Thursday, June 30, 2011

Movies of Mass Destruction, Part 3: The Best and Worst Disaster Movies

As I wrote in a previous blog entry, I have sold my second novel, Shaken, for publication, and is scheduled to be released in November. Although Killer Cows will always have a special place in my heart because it was my first published novel, I personally think Shaken is a better book, mainly because it was inspired by a film genre I’ve loved my whole life…the disaster movie. For those of you too young to remember, disaster movies had their heyday back in the 1970s, followed by a brief resurgence in popularity in the 1990s. A lot of them were fun, even the bad ones, though for the most part, their portrayal of kids and teenagers was usually pretty bad; the kids were either so sickeningly cute or gratingly obnoxious that you wanted them to die (with rare exception, never happened). Being a teacher, I thought writing a disaster novel strictly from a teenage point-of-view would be interesting.

I’ve loved the genre ever since being dropped off one afternoon at the Southgate theater by my parents to catch The Towering Inferno during a matinee back when I was eleven years old. Until then, all I ever got to see was Disney stuff. This was my first ‘grown-up’ movie, where people actually died and stuff exploded. It was awesome, and I caught every other disaster movie that came along, Earthquake, Airport 75, The Hindenburg, The Swarm, etc. Good or bad, I watched ‘em all. They all essentially had the same plot, but I didn’t care, so long as a lot of stuff got destroyed, and those characters who deserved to die usually did.

Even now, I think it is still my favorite genre. Its brief comeback in the mid/late 90s (Twister, Deep Impact, etc.) was especially cool. Yeah, the movies are kinda dumb - no one’s gonna confuse them for documentaries - but who cares? They’re fun…even the aggressively bad ones. Show me someone who didn’t enjoy Independence Day and I’ll show you someone who doesn’t enjoy breathing.

That being said, the following is a list of some of the best, and worst, movies of the genre I love.

The Best:

Independence Day - Aliens arrive in giant flying saucers to kick our asses. The only movie to feature a dog outrun a giant rolling fireball, or Will Smith as a macho pilot able to expertly operate an alien space craft mere minutes after climbing into the cockpit. But who cares about plausibility when the White House gets wasted? And what does it take to destroy this vicious alien race? A laptop. It’s also nice to know our computer software is compatible with alien technology.

Earthquake - L.A. gets wasted by the big one. Lorne Greene plays Ava Gardener’s father (he must have conceived her when he was eight), while Charleton Heston turns in the last decent performance of his career. Watch for a cattle truck which flies off a bridge, and no cows topple out! This one earns extra points for killing off a majority of the cast, and features Lorne Greene demanding, “Take off your pantyhose, dammit!” Too bad he never said that on Bonanza.

2012 - In the real world, I am a middle school teacher, and a few of my more intellectually-challenged students  thought this was more than a movie…it was a prediction! That aside, this could be the mother of all disaster movies, one which kills off 99.9% of the human race, yet still manages to tack on a happy ending. And who knew John Cusack, playing a failed writer, possessed such superhuman abilities as to outrun a volcanic eruption, steer a sports car off a crashing cargo plane and escape a massive earthquake in a limo? The funniest movie since Twilight.

The Day After Tomorrow - I’m convinced director Roland Emmerich once had a really bad experience in New York. Maybe he was mugged, or maybe he had money bet on the Knicks and lost a bundle. At any rate, this movie marks the third time (after Independence Day and Godzilla) in which he totally destroys The Big Apple. The science presented in the movie may not be credible, but at least it sounds credible.

The Poseidon Adventure - If you’ve ever wanted to check out Shelly Winters’ giant underpants, this is the movie for you. Besides that, this movie is simply a lot of fun for what is essentially a pretty dark movie (hundreds of people onboard, but only a handful survive).

Titanic - Sure, it made Leonardo DiCaprio a star. Sure, lots of teenage girls swooned and cried. Sure, it only gets interesting once the ship starts sinking (90 minutes into this three-hour movie). Sure, it made that stupid-ass song, “My Heart Will Go On,“ stick in our heads long after the point we would kill someone if we heard it again. Sure, it’s proof that writer/director James Cameron is only second to George Lucas in the dumb dialogue department. But it is the only disaster movie to win a Best Picture Oscar.

