Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Kingdom of Heaven

Kingdom of Heaven Director’s Cut (2005)
Dir. Ridley Scott
Written William Monahan
Starring Orlando Bloom, with Eva Green, Liam Neeson, David Thewlis, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, Marton Csokas, Alexander Siddig, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Michael Sheen, Edward Norton. Yup, pretty much everybody.  

    Back when this first came out in 2005, I heard it was pretty much insipid crap with pretty pictures trying to cynically cash in on the big CGI battle fever the nation briefly caught thanks to the LORD OF THE RINGS films. But over the years, something extremely unusual happened -- director Ridley Scott, more or less on his own, brought out a director’s cut which included more than 45 more minutes. And as word got out about this cut, people started talking very positively about the film. So much so that the consensus seemed to switch from negative to positive. When does that ever happen? So, given that Scott’s most recent PROMETHEUS decidedly underwhelmed me, I thought I’d give him an opportunity to win me back with his saved-from-popular-oblivion swords n’ sandals rags-to-riches religion-to-atheism historical fiction topical crusades epic.

What Scott and co. have crafted here is something decidedly old-fashioned. It’s a big budget, serious, humorless, talky epic heroes journey which has some not-so-subtle subtext related to our own political world. There’s some big battles and some awe-inspiring images, but to get to them you’re going to have to actually pay attention to who’s who and what they’re all up to. Which is probably why the studio, at the request of underestimator-of-the-American-public-in-chief Tom Rothman, cut all that stuff out for the theatrical release. You can see how that would cripple the film, in that it’s pretty much the only reason to tell this particular story. It’s all about the various arbiters of power in the region, the paths they represent, and the way they interact with each other. Of course, given that they live in crusades-era Jerusalem (currently under new management), that interaction is sometimes going to involve huge scale action scenes and a respectably high ratio of beheading scenes to non-beheading scenes.

Some of those that work forces / are the same that wore crosses

Into this mess steps Balian (Orlando Bloom), a simple French blacksmith with a British accent (which probably alienates him from his fellow Frenchmen, although in fairness they all speak English too) who learns that his real father is badass Middle Eastern Baron Godfrey (Liam “Venerable Jedi” Neeson) and that he’s the heir to a dusty, rock-strewn castle in the Holy Land. One thing leads to another, and before you know it he’s conversing with the Leper King Baldwin IV (Ed Norton), bedding a married princess (Eva Green), fighting duels with strangers (stuntmen), lecturing people about the equality of man, and ultimately defending Jerusalem from an invading army of Muslims (Dr. Bashir, others) who are none too happy about having these nutball religious fanatics from the West fucking with them all the time. Man, they kept busy then.

It’s a patently ridiculous tale, loosely based on real history, but it sort of works because Scott plays it so seriously. There’s no winking postmodernism here, no levity to let us know that Scott doesn’t really expect us to buy its old-fashion moralizing and courtly intrigue. Instead, Orlando Bloom scowls, monologues, and hacks his way through the barbaric, brutal world of religious zealotry and political machinations that he encounters in his journey, reserving barbed quips only for the enemies of freedom, equality, and peace that he must inevitably defeat first verbally, and then through violence.

The movie’s obvious analogy to today’s religious conflicts is pretty overt, and in fact Scott and writer William Monahan (THE DEPARTED, BODY OF LIES) do probably go too far in trying to convert this alien world of savage survivalism to something which would resonate with modern viewers. For every murderous tyrannical maniac, it seems like there are five enlightened men of wisdom who would probably today be branded as radical leftists on Fox. It’s a little hard to believe, but Scott counters that he tweaked the film’s values towards modern perspectives in an effort to allow modern audiences to understand the dynamics of the characters and the way they would be perceived at the time. Fair enough, I’ll grant it works on that level. I must say, though, that the whole message is delivered so eagerly and so bluntly that it dulls the effect and makes the whole enterprise seem like a whole lot of unnecessary effort to deliver a pretty obvious and superficial message about how we ought to all just get along.

Oh no, it's just that they're terribly comfortable. I think everyone will be wearing them in the future.

Fortunately, the film has more going for it than its subtext. At its best, it evokes STAR WARS and Scott’s own BLADE RUNNER in its immersive introduction to a living, breathing, completely alien world. The camera delights in tackling grand vistas of 12th century Jerusalem, which Scott presents (in contrast to dismal, dirt-farming Europe) as a thriving, modern city full of a diverse cast of exotic locals. It’s all background to the pretty aristocratic types that guide the film’s story, of course -- but if you’re gonna be a colorful background peasant, you might as well have Ridley Scott shooting you because he’s gonna make that shit look good. It’s a little bit of a shame that the story is so focused on the machinations of power, since the world is obviously developed enough that we could have some fun exploring its ins and out -- but that’s not what Scott is up to here, and even if we can’t play in his world the way we might want, at least we can appreciate a unique backdrop for the action. And even if the film can get talky and verge on melodrama at times, there’s a vitality and a brutality to the environment that keeps things from getting too murky. The tenuous nature of any peace hangs in the air at all times. Characters who seem likely to become integral to the plot can die violent, random deaths at any time. As stilted and revised a history as this may be, it succeeds in capturing a very Hobbesian kind of logic. Life here is, indeed, nasty, brutish, and often short, and indeed, the only way to keep any veneer of civility is through fastidiously cultivated overwhelming power.

