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Saturday
Feb182012

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012)

Flat, Tired

Here's a note for the executives at Marvel Knights, one of the five production companies that pasted together Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance: not every comic-book character deserves a film franchise. Sure, superheroes have enthralled readers for decades, but some of them are so dull that not even Nicolas Cage can make them interesting for more than ten minutes on screen. It's doubly problematic if the co-directors of the Crank series can't keep me from nodding off during chase scenes in which one or more of the characters is on fire.

The one thing this movie has going for it is that it's a fraction of a fraction of a fraction better than the 2007 original. The opening stunts are truly spectacular, with few CG enhancements evident in a scene where a man flies off a motorcycle, over the side of a bridge, and into a chasm while shooting at his pursuers. I credit AMC Theatres for showing me a three-minute featurette on the making of this scene before just about every movie I've attended in the last two months; without this commercial-before-the-commercials, I wouldn't have appreciated the fact that one of the directors followed the actor off the bridge while strapped into a harness with the camera--in a real-life, dangerous location. Sadly, this is the most exciting aspect of the film. My advice: pay to see a good movie instead, and get the best part of Spirit of Vengeance for free.

I also appreciate the much-improved Ghost Rider CGI. The first time around, the main character looked like a half-texture-mapped computer model whose fiery head was created with a base-settings plug-in. In the new movie, his eerie, bug-eyed skull is charred a deep black, with hints of glistening tar caked on the bone. The flames are much cooler now, too, crackling, weaving, and generally acting like real-life fire (as close to "real life" as you can get with a bike-riding hellspawn).

Besides those minor points, there's nothing here to recommend. Practically all of the main character's history and motivation can be figured out by looking at him: motorcycle stunt man Johnny Blaze (Cage) made a deal with the Devil (Ciaran Hinds) to save his dying father's life; Satan rigged the agreement, marrying a vengeance demon to Blaze's soul. Now, whenever ten minutes goes by without explosions or shouting--sorry, I mean, whenever Blaze encounters evil, he transforms into the Rider and devours the spirits of nearby sinners.

Spirit of Vengeance grafts this Hulk-on-a-Harley premise onto the nine-billionth Nearly-Catatonic-Child-Who Holds-the-Key-to-Everything-and-Must-Be-Protected-from-the-Forces-of-Darkness-By-a-Troubled-Antihero movie. In this case, it's the son of Satan (Fergus Riordan), who, with the help of his mother (Violante Placido), the Ghost Rider, and a French monk/mercenary named Moreau (Idris Elba, rising so far above the material he can only be seen from space), must make a perilous journey across Eastern Europe to a holy sanctuary. If he can remain hidden from the old man until after a prophesied date, he will...um, stop being evil or something?**

Who knows? Who cares?

Look, once the words "Eastern Europe" pop up in the first two minutes, you know that every cent of this film's meager budget was spent on hiring Cage back and improving the CGI. Interesting locations and an engaging, imaginative script didn't even come up at the pitch meeting, I promise you. I have nothing against Eastern Europe, but it's become the dumping ground for overly budget-conscious studios. "Why spend half a million bucks on closing off two blocks in L.A. for a week," the executives figure, "when we can shoot all of Bulgaria for thirty-five cents and some signed Raising Arizona DVDs?"

I'm kidding, of course, but you wouldn't know that from watching Spirit of Vengeance. The movie is gray, desolate, and full of rotten, broken-down buildings populated by burly, Cro-Magnon-types with machine guns. The only things separating this from In The Land of Blood and Honey are genocide and quality.

Screenwriters Scott M. Gimple, Seth Hoffman, and David S. Goyer do their best to keep the audience awake by giving Cage a couple of classic flip-out scenes and a sub-nemesis named Carrigan (Johnny Whitworth*). The problem is, there's not enough of either to make the movie consistently nuttily, sluttily appealing. For every bug-eyed tantrum, there's a quiet scene of Blaze receiving communion; whenever Carrigan gets close to being interesting, he's either run over, thrown into something, or upstaged altogether by the movie's main heavy. Had the filmmakers gone bat-shit crazy with the story instead of investing in a low-rent Crow sequel,*** Spirit of Vengeance might have had a chance.

