the producers don’t advertise it as a “movie”. Just call it what it is, a “3-D thrill ride”. That’s totally okay. That’s essentially what this is. Not only would I not dislike that, I would fully embrace it with enthusiasm — if it were 5 to 15 minutes long and in an amusement park.

DeMille makes a few waves of his own

DeMille makes a few waves of his own

But this a feature. This is a point I keep trying to make in the field of comedy. Feature length films were invented for a specific reason — you don’t actually have to make them. Many’s the time it would be preferable for a film to be vastly shorter (e.g., most comedies of the sillier sort). Why stretch out something that ought to be 20 minutes or a half hour to four times that length? Initially features were devised by guys like Cecil B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith to prove that movies could be a medium for grown-ups…naturally, so they could sell tickets to grown-ups, in addition to the children and uneducated adults who had previously made up most of the movie going audience at nickelodeons. Length and prestige were related. It was thought that greater length would be appreciated if it were justified — by having some of the weight and authority of a play or novel. Now, obviously, pretty quickly B movies and the like came along not long after that, though I hasten to observe that most of those don’t run much over an hour, and were marketed as what they were, essentially children’s entertainment. But I’m not entirely sure we even make grown-ups even more, so maybe there’s no point in articulating what I’m attempting to say.

If the destruction is enough for you, read no further. You’re a psychopath, we have nothing in common, go away. I won’t deny that I am attracted by the spectacle of the destruction, but I also want to feel something. Something quite normal. I want to be involved in some people’s stories. If something good happens to them, I’ll feel happy. If something bad happens to them, I’ll feel sad. If you’re the kind of person who loves the stabbings in slasher movies instead of hoping the hero can thwart them and avoid them, take your sickness far, far away from me.  I agree with certain time-honored theorists of the drama that anything that conditions us to empathy is good; anything that conditions us to callousness is bad. So we need human characters who bear some relation (SOME relation) to the ones we encounter outside the theatre.

It's scary because it's true

It’s scary because it’s true

Important to assert right here and now that this is not to dismiss fantasy, in fact quite the opposite. All the best stories are a potent mix of both realism and fantasy. Realism without fantasy, outside of the hands of a rare few geniuses, is boring. But so, to a lesser degree, is fantasy without realism. Why is The Exorcist one of the scariest horror films?  The special effects are mighty cool but they are especially effective because great care was taken first to establish the world that was to be disrupted. The Mad Marchioness and I watched the 2004 prequel recently Exorcist: The Beginning. Rubbish from beginning to end. Because there was not a single moment to sink your teeth into.

The realism of the disaster in San Andreas is terrific, and I will undoubtedly watch the film many times on this score. I know Peyton is drawing from reality for the visuals, because you can see it on screen. He’s incorporating stuff we have learned from awful real disasters – I saw images in the film that were clearly inspired by 9-11, the 2004 tsunami, Katrina and every earthquake since the invention of the motion picture camera.

2004 Asian Tsunami

2004 Asian Tsunami

As I wrote in my piece about the Poseidon remake, most Hollywood films in recent decades (let alone most disaster films) reflect what I’m beginning to call the Fascist Imperative. The heroes are not ordinary and “called”, like Luke Skywalker, or Roy Scheider in Jaws or Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. They are impervious, invulnerable aristocrats, demi-gods and superheroes. Instead of rooting for people like us to make it out alive, we are asked to root for the powerful to remain powerful, while we perversely look on in gratitude. If you’re sucker enough to do that, more power to you.


Make no mistake about it: in the world of San Andreas, we would be among the millions of dead. But I sure am glad this LAFD helicopter rescue pilot (Johnson) used his special skills (and public equipment) to rescue his own family! Indeed this may be the most unself-consciously selfish “heroism” movie to date. First Johnson uses his copter to rescue his wife (Carla Gugino) and ONLY his wife from the roof of a crumbling skyscraper. Then later, he uses a boat to rescue his daughter (Alexandria Daddario) and her two friends (Hugo JohnstoneBurt and Art Parkinson) from a flooded building. The moral at the end of the film is quite literally, “Too bad everyone else is dead, but I sure am glad our own family is alive and together!”

Blatant moral bankruptcy permeates the film. In one scene, Johnson and Gugino join some looters in taking what they need from a mall. I guess it’s supposed to be okay because they’re the heroes? In another scene, Daddario takes some supplies out of a fire truck, since she has some insider knowledge about what’s stored there. Uh…mightn’t the FIREFIGHTERS need that stuff while they’re doing their jobs? Do you people not get that it’s not okay just to TAKE stuff because you think you need it? Everyone else needs it, too. What do you plan to do? Fight them for it, like an animal? That happens to be the logical real-world outcome.

