Wednesday, October 31, 2012


HAPPY HALLOWEEN! You didnt think a Hurricane would stop the empire, did you? There was no way in HELL I wasnt gonna have Pink Smoke contributor; Ian Loffill as a guest writer for this Halloween-themed special. Dont get me wrong, the horror genre isnt the only thing Ian knows about (just read his recent write-ups on Henry Fool & Out For Justice on the pink smoke). But thanks to his old myspace page and his current blog (Notes & Scribblings) I've been put on to quite a few forgotten about/underrated and/or misunderstood horror films over these last few years.

By the early 1970s things were looking bleak for Hammer. Besides the British film industry going through one of its routine crisis periods, Hammer were facing competition in their own Horror market in the form of Amicus and later Tyburn and Tigon. Cinemas were closing across Britain and US distribution money had dried up. Hammer’s style was unfashionable at this stage and other Horror films of this era were moving away from castles, cobwebs and cemeteries to present day settings in films like The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Hammer were trying to keep up with trends and a sign of how clueless they were in this respect manifested itself in the unintentionally funny Dracula A.D. 1972. Their biggest grossing efforts by this stage were appalling sex comedies like On the Buses. It was a desperate time and yet during this period some truly excellent films emerged under difficult circumstances, notably Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde, Vampire Circus, Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter and Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell. Sadly a lot of this good work went unheralded as the studio drew closer to its eventual demise.

Initially Monster from Hell was regarded as a failure. Finished in 1972 but released in 1974, it’s never been entirely clear why it sat on the shelf for so long. It was granted an X certificate and opened to dismal box office and got generally dismissive reviews which cited it as too grim. For me it’s a case of a great film that came along at the wrong time, being released in the same year as the Mel Brooks spoof Young Frankenstein amongst other things. Of all the Hammer Frankenstein pictures it’s the hardest to get hold of and is quite often seen in a cut version with certain gore scenes trimmed. A frequent criticism is that the Victorian mental asylum setting is too restrictive and confined for the action taking place, obviously a budgetary factor. Peter Cushing even joked that his wig made him look like Helen Hayes. Most agree it’s “the one with the crappy looking monster” and the film’s major defect is indeed the Neolithic monster itself. The monster was quite often an afterthought in these films, as it was the doctor himself who was the real focus of the films. David Prowse had already played the monster in The Horror of Frankenstein and only fares slightly better in the role here. This is no Monster From Hell but a pitiful, suffering and hideous creation. No one goes to see Hammer films for high quality monster make-up effects but Prowse does look particularly feeble next to the iconic performances of Christopher Lee, Michael Gwynn and Freddie Jones as the Baron’s creations in previous films in the series. Depending on whom you ask the film is either a nice low key finale (my view) or a tired, overdue farewell from a studio at the end of its tether. Hammer scholars are divided on the films merits. David Pirie in his book ‘A New Heritage of Horror’ and Sinclair McKay in ‘A Thing of Unspeakable Horror’ both give damming assessments of the film, seeing it as unfortunate failure and the “dying croak” of the series. More favourable opinions are expressed in Jonathan Rigby’s ‘English Gothic’ and Barnes and Hearn’s ‘The Hammer Story’.

Although he was the central focus of the series, it wasn’t just about the Baron and the series would have memorable additions over the years. The old Hammer crew weren’t all there in Monster From Hell but there were some mainstays returning. The script was a dusted off effort by Anthony Hinds (aka John Elder), who had left the studio a few years earlier. The script is full of humorous touches and certain ironies. Hammer stalwart James Bernard provides an effectively dour score. There are some surprisingly sensitive portrayals of the mental patients, played by the likes of Charles Lloyd Pack and Lucy Griffiths. Among the new faces, Madeline Smith as mute patient Sarah effectively becomes the conscience of the film while Shane Briant as Simon Helder is a very effective protégé. His confidence and disregard for conventional society is reminiscent of Cushing’s performance in the original Curse of Frankenstein and as the film goes on you get the sense that the Baron sees something of his younger self in Helder; his boundless curiosity and recklessness. Even Helder though begins to question Frankenstein’s methods as the story progresses.

The Hammer Frankenstein series evolved in interesting ways, although I prefer to think of the other two Hammer Frankensteins which didn’t involve director Terence Fisher (1964’s The Evil of Frankenstein and 1970’s atrocious prequel Horror of Frankenstein) as misguided detours. The 5 films by Fisher with Peter Cushing starring are all excellent but their stature is far from equal in filmdom and even amongst Hammer fans. The Curse of Frankenstein has rightfully attained classic status and along with 1958’s Dracula, established Hammer’s identity and brand name. Frankenstein Created Woman won the wholesome praise of Martin Scorsese at an NFT season. The Revenge of Frankenstein and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed also have their admirers and are regarded as fine continuations of the series but Monster from Hell clearly stands apart from the other 4 in reputation. As good as they are individually the Cushing/Fisher films have a cumulative value that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Memories of earlier films in the series add texture. The films now seem to play off each other, add layers and distinction and by this final chapter achieve a poignancy that is remarkable. A wonderful understated scene has the Baron admitting to not having felt so elated since the events of the first film but admits “that was a long time ago.” Like all great macabre entertainment it’s riveting but at the same time hard to watch, seeing the all too human error that brings about these ruined efforts. Peter Cushing’s performance as Baron Frankenstein is one of cinema’s greatest extended character studies. Callous, witty and amoral, he’s one of the most compelling antiheroes to ever grace a Horror film. The subtle touches he added to the character over the course of the series are remarkable. Thanks to Cushing’s performances we are compelled by what drives the doctor but are repulsed by the consequences of his actions. The Baron is almost a mythical figure at this stage, many daren’t speak his name. In this film he has faked his death and is conducting his experiments in a Victorian State asylum for the criminally insane. The doctor chastises the director of the asylum for maltreatment of patients, showing the contradictory nature of the character. His introduction is certainly striking; clad in black he is almost synonymous with death by this time. Known as the “gentle man of Horror”, Freddie Francis felt that Cushing was the best thing that ever happened to Hammer. The early 1970s was a period of grievance for the actor, having lost his wife to emphysema. Trying to cope with the loss he took on an increasingly prolific workload. Cushing looks shockingly gaunt here, tired and overworked like his character. This stage of his career contains some of his finest work, including his performance in Monster from Hell, his obsessive puritan witch-hunter in Twins of Evil, the malevolent shopkeeper in From Beyond the Grave and perhaps best of all, his unforgettable turn as Arthur Grimsdyke in the “Poetic Justice” segment of Tales from the Crypt. There’s an unmistakable melancholic quality to Cushing’s performances at this point (and his performance in Tales from the Crypt is downright heartbreaking) but also a very dark humour creeps through. His obsessive Baron has become an outcast, coming to terms with past failures and trying to salvage something from the wreckage of his life’s work. He remarks, “If I succeed this time then every sacrifice will have been worthwhile”.