Instead, the movie stumbles and drags us through vague spirituality, secret cults, and demonic lore that pops up as cartoons narrated by Cage in one of the worst examples of shiny-objects syndrome I can recall. Worse yet, Marvel and company(ies) have opted to sell this thing as a 3D experience, which directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor absolutely fail to deliver. Their entire filmmaking philosophy involves buying cheap cameras that can be easily broken during their wild, practical stunts--meaning a lot of hand-held stuff and imagery of less-than-superior quality; imagine paying four bucks extra to watch Paranormal Activity in 3D, and you'll get the picture. The only thing that popped off the flat, washed-out screen was a single, subtitled sentence.

I began this review by suggesting that Ghost Rider doesn't need his own movie. I stand by that, to the extent that he would make a great cameo or ensemble player in a traditional comic-book movie. In order to sell him as a character worth watching for ninety minutes, he needs a writer, director, and studio willing to push his stories into horrific, fantastical territory. What would a Neil Gaiman Ghost Rider movie look like, I wonder? I wouldn't sell my soul to find out, but movies like this make me welcome potential offers.

*Who also stars in the recently reviewed Empire Records.

**You'll also get zero points for guessing that, since this is a superhero sequel, there'll be a scene where Blaze gives up his powers in order to lead a normal life--exactly five minutes before an unstoppable threat arrives, for which his powers would be perfectly suited in battle.

***Not to be confused with Drive Angry.

Friday
Feb172012

Empire Records (1995)

Madhouse of Wax

I don't believe in guilty pleasures. If a movie makes you feel happy, sad, nostalgic, whatever, you should stand by it--even if (especially if) uppity film critics say otherwise. The key to embracing such films lies in acknowledging the reasons you feel guilty enjoying them. For example, I liked Hannah Montana: The Movie, and have recommended it highly to friends. But I can't defend it as anything more than a glitter-sprinkled, trashy distraction.

Were I to praise Miley Cyrus' gaudy, split-personality musical as a misunderstood comment on tween identity crises in post-9/11 America, you'd be right in calling me out. The film is universally recognized as being terrible, but bad movies often make the best viewing experiences. That's an important distinction.*

There are exceptions to every rule, of course; for me, one of the biggest is Empire Records. Alan Moyle's notorious 1995 flop sold more soundtracks than tickets, but has become one of my favorite films of all time.** Unfortunately, I've seen it so often that I can't decide whether it's a legitimately good movie or a legitimately bad one. The semi-queasy feeling I get during the montages in which earnest teenagers sing directly into the camera or bop while they're cleaning their titular workplace send mixed signals to my brain: are they cute flaws in an otherwise fine film, or clear indicators that there's no depths to which actors will sink to avoid waiting tables?

In case you're unfamiliar with Empire Records (for shame!), the movie opens with Lucas (Rory Cochrane), a nouveau-beatnik teen who learns that his boss' boss is about to sell his beloved, independent record store to a soulless, corporate chain. He steals nine-thousand dollars from the safe and heads to Atlantic City--where it quickly disappears, along with his hopes of making enough cash to stop the sale.

The rest of the film takes place during the next day, which sees Lucas' boss/adoptive father, Joe (Anthony LaPaglia), freaking out over the missing money and keeping the store's owner from calling the police. It's also Rex Manning Day at Empire Records; the former Top 40 crooner (played by Maxwell Caulfield) shows up to sign autographs and ogle the attractive, young staff. Among them is Corey (Liv Tyler), who plans to lose her virginity to Manning, a lifelong crush.

About half a dozen subplots spin out from here, including Lucas' pursuit of a shoplifter, Corey's tense friendship with co-worker/BFF, Gina (Renee Zellweger), and a carton of proverbial, post-suicide-attempt egg shells surrounding troubled punk-chick, Debra (Robin Tunney). Amazingly, Carol Heikkinen's script doesn't feel bloated, and (mostly) avoids slipping into melodrama; Empire Records flows just about perfectly, with hilariously off-the-wall interstitials popping up whenever the story teeters on self-seriousness (such as Manning's amazing, Robert Palmer-inspired music video, and another employee's pot-brownie fantasy involving the band GWAR).