That dynamic, combined with its unusual locale and old-fashioned aspirations enhanced with cutting-edge filmmaking, makes for a unique and worthwhile experience. I’ve heard words like “masterpiece” bandied around discussing this cut, and that seems a bit hyperbolic to me. It’s a bit plodding, a bit pandering, a bit ridiculous for the level of seriousness it’s trying to sustain. And although Bloom works his ass off and definitely pulls his weight, I must admit that he may not quite have the overwhelming charisma necessary to anchor something like this. Still, it’s an enjoyable and immersive effort which is never less than highly watchable. At the very least, it deserves the second chance it got to work it’s clumsy but undeniable charm on those filmgoers who have an attention span longer than a skittles commercial. The battle between us and the Tom Rothmans of the world is something of a holy war in itself, and this cut of KINGDOM OF HEAVEN represents a real, if modest, win. But capturing Jerusalem is easy. The hard part is keeping it. 

Fortunately, this resolved the whole conflict once and for all.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Chasing Sleep

Chasing Sleep (2001)
Dir. Michael Walker
Written: Michael Walker
Starring Jeff Bridges Daniels, Gil Bellows, Zach Grenier

Heeeeeereeeee's Jeffy!
     Recently I discovered a cache of old screeners back from my glory days as an indie video store employee. I’d forgotten all about them, but apparently when I left the job I took with me a stack of DTV screeners that I’d meant to watch but never got around to. Like most of the DTV indie screeners that were circulating in the late 90’s and early 2000s, I was pretty sure that most of them would be complete trash, but a few looked tempting enough to take a quick look. What the hell, I put it off for an entire decade, might as well follow through on my 17-year-old self’s intention of sifting through hours of drivel in search of hidden gold (remember how much fun we had watching THE ETERNAL KISS OF THE MUMMY?). I grabbed the first one in the pile, depicting a crazy looking Jeff Daniels peeking around the corner at a bathtub with a bloody handprint over it*. What compelled me to pick this up sometime in late 2001, I don’t know, but it looked like it had some vague potential to be some kind of arty crime thriller, maybe one of those tiresome Tarantino knock-offs everyone seemed to be churning out back then. Turns out, it’s a bit more interesting than that.

    CHASING SLEEP has many of the hallmarks of this period in independent film, after the floodgates had opened to passionate indie filmmakers using private funding to put together their dream project, but before most of them really figured out how to make films good. It has one recognizable star surrounded by mostly obscure (local?) actors who are noticeably not as good. It has some needless showy stylistic flourishes which now look pretty trite and embarrassing. It has some pretty iffy lighting and only one major location, which I would guess is probably the director’s house. But it also has one thing going for it that most of the films in this pile probably do not: it’s actually pretty good.

"A taught, tense action thriller! -- FOX TV"

    Hey, sometimes the Republicans are right, sometimes Bigfoot posts nude pictures of himself on the internet, and sometimes the system works the way it’s supposed to. Director Michael Walker (nothing) really put together a movie here which he could never have made through the studio, but manages to use the limited resources of an indie film production to really create something distinctive and affecting. I’m as surprised as you are, but there it is.

    There’s not a lot of plot to CHASING SLEEP. Jeff “Not Bridges” Daniels plays a college professor who can’t seem to sleep, no matter what he does. He’s lying in bed one night, staring at the hole in his bedroom ceiling caused by his leaking pipes, when he suddenly realizes his wife hasn’t come home yet. He calls her friends to see if he can find her, calls the cops, talks to a couple people about the situation. But mostly he just putters around the house, trying to keep it together.

    Bridges Daniels is fantastic in the role, perfectly exuding that state of utter mental and physical exhaustion and creeping unreality which comes from worry, depression, and lack of sleep. He can keep a conversation up, but everything seems very slightly distorted, as if he’s responding from a very long way away. Time seems to have no meaning. Sometimes a simple trip across a room seems to take unbearably long, other times he’ll have a late-night dinner and suddenly discover that it’s the following morning. Things seem weird and off, even before he finds a severed human finger under the bathtub and then it crawls away. And of course, there’s the constantly leaking pipes everywhere, crumbling and decaying the walls and spilling into almost every corner of his life.

I bet that symbolizes something.

    What does it all mean? Walker’s not telling. There are enough details for you to draw some informed suspicions, but to his credit Walker never really answers the questions definitively, nor does he ever entirely reveal how much of this is literally happening. It could all be real, or it could all be a dream, or anywhere on the spectrum in-between. The literal meaning of it isn’t so important as the creepy, melancholy, dreamlike vibe of the thing. And it really nails that. I saw a few reviews which seemed frustrated at the film’s stubborn refusal to give you an objective truth, but jesus guys, that’s the whole point. It perfectly captures that early David Lynch pulse of suburban normalcy suddenly pierced by the macabre and bizarre. Call it Twin Peaks in a house. It starts innocently enough, but slowly --almost imperceptibly-- a gnawing darkness eats away at it until it’s completely consumed, and the viewer along with it.

There are some admittedly amateurish qualities to it, but in a film like this the only thing that really matters is that its current is strong enough to sweep you up into it. Daniels’ work here has to be some of the best of his career, and Walker (aside from a few gimmicky missteps) shows the maturity to slowly and steadily build complexity into his film, so that it’s constantly developing but never resorts to cheap twists or shocks. It’s a gripping, unsettling nightmare that also contains a grain of genuine human truth -- perhaps more than any other film I’ve seen, it manifests that corrosive simmering panic of waiting through the lonely night for someone to return. For a DTV film from that era, a very rare thing indeed.

