What's Up, Docs?: Electric Big-Bird-Kareem-a-Loo...

Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films (2014)
Dir.: Mark Hartley
TC4P Rating: 7/9

In the mid-1980s, after I had become a legitimate member of the working class and was sitting not so comfortably in my place at the bottom rung of the ladder, I still held starry-eyed dreams of film glory; of someday being discovered for my obvious but unrecognized talents, and that I would someday be feted as a great writer and director. That I didn't have the actual drive or knowledge (let alone talent) to become that person didn't matter. I was going to be the next Spielberg simply by the fact that I was just as much a movie nut as he was. I was compelled by the same obsession... who needed to do the leg work? 

In my day job at a news agency, I found out early on that we carried in our chain of bookstores, but only a particular couple of locations, the film industry journal, Variety. Not the daily version; we were in Anchorage, Alaska after all, and our pubs at the time were already so delayed by shipping woes that daily sales of the publication would have been ridiculous. But we did carry the weekly version, a thick chunk of tall newsprint that was still a couple of weeks behind when we carried it. 

For a few years, I would purchase my weekly Variety faithfully, and then play the absorbed media fanatic as I sat in hot dog shoppes and fast food restaurants perusing every single page of every single issue, scanning each ad, blurb, obituary, and chart, in trying to figure out the industry and exactly how I would make my inroad. I became wise to the Zack Norman mentions in each issue, an actor mostly known now for his supporting role in the Romancing the Stone movies alongside Danny De Vito, who laboriously purchased his own ads in Variety for many years to promote himself. (As MST3K would mock at one point, "Zack Norman is 'Sammy' in 'Chief Zabu'!) But mostly, from those bygone days reading through Variety in the '80s, I remember Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, two Israeli producers who ran (mostly amok) promoting the "achievements" of their film studio named Cannon Films. It was hard to miss their ads in Variety. Like their movies, the ads for Golan-Globus productions practically screamed for attention, even when the product was a complete junker. But Golan-Globus at least knew how to get their movies made.

As a young film fan of that time, I was prone to seeing just about every big (and even low) budget action, science fiction, martial arts, and horror flick that happened across the big screen. And the Cannon Group was behind a whole hell of a lot of those flicks. Sly Stallone, Lou Ferrigno, Charles Bronson, Chuck Norris, Sho Kosugi, Jean-Claude Van Damme, John and Bo Derek... they made 'em with Cannon. Masters of the Universe, Bloodsport, The Wicked Lady, Sahara, The Delta Force, Invasion U.S.A., Street Smart, Alien from L.A., and Cyborg? All Cannon. Hell, even Highlander started out as a Cannon production. Many of them were shitty, most of them were overrated, but all of them were crammed down the world's throats relentlessly by Cannon Films. 

Cannon started in the late '60s -- making their first huge American hit with Joe in 1970 -- drifted through the '70s making tons of making churning out low budget hits loaded with sex and horror, and then finally achieved its full terrifying form in the coke-fueled spit take that was the '80s. (My personal favorite of the Cannon oeuvre is Tobe Hooper's nekkid vampire opus, Lifeforce; in second place, Barfly) By the time they produced Runaway Train in 1985, they found they finally had an Oscar-nominated film on their hands, and for a short period, Cannon had a little cachet to pull in bigger name actors and talent. The ride went until the flops overcame them in 1988 (Superman IV: The Quest for Peace being a particular noticeable problem) and the money ran out. There was the threat of bankruptcy, a corporate sale, and the team of Golan and Globus finally broke apart over creative and monetary differences. (The pair even had competing films based on the lambada dance craze in production at the same time, one from Cannon with Globus as a producer, and the other based on a story by Golan and distributed by Columbia.) With its two frenetic leaders no longer together, Cannon sputtered along until it died quietly in the mid-'90s, releasing its last theatrical film, Chuck Norris' Hellbound, in 1994.

Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films is a perfect encapsulation of that time. It is just as wild and over the top as the films of Cannon themselves, punctuated with hard to believe (but very true) stories and perfectly timed film clips from Cannon's still very impressive arsenal. The tale behind every would-be massive Cannon masterpiece is detailed, especially when those would-be hits turn into flop after flop after flop, and yet Cannon would not die. I wish it played with the currently popular documentary form a little more, and I wish the final result were a bit more slapdash, as the doc betrays a smoothness you could never apply to a Cannon film. But it is still a marvelously fun portrait of exactly how you can get films (and money) made if you don't really care about the end product. 

And it was chiefly because of the "never die" spirit of Cannon's two chief architects, Golan and Globus, relentless pushers of film mediocrity who didn't care so much if a movie made any sense as long as it had the potential to blow open people's wallets. Or care if they were actually making films that Americans want to see. (Most of the time, we didn't.) Thoroughly lacking in taste, a factor absolutely missing in the makeup of its two heroes, Electric Boogaloo (named after the second of the Breakin' series that, yes, Golan and Globus foisted upon the public) is a very American dream brought to life (and brought down eventually) by two out-of-towners who never truly connected with the public's interests.

There is an interesting postscript to this documentary where they mention that Golan and Globus, who never appear personally, turned down the filmmakers because they decided to make their own film about Cannon. The tag says their version -- titled The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films -- beat Electric Boogaloo to theatres by three months, but of course, the film is not available online or on Region 1 DVD as of yet. I doubt that I would ever shell the necessary bucks out to get their Region 2 import disc, and so my relationship with Cannon remains the same: I might watch it for kicks, but who wants to spend money on that crap?

