Wednesday, November 24, 2010

10 hysterical moments in film ratings history

Kirby Dick’s new documentary, “This Film is Not Yet Rated” takes a blistering look at the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings system, and the secret society that decides whether a shot of naked boobies earns a film a PG-13 or an R (one key: use of the word “boobies” usually points to PG-13).

The current ratings system was instituted in 1968, due in large part to the scandalous placement of a certain four-letter word starting with “F” in two movies released the previous year. The original ratings were G (acceptable to all ages), M (mature audiences, parental guidance suggested but not mandatory), R (persons under 16 must be accompanied by an adult) and the unofficial X (no one under 16 admitted). Over the years, the ratings have evolved, but remain controversial. Questions of context, effectiveness and bias continue to dog the MPAA, and don’t seem likely to go away. To fuel the fire, we now present 10 historical (or is that hysterical?) moments in film ratings history.

1969: X Wins the Oscar
Some may find it shocking that in 1969, an X-Rated film won the Academy Award for Best Picture. But “Midnight Cowboy,” despite being about a male prostitute in New York City and his relationship with a sleazy con man, was not a “dirty movie.” At that time, X had not yet become synonymous with pornography; the rating simply meant that the material was too mature for kids. Once X became a marketing gimmick for the porno industry, mainstream studios became reluctant to apply the tag.

1971: Stickin’ It to the Man
When the seminal blaxploitation flick, “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” was given an X rating by the MPAA in 1971, director Melvin Peebles felt it was a racist reaction to urban elements that were not shocking to its intended audience. His reaction? The film (dedicated to “Brothers and sisters who have had enough of the Man”) was marketed with the tagline, “Rated X by an all-white jury,” further adding to the film’s hip cachet.

1978: Zombies Are Not Porn Stars
The stigma attached to the X rating raised a problem for the George Romero’s 1978 zombie flick, “Dawn of the Dead.” While there was no sex in the film, the bloody violence was so intense that an R rating wouldn’t suffice. But an X had by now become the exclusive domain of seedy theaters populated by skeevy guys in trench coats. So a compromise was struck: “Dawn” would be released without an official rating, although a posted notice would announce that due to strong graphic violence, no one under the age of 17 would be admitted.

1980: The Final Frontier of the Non-Kiddie G
In the early years of the ratings system, films such as “Planet of the Apes” and “The Odd Couple“ were rated G, as they fit into the rather broad guideline of being acceptable to “general” audiences. But as the ‘70s came to a close, G became the anti-X, bringing to mind animated anthropomorphic animals. 1980’s “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” was the last major blockbuster to be released with a G rating. After that, the studios came to feel that any movie that wasn’t geared directly at the tots should bear at least a PG.

1984: Indiana Jones and the PG-13
The fine line between PG (which replaced M in 1970 as GP) and R had been blurring as profanity and depictions of sex, violence and drug use became more commonplace in mainstream films. The final straw came in 1984, when “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” contained some gruesome scenes of bloody ritual sacrifice, including a shot of a man’s beating heart being pulled out of his chest. Reacting to the controversy, Steven Spielberg recommended a new rating, PG-13, still allowing kids to see a movie without adult accompaniment, but with a strong caution that it might be too intense for younger viewers.

1990: NC-17 Does Not Equal X
As the 80s closed, in an effort to distance “adult” films from pornography, the MPAA created the new rating of NC-17, meaning no children 17 or under would be allowed. The first major release to bear the new rating was 1990’s “Henry & June,” the erotic, booze-fueled tale of the love triangle of Henry Miller, his wife June and Anaîs Nin. Ironically, despite the heavy sexuality in the film, including a ménage a trois, the cause of the rating was a 3-second shot of an erotic Japanese postcard involving a drawing of a woman being… uh, welcomed by a huge squid.

1998: War is Hell, But It’s Not for Adults Only.
The most oft-cited criticism of the ratings board is its tendency to deem human sexuality more offensive than extreme violence. Few would argue that the opening sequence of the Battle of Normandy in Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” is one of the most visceral, violent sequences in film history. And yet the movie was given an R rating, ostensibly because the events were historical (as far as we know, zombies have yet to attack a shopping mall near Pittsburgh).

1999: South Park Takes on the MPAA
Trey Parker and Matt Stone have tackled a lot of icons, from short Scientologists to Saddam Hussein. In their feature film, “South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut,” they take specific aim at the hypocrisy and ineffectiveness of movie ratings. When the South Park boys become “corrupted” by the graphic language in an R-rated Canadian film, it leads to a war between America and the Great White North. Parker and Stone were adamant that the film be as foul as possible, earning an atypical cartoon R and getting into the Guinness Book of World Records with the most uses of profanity in an animated film (399, if you’re counting).