*Needless to say, nothing like this happens in the movie.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012


Prometheus (2012)
Dir. Ridley Scott
Written: John Spaihts, Damon Lindelof
Starring Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba, Sean Harris, and, briefly and inexplicably, Guy Pearce.

PROMETHEUS takes its name from the ship upon which our intrepid crew journeys towards an alien world from whence came the creators of the human race. But of course, it really takes its name from the Greek myth about the Titan of that name who both created the human race and gave them the power of the gods (in the form of fire). Which I think is what the movie would like to be about. They’re definitely pleased enough with that allegory that they shoehorn it into a conversation just to make sure you didn’t miss how clever they were being. But maybe Ridley Scott and co. should have been thinking about another recent spaceship ironically named after a Greek myth: Icarus. Because in trying to scale up their ALIEN mythology into a big philosophical hard sci-fi movie, these guys forget that if you make your narrative wings out of wax, you’d be wise not to fly too close to the sun. Which in this metaphor represents unearned pretensions of depth. Because that fucker is gonna melt through the bullshit real quick and you’re gonna make a big splash in the sea of overreaching.

It’s not that it’s not a cool movie. It is. It’s huge and ballsy and filled with the craziest crap you’ve ever seen. But at the end of the day, it’s a movie that is so obsessed with being huge and important and blowing your mind that it forgets to go through the actual steps that would be necessary to do that.

It’s a movie that has one big question, and that question is “what is the relationship between the creator and the created?” Which is a pretty ballsy question to hang a movie on.

Whenever you bring an ax to meet your creator, I think it's fair to say things are probably not going as well as you'd hoped.

It then sets out to ask that question in various ways and various configurations for the next two hours. Ingeniously, it connects the ALIEN mythology --and its multilayered creation and motherhood iconography-- with that concept, juxtaposing multiple levels of creators and their creations with each other. Humans with the Androids they created, Humans with the human children they created, Humans with their unwanted Alien spawn, and Aliens with their own unwanted Alien spawn in the form of humans (no clones this time, though). No one seems to get along all that well, but they all damn sure want something or another from each other. There’s a good amount of disappointment on all sides, it’s safe to say.

So I give them a lot of credit for taking that aspect of the ALIEN mythos and putting it front and center this time. Problem is, that paragraph above is the exact extent to which any of this is explored in the movie. It just keeps repeating the same question over and over in different forms. I’m OK with ambiguity, and I understand that the question is always going to be more intriguing than the answer, but if you’re not gonna go anywhere with this concept, you gotta at least go somewhere else. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a movie work this hard to simply tread water. It’s like Scott thinks if they just ask the question harder and harder with bigger and bigger setpieces, it will somehow succeed in blowing your mind through sheer force. Sorry, man. You can get stoned with some dudes in a dorm room and ask “Woah man, what if we met God and he was an asshole?” or you could spend $130 million asking the same question. My mind’s gonna be blown about equally either way. Or actually you could also watch STAR TREK V: THE FINAL FRONTIER or FIGHT CLUB, where they also ask that question. While stoned.

None of this would be such a disappointment to me if the movie itself were better. But Scott is so fucking fixated on this big crazy mind-blowing question he has that he treats the story and characters as pretext and props, instead of, well, as story and characters. Despite a tremendously talented cast, the characters are embarrassingly ill-defined, and their conflicts are indifferently sketched out or neglected all together. Scott and writers Spaihts and Lindelof seem to make their one and only goal to take the characters and twist them, by whatever means necessary, into one iteration after another of the same damn question. So someone is definitely going to have father issues, someone is definitely going to be unable to conceive, someone is definitely going to turn against their own creation, and so forth. Exactly how that happens and what it means to the characters seems to be completely irrelevant to Scott, just so long as it happens and matches up with his main theme. It’s a classic example of laboriously building a story around a subtext, instead of just telling an interesting story which has a natural subtext to it. It’s trying to think of something big to say without actually having something interesting to say, like a nerd at a Bruce Campbell book signing.

If you can't think of something interesting to say, try exploding!

So you’ve just got a great cast floundering around doing things seemingly at random so that the story can progress. I’m no stranger to bad logic in horror movies, but these are seriously the absolute worst scientists I’ve ever seen, ever. They’re supposed to be here making the single greatest discovery mankind has ever achieved, and their reactions are either annoyance or boredom. Half of the people are angry that God is not there to answer their immediate questions right this second, the other half seem irritated that they’re being asked to walk around looking at stunning alien artifacts in the first place. They even take off the helmets -- who does that?! One of them, upon seeing a creepy cobra-worm-plant hybrid, takes off his helmet and attempts to cuddle with it. That this seems hard to accept is not a failure on my part to suspend disbelief, it’s a failure of the writers to write actions with are even borderline consistent with real human beings. I simply cannot accept that a human being would do that in the same way that I wouldn’t accept it if Noomi Rapace suddenly turned into a cartoon turtle with no explanation. No rational human being --let alone a scientist-- would ever do these things or talk this way -- ever. Maybe some people will be able to look past that fact and enjoy the action scenes, but for me it was so egregious that there seemed to be no ignoring it, and hence I was constantly dragged out of the experience. That kind of disconnect is just ultimately, um, alienating.