The Swarm - Killer bees! So deadly they can cause people to hallucinate, passenger trains to careen off cliffs and nuclear power plants to meltdown. Michael Caine plays a sunflower seed-scarfing entomologist placed in charge of killing them (he’s also placed in charge of delivering some of the worst lines in disaster movie history). Richard Widmark is the standard military man who exists just to deny there’s even a problem (even though people are dying by the thousands) and suspects Caine has some secret agenda (!). This movie does have the distinction of being one of the few to kill-off its obligatory obnoxious child character.

The Cassandra Crossing - A deadly disease onboard a loaded passenger train! The government’s solution? Crash the train, of course. Ava Gardner’s back from Earthquake for another round of all-star mayhem, this time cavorting with boy-toy Martin Sheen (yes, you might throw-up in your mouth a bit). Sofia Loren adds luster just by showing up. Richard Harris takes his role seriously. Bad guy Burt Lancaster looks perpetually constipated. The climactic train wreck is phony, but fun…kind of like when I turned 14 and decided I’d outgrown my Hot Wheels and train sets, so I proceed to blow them up with firecrackers. Bonus: O.J. Simpson saves a little girl. How could this guy be a murderer?

Deep Impact - I knew I was gonna love Deep Impact ten minutes into it, when an astronomer, upon discovering a giant comet is on a collision course toward Earth, rushes from his observatory to warn authorities; speeding down the mountain in his jeep, he’s involved in a fatal, fiery accident while fumbling with his cell phone. The incident doesn’t really have much bearing on the story, but let that be a lesson to all you assholes compelled to yack on your phone when you should be watching the road!

The Towering Inferno - The world’s tallest building goes up in flames, along with a lot of aging actors in leisure suits. Tons of people die, including characters whom you either manage care about or totally despise. This is also the last movie where Steve McQueen manages to come off being cool. The only disaster movie to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar (losing to The Godfather, Part II) until Titanic twenty years later. Bonus: O.J. Simpson saves a kitty. Again, how could he possibly be a murderer?

The Worst:

Armageddon - Hyper-edited by to the point it could trigger seizures, this two-and-a-half hour assault on the senses is mind-numbing. It strives for some Titanic-inspired sentimentality (Ben Affleck & Liv Tyler using animal crackers as foreplay? Yeech), but fails because uber-macho director Michael Bay is more in love with his ham-fisted MTV-style approach to nearly every scene in the movie, including the action sequences. I have to think the special effects guys working on this film had to be really, really pissed off that most of their hard work was left on the cutting room floor. On the plus side, Armageddon is better than Transformers.

The Concorde: Airport ‘79 - If you’re in the right mood, it’s actually funnier than Airplane. Check out the scene where George Kennedy, piloting the fastest plane in the world, opens the cockpit window to shoot a flare. On the downside, you also have to watch him engage in post-coital pillow talk with a hooker. The Airport franchise was well-past its expiration date at this point, and really, the only difference between this film and Airplane (the ultimate parody of the entire genre) is that this one takes itself seriously. Now that I think about it, maybe this one should be included on my ‘best’ list.

Meteor - Made back when Sean Connery must have really needed the money (he gave up being James Bond to do this crap?). The story may predate Armageddon and Deep Impact by twenty years, but even though this film was American-International Pictures’ big-budget attempt at competing with the major studios, it is still rife with stock footage, crappy FX and dialogue as bad as any AIP drive-in exploitation film, and makes The Poseidon Adventure look like a David Mamet screenplay. It’s still better than Armageddon, though, for the very same reasons listed above. Maybe this should be on my 'best' list, too.

Any disaster movie that ever premiered on the SyFy Channel - The price we ultimately paid for the innovations of Jurassic Park. Just because CGI can produce visual effects cheaper than miniatures doesn’t mean they are better. About once a month, SyFy trucks out a plethora of shitty and phony-looking apocalyptic crap, usually starring one of the Baldwin Brothers, some guy named Dean, or a former 80’s pop tart (Tiffany or Debbie Gibson, take your pick). Most of them are only worth watching if you can’t find your remote.