To its credit, the film makes one populist gesture in the direction of egalitarianism in the person of a predictably villainous real estate developer (Ioan Gruffudd), who like Richard Chamberlain in Towering Inferno or like Martin Ferrero (“the bloodsucking lawyer”) in Jurassic Park “gets his”. He is punished for looking after his own skin…right before the hero of the film saves his own family and no one else (except a couple of people who happen to be standing next to his family).

But whether the heroes are selfish are not, why are they WHO they are? I wrote about this in my Poseidon piece, but I reiterate: Why are the heroes in these fucking movies professional rescuers, television personalities and the world’s foremost seismology experts? This is the true expression of fascism. For me, the existence of this disaster itself is more than enough fantasy. This thing happens. Why can’t it happen to some PEOPLE, some ordinary, bewildered humans who must try against all odds to figure out how to survive? An accountant, a deli owner, a student, a boy and his dog? Instead of following what happens to the BEST EQUIPPED people to survive on planet earth? Ya know what? I’M NOT WORRIED ABOUT THOSE PEOPLE. In fact, those are the EXACT FOUR PEOPLE I am NOT worried about. Why are we following the exploits of the people we are NOT worried about?

And in this case, one of them isn’t even a man: he’s a SUPERHERO.

Gives a pretty good performance for someone who's not a Man

Gives a pretty good performance for someone who’s not a Man

You know how I know we don’t need to worry about our very short list of main characters? Because NONE OF THEM DIE during this crazy disaster, where every building in California collapses. Okay, one of them dies. An international seismology expert (Will Yun Lee) dies as a consequence of his spectacular, almost superhuman rescue of a small child. And by implication, several million other people die. But we don’t see them, we don’t meet them. This too seems like an expression of narcissicism. It’s collateral damage. It’s peripheral to our objective. I’ll bet you anything the studio marketing department gets audience response cards that tells them the audience doesn’t like it when the main characters die. The lesson? It’s okay when strangers die; as long as nothing bad must ever happen to US.  Oh, wait! One of the characters dies. The Rock’s daughter drowns, but then the Rock brings her back to life. What a shock that was! Whew!

Which brings us from the crimes against morality to the crimes against the brains God gave us. I knew what we were in for from the film’s very first frames when we got a title that read:

San Fernando Valley (18 miles north of Los Angeles)

This is one of those movies that assumes we don’t have a brain in our heads and that we know nothing. Or perhaps it merely hopes that we don’t. Otherwise we’d notice things. It’s the kind of a movie where a team of seismologists discover a new process for predicting earthquakes…at the very INSTANT an unprecedentedly large earthquake is about to strike. And then it strikes while the seismologists are standing on the very vulnerable Hoover Dam. And then TV reporter Archie Panjabi (Bend It Like Beckham) is with The Rock in his helicopter when he performs a spectacular rescue and is THEN with Paul Giamatti throughout the entire earthquake experience.


Bend It Like Beckham, Indeed

And THEN The Rock just happens to be flying over in a helicopter when his wife is standing at the top of a building. And then he and his wife travel to the destroyed San Francisco to save the daughter (“Let’s go bring back our daughter” they say about five times) and not only do they actually FIND HER, they actually find her at the exact moment her life needs to be saved, and then they actually SAVE her, because well, The Rock just happens to be a professional life saver. If you buy this bullshit you must have a brain the size of a pea.

Let's go bring back our our HELECOPTER. Ya know, like ya do

Let’s go bring back our daughter…in our HELECOPTER. Ya know, like ya do

And worse, they build in all this family redemption horseshit. I don’t know which film school teaches them all that you have to have this, but it has now led several generations of producers and screenwriters up a garden path that leads all the way up their assholes. So not only all that stuff above, but The Rock and his wife are about to be divorced because he is totally wrapped up in his work and too emotionally distant because of THE PREVIOUS DAUGHTER HE WAS UNABLE TO SAVE WHEN SHE DROWNED. But good thing everything west of Nevada was destroyed in an earthquake TO BRING THIS ONE FAMILY TOGETHER. That’s really what happens in this movie!

And then some self-congratulatory propaganda when American soldiers and rescue workers do terrific mop up afterwards. Heckuva job, Brownie!