2000: Requiem for NC-17
After the box office failure of 1995’s heavily marketed NC-17 “Showgirls,” the studio blamed the film’s fate on the negative aura of an ostensible X rating. In short order, NC-17 was deemed as poisonous as the dreaded X. And so, taking a cue from the zombies, Darren Aronofsky’s graphic addiction parable, “Requiem for a Dream” was released in 2000 without an MPAA rating.

2001: Don’t Believe the Hype!
When the hit comedy “American Pie” was released in a new, “unrated” version on DVD in 2001, legions of horny fans snapped up the disc, hoping for more shots of Shannon Elizabeth, uh, studying… or maybe a flashback sequence with Alyson Hannigan and that flute. But calling a different version of a film on home video “unrated” has nothing to do with content. It merely refers to the fact that this new edit was not submitted to the MPAA for a new rating, which may well have been exactly the same as the theatrical release. The added material could be as innocuous as a shot of Eugene Levy shaving his earlobe. Actually, to some that may rate an NC-17.

It’s inevitable that the current ratings system will continue to evolve as society’s mores change and technology moves forward. But debate as to the effectiveness of any kind of rating system will continue unabated. As long as someone’s trying to impose their own idea of morality and what is or isn’t “art” on someone else, it’s gonna get messy.

There's some cold ones on the bottom...

The malted mixture of grains and water we call beer has been filling the bellies of mankind since before the birth of Christ. In cinema, beer been used as sociological commentary, character shorthand and simple prop. In honor of this week’s “Beerfest,” we take a look at the role of this mystical beverage in film.

Beer represents different things at different points in a person’s life. For many teenagers, getting drunk on beer (etc., but we’re discussing just brew here) is a rebellious (illegal) rite of passage. The planning, procurement, imbibing location and drinking partners all equally important parts of the experience. Perhaps no film ever demonstrated the teenage import of the beverage as much as “Dazed and Confused” (1993).

In Richard LInklater’s ode to the 1970s, the end of the school year means it’s party time. A huge bash is cancelled when the kegs are delivered early, BEFORE the teenage host’s parents leave for their weekend trip. Subsequent aimless cruising with as much as a trunk full of brew leads to a gathering at the local game hall, where incoming freshman Mitch (Wiley Wiggins) earns big points by successfully purchasing beer from the nearby liquor store. Plans eventually coalesce for a “beer bust at the Moon Tower,” where a sea of inhibition-squashing beer brings many dramas to a head. True, marijuana is at least as important to the story, but beer is the great equalizer, giving the intellectual misanthrope the courage to throw a punch at the alpha-male jerk, the shy younger kid the nerve to kiss the older pretty girl and the complete stoner the intellectual weight of wizened philosopher.

Of course, when “Dazed” took place, the legal drinking age was 18, so drinking beer wasn’t quite the rebellious stretch it is today. By the time a person enters college, beer takes on a slightly different, but just as important role. No longer quite the forbidden nectar of high school, beer becomes the standard social lubricant.

Lots of things (such as the legal drinking age) have changed since the 1962 setting of John Landis’ classic “Animal House” (1978), but booze-fueled frat parties ain’t one of ‘em. With Bluto’s (John Belushi) invitation to “Grab a brew…. don’t cost nothin’,” the tone is set. Between chasing girls, making life Hell for Dean Wormer and battling the uptight Omega jerks, the brothers of Delta House throw Toga parties and take road trips fueled more by Carling’s than gas. Flying bottles and kegs represent reckless abandon, not weaponry, beer is shaken and poured as baptismal fluid, it is the Deltas’ life’s blood. Their behavior is not something we would ever recommend emulating, but MAN, is it fun to watch onscreen.

By the time one enters adulthood, brand loyalty has usually settled in, the mere imbibing no longer as defining an action as WHAT kind of beer is favored. In film, cheap beer in a can is shorthand for the workin’ man; Stoudt on draft can be indicator of a British character; a bottle of Bud is a natural prop for a rock musician.

In Alex Cox’s 1984 cult classic, “Repo Man,” numerous characters with the titular occupation are named after traditionally blue collar brands of beer: Bud, Miller, Oly (short for Olympia), even the improbable moniker of Lite. Ironically, the actual beer shown in the film bears plain white labels with the simple word, “Beer” lettered in blue. Every product in the film is labeled in that same generic style, emphasizing the banality of consumer culture (although purportedly this was an unintentional effect borne out of a lack of product placement).

How ingrained is brand loyalty? Consider that wealthy Texans the Burdetts pay Bandit (Burt Reynolds) and Snowman (Jerry Reed) $80,000 to bootleg a truckload of Coors beer from Texas to Georgia in 28 hours in 1977’s “Smokey and the Bandit.” Surely there’s lots of other brands available in Atlanta, but Big and Little Enos MUST HAVE COORS (which was illegal east of Texas at the time).