The acting is generally good, but can also be weirdly inconsistent. Rapace and Michael Fassbender lend quite a bit of dramatic weight to their roles, while Idris Elba, Sean Harris, and newcomer Logan Marshall-Green seem to think they’re in THE AVENGERS. Who the fuck knows what Charlize Theron and Guy Pearce think they’re doing, but it’s definitely not the same thing as anyone else. And the diction of the script seems to be constantly in flux, too -- sometimes we get some quippy faux-Whedon one-liners, sometimes we get naturalistic drama (like the original ALIEN), sometimes we get high-drama epic speeches with metaphors and monologues and whatnot. Sometimes, one character will do all three. None of the performances are bad, per se, but they are all bafflingly incongruous with each other. The characters, then, completely fail to impact on each other and the result is one big, listless dramatic shrug. And you’re just left with some pretty pictures to keep you interested for two hours.

The best reason to see this in IMAX 3D. Not the hologram stuff. Michael Fassbender's face.

This being a Ridley Scott production, you can at least be assured that the production itself is gorgeous. They’ve created some pretty cool iconography to expand the universe --including that nifty giant head that’s on the posters-- and a couple rather striking additions to the basic elements therein. Unfortunately, the new stuff is side by side with the old stuff, which wasn’t just great but one of the most memorable and visually overwhelming production designs of all time. No offense to the new guys, but you’ll never in your sickest fever dreams be able to match the utterly nightmarish depravity of H.R. Gieger’s original visions of dessicated exoskeletons and perverse sexual suggestion. They’re self conscious about not wanting to rehash that stuff, so they come up with slightly different versions of essentially the same thing, which are cool but also indisputably nowhere near as cool as the original. And in an even more depressing twist, they actually demystify Geiger’s bizarre elephant-faced “space jockey” by showing us that it’s just a suit, there’s actually a big boring white guy under there. Let me ask you a question, are you really happier having seen that under that dapper mask/helmet combo, Darth Vader is actually a puffy old white guy? Of course you’re not. Same thing here. I understand that for narratives reasons, they have to look like humans and that this limits the potential for creative alien designs. But you know what, I would actually probably prefer they write a slightly different narrative and then actually show me something awesome. 

The cinematic equivalent of Miley Cyrus covering "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

Really, though, even when the film is trying to be awesome, it’s only intermittently successful. Only one scene in the whole thing even approaches the pure, visceral terror which made the original ALIEN one of the greatest horror films of all time. You’ve seen it already so you know the one I mean. That sequence, at least, belongs in the top tier of moments from this franchise. But even so, its impact is diminished slightly because it seems confoundingly shoehorned into at least two other plotlines which rush in and take over immediately before and after. After Rapace leaves her newborn squid and staggers away, everyone acts like they’ve forgotten the whole episode and no one seems at all surprised that suddenly there’s a bloody chick in her underwear wandering around. They’re like, “hey, we’re going back to the ship, wanna come along?” and she’s like “OK sure.” Same deal with the return of a minor character who seemed dead but then returns, (quipped fellow Vern-er “Jimblo”) as some kind of  yoga monster. Fucking scary, out-of-the-blue shocker, but then all he does is punch people and throw them into things, which is about as scary as any given scene from a Seagal film. It’s the Pumpkinhead curse all over again! And just like the squid baby scene, no one seems bothered by this or even mentions it again. I guess they see a lot more murderous yoga zombies than I do, and this shit is just routine for them?

That's the problem with threesomes, someone is always gonna feel left out.

So, the movie is just chock full of wasted potential and bungled execution. But I will say, there’s something uniquely strange about it. It’s mix of ambition, intermittently gorgeous design, occasional great performances (particularly Fassbender as ambiguously motivated, amoral android David) combined with completely arbitrary plotting and intentionally frustrating non-answers creates a weird cocktail which is not completely without its charms. As terrible as many aspects of it are, the film it evokes most for me is not some faux intellectual failed horror movie, but rather Spielberg’s most interesting disaster, 2001’s A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE. Just like that one, it’s full of irresistibly compelling and completely unique touches, and yet falls apart in a disorganized mess of loosely defined relationships, unwieldy tonal shifts, and inexplicable oddness. The movie absolutely doesn’t work, but it’s sort of enthralling all the same. You’ve never seen anything quite like it. At its worst, it seems to be trying to pander to horror aficionados and fans of the series* with poorly-thought-out regurgitations of the same tired themes and tropes. But at its best, it’s almost deliberately antagonizing in its commitment to tantalize you with intriguing minutia which steadfastly refuses to resolve into any kind of clear picture. Hey. Sometimes an alien squid is going to mouth-rape a gigantic white bald dude while a Swedish lady with a belly full of staples and a talking severed head drive an alien spaceship to find God. You gotta admit, that’s something you ain’t seen before. Icarus might fly too close to the sun, but it’s a pretty wild view on the way down.

Barely, which is odd because there are at least three major women in the crew here. The only scene that saves it, though, is the scene where they do an autopsy on a alien head and discuss it. The head actually appears to be male, but we'll give them a pass on that one since the alien genders are ambiguous.