Haha, and in the last scene, the family stands on this high hill surveying a completely devastated San Francisco, sort of mildly bummed, and one of them goes, “Look at that.” And THEN! I swear I mouthed the next dialogue even as it happened! :

“What now?”

“We rebuild”.

So…I can’t say enough bad things about the script. But I’ll undoubtedly watch the film again and again to see California fall into the ocean…especially the part of California containing the screenwriters of this movie.

Don’t worry too much about earthquakes, people. What you need to worry about is earthquake movies.

Forgive me, if I seem to have rocked the boat

Forgive me, if I seem to have rocked the boat

The Night The Bridge Fell Down

Posted in CAMP, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, disaster movies, Hollywood (History), Movies, Television with tags , , , , on November 19, 2014 by travsd

If it looks like comedy, and sounds like comedy…

Thank God for the Mad Marchioness, who noticed recently that we have access to the Warner Archive through some thingamajig on what used to be called our television. And the Warner Archive turns out to be a fragrant meadow strewn with the finest, choicest trash, all ours for the picking.

Last night we chose wisely and we chose well. I consider myself something of a connoisseur of the work of big budget disaster movie producer Irwin Allen. As a child I was addicted to his productions beginning with the one that started it all The Poseidon Adventure (1972), the first movie I ever saw in a cinema, and still an important film for me. Amazingly, lightning struck twice with The Towering Inferno (1974), which follows the formula of its predecessor to a tee and far exceeds it in hokum (and everything else, including running time) but at least the movie is still full of “A” list stars. As the 70s wore on, though, the law of diminishing returns came into play, the disasters becoming ever more contrived and the casts dwindling in prestige (rest assured we will write about them ALL here. I was amassing material for a book, but the hell with it). At any rate, the ridiculousness grew apace, until we reach what we saw last night.

I was shocked never to have seen or even heard of the tv movie in question before, but I’ve just discovered why. Though produced in 1979, The Night the Bridge Fell Down didn’t air until 1983. And guess what night it aired? At the very same time as the last episode of M*A*S*H. The entire human race watched the last episode of M*A*S*H, myself included, although I’m still debating whether I’ll condescend to call myself a member of the human race. At any rate, it would only be natural for network executives to schedule something for this slot they wanted to bury. And this movie fits that description.


The all-star cast for this extravaganza consists of James MacArthur (Dan-o from Hawaii 5-0), Eve Plumb (Jan Brady), Gregory Sierra (Chano from Barney Miller) Desi Arnaz, Jr., Barbara Rush, Char Fontane (daughter of nightclub singer Tony Fontane), familiar character actors Richard Gilliland, Ted Gehring and Philip Baker Hall, and, most astoundingly, Irwin Allen repeat offender Leslie Nielsen. We were particularly nonplussed about the presence of Nielsen given that he had starred in Airplane, which pretty much blows the lid off the entire genre, three years earlier. How could Allen ever think anyone would take Nielsen seriously in a disaster movie at that late date? Was it just pure stubbornness? But, there again, we have the answer. As we saw, this movie was actually made before Airplane. It only ever saw the light of day in 1983, I’m assuming, out of desperation on somebody’s part.

Comedy. Notice the difference?

Comedy. Notice the difference?

Now, this movie kept us howling on two totally divergent scores. On the one hand, we were uncanny in our ability to predict so many lines and plot developments just before they happened; the beauty of such formulaic producing is that it makes psychics of us all. (“I’ll be there as soon as I can. I’ll just drive there over the bridge.“) BUT! Never underestimate the powers of this movie to confound all precedent. I think ultimately it has to be the most implausible movie, presented with a straight face, that I have ever seen. I am fully confident in saying that the likelihood of the events of this film happening anywhere in this galaxy is ZERO. And, isn’t that just what we’re frightened of, Mr. Allen —  events that would never happen?

As in all disaster movies, we first meet our gaggle of stars as they go about their daily business: oh, robbing banks, embezzling stolen bonds, breaking up with your fiance to become a nun. Only house painter Gregory Sierra (yes, they made the only ethnic person in the movie a house painter)  just seems to be driving across a bridge like a normal person when the disaster happens. Everyone else is driving across the bridge on the most harrowing mission of their lives, making the collapse of the bridge seem at most an inconvenience.