Beer brand loyalty becomes dangerous in David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” (1986). Young amateur sleuth Jeffrey’s (Kyle MacLachlan) passion for imported Heineken is a bid for sophistication in the eyes of Sandy (Laura Dern), the teenage daughter of the detective investigating a severed ear found by Jeff in a field. But Jeffrey’s faux-sophistication is put in its place by the ear-slicer, psychopath Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), whose tastes run a bit less refined. “Heineken?! Fuck that shit!! PABST!! BLUE!! RIBBON!!,” Frank screams, as he takes Jeffrey on a ride he’ll never forget.

Still, no movie characters’ lives revolved around be working man’s champagne like Bob and Doug McKenzie, the hapless heroes of the 1983 SCTV spin-off, “Strange Brew.” Two Canadian hosers (Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis, who also co-wrote and directed) get seeming dream jobs at the Elsinore Brewery as bottle watchers, making sure no mice end up in the beer. They soon discover a plot by the evil Brewmeister Smith (Max Von Sydow) to insert mind-controlling chemicals into Elsinore Beer, all part of a plan to take over the world!

There are few scenes in the film that don’t feature beer: Bob and Doug feed it to their dog, they scheme to get free two-fours, beer lines the walls of their house (okay, their parents’ house), it’s the holy grail in their homemade sci-fi opus, they even use empty bottles as makeshift scuba tanks. When Bob and heroine Pam (Lynne Griffin) are tossed into a vat of beer, instead of drowning, Bob drinks the whole thing, and that’s STILL not enough to put him off the stuff.

Of course, there’s lots more. Buster Keaton and Jimmy Durante open a brewery in 1933’s post-prohibition comedy, “What – No Beer?” 1982’s “ET: The Extra-Terrestrial” gets drunk on Coors Banquet (one of the first cases of direct beer product placement). 1985’s “Beer” mocks the hyper-macho stereotypes used in its advertising. In 1994’s “The Shawshank Redemption,” the unfairly imprisoned Andy (Tim Robbins) makes a deal with a guard to get beer for his fellow prisoners who are working tarring a roof, an act that makes the cons feel like “the lords of all creation.”

It’s hard to think of another prop that could fit into both “The Passion of the Christ” and “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle” besides beer. Times change, technology and fashion evolve, but it’s impossible to imagine that the day will ever come when beer isn’t a part of culture, both real and pop. Perhaps nobody’s summed it up better than the immortal Homer Simpson, in an oft-used line sure to be uttered in next year’s Simpsons movie, “Mmm… beeeeeer!”

Ten of our favorite Motha-#%@&in’ Snake Moments from Motha-&%$#in’ Movies!!

The internet phenomenon “Snakes on a Plane” finally takes flight this week, the high-concept melding of primal fears promising to elicit giddy screams from even the most grizzled moviegoer. But in case SoaP doesn’t sate your serpentine appetite, we’ve wrangled ten more movie moments featuring slithering, sleek stuffs of nightmare!

10) The D’Ampton Worm in “The Lair of the White Worm” (1988)
In Ken Russell’s campy adaptation of the novel by “Dracula” creator Bram Stoker, a gigantic pagan snake god that covets the blood of young virgins is resurrected at an English country estate overseen by an immortal snake woman who uses large horns to test the virginity.... oh, never mind. Let’s just say that “Lair of the White Worm” has to be seen to be believed and while its snakes aren’t exactly frightening, they are indeed memorable.

9) The bane of Indy’s existence in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981)
There’s only one thing that scares dashing archaeologist Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford)... and it ain’t chilled monkey brains. Indy’s fear of snakes comes to haunt him in his first adventure as his search for the Ark of the Covenant leads him into the cavernous Egyptian Well of Souls, teeming with thousands of slithering serpents. “Why did it have to be snakes?” laments Indy as the entire audience lifts its feet off the floor.

8) The Dino-Snake in “King Kong” (1976)
The much-maligned 1976 version of “Kong” features a battle between the big ape and a monstrous dinosaur-sized serpent that’s about as believable as the guy in the monkey suit (meaning: Not). Even when Kong grabs the giant toy snake’s jaws and rips him in half, it’s not quite gross enough to cause true shudders. So why did it make our list? Because the entire scene brings to mind Bela Lugosi’s wrestling match with the rubber octopus in Ed Wood’s “Bride of the Monster” and we love that.

