JAIMIE VERNON – Invasion of the Popcorn Snatchers

Aside from my life-long obsession with pop music I am also a certified, card carrying cinephile. I’m a sucker for a historical drama, or an action film or cleverly scripted comedy especially on a lazy Sunday afternoon when the best television can offer is mindless tripe like ‘Flip Your Spouse’, ‘ Lose Weight or Die, You Fat Fuck’ or the sermon of some ratbag preacher who’s pick-pocketing the elderly with one hand while fondling young boys with the other. But I digress…

My movie genres of choice have always been horror and sci-fi. I have my parents to thank for this. As an impressionable child I lived in an area of Toronto that put us 500 feet from the late-lamented Cedarbrae Cinemas in Scarborough and within 20 minutes driving distance from no less than FIVE Drive-In movie theatres. That was a whole lot of silver screens before the invention of the SuperHappyMegaGoogleplexiums.

It was a rare occasion that we went to Cedarbrae Cinema because they tended to show more adult fare at the two theatres inside but I do recall one occasion when I was 8 1/2 where me and a friend were dropped off there by my mother with box-office money and cash for candy to see Disney’s re-launch of ‘Pinocchio’ (“See it one last time before it’s locked in Disney’s vaults again FOREVER!” Well, played Mr. Disney. Well played.). But after we’d bought our tickets I lasciviously convinced my good friend that we should go see the brand new Steve McQueen race car movie ‘Le Mans’ that was playing on the other screen. So we snuck in with the adult crowd and got to see what, I thought, was a better film than the one where some wooden kid with an erectile dysfunctioning nose turns into a donkey. Problem was, the running time of ‘Pinocchio’ was 88 minutes while ‘Le Mans’ was 106 minutes. So, when my friend and I didn’t show up at the front of the venue so our parents could pick us up, they came in looking for us. We were hauled out of the movie and had our asses kicked all the way home. I believe I was grounded until I was 13. Only last year did I see the ending to ‘Le Mans’. I’ve refused to watch ‘Pinocchio’ on principle ever since.

The more common movie experience for my family was the Drive-In. It was a welcome respite for my Mom & Dad because they’d stick us in pajamas in hopes we’d fall asleep during the second feature. The four of us would pile into the 1967 Plymouth Valiant and off we’d go to one of the five area Drive-Ins depending on what was playing where: The Scarboro (at Kennedy & Lawrence), The Parkway (at Sheppard & The Don Valley Parkway), The North-East (at Esna Park north of Steeles), The Teepee (on Liverpool Road in Pickering) or The Bay-Ridges (directly across the street from what is now The Pickering Town Centre and located where Pickering City Hall/Library now stands). My Dad was emphatic about going early so we could get a good spot in front of the screen. You didn’t want to have to park behind the concession stand. It was poor visibly for viewing the film and too much visibility for observing teenage sex in the back of someone’s family sedan.

The memories are vivid. Dad hit the snack bar early – 50 oz. bladder buster drinks. Check. 40 lb. tub of popcorn. Check. French Fries. Hot Dogs. Red licorice. Check. Check. And check. Me and my sister would hit the playground in our pajamas. I’d be tormented and ridiculed for same. I didn’t care. It meant making temporary acquaintances for 10 or 15 minutes while we discussed what the movies were going to be about and hope amongst all hope we’d see some kid puke up his dinner after twenty spins on the tilt-a-whirl. That was worth the price of my dad paying the admission alone. And as the sun set behind the corrugated fencing of the parking lot (alas the Teepee had the disadvantage of facing INTO the setting sun) we’d hunker down for twilight time. Inevitably, my sister and I spent the night fighting for blankets and trying to see past Mom & Dad’s heads from the backseat until she passed out or we had to interrupt the proceedings by going back to the concession house to go pee.

These adventures are indelibly stamped in my brain. They are some of my earliest memories of childhood. I know this because the films I remember seeing at the Drive-In begin when I was around 5 or 6 years old (before my sister was even born): “Planet of the Apes”, “2001: A Space Odyssey”, “Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid”, etc. I seem to recall some older movies doing a second run as filler features as well like 1962’s ‘Day of the Triffids’. As we got older, Mom & Dad’s frequency to the movies increased and allowed us to catch the continuing saga of the Planet of the Apes, ‘Westworld’, ‘Logan’s Run’, the Irwin Allen disaster flicks like ‘Poseidon Adventure’ (with that insipid Maureen McGovern song ‘Morning After’), ‘Towering Inferno’, ‘Earthquake’ and ‘Rollercoaster’ (!!!).  I also recall a myriad of terrifying – for a child – horror movies which were a particular favourite of my Mom’s: “Theatre of Blood”, “Let’s Scare Jessica To Death”, “Tales From The Crypt”, “Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things”, and “Now The Screaming Starts” among others.