I think modern audiences will find a lot to appreciate here, especially in terms of the cast. Populated largely with then-unknowns, the movie overflows with great character actors. When Corey and Gina have their big, screaming fall-out towards the end, it's easy to see why Zellweger later won an Oscar and Tyler...um, became a supporting fixture in The Lord of the Rings. LaPaglia and Cochrane share an absolutely magnetic chemistry that suggests a rich, quirky history; I would love to have followed their adventures beyond the store's walls.

The best reason to watch Empire Records is to revisit Moyle's ability to perfectly capture anti-authority, teen angst. This isn't a hypocritical riff on my earlier Hannah Montana commentary; I'm being serious. Empire Records feels like a day-job documentary about the high schoolers from the director's previous film, Pump Up the Volume. Unlike many teen-targeted movies, Moyle's tend to focus on the adults' plights as much as the kids'. He presents an odd circle of parents being messed up, dissatisfied, and disillusioned--and therefore unable to give their scared children anything to aspire to once the safety net of high school has been snatched away.

At the end of this movie, the gang of misfits holds an impromptu rock concert to raise cash and save their store. It works, of course, but not in the way you might expect. Joe, the put-upon manager who'd spent the entire film lamenting his dip-shit staff and clinging to his semi-corporate job, finds the courage to walk away. In this beautiful moment (set to Sponge's scorched-Earth anthem, "Plowed") an adult remembers what it was like to be young and afraid--but not so afraid as to avoid taking risks.

In this way, Empire Records does its job perfectly: it's unabashedly corny, stupid, and weird, but so was everyone, at some point in their lives. Some are fortunate and/or driven enough to stay that way. But for many of us, careers, family, and mortgages polluted the waters with a new set of standards and satisfactions; they're nice, in the abstract, but nowhere near as pure as the impulses that might once have compelled us to dance in the workplace.

As a teenager, I thought that working at Empire Records would be a sweet gig. As an adult, I just think how miserable it must be to shop there, with half the staff breaking out into Glee-style grunge numbers or screwing in the safe room, and the other holding mock funerals and gluing quarters to the floor.

Empire Records does make me feel guilty--not for loving it, but for having grown up.

*Ironically, movies that probably should inspire guilty feelings are often the most confoundingly popular. Bridesmaids is a terrible film that has fooled a lot of people into thinking that it's not only a quality comedy, but also an Oscar-worthy one.

**Don't be alarmed: it's somewhere in the mid-200s.

Tuesday
Feb142012

The Vow (2012)

Swearing Up a Storm

Like millions of other men, I was dragged to the cineplex last weekend to see 2012's big Valentine's Day release, The Vow. But I may have been the one guy in America who actually enjoyed it. Let me be clear: just about everything in this movie is either terrible or tainted by terribleness. But the few good parts mix with a treasure trove of hilarious nonsense to create a minor, under-the-radar success.

I'd like to dive in with a confession: my ability to accurately judge this film may be impaired by its having been filmed on Chicago's North Side. Until recently, I lived in or around some of the neighborhoods featured here, and they've never looked better than in the hands of cinematographer Rogier Stoffers. This seems like a silly pass to give a movie, but I stand by it; when faced with two hours of utter boredom, there's no such thing as a bad distraction.

The Vow opens with a young, attractive couple named Paige (Rachel McAdams) and Leo (Channing Tatum) coming out of a late-night movie. While driving home, Paige unbuckles her seatbelt to give Leo a kiss at a stop sign. Suddenly, a snow plow rear-ends their car, sending Paige through the windshield and into a coma.

Days later, she wakes up with severe memory loss. In her mind, she's no longer the carefree, successful artist who moved to the big city five years ago; she's the buttoned-up law student with a stuffy-yet-dashing fiancé named Jeremy (Scott Speedman) and wealthy parents who neither approve of nor understand the arts. This presents a unique problem for Leo, considering Paige's falling out with her parents half a decade earlier was so severe that he'd never actually met her family. Soon, he's awkwardly hobnobbing with elites who don't know what to make of his "job" as head of an upstart recording studio.