7) Zhora's synthetic python in “Blade Runner” (1982)
In addition to frightening and controlling rodent populations, snakes also make fine accessories. In Ridley Scott's bleak vision of the future, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) finds a scale in a bathtub. Thinking it's a fish scale, he brings it on down to the local Cambodian fish-maker, who informs the blade runner that it’s "Not fish. SNAKE scale.” This leads Deckard to the Snake Pit, a seedy nightclub throbbing with opium-smokers, strangely hot women, intoxicated men and strip teasers. There, he finds Zhora, a replicant he'd been ordered to “retire.” She's onstage. And she’s naked, except for some body paint, sequins and, oh yeah, a burmese python.

6) Eat your blood-orchids so you’ll grow up big and strong, like in “Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid” (2004)
When the 1997 neo-B-Movie “Anaconda” did well enough to warrant a sequel, the filmmakers needed to up the ante a bit. So, in place of a “normal” sized Eunectus Murinus, “Blood Orchid” features a 70-foot long Anaconda, capable of swallowing a jungle-traipsing pharmaceutical researcher in one chomp. The movie (both of ‘em, but especially “Blood Orchid”) is the essence of cheezy, CGI-fueled predictability, but doesn’t everyone need a little cheez in their diet?

5) Kaa’s strangely soothing voice in “The Jungle Book” (1967)
Kaa the python is just one of a gaggle of colorful creatures that Mowgli encounters on his journey to man’s tribe in the 1967 Disney version of Rudyard Kipling’s story. As Mowgli’s panther escort Bagheera sleeps, Kaa wraps his body around the young boy, but his hypnotic voice has a familiar, not at all dangerous ring to it... why, this snake can’t hurt anyone! He’s voiced by Sterling Holloway, the man who also was the voice of Winnie the Pooh! Oh, bother.

4) The old man’s snake field in “Natural Born Killers” (1994)
From the opening shot of a rattlesnake to tattoos, serpent-wedding rings and the pharmacist’s Caduceus, snake imagery abounds in Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone’s polarizing take on violence and the media. Out of the 52 people killed by Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis) Knox, they only feel remorse over the kind old Navajo Indian who takes them in, only to be shot by Mickey upon waking from an invoked dream of the abuse he suffered throughout his life. As the Knoxes run from their crime, they stumble into a field of rattlesnakes and are bitten repeatedly. The metaphor is about as subtle as the rest of the film, but *brrrrrrr* it works!

3) The snake-lined coffin in “Live and Let Die” (1973)
Roger Moore’s first outing as James Bond, “Live and Let Die” feels like an awkward adolescence for the long-running franchise. The emphasis on humor, the absence of gadget-master Q, a rather mundane drug story and an American setting all felt a bit off for the swanky secret agent. But the voodoo theme allows for a few creepy snake moments, one when 007 dispatches a viper with a hairspray flame-thrower, but most notably when the evil Baron Samedi (Geoffrey Holder) is clobbered by Bond into a purple-lined coffin teeming with poisonous snakes.

2) Bud’s bonus bite in “Kill Bill, Vol. 2
While each member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad has their own serpentine nom de plume in Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” movies, the only literal snake in either film is the Black Mamba that Elle (Daryl Hannah) hides in Bud’s suitcase full of cash. As the bitten Bud (Michael Madsen) writhes on the floor in dying agony, Elle gives some background information on the deadly snake, impressed by the gargantuan (such a good word) amount of venom that can be delivered in a single bite. But what Elle fails to realize is that her former teammate code-named Black Mamba, Beatrix / the Bride (Uma Thurman) is about to smash into Bud’s trailer and wreak some sinister barefoot vengeance of her own (all while the snake slithers free!).

1) The sssshocking climaxxxxxx of “Sssssss” (1973)
Aside from having a title even better than “Snakes on a Plane,” “Sssssss” is a total hoot of a B-movie from top to bottom. Strother Martin plays Dr. Stoner (no, really), a scientist who believes that the only way mankind can survive impending worldwide disaster (both natural and man made) is by evolving into reptiles. Unsuspecting lab assistant David Blake (Dirk Benedict of “Battlestar Galactica”) is Stoner’s latest guinea pig, er, serpent, thinking that the injections he’s receiving are anti-venom. But as David begins growing scales and an aversion to mongooses, he realizes otherwise. Featuring an utterly awesome, disturbing ending (even by today’s standards), the mostly obscure “Sssssss” is wholly deserving of an update / remake (may we suggest David Cronenberg, who did such a fantastic job with “The Fly?”).

Of course, there are hundreds more snakey sections of movies like “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” “Superman II,” “Rattlers,” “Venom,” and of course, almost every movie set in the old west or the jungle. We’ve barely scratched the scaly surface. And if “Snakes on a Plane” causes as much buzz at the multiplex as it has online, we are sure to see more motha-%$#&in’ snakes on our motha-&%#$in’ screens!!!