Crimes Against Humanity, Film And Television

Sometimes there are so many industry and news media developments to comment on, infinite blog space doesn’t seem like enough. Oh well, let’s just break it down into sections and go for the juiciest items that popped up in the last few weeks.

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At the Movies ended its 35-year run last month (provided you count its original incarnation, Sneak Previews, on PBS). I grew up watching the show and it was my introduction to film criticism. My favourite part was always the “Dog of the week” feature, later retitled the “Skunk of the week” for intellectual property purposes when Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert moved away from PBS. That was the last segment of the show when Roger or Gene would pick on some hapless Z-grade schlock that had just come out. This was at the tail end of the drive-in and grindhouse era, so they got to talk about some really cool trash cinema. I miss those days. Now the skunk or dog would be some straight-to-DVD crap that just wouldn’t have the same pedigree of sleaze about it. This was the golden age of Siskel and Ebert, but they had a long and successful run even after they became a mainstream-TV fixture.

And then Siskel got brain cancer and died, and then Ebert got thyroid cancer and had half his head amputated. Once Ebert was off the show and Richard Roeper stepped down with him, the writing was on the wall. What followed was the bleak year of the two Bens. Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz did all they could to screw the lid of the coffin down, and their reviews were more unwatchable than the worst films they ever discussed. If they made a movie about their year on the show, it would be called Douche and Douchier. A.O. Scott and Michael Phillips were much worthier replacements, but the damage was already done and their year at the helm was the last one. It all ended with a whimper rather than a roar. A rather pathetic whimper. Thirty-five years on the air, countless movies covered, thousands of timeless classics introduced and examined, and the very last film ever reviewed on the show was The Expendables. You may now roll your eyes in ironic disdain.

But! Ebert vows this won’t be the end. Not really. A successor is being prepped, ready to continue his work and fight the good fight for film criticism reduced to a simplistic yay or nay thumb-up-or-down verdict. The new show? Roger Ebert Presents At the Movies.

At the Movies was always criticized for not being as ethnically or sexually diverse as it should be. Even when they were going through the long process of choosing an emergency backup Siskel, and then an emergency backup Ebert, it was looking like a bit of a white-bread sausage factory. What the critics of the critics failed to understand was that, at the end of the day, it takes a couple of white male nerds to really geek out about movies. Nobody does it better. Because everyone else has better shit to do.

Nevertheless, now that they’re working on a new incarnation of At the Movies, the criticism has been addressed. Who are the new movie reviewers? Drum roll please. Two black dudes and two blonde chicks. It wouldn’t be so bad if not for the inane opinions and peculiar accents. And then, waiting in the wings, like the phantom of the opera, we’ll have segments with a surgically maimed and speechless Ebert gesticulating in grotesque pantomime to a review being read aloud by Stephen Hawking.

The whole enterprise comes off as weird and off-putting, with a hint of necrophilia as everybody involved gathers together to rob the grave of a once-great format. It makes for one of the worst demo reels I’ve ever seen for a new TV show. Personally, I’d rather spend the new half-hour show watching the dog and skunk from the glory days discuss contemporary cinema. At least it would be cute.

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Screenwriter Fred Fox Jr. recently came out of the closet, owning up to being the author of the “Jump the Shark” episode of Happy Days. If you don’t know the significance of jumping the shark because you’ve, for instance, been living in an Afghanistan cave for decades fighting various Russian and American invasion forces, then I suggest reading up on it a bit before continuing. It’s one of those pop culture touchstones that’s so broadly understood, if I offer an explanation here it will just bore the rest of the class.

The premise of his article seems to be: Happy Days had a successful run for many more years after Fonzie jumped the shark, so surely this episode should not be pinpointed as the turning point in quality. And therefore it should not be saddled with the burden of offering the world the instantly recognized term for something starting to suck.

I disagree. Even as a kid, I would have disagreed with his argument, because I remember when that episode aired. I liked Fonzie, I liked sharks, but mixing the two was stupid and I knew it. Sure, people kept watching the show. They liked the characters, they liked the premise, but an unwritten contract had been broken. Jumping the shark had established that a beloved show was willing to resort to cheap gimmicks for a sweeps-week ratings grab. Once you establish that your show will get stupid at a moment’s notice for short-term gain, it’s the beginning of the end. It may take a long time for that merciful end to roll around, but just because you got to beat the dead horse for nearly a whole extra decade doesn’t mean your nag was still in the race.

Ironically, if you look at the list of Fred Fox’s credits, you’ll notice that his entire career jumped the shark with the jump-the-shark episode. I appreciate him crawling out of the woodwork to accept some credit and blame, but his argument doesn’t hold water and comes across as a sad attempt to deflect responsibility. For the record, I’d like to accept total culpability for any TV shows I may have fucked up or will fuck up in the future. My bad. And you can quote me on that when you throw it back in my face decades from now.