As Paige grows closer to her parents (Sam Neill and Jessica Lange) and sister (Jessica McNamee), Leo has to work harder to convince her that they belong together in their new life. This struggle makes up most of The Vow, and is hindered by two big problems.

First, Leo is a meat-head. Yes, my anti-Channing Tatum prejudice is rearing its ugly head, but the beef is legitimate. On Paige's first night home from the hospital, Leo throws a huge surprise party for her, not thinking for a second how frightening it would be to walk into a room packed with needy, questioning strangers. There are other examples of him not thinking straight, but that's the most egregious.

About Tatum: he's got a terrific, leading-man look that is shattered whenever he speaks. His delivery is often stilted and unconfident, as if his brain is constipated and words are sharts weakly dribbling from his mouth. The Vow has a handful of scenes where the actor is more relaxed, approaching naturalism.** But he was obviously cast as candy, evidenced by the fact that eight of the ten pictures Paige digs up from their relationship feature her husband shirtless or nearly so.

The second problem is Paige's unbelievable transformation. I'm not talking about the post-accident brain trauma; I mean the event from five years earlier that transformed her from Suburban Law Student Barbie into a funky, urban, vegetarian sculptor. I'm not saying this couldn't happen, but what I know of the often Grand Canyon-sized gulf between the sensibilities and gifts of lawyers and artists forces me to call "bullshit" on this whole story.

Even if Paige did give up everything and turn her back on all that her parents value, asking us to believe that she discovered a heretofore latent ability so amazing that she gets grants from the Chicago Tribune and can make enough from her art to afford both a huge apartment and gargantuan studio space is, frankly, insulting. Maybe if the five (!) credited writers had taken the time to explain this miraculous about-face, I could have bought into it. But, no, we just have to accept this as a way of life in Fairy Tale Windy City.

But these arguments miss the point, don't they? The Vow isn't a movie for the head, it's a movie for the heart--more accurately, the loins. What girl wouldn't want a semi-nude, moonlight romp on the beach with Channing Tatum? What guy wouldn't love a spin on the pottery wheel with Rachel McAdams?

This is pure, unabashed relationship porn, a fantasy meant to be enjoyed in the unique solitude of movie-watching with a significant other. If a man can withstand the wilting notion that he may not be the star of his beloved's imagination during the (hopefully) inevitable post-film sex, and if a woman can still get an appropriate tingle on for her reluctant shlub of a mate--who thinks taking them to see The Vow guarantees post-film sex--then the movie has done its job.***

Like The Notebook, The Vow uses the metaphor of memory loss to speak to countless spouses who feel the magic has gone out of their relationships. Both films see epically romantic journeys into the past as keys to conquering sadness in the present; the not-so-subtle message being that, over time, husbands/boyfriends inevitably forget how to appreciate their wives/girlfriends. This can be a very real problem, and a great subject for a film. But by burying the theme in a bizarre salt-truck-accident contrivance, the filmmakers make their grander points eye-rollingly corny instead of profound.

But, as I said earlier, I really enjoyed The Vow. It's appropriately soapy, goofy, and weepy. I love Leo and Paige's ridiculous hipster friends, who all look forty yet dress like they're eighteen. I love Speedman's turn as the asshole ex-boyfriend and Neill as the asshole current dad. And despite Tatum's wretched Tatum-ness, he gave me permission to not take anything on the screen seriously (had Ryan Gosling or other age-appropriate and suitably amazing actor taken the role, I'm sure this review would have read a lot differently). The Vow is cozy, hilarious, utterly lacking in logic, and, at times, an embarrassing test of will. In short, it is love.

*The Vow opens with a a cool downward shot of the Music Box Theatre, in which I was almost married.

**Bizarrely, Tatum's dialogue is belied by his inner monologue, whose insight and thoughtful cadence offer a knee-slapping contrast to the marble-mouthed mumbling he shares with the rest of the world.