Of course, my father’s impatience waiting in long lines for Drive-In films was cause for me to miss two of the greatest blockbuster movies of my generation: “Jaws” and “Star Wars”. I wouldn’t see either film until years later when they appeared on television. I got to relive the ‘Star Wars’ experience with my son and am looking forward to the brand new restored version of ‘Jaws’ on Blu-Ray featuring 7.1 (!!!!) sound in digital Dolby.

This summer’s blockbuster movie offerings have me giddy as a teenage girl anticipating a slumber party. It’s palpable.  You see, I never cared for ‘Harry Potter’ [Wizard boy’s parents are killed. Wizard boy takes revenge on bad guy. Eight movies later…The End.] or ‘Lord of the Rings’ [A three movie walk to a mountain to toss a ring into a volcano].  It’s been a pretty dry decade of almost amazing films. But out of the fog of dismal humiliation comedy turds like ‘The Hangover’ and tween fluff like ‘Twilight’ springs hope eternal.

As a CGI enthusiast I got my rocks off on the first ‘Transformers’ offering (slag it all you want, there was some incredible special effects in it that has led the charge for the films that have come since).  And Roland Emmerich got it right on ‘Day After Tomorrow’ but sooooo wrong on ‘2012’. However, J.J. Abrams seems to be leading the troops right now in balancing spectacle and suspense – though he really needs a lighting guy to remove those greasy streaks from his glasses when he watches the rushes in the editing suite. ‘Cloverfield’ gave me hope for the genre of monster horror theatre. I also liked the ‘Star Trek’ reboot, sort of, but using Nimoy as stunt casting seemed a bit like pandering to the geek squad to me. It pulled me out of the film and turned the ‘alternate universe’ scenario into predictable episodic TV sci-fi plotting. Here’s hoping the next one has our stalwart upwardly nubile crew going where no script writer has gone before. I want to see less starscapes and more adventures of Uhura riding the Jefferies Tube. And last year’s Abrams/Spielberg tag-team ‘Super 8’ was an amazing suspense-filled roller coaster ride of story telling recalling 50% ‘Close Encounters’ wonder and 50% ‘E.T.’ treacle. It certainly helped erase the memory of Spielberg’s ill-advised reteaming with Ed-Wood-in-training George Lucas for ‘Raiders of the Lost Plot: Indiana Jones and the Refrigerator of Doom’.

Where things are starting to get interesting has been Marvel’s carefully calculated ventures into the Hollywood cesspool of remakes and TV adaptations. There is hope in the guise of superheroes featuring well-worn characters from my comic book reading youth who have finally came to life on the big screen. The 1970s TV renditions of The Hulk, Captain America and even Spider Man dissuaded me of the notion that these iconic figures would ever be treated as anything but Saturday morning cartoon(ish) fodder. All camp. No substance.  I was even more disappointed in the Hulk big-screen reboot. Part of the reason was that I never liked the character – an oafish, idiot savant, green-skinned King Kong who was always busting shit up while some free-spirited humanitarian hot-chick with ‘Daddy Issues’ towards her war-mongering military father tries to both blow him and blow him up for his own good. No thanks. Even the ‘Spider-Man’ franchise held great promise with Toby McGuire as the bookish Peter Parker-turned-webslinger until director Sam Raimi decided he didn’t want to do it anymore and made sure of same by assembling a maudlin, over-populated character  bloated shit-fest only worthy of Tim Burton’s ‘Batman Returns’ (whose only saving grace was Michele Pfeifer in PVC. Meow!). The X-Men, as an early contender, was an exciting introduction especially with film sets built only five minutes from my house – but that franchise also crashed and burned in Chapter 3. And please don’t even get me started on ‘Fantastic Four’. Only the Silver Surfer’s guest appearance in Part 2 held any interest for me…and that’s because he was smart enough not to recite such horrifically bad 1960s comic-book dialogue as foisted on the remainder of the cast.

Then, somewhere from the fringe of independent film making, director Jon Favreau – whose only credits were Will Ferrell comedies and a recurring role on the TV show ‘Friends’ as Monika’s billionaire boyfriend – launched the ultimate superhero movie: ‘Iron Man’. The humanity that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby originally envisioned on paper was finally translated – albeit ironically and with much sarcastic wit – to celluloid. Robert Downey Jr.’s millionaire Playboy Tony Stark was the perfect flawed human full of narcissistic bravado, disarming humour, macho charm and self-doubt to be worthy of a Marvel character. Not since Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine has any director gotten a Marvel character’s  characterization right. I’m still not all that thrilled with the second film – Don Cheadle just doesn’t come off convincingly as a superhero and Mickey Rourke just makes me laugh out loud everytime he walks on the screen – a plastic survery cliché of a human being playing a cliché of a plastic Russian ‘bad guy’. Was Gene Simmons unavailable that day?