I Am Big Bird: The Carroll Spinney Story (2014) 
Dir.: Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker
TC4P Rating: 7/9

As an amateur puppeteer -- and a lifelong puppethead besides -- it is no surprise that I love the Muppets. Jim Henson and Frank Oz are personal heroes, and I watched Sesame Street far, far beyond my need to watch such a show. While others moved on with their Muppet love to The Muppet Show once they grew up (and I certainly watched it fanatically myself), I still stuck with Sesame Street, if only because most of my earliest memories of Jim Henson's genius stemmed from that show. Somewhere along the line, Elmo became too abrasive a factor, the original Muppet characters were relegated to smaller and smaller roles, and I started tuning in less and less. But I still return time to time (even in the new HBO version) to see how the Street is being maintained and to see old pals. Two of those pals still continue to appeal to me: Oscar and Big Bird.

I had known for years, like many of course, that Oscar and Big Bird were played by the same actor, Carroll Spinney. There since the start of the show in 1969, Spinney was recognizably the voice of both characters; even when he was never seen at all, as kids we knew the same person played each one. While the characters were miles apart in temperament and voice, there was a sweetness in the portrayal of each that came through to the viewers, which probably is a large reason why they have made such a lasting impact of children and adults over a couple generations. But Spinney's beginnings on the show set him somewhat apart from Henson's other puppeteers, not having the years of developing the Muppet style the others did as a team.

I Am Big Bird: The Carroll Spinney Story does a glorious job of letting us finally get to know the man inside the feathers... or the trash can, as it were. Also a lifelong puppet fan, Spinney worked as a cartoonist and animator before he joined Henson's corps, and maintained his fiercely independent spirit slightly apart from the rest of the team as his eight-foot, two-inch tall bird character ended up becoming the true heart and soul of Sesame Street. Through Spinney's talent, Big Bird became one of the most iconic characters in the world, even eventually serving as a cultural ambassador to China, a story related in fascinating detail in I Am Big Bird.

Of the two main Spinney creations, I must admit that I have always preferred the prickly Oscar the Grouch many times over the sweeter, more childlike Big Bird. That is probably more reflective of my nature than anything, but for many years, I kind of bristled anytime that I was stuck with a Big Bird segment. Not because the result was bad, but simply because I preferred the funnier, more manic Muppet moments. I would probably just have been just as happy if this film was titled I Am Oscar the Grouch, and I likely would have thought little of it.

But I would have been wrong. Spinney's very private nature would seem to lend difficulty to getting to know him intimately, but he is also more than open once the cameras get on him, and we feel his pain as he struggles hard to keep up the pace of filming new segments as he continues to play the characters now into his eighties. We ultimately get to see that he is very much both Oscar and Big Bird, but that no matter how guarded he may be, the bird's characteristics win out overall. He is Big Bird after all.

Kareem: Minority of One (2015)
HBO Sports
TC4P Rating: 6/9

Kareem: Minority of One makes one major mistake in my opinion: It stops too early. 

I grew up knowing not just about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but also the basketball legend's birth name that he dropped upon his conversion to Islam in 1971. I was a sports nut as a child, and delighted in memorizing trivia bits from all of sports history and then spewing them back out, whether requested or not. One that I learned early on was the name Lew Alcindor. A few years later, when I got the chance to snag a couple of Kareem's early Topps basketball cards before the name conversion, I leapt at the opportunity.

Kareem never played for a team for whom I held a rooting interest. I was a SuperSonics and 76ers fan early on in my life, and then when Larry Bird, Robert Parrish, and Kevin McHale came into the equation, I became a Celtics fan for life. And Kareem was always there battling those teams that I loved. That did not mean that I disliked him. I knew people who were solid Lakers fans that, for whatever reason (possibly mostly racist), hated Kareem. Not me. I kind of admired him and his drive. His need to be his own person who operated solely on his deeply held convictions was well-documented in the media, and I rather liked that as well. He also had that infuriating, unstoppable skyhook, a shot that my friends and I loved to spoof when we played ball. He tried acting and even showed up on a favorite show of mine in my youth, The Man from Atlantis. And when he showed up in the comedy classic Airplane!, perhaps not doing a great job of acting but perfectly willing to satirize his image in the media (and pick on his critics at the same time), I kind of grew to love him.

Kareem: Minority of One sticks to the standard ritual of the bio film, and never veers far from that path. It is what you expect from a sports bio; no more, no less. It shoots from childhood to school to college to the pros in swift succession, never pausing too long at any one place, allowing us to know the man in increments, while also tracing his personal history in the expected ways. In the interview segments, we get to see an inkling of his mind at work and we fully understand his unwillingness to kowtow to idiots, his intellectual development, his spiritual strength, and his need to always speak his mind. Like all public figures -- and indeed, all of us -- Kareem has his pluses and minuses, but you could do far worse in finding someone to admire than Kareem. (And believe me, people are finding some terrible inspiration in recent months...) 

But then the film falls far short of what I was expecting. Following his retirement at the end of the 1988-1989 season, in which the Lakers failed to repeat as NBA champions, Kareem fails to get the coaching jobs he was expecting to be offered, and so he frustratingly shifts away from basketball towards the next stage of his life. And this is where the film failed me, stingily closing off the subject where I wanted more about the man and what continues to make him tick. I was hoping to find out more about what Kareem has been up to in the intervening years, beyond the handful of public forays and statements he has released in the interim. In a narrative type of film this would not be a bad thing, but here the dearth of new information is frustrating. If the film's title is meant to convey, beyond the obvious racial implications, that Kareem is not just in a class by himself, but also an unceasingly private individual, it also left me feeling that way: disconnected from the subject, and wanting far more than I've been given.

Or maybe Kareem is just someone we are never meant to know fully...


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