***To my LGBT friends, feel free to mentally switch whatever roles are necessary to make this scenario work for you.

Monday
Feb132012

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)

See it Again, for the Worst Time

I've only seen Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace all the way through on two occasions. The first was at a midnight-premiere screening in 1999; the second was Friday afternoon, on the first day of its remastered, rejiggered, 3D rerelease. The intervening years have seen countless critiques of George Lucas' once highly anticipated prequel trilogy--Patton Oswalt's reigns as the succinct and hilarious gold standard*--so I won't pile on with more nitpicking and claims of exaggerated hurt feelings from my psychically molested inner child.

Instead, I'll explain why you should avoid The Phantom Menace's latest big-screen run--despite the allure of pocketing overpriced, "collectible" 3D glasses with Darth Maul's face printed on the stems. Like most kids of my generation, I grew up being a huge Star Wars fan. I scooped up as many action figures as my parents could afford, and even dressed up as Luke Skywalker for Halloween. The films excited me with their epic scope and energy, and as the first of the prequels drew near, my anticipation was incalculable.

The morning after I saw it, I marched into work, took down all the Phantom Menace action figures, vehicles, and mini-posters with which I'd decorated my desk, and distributed them to my co-workers. I warned them that the movie was an overlong, boring mess; rightfully so, they didn't believe me. Why would they? How could they? It was Star Wars, for crying out loud. Even the Muppet-tacular Return of the Jedi (widely considered the worst in the original series) had some things going for it.

As usual, I held the minority opinion, even after all my friends saw the film. They called me "crazy" and bombarded me with reasons that they "really liked" it (which uniformly included the phrase, "It's not perfect, but..."). Though the last decade-plus has seen my doomsayer gripes become globally accepted wisdom, fans' widespread frustration is ultimately meaningless. Lucas knows that he doesn't just control a brand, but a significant branch of our pop consciousness, unassailable even by his gimmicky stunts and garish declarations of revisionist history.

What I didn't realize until a couple days ago was just how awful The Phantom Menace is--not just as a Star Wars movie, but as a movie, period. I think my brain-burning disbelief at the screenplay's trade-tariff debates and midichlorian mumbo-jumbo created an illusion for twenty-two-year-old me that things were actually happening on the screen--my "It's going to get better" optimism, crossed with a restless "What the FUCK?!" sense of confusion,** created a false sense of activity that no longer shades my assessment.

Okay, enough with the whiny preamble. What's actually wrong with the movie?

In two words, George Lucas. While I respect the hell out of him for creating a successful and enduring franchise, the truth is that he should have stuck with the lessons he learned on the original trilogy and let other people write and direct the prequels. The Phantom Menace reeks of bad ideas piled on top of worse ideas that were shot with a "fix it in post" mentality. I don't fault the actors for their atrocious performances; Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor have done great work on other projects, and even laughing-stock Jake Lloyd has been unfairly maligned for his turn as Anakin ("The Mannequin") Skywalker. Lloyd was no Haley Joel Osment, but not even Haley Joel Osment would've been Haley Joel Osment in Lucas' hands.

Only Liam Neeson rises above the material as the wise but slightly off-kilter Jedi Master, Qui-Gon Jinn. And considering the significant amount of time he spends on screen with the Olsen Twins-quoting rubber alien, Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), this is a truly remarkable achievement.

Ah, yes, Jar Jar. One of two huge indicators of the prequel trilogy's impending mediocrity. In place of a snarky, dangerous rogue--along the lines of Han Solo--to break up the monotony of space monks and stolid, monotone royalty, we get a floppy-eared court jester whose charms might appeal to toddlers. I'd forgotten how great a detriment to the film Jar Jar was. His high-pitched baby-speak voice is gratingn and his constant, slapstick pratfalls just aren't funny. He's only useful in filling up space that would otherwise have been stuffed with more filibustering about the Naboo embargo--a concept I still can't understand, and which I'm likely mischaracterizing out of apathy.