*The movie’s worst moment is the very end, which chickens out from the film’s frustrating but awesome ambiguous ending and finally delivers a familiar face that supposedly audiences are paying to see. But it irritatingly makes it seem as though the whole thing is about explaining where the titular alien came from, which, if it is indeed the point, is the lamest reason to make a movie since Lucas thought we’d enjoy seeing Darth Vader as a mop-headed 6-year-old who wuvs his mommy. Dude, the origin of the alien is the least possible interesting thing to explore, particularly when it turns out it originated the exact same way all the other aliens in every other movie did. It’s a completely anti-climatic moment which makes me question if I actually thought too hard about the rest of the thing.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


Jubilee (1978)
Dir. Derek Jarman
Starring Jordan, Toyah Willcox, Adam Ant, Richard O’Brien, Nell Campbell

Here’s a funny little bit of 70s pop art, an early attempt at capturing the punk aesthetic on film before punk had even really crystallized into a genre of music. It probably doesn’t have as much to say about society and philosophy as it thinks it does, but on the other hand it’s probably saying a lot more about 70s England than it thinks it is, too. So, you know, give a little, get a little. And as far as pretentious self-consciously arty 70s anti-narratives go, it’s pretty entertaining. So given that Paul McCartney etc just wished the Queen a happy diamond jubilee, I figure it’s only fair to remind the world that Toyah Willcox, Adam Ant, Jordan, and the guy who played Riff Raff in ROCKY HORROR beat them to the punch by 30 year and a lot of nudity.

The framing device for this story finds queen Elizabeth I (Jenny Runacre, small parts in THE LADY VANISHES, THE PASSENGER, and THE WITCHES and also playing a dual role here) being brought forward in time to the late 70’s by her advisor, occultist John Dee (Richard “Riff Raff” O’Brien, who Adam Carolla once described as the most obnoxious guest he ever had on his show). The queen wanders around what appears to be a post-apocalyptic wasteland overrun by bored, violent, nihilistic punks and expresses some concern over the direction her country has taken. Her criticism has a certain amount of support, because, for example, the current queen has just been killed in a arbitrary street mugging. Not necessarily a sign of a stable, prosperous society in my book. Take it from a Political Science major.

Seriously, teachers. Leave those kids alone.

But maybe we’re better off, because it must be said that the queen is super boring, but the various punks, arsonists, anarchists, nihilists, musicians, and sexual deviants that overrun the film are mostly a colorful and amusing lot. Much has been made over the film’s inclusion of early punk staples like Adam Ant, The Slits, and Souxie and the Banshees, but mostly the film is populated by cult actors and early punk scene kids (for instance, Malcolm McLaren protege and Sex Pistols’ muse Jordan) so don’t expect a big parade of cameos. They’re playing exaggerated, absurdist versions of their already exaggerated, absurdist personas, so there’s a kind of mordantly funny parody of the apocalyptic concerns expressed by most of straight society at this new generation of deviants.  

On one hand, it’s kind of a pretentious art film, where people might say things like, “In those days, desires weren't allowed to become reality. So fantasy was substituted for them - films, books, pictures. They called it 'art'. But when your desires become reality, you don't need fantasy any longer, or art.” or maybe out of the blue we’ll watch a naked ballerina dance around a bonfire in the middle of a bombed-out wasteland in slow motion for the entire duration of a classical piece. Oh my, look, they’ve juxtaposed classic British high culture with profane modernity, however did they think to do that. But on the other hand, director Jarman isn’t entirely above indulging in the more pulpy aspects of his punky Mad Max London, so a reliable stream of orgies and murders keeps things nicely visceral.

The movie is clearly a reaction to 1970s British malaise, as the economy crumbled, the Empire waned, and British cultural identity suddenly came into question. Jarman cleverly shoots the whole thing on location, using the bombed-out WWII era husks which are still around to remind us that this is an England which is caught between a past that it can’t let go of and a future which it can’t seem to build towards. So even though I think Jarman is over-reliant on trying to shock you with his nihilist characters, their reactionary lifestyle does feels truthful on some level -- emotionally, anyway. It’s not such a far cry from listening to the Sex Pistols articulate their own frustrations with the decaying ruins of classist English society in the excellent Julian Temple doc THE FILTH AND THE FURY. You can see that these kids were not just lashing out pointlessly: they were making an (admittedly crude) calculated political statement about the pathetic future that their society was offering them. The deliberately modeled themselves as a chaotic inverse to repressed, regressive postwar British culture. ‘You expect us to just shut up and accept a pathetic half-life of stuffy mannerisms and fading empire? Well fuck you, we quit. We’re not playing your game. We’re making up our own rules.”

Condescending Jordan is condescending.

As with most movements which are purely reactionary, I’m not sure their philosophy holds up quite as well out of context. I mean, I’m for mayhem, pretty theft, nudity, androgyny, unprotected casual sex, pyromania, and punk rock as much as the next fellow (and actually, probably a lot more, now that I think about it). But these days, I’d say idealism is more revolutionary than nihilism. Perhaps because we needed the prickly rejectionism of the early punk movement to break us out of the 70’s doldrums before we could move into ironic postmodernism, and finally, some kind of new perspective which is possibly just peeking into the public consciousness today.

But even if not, it’s at least intermittently fun to watch these freakos do their thing. In particular, Toyah Willcox and Jack “The Incredible Orlando” Birkett are mesmerizing as a sociopath pyromaniac and insane record label executive, respectively. Birkett is apparently primarily a dancer and mime, and completely blind to boot (I guess that explains his Borgnine-level crazy eyes) but he’s playing an already outrageous character with both the crazy and the charisma turned up to 11. He’s a side character in this one, but ends up feeling like the central hub around which the movie rotates -- and although their criticism of media conglomeration and corporate opulence is somewhat passe now, you gotta remember that it’s pretty impressive (and still trenchant) in a movie from fuckin 1978. It also sounds the death knell to punk maybe 3 years after it came into existence. It would be amoral corporate interests like Birkett’s “Ginz” character (and of course, Jordan’s own boss Malcolm McLaren) that would ultimately reduce punk to a safe, predictable, mass-marketable hollow shell. Those equally reactionary right-wing types who used to spit on John Lydon everywhere he went? They didn’t win. But the money did. The money always does. 