Did we mention there was a collapsing bridge? James MacArthur (the son of Helen Hayes and writer Charles MacArthur – – he inherited all his acting talent from his father) is, it seems, both a civil engineer and a seismologist. He warns his superior (Hall) about a looming disaster, but will Hall listen? No! Too much inconvenience to the drivers of this (unnamed) city! So guess what happens? All of the main characters, most of whom know each other and have been interacting throughout the story, all driving separate cars, coincidentally all get in the same car accident together at the peak of the bridge. No one gets hurt. Then, immediately thereafter, there is an EARTHQUAKE, and both sides of the bridge fall down, trapping all those people, conveniently stopped there at the center of the bridge because of the car accident. And there were apparently no cars on the parts of the bridge that fell down (nearly the entire span of the bridge in both directions).


But that’s not enough. Because Desi Arnaz Jr. is a bank robber and he has a gun. Remember, of the half dozen or so people trapped here, one of them has just robbed a bank, and two others have just stolen a large sum of money from their company. This bridge is a magnet for every fleeing criminal in this (unnamed) town! What’s more, the two conspiring embezzlers (Neilsen and Rush), were riding in entirely separate vehicles — they just happen to be in the same place at the same time!  (The 53 year old Nielsen’s errand was to bring his sick infant to the hospital, a development that is seriously cramping his style). Meanwhile, pursuing bank robber Arnaz is police officer Gilliland, and it’s a good thing, too. Because when he gets shot by Arnaz, his former fiance Eve Plumb just happens to be on the bridge too to take care of him as he bleeds.

Arnaz periodically tries to climb down the bridge on his own, gets discouraged, and comes back up. This happens four times. So many times, that towards the end when he comes back and starts waving his gun around again, the other victims barely notice him anymore. Anyway, they’re too busy having melodramatic flashbacks using that hokey Gilligan’s Island wavey image technique to pay attention.


Then, the authorities rescue everyone with ropes — in real time. The part of the movie that should take a few minutes, thus takes a century, as we watch the characters carry ropes, tie ropes, tighten ropes, climb ropes. A couple of characters are thrown to their deaths in the (unnamed) bay as the bridge disintegrates. Upon which, the remaining four characters climb down the bridge — in real time. Seems to take about four hours. And, if they could do that, why didn’t they just do that before??? Because then we wouldn’t have a movie, that’s why!

Of Poseidon and the Adventure

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, CULTURE & POLITICS, disaster movies, Hollywood (History), Movies (Contemporary) with tags , on April 29, 2012 by travsd

I had a moving experience last night. The Countess and I went to Loews Jersey to see a double bill of A Night to Remember and The Poseidon Adventure. I’ll probably scribble a few notes about the former film here today or tomorrow, but in the meantime, a few remarks about the latter. It has always held a lot of meaning for me, being the first film I ever saw in a cinema (I was 7 when it came out). It turns 40 years old this year — rather a wake-up call. I’ll undoubtedly spill a bunch more on the topic this December when the actual anniversary rolls around, but in the meantime, I thought I’d share an article I wrote for Liberty magazine back in 2006 when the dreadful “remake” Poseidon came out:

* * * * *

Let’s get one thing straight: Poseidon is in not a remake of the 1972 film The Poseidon Adventure. The only thing the two movies have in common is the situation of a luxury liner capsizing, compelling a group of passengers to make a dangerous climb to the upturned hull. If that is all that constitutes a remake, then all westerns are a remake of Gunfight at the OK Corral.

The other thing I must confess is that your reviewer is biased. I am a member of that rabid cult of Poseidon Adventure freaks who watch the film and re-read the novel on an annual basis with the reverence and regularity that some bestow on Christmas (make that New Year’s Eve).

Most of the critics who’ve trashed Wolfgang Petersen’s mislabeled remake have been fairly (or unfairly) dismissive of the original, an unfortunate lapse, because in every area where Poseidon fails, The Poseidon Adventure succeeds. There is no better way to talk about the poverty of contemporary Hollywood filmmaking – or of American culture in general – then to look at how low this ship has sunk in the intervening thirty-four years.

First, while it may be pulp, the film (and the book that inspired it), much like a lot of science fiction or the work of Ayn Rand (here comes the hate mail) is pulp that contains ideas.

