Alan Smithee Podcast 62: Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983, John Landis & Steven Spielberg & Joe Dante & George Miller)

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The Twilight Zone movie has an infamy mostly forgotten and an epochal significance in movie history rarely acknowledged.

The infamy belonged to John Landis, for killing b-movie workhorse Vic Morrow and two kids in a helicopter crash. This wasn’t the first or last time actors would die on movie sets, but the attachment of Steven Spielberg as producer kept the affair in the news until Landis was acquitted several years later. Ironically, is career only began declining after this acquittal and the only reforms to come about from the accident were stricter child actor laws, as both kids were underage and working after accepted child actor hours.

The rest of the film represents the state of popular fantasy filmmaking in America at the time, which may as well have meant American filmmaking period from that point onward; the aftermath of those heady Spielberg/Lucas/Jaws/Star Wars gold rush days. This was just one year before Spielberg wielded his influence to create the PG-13 rating, inaugurating the slow de-evolution of all American film into pseudo-sophisticated adolescent escapist drivel. The state of adolescent fantasy films in 1983 was still very good indeed, though. Spielberg’s celebration of the television show which probably had a greater impact on his fellow monster makers and pop-fantasy moralists was like a victory cry: We have grown up, we have accepted the mantle of Rod, and now we are the music makers and dreamers of dreams. Let us rejoice.

Besides himself and Landis, Spielberg’s choice of newcomers Joe Dante and George Miller affirmed the notion that violence, horror, humor, kinetic action and a dash of sweetness could all be synthesized together into something for everybody. Dante’s Gremlins, produced by Spielberg in 1984 along with his own alternately heart-ripping and heartwarming Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom under the brand new PG-13 banner, legitimized this perpetual adolescent orthodoxy for good. Miller’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome came the following year in 1985, and while Spielberg was not formally attached, it was clear the influence had rubbed off: where George’s prior Mad Max films were full of violent battles with sadistic homosexual biker gangs, Mel Gibson’s chief concern in Part 3 became saving a tribe full of adorable orphaned ragamuffins.

The entertainment value of Twilight Zone: The Movie is a mixed bag, which is why between the four directors and their segmented offerings we decided to let this episode stand with this film alone. Landis’ opening prologue and fatal first segment are cloddish, while Spielberg’s rendition of “Kick the Can” redefines mawkishness and nearly induces fatally freezing waves of douche chills on the viewer. Joe Dante’s version of “It’s a Good Life” on the other hand, is a clever reworking of the original story along Dante’s thematic preoccupations with television and cartoons. George Miller’s version of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” may lack the slow-burn intensity of William Shatner’s performance from the original episode, but his camerawork is as brilliant as ever and generates constant excitement within the confines of the gremlin-besieged plane. Additionally, Jerry Goldsmith turns in a fine score throughout the whole film and I-am-legendary author Richard Matheson pens both Dante and Miller’s segments.

Has there ever been such a marked difference in quality between the first and second halves of a film? This episode of An Alan Smithee Podcast is a good movie and a bad one, all in one.

NEXT EPISODE: TIM BURTON SPECIAL! MARS ATTACKS! (1996, TIM BURTON) & SLEEPY HOLLOW (1999, TIM BURTON)

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Episode 51: Piranha (1978, Joe Dante) & Piranha (1995, Scott P. Levy)

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Horror franchises and would-be franchises evolve and devolve in the most unpredictable directions. The Piranha series is an illustrious and obscure one, as we began talking about in our look at Piranha II: The Spawning. In this episode of An Alan Smithee Podcast we complete our preparations for Piranha 3D, the biggest 3D horror event since the last one, with praise for the 1978 Roger Corman-produced original Piranha and abhorrence for the little seen 1995 Showtime channel remake also produced by Corman.

In 1978 Joe Dante got to direct his first film for Roger Corman after working for him as a trailer editor. Piranha announced to the world Dante’s expertise at monster movie nostalgia, a filmmaking role he was destined to practice throughout the special effects driven regressive childhood of the 80s. Alan Smithee has discussed his unjustly ignored monster and boyhood nostalgia throwback Matinee (1993). One of the few filmmakers taken under the wing of Steven Spielberg – that kindlier, cornier purveyor of boomer childhood and other people’s adulthoods – Dante must have known there’s no better way to get his attention than making a smarter and funnier competitor to that year’s Jaws 2.

Death Race 2000 or Rock ‘N’ Roll High School might have been the trash masterpiece that marked the peak of Corman’s second renaissance after the days of Vincent Price, but Piranha gave movie fans a warmup for Dante’s future stories of monster movie tropes intruding on the TV version of reality.

One of Piranha‘s secret weapons was the first genre screenplay of Johny Sayles, who’d go on to become one of the most respected independent filmmakers in America. In 1995, Corman was selling off his assets and remaking old titles for as little money and thought as possible, including the liberal recycling of the old scripts themselves. Piranha ’95 is a photocopy of the original crumbing away on cheap, brittle paper. The piranha themselves are mostly recycled as well, footage from the original film. This movie is almost guaranteed to disappoint fans of the original even more than Piranha II: The Spawning.

Piranha 3D has the good luck charm to be the third reputable follow up to the continuing adventures of good old Project Razorteeth. The cast indicates an appreciation of the original’s b movie eclecticism: Ving Rhames, Elizabeth Shue, a long lost Christopher Lloyd and Richard Dreyfuss in a Jaws spoofing cameo. Director Alex Aja knows how to pile on the grist they way they did 20 years ago. Incidentally, Dante has a 3D family friendly horror film called The Hole coming out later, so all three may now join that exclusive club inhabited by Dante and James Cameron called “What the heck do we have in common? Oh yes, piranhas and 3D.”