The seductive face of evil.

Anyway, an interesting little time capsule which falls somewhere between HOLY MOUNTAIN and REPO MAN. In a few years, the punk aesthetic would becomes commercialized and conglomerated and be sold off globally in little chunks until it was meaningless. By the early 80s, it became shorthand for a hostile, dispensable “other” that folks like Charles Bronson could blow away in an effort to restore a decent society. But here, for an occasionally irritating but memorable 103 minutes, it’s nice to have a reminder of how it is we got there in the first place. If Queen Elizabeth I really did travel through time to the present, I’m sure she’d have some major issues with what she saw. But I think she might like the movie. Like its protagonists, it can be longwinded, vacant, and ugly. But there’s an essential germ of genuine truth and bruised humanity in there, and as a snapshot of a turbulent and dismal time for Old England, I think it’s just about right.

God Save the Queen.

We mean it, Maaan.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Alternate Perspectives: Alex on P3:A2A

In what may or may not be a continuing series, I've been conducting scientific experiments by exposing people who otherwise have excellent taste and judgement to the kind of genre crap which is my bread and butter but that most sane, emotionally mature people would never encounter of their own free will. So here's Alex on Pumpkinhead 3: Ashes to Ashes. Note that she classily cites the source for her visual illustration. As usual, she puts my attempts to shame:

When I sat down and realized I was about to watch PUMPKINHEAD : ASHES TO ASHES, two thoughts went through my head. The first one was, oh s*** the most I’ve spent thinking about PUMPKINHEAD was through reading previous PUMPKINHEAD reviews on this particular venue. The second one was, well, it’s a SyFy* made for TV move – I’m really not going to need to have logged some serious PUMPKINHEAD hours to “get it”. And so, thus began my journey into the depths of PUMPKINHEAD: ASHES TO ASHES – luckily for me those depths were all together pretty shallow.

The first five minutes had me thrown – I was convinced that my PUMPKINHEAD-less past was going to betray me and I would remain altogether lost – that is until Doug Bradley appeared. Despite the presence of the one and only Mr. Lance Henriksen in this film, Doug Bradley emerged from the beginning as the guiding light of evil; and ultimately his Doc Fraser became the plot’s touchstone. And if I may digress for a minute – this highlights a major problem with the entire film.

The plot, ostensibly a decently conceived sequel to the original, gets lost in the films inane attempts to flesh out its characters’ backgrounds. Take for example my favorite of Doc Fraser’s patients – Molly Sue Allen, played as an eager and neurotic blonde with a history of manic episodes. For entire 3 to 4 minute spans I would find myself mindlessly entwined in her backstory only to realize that I really didn’t care about what she had to do with our gourd-headed demon, and was much more interested in finding out what was bothering my poor little Molly Sue.

Molly Sue seeks vengeance.  http://media.monstersandcritics.com/articles/1284709/article_images/mollysueaskstheoldwitchforvengance.jpg

Molly Sue aside, the gist of the story focuses on the average residents of a non-descript rural-ish town who fall prey to the crooked workings of a nasty organ harvesting doctor. They then work together and seek vengeance through demon beckoning – which then backfires on them as they find Mr. Pumps killing spree to be taking a pretty brutal toll on their own souls. As an overall plot – this is pretty solid, and if the whole screenplay had been written with fleshing this plot out in mind – the film would’ve been much better served. Unfortunately though, it tried to dive into too many side stories, to the point where one time when Pumpkinhead showed up I actually said out loud “Oh yeah, this is what this movie is about.”

If it weren’t for Doc Fraser’s appearance in and relationship to all of the subplots, I really would have forgotten that I was watching a movie and not a string of random YouTube video excerpts featuring a bizarre kind of pumpkinheaded demon and malpractice suit worthy doctor. In fact, given Pumpkinheads appearance (not too scary, to say the least) it seems pretty possible that he was just the victim of a botched attempt to steal organs. But when all is said and done… I’m pretty excited to see BLOOD FEUD.

*Recognizing that this actually premiered in the good old days of the SCIFI channel – I feel I am honor bound by society to ALWAYS refer to that channel as SyFy now…. Just so they can realize what horror they have wrought.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Pumpkinhead 3: Ashes to Ashes

Pumpkinhead 3: Ashes to Ashes (2006)
Dir. Jake West
Starring Doug Bradley, Douglas Roberts, Pumpkinhead, Tess Panzer, and Lance Henriksen

    OK, let’s get the bad out of the way first. This is the second sequel to a film which probably didn’t need a first sequel to begin with. And it managed to find an even less classy venue for premier than the first sequel’s early 90’s DTV dumping, arriving without fanfare on the SciFi channel a full 18 years after the original. So it’s not even direct to DVD, it’s direct-to-SciFi-Channel. And it was filmed in Romania, that Lost World of murky cheapo DTV crapola where Uwe Boll roams free and unfettered by logic or taste. AND, it was filmed back-to-back with another sequel (PUMPKINHEAD 4: BLOOD FEUD) to save money. AND it has a cameo from Lance Henriksen post-2000, when due to Bush’s election/ an evil gypsy curse Henriksen was legally prevented in appearing in any film which was A) Halfway watchable and B) going to include a role for him which lasted more than 5 minutes.