I was also very thrilled by ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ because the story origins allowed the producers to do a period piece – one that was slower paced and plotted and far more interesting because Cappy’s alter-ego, Steve Rogers, has no true super-powers other than some government sanctioned steroid use. Just a rip-snorting John Wayne-styled jingoistic war movie that makes no apologies. Nor should it. When Captain America is finally thrust into the future – with a whole mess of unfinished personal business left behind – he’s dropped smack dab into post-9/11 America…a shadow of its former, glorious, patriotic self. It’s any wonder that Captain America doesn’t think that Hitler had won the war while he’d been on ice for 60 years.

And out of no fault of my own, but of my wallet’s, I missed out on the theatrical run of ‘Thor’. I will be renting that one from my local Rogers outlet before the chain goes tits up and the world premiere of ‘The Avengers’ next week. I have high expectations for the mass assembled superteam as it’s being piloted not by Jon Favreau but ‘Buffy The Vampire Slayer’ wunderkind Joss Whedon. Having written a series of X-Men comics – some of the highest rated stories ever for Marvel – Whedon ‘gets it’. I’m not swayed by the media’s current pants wetting over this being the greatest superhero film ever committed to screen (hype much, guys?). I was going to go see it no matter what. I expect no less than exceptional quality from Marvel. Having Whedon on board has merely upped the ante.

And as geeked-up as I am over ‘The Avengers’, it pales in comparison to my sleepless nights awaiting the arrival of Ridley Scott’s ‘Prometheus’. I’ve been wishing for this film for 32 years. Ridley Scott invented the horror/sci-fi cross-genre with 1979’s ‘Alien’. It was ‘Jaws’ in space – the first true-blue outer space slasher film. It’s all fine when Norman Bates or Jason Voorhees or Mike Meyers is chasing you around with a kitchen knife trying to stab you to death – you can usually just out run them all as long as you’re not a fornicating teenager in which case, a harpoon in your genitals is expected – but when an alien species has a questionable agenda and innate power of survival it makes for a terrifying freak show. Put that on a distant, inhospitable planet where the vacuum of deep space could kill you should you survive the man-eating monsters and you’ve got a claustrophobic house of horrors.

I was underage in 1979 and couldn’t see ‘Alien’ in the theatres. But in 1980 I was working at the Canadian National Exhibition as a janitor. Our final week of work was capped with a supervisor’s party who just happened to have a new fangled VCR machine that played these wonderous cartridges called VHS tapes (though it may have been BETA, I don’t recall). While we drank beer underage and waited for the food delivery to arrive we were entertained with the first two ‘R’ rated movies I’d ever seen – the infamously scandalous porn flick ‘Deep Throat’ and Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’. Believe me when I say that you don’t want to be eating Chinese food while watching either flick.

Scott moved on to ‘Blade Runner’ after ‘Alien’ and the franchise was carried, quite successfully, by James Cameron with ‘Aliens’. It was a wholly different film than the first as it was a more traditional 1950s sci-fi flick: us versus them horse-backed on an allegorical supercharged American war movie – with the alien as the metaphorical Russians. Cameron had the clout from the ‘Terminator’ films so ‘Aliens’ was accepted as a viable sequel to Scott’s original dark drama. Then the franchise went off the rails dragging star Sigourney Weaver back two more times to allow her, thankfully, to kill off both her character and the ridiculously convoluted plot of mankind having created the aliens in the first place. And I won’t even dignify the ‘Alien vs. Predator’ franchise that turned the entire concept into Saturday matinee B-Movie camp.

Finally, Ridley Scott came to his senses and decided that after a handful of bloated epic historical dramas – that always featured Russell Crowe welding swords and eating mud instead of pussy – he’d head back to the genre that made him one of the greatest movie directors of our generation. ‘Prometheus’ is the non-prequel prequel to ‘Alien’. To whit: The new story occupies the same fictitious universe as the original 1979 film. It also has elements that recall dialogue and settings only hinted at in the first thirty minutes of the original. What it is NOT is a movie about those damn, creepy aliens. It is about their origins. And our origins living amongst the stars as naïve explorers. And apparently, we’re going to be sorry we ever put on a space suit and took those first steps on the moon.

And this is what has attracted me to movies all my life. Living vicariously through the adventures of others. And I can’t wait to be carried off to another place and another time again and again.

Jaimie’s column appears every Saturday

Contact us at dbawis@rogers.com

Jaimie “Captain CanCon” Vernon has been president of the on again/off-again Bullseye Records of Canada since 1985. He wrote and published Great White Noise magazine in the ‘90s, has been a musician for 33 years, and recently discovered he’s been happily married for 16 years. He is also the author of the recently released Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia available at http://www.bullseyecanada.com/encyclopedia.html and on Amazon.com  for KINDLE users.


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