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I’m always keeping my eye out for the most gruesome, disgusting, offensive movies being made. Because I have to know. When I hear a collective reaction of horror, I get in line. This has led me to see pretty much every single candidate for most vile cinematic atrocity ever committed to film.

So, as you can imagine, I’m salivating to see Uwe Boll’s Auschwitz. The teaser trailer suggests it will be just about the harshest, most unflinching holocaust movie ever made. Which could be a good thing, in theory. But it’s Uwe, the single worst filmmaker working in the world today. Given his sensibilities, it simple HAS to turn out to be an exploitational, tasteless piece of crap. With little children in ovens. If it doesn’t turn out to be the most offensive movie ever, it may still capture the title of most wrongheaded.

Meanwhile, Tom Six has come out with a teaser trailer for his sequel to The Human Centipede. He looks very self-satisfied in this footage, which I find kind of irritating. Apparently he’s under the impression he’s already made the most disturbing, horrific movie ever. Which is dead wrong. It doesn’t even crack the top ten. The Human Centipede has a great gross-out premise, but it never really runs with it. When I saw the movie, I spent the first half of the running time wondering if I’d accidentally stepped into a bad American remake of the movie I wanted to see — complete with “Oh no, I can’t get cell phone reception” scene. Takashi Miike, on a bad day, could make a far more vile film with this concept. And it would only take him a day, too. The man works fast.

I’ll see whatever Tom Six comes up with as a continuation of his ass-to-mouth epic, but my expectations are low. As far as the current crop of contenders for the title “Sickest Ever,” I still think A Serbian Film is effortlessly edging out all available competition.

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Christmas came early for me this year with the sacking of Rick Sanchez. He reign of moronic terror at CNN has finally ended after his little “Jews control the media” rant on satellite radio. As far as racist tirades go, this one was pretty lightweight, but I think the CNN overlords seized on this opportunity to unload the dumb-as-a-box-of-rocks windbag before he embarrassed them any further.

If you’ve missed out of any of Rick’s shining moments of slack-jawed fuckheadedness, I’m sure they’re easy to find on Youtube. I’d link you myself, but I’ve seen more than enough of his antics to willingly sit through his highlight reel. Suffice to say, he’s such an abject moron of an anchorman he makes Ron Burgundy look like Walter Cronkite.

CNN has really been cleaning house over the last few years. They cancelled Crossfire, the most unproductive debate show on television, dumped Lou Dobbs and Rick Sanchez with little-to-no ceremony or debate, and shuffled Carol Costello off to mornings (a time slot where chipper idiocy is embraced because none of the viewers is really awake yet). Unlike the rest of the American news media, there seems to be a concerted effort to improve here. It’s just too bad that they can’t figure out who the weakest links are by themselves and keep waiting for Jon Stewart to tell them who needs to get voted off the island next.

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If you watched lots of crap TV in the 1980’s, you’ll know the work of Stephen J. Cannell. Or, at the very least, you’ll recognize his production-company logo. Him tapping away frantically at his typewriter, an expression of bemusement at his own cleverness and/or paycheque etched across his face, was the ubiquitous end note of so many masterpieces of pop-culture junk. This was my first image of what a screenwriter was, years before I would become one. It took me years more to realize it was all a lie. Cannell was dyslexic and therefore, while incredibly prolific, hardly ever put pen to paper or finger to keyboard. He dictated most of his scripts. So when you watch him in this collection of edited-together logos starting in 1982, take special note of his mock typing. It’s like he doesn’t quite understand how it’s done. I’m especially amused by the final one, where he gives up any pretense of typing and instead plays his rig like a set of bongo drums. Coupled with his ultimate “I don’t give a shit” smile, he’s totally The Man sitting in his award-laden office.

So, anyway, he just died. And with him, a piece of my childhood and a hint of my future career path. I now picture him in Hollywood logo heaven, arguing with Ubu about who would be the better typist if either of them actually typed. Cannell has the edge with opposable thumbs, but I’d bet on Ubu because he has the dexterity to catch a Frisbee and is, as we all well know, a good dog. Woof.

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One final note: congratulations, Germany, on finally finishing paying off your war reparations from World War I. I was a little surprised to hear that the whole world was still holding you to the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, even seventy-seven years after we all realized it was a terrible idea that gave rise to fascism and the National Socialist party. Anyway, I’m sure all the Great War veterans out there will be glad to hear it’s over at last.

Wait…what? Oh. They’re all dead. Never mind.

Well then, maybe the rest of us will be glad to hear that Canada is now discontinuing personal income tax. This was a temporary measure started in 1917 to help us pay for the war. So now that it’s well and truly over, I’m sure our government will keep their promise to abolish it in short order. We currently have a Conservative government, and they’re always in favour of lowering taxes, right? So this should come off without a hitch.

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