The second red flag is actually a red-and-black flag; his name is Darth Maul (Ray Park). The devil-faced apprentice to evil mastermind Darth Sidious (Ian McDairmid) was sold to potential audiences as the new Darth Vader--a badass villain with amazing fighting skills and a double-bladed lightsaber! For his eight minutes of screen time, Maul is indeed a beautifully weird character. But after he gets chopped in half during the climactic three-way battle with Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan Kenobi (McGregor), we realize that the nemeses we were meant to care about all along were the corrupt trade federation representatives--bug-eyed Asian caricatures who make Charlie Chan sound like Barack Obama.

That three-way lightsaber fight is spectacular, the highlight of the whole film. It's part of the more-engaging-than-expected third act, where Lucas finally include some star wars in his new Star Wars movie. Leading up to this are the aforementioned political speeches, lots of wandering around, and a podrace that serves as the big, mid-movie blow-out (i.e. CG snooze alarm). The podrace isn't nearly as great, I think, as everyone remembers it--even in 3D. Perhaps it's a matter of the sequence having been surrounded by such dull gibberish that desperate fans gave it a pass--but the whole thing plays like a video game that got left out in the sun.

We never see the most interesting part of The Phantom Menace on screen. It's suggested in a line of dialogue between Portman's Queen Amidala and her head of security, Captain Panaka (Hugh Quarshie). He says the people of Naboo have begun to push back against the federation forces that have taken over their city. Lucas' greatest narrative failing is assuming that the audience would rather listen to the boardroom PowerPoint version of the labor dispute than to see its real-world effects.

In 1977's Star Wars, a few lines of dialogue and one really cool meeting of imperial generals--in which Darth Vader choked a guy out for making fun of his religion--are the only overt indicators of galaxy-wide political conflict. Lucas relied on his characters' struggles to tell the big-picture story. If this series had been unleashed on the world chronologically, I'm fairly certain Star Wars would have been a cinema-history footnote, an Ishtar-sized flop (Ish-star?) on a barren sci-fi landscape.

The only point I'll concede to Lucas is that he wisely inserted the digital Yoda character into The Phantom Menace. I'm not a proponent of his continual tinkering with the series, but I never liked the puppet his effects team created for this film. The new Yoda provides a nice continuity with the prequel trilogy, and leaves the puppetry in the original series where it belongs. Besides, this attempt to bridge the halves aesthetically might fool newcomers into believing that the quality carries over, too.

As for the 3D enhancements, nothing jumped out at me (literally or figuratively). Like most Lucasfilm endeavors, this rerelease is just a ploy for cash and relevance. You won't notice anything wearing the Darth Maul glasses that you didn't before, except maybe how muddy The Phantom Menace looks; turns out there've been mammoth advances in digital technology since 1999, and this movie hasn't aged well--this thing will look like Tron in five years. If you really want to be blown away, I suggest saving your money and seeing the original trilogy in 3D a few years from now. That way, you'll at least have tauntaun guts and Princess Leia's swirly, bronze bikini exploding off the screen to look forward to--as opposed to the CG bantha poop now playing at a theatre near you.

I apologize if you've grown bored with this review. Don't worry: it's almost over.

Writing about Episode I today is like discussing an ex-girlfriend from three relationships ago: deep inside, the embers of regret still sizzle, fueled by undying innocence. On the surface, though, you just feel embarrassed at ever having fallen for that lying bi--

What? Oh, right--Star Wars. Yes, thirteen years later, The Phantom Menace still sucks.

But now it's in 3D.

*For you minutia obsessives, please check out Red Letter Media's ridiculous but oh-so-accurate, hour-and-ten-minute video evisceration. You'll never watch movies the same way again.

**I'm confident that those who've seen The Phantom Menace will understand my use of profanity and therefore not demand that I beg anyone's pardon.

Saturday
Feb112012

Cool as Ice (1991)

Wigger Mortis

Wow. It's not often that a well-reasoned reader review crosses my Inbox--especially not ones from PhD candidates! Sure enough, Martin Correy, a third-year Memetics Major and intern at Cambridge's prestigious Fors-Maste Institute, wrote me the other day.

He took issue with a review draft I'd posted on their "Critical Tinkerings" forum (hey, these pieces don't write themselves); I've gotta say, he impressed me so much that I not only scrapped my write-up in favor of running his, but he actually changed the way I look at Cool as Ice. Enjoy.*

Hell0, Ian.