Poseidon - A high-tech remake of The Poseidon Adventure, gone is the gloriously silly dialogue and outrageously dumb characters. However, corny as the first movie may be to modern audiences, at least we cared about the characters. In this one, we don’t give a damn about anyone, to the point where star Kurt Russell makes the ultimate sacrifice to save his daughter, and in we go, “Okay, another one dead.” And even though its CGI effects are impressive, they really aren’t any better than the traditional effects from the first movie. This is one of the few disasters movies where I walked away thinking, “so what?”

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Killer Cows: My First Great Signing Event

I had another book signing not too long ago. Actually, I didn’t have a book signing myself; I was invited to participate in Got Books? event held at Klindt’s Bookseller in The Dalles, Oregon, the same place I had my own signing last year (when two people showed up!). This was an event featuring twelve authors of young adult fiction, and was heavily promoted to the community.

Since my current novel, Killer Cows, wasn’t exactly doing gangbusters in the sales department (despite some great reviews), how could I pass this up? And Angela, who more-or-less runs the store, has always been very supportive of my book. Of course I wasn’t gonna say no, even if my previous signing ventures have been somewhat underwhelming. And even though Klindt's isn’t exactly a local bookstore (I live in Portland, 80 miles away), my wife suggested we make a weekend of it, since her mother lives a few hours away and we always pass through The Dalles to get there.

Unlike my very first signing event on the Oregon Coast, where I was seated among 50-or-so other authors with far more promotional experience, I arrived prepared with flyers promoting Killer Cows and my upcoming second novel, Shaken. I remember that first signing; I showed up with nothing, and I was the only author who was trying to promote a young adult novel to patrons who were more interested in non-fiction and fantasy novels.

Anyway, I was really excited for the Got Books? event; I would be among several authors who write for the same audience.

Then, two days before the event was to start, Angela emailed me with alarming news: Although she had twelve copies of Killer Cows on-hand in the store, she ordered an additional twelve copies from my publisher which did not arrive. At first, I was alarmed. But, based on my previous experience, I didn’t see a problem…I only signed a few books at the other signing events. Twelve books in the store? I thought I’d be lucky to sign half of them.

I felt worse once I arrived at Klindt’s the day of the event. I was seated toward the back of the store in the young adult section, between two other authors who had actual agents and whose books were released by major publishers. Worse yet, there were only 12 copies of my book available, compared to the stacks of novels from other authors. Again, because I’m currently with a smaller independent publisher, I didn’t think running out of books would be a problem. I was instantly humbled - how could I compete with authors who had several novels with big-time publishers and oodles of copies ready to sign? Who was gonna care about this struggling author with one book to his name from a small publisher? Still, I gamely put out my flyers and hoped for the best.

Thankfully, the best is exactly what happened.

Once the event started, dozens of kids and parents came to the section where I was signing, and all of the available copies of Killer Cows sold within a few hours. Some kids and parents asked questions about the book, and I did my best to answer them, even though I wasn’t used to doing so. When the copies ran out, Angela provided order slips for people to fill out, which didn’t end up being too successful (after all, this was a signing event). Still, it did my heart good to see that my little novel sold just as many, if not more, copies than the big-time authors around me.

The best (and worst) part was when a young girl, Elizabeth, approached my table with a copy of Killer Cows she purchased long before the signing. I was actually caught off-guard, since she had already read and enjoyed the book. I had the feeling she wanted to talk about the book more, but being someone who isn’t used to such attention, I just replied that I had a sequel in the works and it was nice to meet her. After I signed her copy and she left, I got the feeling that meeting me was a disappointment. There I was, talking with someone who was an actual fan of my novel, and I didn’t know what to say.
I still have a lot to learn about PR, don‘t I?

Anyway, Elizabeth, if you ever read this, meeting you was a pleasure. It’s readers like you who make all of the hard work worth it.

I had a lot of fun, and it did my heart - and ego - good to see copies of my first young adult novel being snapped-up as quickly as those by big-time authors. In addition, I met a lot of nice people, and bought a few YA novels that have both inspired and humbled me. But most of all, I was happy to sign a lot of autographs. It’s the biggest rush in the world. Killer Cows will probably never sell a gazillion copies, but for a brief moment in in a small town, I sort-of felt like a celebrity.

Now I get the honor of trying to do the same thing with Shaken.

Fingers are crossed. Heck, they’re double-crossed.