That’s the quality that I think inspires such irrational devotion from its followers. A powerful metaphor is at work. A group of ordinary people are thrust into the unknown. Everything they’ve ever known has literally been turned upside-down. They can either stay where they are, cling to the past, and die…or they can make the difficult and painful climb up to life, which “always matters very much”. The terrain of their many layered journey resembles Dante’s Inferno in reverse. Furthermore, they are led by a vaguely Mephistophelean preacher (Gene Hackman) who spouts Christian heresies that most libertarians would recognize as equal parts Walt Whitman, Ayn Rand and Neitzsche. “Don’t pray to God,” he says at one point, “Pray to that part of God within you.” Unlike a Catholic priest (Arthur O’Connell) who elects to remain behind to die with the dead, the wounded and the weak-willed majority, Hackman’s credo is a variation of Poor Richard’s: “The Lord Helps Those Who Help Themselves.” What makes him very American, and what makes the film inspirational, is that Hackman’s preacher (unlike, say, a Rand character) doesn’t just want to save his own neck. He makes it a point of pride – a mania, really – to convince as many people as possible to join him. Then he proceeds to kick their asses, morally, spiritually and physically, in a word inspiring them to save themselves. It is a victory of reason over blind faith and a most generous, humane application of “selfishness.” Hackman’s character is a Christ-like anti-Christ, whose greatest sorrow is the loss of a fat old lady (Shelley Winters) whom he helped transform from a whining lump into the highest type of hero. In retrospect, I’m certain that the philosophy of this Darwinian Preacher character, whispered into my impressionable six-year old ear during a Saturday matinee, was my first step on the journey to libertarianism.

So: the original Poseidon Adventure, an inspirational, emotionally affecting suspense picture. Now let’s look at Poseidon. As we know from Das Boot and A Perfect Storm, Wolfgang Peterson is an expert at photographing sinking tubs and the people who drown in them. Unlike those more successful, earlier outings however, this time Peterson forgot to put any people on the boat. If you made a silent movie about rats trapped in an upside down model sailboat (say, Stuart Little’s) and the rats managed to scramble somehow to the top of the boat, the results would be exactly like Poseidon. It is as though Petersen decided to take the last five minutes of A Perfect Storm and expand it to two hours. It may very well be that Petersen has done his science homework and a capsized ocean liner only has minutes before it goes down. That would be all very well and good in a documentary. But a fiction film needs air pockets if we’re to form any attachment to the characters…and we ought to form attachments to the characters if the film is going to have any meaning…and a film should have meaning, shouldn’t it? Poseidon is a large screen video game, less important to us than the accompanying popcorn. We neither know nor care anything about the little band of anonymous ciphers who inhabit this story beyond their names and occupational and familial titles. They are no more important to us than the hundreds of extras who are ritually drowned, crushed, shattered, burned and electrocuted in this mildly violent ballet of death.

And the little we know, we don’t like. Josh Lucas is a cynical gambler and former Navy SEAL who resembles a catalog model. Kurt Russell is a former Mayor of New Yorkand former New Yorkfireman with a really good tan. Emmy Rossum is his pretty daughter who resembles a fashion model. There’s another 6 or 8 like this but it hardly matters; none of them are members of the human race as you or I know it. The original film was about a group of highly imperfect people, people you might not peg as survivors or team players, summoning the strength and the character to go on. They were played by such sex symbols as Shelly Winters, Jack Albertson, Red Buttons and Ernest Borgnine (Marty, for god’s sake). Along the way, you got to know these vulnerable people, like them, and consequently, root for them. Lately modern Hollywood repeatedly makes the mistake of thinking we want to root for invulnerable people, and I hope to God they’re wrong because the technical name for that philosophy is fascism. The modern hero is a vigilante on steroids dispatching dozens of bad guys with an AK-47 (or in the case of Poseidon it’s Josh Lucas leaping 100 feet through a burning oil slick into the water beneath in order to rig a special rescue device with a fire hose). But in my book, if the hero is superman the stakes are zero. And why on earth is Kurt Russell a former New York Mayor? It is as though the creators, perceiving that they could not write any characters we could like, opted to replace them with symbolic shorthand for concepts with high Q score. It scans more like a football playbook than what you would call a script. But, contrary to popular belief, you need a script. Without one, all sorts of moral questions go unasked. Stay or go? Live or die? Help the hopeless or save myself? At one point in Poseidon, Richard Dreyfus, as a gay millionaire, is forced to shake off a man who is clinging to his legs for dear life over a burning precipice. Once accomplished, this action, which would be traumatic for any person with a conscience, is never referred to in the film again. This is not good. In these treacherous times, the cinema – all culture – has a role to play in helping us process new realities, and in helping us as citizens of a presumably democratic nation to think and decide the questions of the day. Questions with life-and-death implications for all of us. In light of this, the question on everyone’s lips should not be, “Are we ready for Flight 93?” (we undoubtedly are), but “Are we still able to stomach Poseidon?” Me, I was puking over the rail.

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