I've followed Kicking the Seat since spotting your twentieth draft of the infamous Love Happens review on the CT boards a few years ago (personally, I'm glad you removed the profanity and non sequitur musings about "banana boobies"). Though we generally disagree on most films, I've never felt compelled to "call you out"--until now. Your most recent piece, a review of the 1991 Vanilla Ice vehicle, Cool as Ice, is one of the laziest, most uninformed assessments of a film I've seen.

With great snark and relish, you dismiss the movie as "gaudy" and "a wiggerific, unflushable turd". These sentiments align with two-decades-old popular wisdom, but I'm surprised you didn't catch the deliciously subversive, forward-looking themes of social engineering in David Stenn's screenplay. Or that the script was just the tip of the iceberg in Universal Pictures' plan to shape youth culture in the early part of the new century.

That's right, Cool as Ice was not, as you might assume, a bland cash-in on a wildly successful music act; it was the foundation for at least half a dozen trends we see in youth culture today--including bringing hip-hop to white, affluent communities; spawning the next twelve generations of anti-animal-cruelty activists, and even re-shaping perceptions of global conflict for all of Western civilization.

I'll leave discovering the other three memes up to you, but to demonstrate how not-crazy I am, allow me to explicate points one through three. First, a little background:

In case you're unfamiliar with memes, they're ideas transmitted through culture in much the same way genes are passed along. Famed evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the word in 1976, shortly after which the field of memetics was born. Imagine pouring a cup of red food dye (a new idea) into the center of an Olympic-sized swimming pool (collective consciousness). Though relatively small, the change agent will eventually shade every bit of surface water, and possibly go much deeper. Memeticists study the origins and effects of the dye in order to better understand the pool.

Cool as Ice's splash was significantly smaller, debuting in fourteenth place on opening weekend and quickly vanishing from the national scene. At a glance, this beats-and-rhymes remake of Rebel Without a Cause plays like a cross between Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Say Anything, and Edward Scissorhands; aspiring white rapper, Johnny (Ice), cruises the country with his all-black posse in search of gigs. When one of the gang's bikes breaks down, they have no choice but to stop in a small town full of squares.

To the polite citizenry, Johnny is a freak. His clipped words of wisdom wrapped in bizarre hood-speak and over-large, brightly colored outfits make him as alien a creature as E.T. (though Spielberg's puppet never dreamed of saying things like, "Yo! You need to drop the zero and get with the hero."). Though director David Kellogg sets his film in post-segregation America, Johnny's friends are the only people of color to be seen in the whole town.** Race doesn't manifest as an issue, except in the subtext of Johnny's corruption by a sub-culture that sees education and politeness as proverbial shackles hearkening back to literal ones.

Johnny's gang spends ninety percent of the film waiting in a local repair shop for the bike to get fixed, while Johnny puts the moves on a cute high schooler named Kathy (Kristin Minter). The sub-subtext here diverges neatly: the immediate effect is that the scary black people are well hidden from the out-of-touch, old white folks; longer-term, Johnny functions as an emissary for broader, Afro-centric concerns. In the years following the movie's release, rap music and icons of non-white culture invaded the suburbs, degrading not only language, but youth perceptions of the importance of language itself.

Johnny's random cries of "Aaawwwwww yeaaaah" as a substitute for a lingual expression, over time, became the rule instead of the exception. Language is always the first cultural domino to fall, followed by fashion--less than two decades on, the most profitable, youth-targeted clothing brands are marketed to "gangsta" lifestyle blacks--but are kept in business by the parents of affluent white kids.

Most sociologists agree that a person's demeanor (a combination of looks, language, and attitude) informs not only their self image, but the way others perceive them. Just as Johnny's new neighbors can't get past his loud, pointless, anti-establishment posing, neither can modern culture accept the downturn in youth concerns for manners, empathy, and the concomitant uptick in their collective sense of achievement-free entitlement. How else to explain the disturbing advent of "LOL" as a widely accepted expression of an idea?***

Speaking of disturbing, this passage from your review struck a particularly sore nerve with me:

"This movie's uglier than its characters. Whoever shot this thing should be shot."

