Sunday, July 31, 2011

Comfort Video, Disaster-Style

The other night I got home from work, exhausted and out of sorts. I was debating what to do with my tired-ass evening when I saw just the ticket—some cable station was showing Deep Impact at 7:00. Perfect! It’s my favorite kind of comfort video—a disaster movie. There’s something wonderfully escapist about doomsday flicks; my own troubles always seem smaller when I consider the fact that I don't have to pack my car and head for the Southern Hemisphere like those poor schlumps on the screen. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen Deep Impact, or chunks of it, and that got me to thinking about other movies that I watch over and over and never get tired of. They aren’t by any means my favorite movies; strangely, most of my favorite ones (The New World, Minority Report, L.A. Confidential) are so stressful that I can’t watch them very often. No, these comfort movies are different—they may not be great cinema, but I love them and I end up putting them on again and again like a pair of warm flannel pajamas. So here are the first three comfortfests that spring to mind, starting with the aforementioned Téa Leoni classic. Now that I see these in a list, I notice that they all have very strong female leads. Apparently when I want comfort video, I also want feminism.

Deep Impact. This is the one about the comet that’s on a collision course with the Earth (not to be confused with Bruce Willis’s hamfisted Armageddon, released the same year, which starred an asteroid and Ben Affleck’s fake teeth). What I love most about Deep Impact is how we see the disaster unfolding from the viewpoint of Téa Leoni’s greenhorn TV reporter—she’s the one who shows us what’s at stake, all in the way her hands shake as she clips a microphone to her lapel, or how she chugs a martini during an awkward get-together with her father and his new wife, who are oblivious to the looming disaster. The movie also got stellar performers for the smaller parts—Maximillian Schell, Vanessa Redgrave, James Cromwell, Robert Duvall. This movie’s full of good scenes, so I can tune in at any point and watch a half hour and enjoy it. But seen in its entirety (2-1/2 hours), it’s surprisingly touching—it makes me cry in all the sucker spots. The Duvall subplot is the only thing that holds on too long, and there’s a car accident in the first reel that feels completely gratuitous (you can practically hear somewhere at the script meeting saying, “If only it had a fiery crash in the first five minutes.”) And by the end, I’m always playing a game with myself—name any other good movie that Téa Leoni made. (I looked up her filmography just now. Thank goodness for Ricky Gervais’s Ghost Town.)

Contact. Confession time: I usually can’t make it past the part where they figure out the alien Rosetta Stone. And though it's not technically a disaster film, up to that point, Contact is everything I love in a movie—an ambitious sci-fi plot; the biggest discovery in the history of humans; an obsessed, socially challenged female scientist (Jodie Foster); and even Matthew McConaughey, before he got ground down to a soft powder by all those romantic comedies. Again, the best part is seeing the thrill of the story—somebody out there is trying to talk to us—through the eyes of Jodie Foster’s character. In fact, the first, crucial moment of discovery—when Foster hears that pulsing screech in her headphones—is played out in an extreme close-up of her eyes, which suddenly fly open. And then it’s all headlong, techie bliss as she throws her laptop in her old convertible and fishtails across the desert, yelling right ascension and declination numbers into her walkie-talkie to her napping crew back at the SETI lab. Later, after they crack the code on the alien transmission and figure out what the message says, they lose me with the fanatic preacher guy, and the weirdly gratifying death of Tom Skerritt, and a few clumsy forays into religion vs. science. But the charm of the movie is that it’s a love letter to the universe penned by the always upbeat Carl Sagan, who was a treasure—sort of a Gene Roddenberry for the real world.

Twister. This one is pure guilty pleasure. I know the special effects are cheesy, and houses don’t actually roll like tumbleweeds. And the way they call the benign, doughy Bill Paxton “The Extreme” makes me wonder what actor that line was originally written for. But I love the way the two women play off each other. There’s Jami Gertz, with her pretty teeth and terrified-deer eyes, playing—let’s face it—the sane one. And then there’s Helen Hunt in her wifebeater tank-top, basically playing a hyperactive ten-year old, with just a touch of oil-rig worker. And there’s poor Bill Paxton in the middle, getting smacked by both of them, and then by Mother Nature as well. He sort of saves the day, but Helen Hunt saves it too. And handsome-but-evil Cary Elwes gets his comeuppance (I like to imagine him yelling “By…your…leave!” as he’s sucked into the tornado). But of course the actual twisters are what move the movie along—pretty much one for every scene, more of them than most storm-watchers get near in a lifetime. And a special shout-out to Alan Ruck, who is sweetly memorable in everything he does, from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to Eureka to—again—Ghost Town.

More later.


  1. lovely review.
    the image gits your first line of description very perfectly.

  2. Greetings, Glad to Meet!

    We are starting a poetry community at a Garden Setting, our week 1 writing theme is

    “Adam and Eve” ,

    Please check out our site and prepare to participate, 1 to 3 poems are welcome!
    The Poetry Picnic is open Sunday, 8pm, American Central Time!
    Hope to see you share your delicious poetry with us.
    Bless your weekend!