    So it’s got a lot going against it. Short of starring Lou Diamond Phillips or being produced by Paul W. S. Anderson, there’s not much more it could really do to clearly advertise that it’s going to be terrible. And yes, it is terrible. But actually it’s not nearly as terrible as it ought to be, given that pedigree. If you can get past the obvious, superficial ways in which it is a manifestly horrible movie, there’s actually some good stuff in there. Or at least, more good stuff than seems realistically likely for any movie titled PUMPKINHEAD 3 to have.

    To start with, it ignores the events of Jeff Burr’s unfortunate PUMPKINHEAD 2: BLOOD WINGS. It can do this without fucking up the ever-important Pumpkinhead franchise continuity because, as you recall, the Pumpkinhead in PUMPKINHEAD 2 is actually not our beloved original Pumpkinhead, but actually a half-human transmogrifying Son-of-Pumpkinhead who just happens to look exactly like original Pumpkinhead. This movie, on the other hand, is a direct follow-up to the original PUMPKINHEAD, and includes both characters from the original and flashbacks to some key scenes. And it also resumes both the tone and the key conflict from the original, which as you’ll recall has Pumpkinhead summoned to do vengeance by furious hill people who eventually feel remorse and try to stop what they’ve set in motion.

No, you go on with your bad self.

    At first, though, you don’t see the connection. Because the film opens (somewhat awkwardly, it must be said) with a random fellah who happens to be walking through the deep backwoods late at night stumbling across a big scruffy yokel disposing of a body in a mud pit. Said yokel happens to be Bunt Wallace -- that’s right, the kid from the original PUMPKINHEAD who guided Henriksen’s Ed Harley character to his doom when his father refuses to sign off on this obviously bad idea. Bunt’s all grown up now --maybe a little worse for wear-- and his reward for his help all those years ago is that Ed Harley is still following him around, like a sexy Jacob Marley, advising him to give up his nefarious body-dumping ways. Bunt is a little bit slow, but he obviously still feels deeply guilty about leading a man to damnation in defiance of his father’s obviously better judgement. And Ed isn’t really helping matters by following him around, wearing all black, and somewhat ghoulishly pointing out to him how doomed he is.

    Now, stop and think -- this is actually a pretty cool twist on a sequel. It ties seamlessly into the original, and it takes an interesting but small aspect of the original and expands on it. It has some neat implications regarding guilt, and turns our original victim into a somewhat threatening figure. None of this is explored with much depth, but even on the superficial level it makes a somewhat interesting dynamic. There’s a million more interesting places they could have gone with the concept than the way they do go, but what the heck, at least it’s better than that Son-of-Pumpkinhead crap from part 2.

    Henriksen, returning to the role of Ed Harley, is fucking awesome just like you would expect. He’s offering good advice to Bunt, but there’s a kind of gleeful dark humor to his role, as if he’s honor-bound to try and set things right, but also taking a certain malevolent delight in fucking with this kid who was so instrumental in his own destruction.

He would have been a great villain, but remember, it’s after the year 2000 so Henriksen can only appear in a few short scenes. Instead, they’ve got another Iconic Horror Actor to antagonize those wacky hill people in the form of Doug “Pinhead” Bradley. I know, its weird that both PUMPKINHEAD sequels star various villains from HELLRAISER, not sure what’s up with that, but I like it. If they do another Pumpkinhead film (which obviously, they should) it should seriously star Sean Chapman. Besides, “Pinhead” and “Pumpkinhead” also sound weirdly similar, not to mention that “Pinhead and Pumpkinhead” would be an awesome name for a Beavis and Butt-Head sequel series*. Obviously, the lord works in mysterious ways.

Which is appropriate, because so does Doug Bradley’s “Doc Fraser” character, a small-town doctor who moonlights as an organ-harvesting ghoul. Let me tell you his plan, so you can see if this makes some kind of sense that somehow escaped me. Locals bring their deceased loved ones to the Bunt’s family crematorium for a good burnin’ and buryin’. They get a urn filled with ashes and walk off happy, not realizing that, in reality, Doc Fraser is stealing the corpses, removing the organs, selling them on the black market, and then having Bunt drag the mutilated carcasses out into the woods to dump them. I get the organ-thieving thing, in fact it sounds like a good idea (although I question how fresh those organs are once their relatives have schlepped the corpse up into the mountains for cremation). But there literally is an actual crematorium five feet from their evil organ-harvesting room. Why not just cremate the bodies afterwards instead of leaving them in the woods for people to find and be horrified by? It’s actually MORE work to dispose of them that way. And it causes issues when the local folks catch wind of the plan and find literally dozens of bodies stashed away in the woods. That in turn causes more issues when local unstable blondie Molly Sue flips out and summons Pumpkinhead for some good ol’ fashioned revengin’.

It's OK kids. Pumpkinhead is here for you.

Why cut right to Pumpkinhead and not call the local cops? Well, despite the fact that all the bodies that have been sent to the Wallace crematorium  in the last few years have turned up noticeably uncremated in the woods with the organs removed, the cops seem to not have any idea who could be responsible. Doc Fraser, examining the bodies, opines “I’m not even sure if what was done to these folks was a crime!” and the sheriff seems to take his word for it. Honestly, it seems like Pumpkinhead could be put to better use teaching these morons how to put two and two together, but Molly Sue isn’t the brightest bulb herself and so she just enlists some friends (relatives? what were they trying to do, get a bulk discount?) to go in on this Pumpkinhead vengeance deal with her and turns the thing loose on the whole town.