You may be interested to know that the film's cinematographer is two-time Academy Award-winner Janusz Kaminski, who began working with Steven Spielberg on Schindler's List shortly after Cool as Ice wrapped (if this were one of your reviews, I'm sure you'd highlight the fact that these two films have probably never appeared in the same sentence). I know you're not a fan of visual subtext unless it's so obvious that it borders on just plain text (this is not a slam, just a recognition of trends--I've read your Tree of Life review several times, in utter disbelief), but you really should revisit this movie.

In his beatific depictions of small-town America, Kaminski stirs the most primal emotions of tribalism (patriotism), a theme that would permeate many future collaborations with Spielberg. As long shots of peaceful, Midwest countryside are tarnished by Johnny and his friends tearing along on loud, silly-looking motorcycles, the message is clear: it is our national duty to preserve the national character from invading forces. Kaminski worked the meme beautifully into the arc of his career, showing the innocuous effects of capitulation in Cool as Ice; the results of too much rolling over in Schindler's List; and the darkest-hour, global bailout scenario of Saving Private Ryan.

"And then they came for me," indeed.

Today, we see a hyper-vigilant version of this attitude, and a call to return to the "good old days" on the national political stage. From the Tea Party to the Occupy Movement, both sides of the cultural spectrum are outraged at what they perceive to be a society highjacked by sinister foreign interests (if not literal, then figurative foreigners--corporate interests whose ideals run contrary to our understanding of the nation's founding principles).

Everything from TSA body scans to increased interest in border security to calls for the black President to produce his birth certificate are, believe it or not, the poisonous, low-hanging fruit of a tree planted two decades ago by David Stenn and Vanilla Ice. To suggest that Kaminski merely pruned the leaves is to discount the importance of aesthetics in propaganda.

The animal-activism point is the lowest-hanging fruit. At least six hundred cows were sacrificed to Ice's wardrobe, and the numerous shots of livestock grazing peacefully illustrates the point loud and clear: These unintelligible foreigners are here to mock us with their casual, gross exploitation of our resources. Ice's most frequently used puffy jacket in the film is a black leather number with white, leather slang stitched into it, such as "Ice", "Freeze", "Danger", and, most quizzically, "Yep"--which my more conspiratorial (and slightly racist) colleagues insist is an acronym for "Youth Ebonics Power". Saving animals, then, becomes not just a righteous cause for interspecies relations, but a crusade against corrupting cultural influences.

One last nugget for you, and then I'll go. The film's casting is key to understanding its sinister nature. Michael Gross, the hippie dad from Family Ties, plays Kathy's uptight father. John Haymes Newton, who played Superboy on television a few years earlier, plays Kathy's uptight, jerk boyfriend. They're literally and figuratively cuckolded by the Johnny character; one of them is eventually seduced by his pouty-lipped, arched-eyebrow charms.

The message is two-pronged and clear: truth, justice, and the American way are no match for the attractive vulgarities of change, and permissive liberalism cannot go unchecked, for fear of the national identity melting away entirely. Johnny's declaration, "It ain't where you're from, it's where you're at" speaks to a lack of grounding that can sway the maleable-minded (in this case, teenagers) in potentially dangerous directions.

I don't necessarily agree with anything I've written, from a philosophical standpoint--but the memes are real and their effects are undeniable. So, before you write off another film as "cheap, stupid thrills masked as mad skillz", I suggest you recalibrate your brain and actually pay attention.

Thanks for letting me ramble. Looking forward to whatever's next.

mc

*Thanks to reader feedback on the last reader review I posted, I've taken the liberty of including paragraph breaks and inserting requisite bolds, italics, and cast information. Fortunately, I didn't have to touch the grammar, as Mr. Correy can apparently use Spell Check.

**I should have written, "the whole town proper". A few African-Americans can be seen hanging around a bar on the outskirts of this "Wonder Bread" community.

***Worse yet, the verbal mutation appears to be accelerating: "LOL" eventually became "lol"--which soon left the realm of texting and entered spoken communication. People began pronouncing "el-oh-el" instead of actually laughing out loud.