NEXT EPISODE: CONDUCT ZERO (2002, JO GEUN-SK) & FAR CRY (2008, UWE BOLL)

Episode 40: Gosford Park (2001, Robert Altman) / Piranha Part Two: The Spawning (1981, James Cameron)

With the Academy Awards once against swelling like a malignant infection, An Alan Smithee Podcast takes a completely inadvertently coincidental look this week at two films from frequent Oscar nominees: the late great Robert Altman and the not so great lately James Cameron. Altman’s career began anonymously in television before graduating to film and earning the acclaim of the academy when it was fashionable for them to do so. Only by making a film about Hollywood years later did he fall back into their favor, receiving at least the courtesy of nomination for the remainder of his life and career while the honors ultimately were bestowed upon keepers of the middle brow like Robert Zemeckis and Ron Howard.

James Cameron blossomed in the special effects boom of the 80s which drove directors like Altman into the darkness. He also did arguably more for the mainstreaming of special effects driven films than Steven Spielberg or George Lucas by making The Terminator and Aliens, blockbusters which established a permanent market for violent action films involving robots and/or aliens targeted at teenage boys instead of the entire family. Flash forward to the present day when serious Academy Award nominated dramatic actors vie to play villains in superhero movies and Cameron stands to sweep the industry’s highest self-congratulatory accolades for directing a 3D aliens and robots movie. Male adulthood has been replaced by perpetual adolescence and Cameron is truly king of the world. Yet even kings have to start somewhere as big fish in little ponds, before they spread their wings.

Gosford Park contains many of Altman’s trademarks, most prominently a sprawling cast with overlapping dialogue in the service of social satire. Ostensibly a murder mystery, the first half of this long story is spent establishing a myriad of ladies and gentlemen and their faithful servants gathering for a party in the countryside of England, 1932. Their social protocol is antiquated yet not so far in the past as to be unrecognizable, and the duality between the hosts and help is a fascinating look at the function and perception of privilege. The depiction of the servants behind the scenes is of particular interest to anyone wondering what the daily lives of maids, butlers et all were busy exchanging bon mots and stabbing each other in the back. Altman’s roving camera and Julian Fellowes kaleidoscopic screenplay create an amazing tour through the waning days of the British empire’s high society and one of the director’s most transportive works.

Roger Corman is scheduled to receive a lifetime achievement award at this year’s Oscars. The actors and directors he gave breaks to are legion and it will be interesting to see whom among them have enough self confidence to be associated with him, or even give their permission to be shown in the inevitable compilation reel alongside Jack Nicholson in The Little Shop of Horrors and Sylvester Stallone in Death Race 2000. Actually, Stallone will probably be too proud to OK the use of that clip.

Whether Cameron will give a tip of the hat to his earliest employer is a toss-up. Corman’s 70s outfit New World Pictures not only gave Joe Dante his first directorial work on Hollywood Boulevard and Piranha, but Cameron’s first special effects work on New World’s Galaxy of Terror and Battle Beyond The Stars. Surely this got Cameron the recommendation for the non-Corman produced sequel Piranha Part Two: The Spawning. Whereas Dante’s original spoofed Jaws while simultaneously making an exciting monster movie, Cameron’s sequel rather straightforwardly takes itself seriously even with the idiotic premise that some of the killer piranha have learned to fly.

If nothing else – and there really is nothing else – at least Cameron got some more special effects expertise under his belt for the future, which was only looking up. There’s a half-eaten Jamaican who looks remarkably similar to a battle damaged Arnold Schwarzenegger.

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NEXT WEEK: COMMENTARY TRACK SPECIAL! BATMAN (1989, TIM BURTON)

Episode 20: Rooftops (1989, Robert Wise) / Matinee (1993, Joe Dante)

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rooftops

This week in An Alan Smithee Podcast, Andrew and Matt become the ninth and tenth people to have seen Robert Wise’s theatrical swan song, Rooftops. Wise sure does love New York City, and his depiction of rooftop runaways in a generic part of Brooklyn often feels like a musical about homelessness about to break out and bust a move. Lost in the big, dumb and loud Summer of 1989, people are wan to forget some of the smaller big, dumb and loud movies, one which Andrew calls the worst we’ve seen yet. Considering we just saw ’89s Tango & Cash, that’s impressive.

Then it’s on to Matinee, where Joe Dante gives us the warm enveloping American nostalgia of 1962 without all the bullshit, AND KIDS WHO CAN ACT! Where did he find them? Gremlins 2 writer Charlie S. Haas deftly and jauntily tell the story of many, many things converging at once: young monster movie fan Gene’s new friends and romances in a new Florida town, the Cuban Missile Crisis, of which Gene’s father is stationed near, Gene’s touching relationship with his younger brother, plus 1993′s big star draw: John Goodman as Lawrence Woolsey, the ultimate fictionalized caricature of William Castle the horror movie gimmick master.

Dante’s extended movie-within-a-movie of Woolsey’s bug transformation shocker MANT! is pitch perfect. One of the best and most profound comedies about the magic of movies, Matinee is like the bright and colorful counterpart to Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, showing what movies mean to kids on the verge of adulthood and what the ritual of moviegoing meant to Americans of the atomic baby boom. Hence the mushroom cloud on the poster.

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NEXT WEEK: THE WAGES OF FEAR (1953, HENRI-GEORGES CLOUZOT) & TALK RADIO (1988, OLIVER STONE)