So finally we have a Pumpkinhead, and what do you know, it’s actually nice to see that pruney fucker again. He looks a little different than last time, clearly trying to put his best foot forward for the new century. For one thing, he’s sometimes a laughably ridiculous CG creation which looks about Sega Saturn quality. For another, his puppety spindles have been replaced by a dude in a big rubber suit which is redesigned in some subtle ways. I can’t lie, the CG would look embarrassing on an episode of “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys.” But for some reason I kind of dig on the new design for the suit. He’s still kind of conceptually uninspired, but his new more blunted face looks vaguely alien and is nicely articulated by old-school animatronics. They also goose up the fun by finally giving the dude some decent gimmicky kills -- sure, he spends a good amount of time smacking people around with those big goofy hands of his, but he also ups his game by impaling someone on a weather vane, crushing a guy’s head through steel bars, stabbing someone with his tail (which I totally forgot he had, but looking back at the original, yup, it’s there). So, a little more hustle on the Pumpkinhead front than usual.

Obviously, the kids who swear revenge and summon Pumpkinhead are terrible, terrible actors, and not even in a fun overacting way. They’re just dull and bland. But Doug Bradley, in a rare non-Pinhead role, is actually a lot of fun as that corpse-stealing, meth-dealing pistol-toting, free-healthcare-providing not-so-great-at-planning lovable scamp Doc Faser. He dresses like an 19th century preacher, for one thing, and even though his corpse-disposal plan is open to some criticism you have to appreciate his more practical solution to his Pumpkinhead woes. Upon hearing the obligatory flashback from Bunt, he realizes that Pumpkinhead only perseveres as long as those who summon him remain alive. So, he grabs his pistol and sets out to kill everyone who sicked Pumpkinhead on him before he himself can be killed. It’s such a practical and proactive solution that he automatically becomes sort of a badass anti-hero and you start pulling for him. 

I'm your huckleberry.

Plus, Bradley turns out to be pretty darn charismatic when he’s not getting acupuncture’d from a place beyond limits where pleasure and pain are indivisible. His Appalachian Mountain accent is not exactly robust, but honestly considering everyone else in this turkey he’s probably the closest. You can bypass it by imagining a backstory where he’s actually a British immigrant who settled in Pumpkinhead territory and has picked up a slight twinge of local color. Which would also make sense, because Doc Fraser is a believer in socialized medicine. Turns out that all these organ shenanigans are actually a way to fund his free health care service. So he steals from the dead to give to the living. Guy’s basically a Grave-Robin Hood**. And, it turns out ol’ Pumpkinhead-summoning Molly Sue is given to “episodes” serious enough that the police don’t even get out of their chairs when she storms into the station screaming that there’s a dead body in her truck. Not exactly the most responsible person to be raising vegetable-themed demons of vengeance. So even though Fraser may be a murderous meth-dealing preacher-dressing-like body-snatching etc etc, there’s a nice little bit of moral ambiguity in there.

That’s the movie, really. It’s not great like it could be, but at it has more going for it than it should, by all accounts. Yes, it’s shot on shitty digital video which frequently looks like a cell phone camera. But they still manage to get some nice shots in there, and against all odds actually use the shitty quality of the “film” to enhance the brutally hard lighting and lend atmosphere to the inside of their squalid locations***. Yes, they could only get Lance Henriksen for a few hours of filming, but they use his obvious greatness to spice things up and add unexpected weight to the narrative. Yes, the movie looks like it cost less than a Mitt Romney haircut, but they make excellent use of some great location shots and milk their setpieces, when they do come, for all they’re worth. And yes, the acting can be pretty depressingly bad, but surprisingly the script isn’t a disaster at all. Doc Fraser has a nice little monologue about where pain comes from (the brain, he says) which actually pays off later in another exchange. There’s even an attempt to make some kind of metaphor out of the Ashes to Ashes thing. It doesn’t really quite pan out, but it’s nice to see them trying a little. And even though it doesn’t work, somehow it kind of does. There’s something about the bare, minimalist setting and noir-worthy hard light combined with the meth and ghosts and twisted forests and body snatching which gives the whole thing a perverse, nightmarish quality which is more than the sums of its individually weak parts.

The end result is like Pumpkinhead himself: sloppy, ungainly, not as cool as it ought to be. But gets the job done. Better than advertised, would summon again.

Two great tastes that taste great together.

Lance Henriksen:                                           YES
Bland And/or Irritating White Kids:                 SEVERAL
Satisfying Kills:                                               NOPE
Horror Icon You Wouldn’t Expect 
They Could Get For This:                              DOUG BRADLEY
Pumpkinhead Smacks People 
With His Big Stupid Hands:                           ALAS, YES
Attempt at Appalachian Accents:                  DISASTROUS
At All Watchable:                                           SURPRISINGLY, YES

* Or a FREDDY VS. JASON type crossover. Although frankly the mashup I really want to see is PINHEAD VS JIGSAW. It’d be the horror version of that scene from LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS with Steve Martin as the sadistic dentist and Bill Murray as the masochist patient. Except more British. And probably more de-limbing.  

** Haters gonna hate.

*** Oddly, Romania stands in for Appalachia somewhat well, and their use of real locations gives the whole thing a spartan, almost minimalist feel of isolation and decay.