Director Terence Fisher was nearing 70 when he made the film. Low on confidence, allegedly prone to heavy drinking and in poor health, it would prove to be his final picture. Fisher and Cushing both contested with Hammer on certain issues – specifically the title, aspects of the script and the appearance of the monster (which Fisher had wanted to be more human but clearly he lost the argument) but their objections went largely unheeded. The ending hints at further adventures for the Baron and Helder but from the tone of the film Fisher and Cushing surely knew that this would be their last in the series. One of the last lines “It’s all over now. All over.” speaks volumes as does Cushing’s mournful expression. It perhaps was meant to signify Frankenstein’s tireless, obsessive nature that he is already planning his next experiment.
When the horror genre’s practitioners decided in the 1970s to largely reject the past the effect was sadly a lasting one. I still find contemporary genre films are too rooted in the present to be wholly effective - many already seem dated within a couple of years. There’s no shortage of contemporary anxieties to examine but by ignoring the genre’s gothic roots they tend to lose the timeless appeal of horror tales, something that you can still find in Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell. It never got the recognition it deserved and while some of the shortcomings detractors point to are valid, they all too often ignore its strengths. Considering the circumstances – an anachronistic picture made with Cushing grieving, Fisher ailing and Hammer itself in terminal decline - it’s the unlikeliest of triumphs and somehow fits the themes of the film itself. The history of the series on and off screen is part of its identity, making it a dignified and relatively subdued farewell. For me it provides perfect closure to a classic series, and how often does that happen? The disdain that some have for this film is slightly baffling, given that it seems to be a classic case of Hammer doing what it so often did best: Gothic Horror with a Home Counties flavour, made with meagre resources but also a tireless spirit, ingenuity and enthusiasm.

Friday, October 26, 2012


Terminator 2, Godfather 2, Rocky 2, The Empire Strikes Back, Aliens, the list goes on. The second part of any trilogy/saga/franchise is key. It’s the glue that holds everything together. The bridge between the beginning and the end of the story where all the crucial & memorable stuff happens. It’s the big rematch (Rocky 2), the shocking discovery (Darth Vader reveals he's Luke's father), the loss or death of a major character (Fredo in The Godfather) and more action (Terminator 2). The Exorcist should have honestly just been left to stand alone as one iconic movie. I mean, I understand - it was such a huge hit movie studios wanted to milk it as much as they could. But if you're gonna make a sequel to a classic the least you could do is not make it a total disaster...which is what the Exorcist sequel was. We all know the first Exorcist wasn’t your typical horror film about some monster or supernatural serial killer out to get someone. It was about religion, faith, the loss of innocence, hidden inside of the kinda horror film that no one had really seen yet. Every Exorcist film besides parts 1 & 3 have been cursed or doomed in some way. Part 2 was so awful that we didn’t get the often forgotten about third part until almost 13 years later. Now, the Exorcist part 3 isn’t the MOST forgotten about film in the world, however on more than one occasion I've honestly heard people say; "There's a third Exorcist movie?" And the prequels that came out in 2004 were cursed with post production and editing issues. Exorcist 3 is part of a special group of underrated "Part 3's" that got overlooked or unfairly treated because the film before it was either too bad, disappointing or too good (Alien 3, Exorcist 3, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets Nest). I've mentioned this before but I'll say it again - late night cable TV programming between the late 80's and early 90's was the best. We never got anything like the Z Channel on the east coast but HBO, Cinemax and The Movie Channel after 10pm on the weekdays featured everything from French art house to Don The Dragon Wilson's best work and everything else in between. The Exorcist 3 was one of the best late night discoveries from my childhood. Instead of trying to make things bigger, better and more shocking (like part 2 tried to do), this one was a scaled back smaller film that takes us back to the very beginning - Georgetown, Catholicism, Father Karras, the famous staircase he killed himself on, etc. Exorcist part 2 was so off the wall with all the voodoo nonsense that William Peter Blatty (author of the first Exorcist and director of another underrated film: The Ninth Configuration) had to come back, take control and bring some legitimacy back to the franchise he started by directing part 3.

This Exorcist, which takes place 15 years after the events of the first one, centers around Detective Kinderman from the first film (played by George C. Scott in a role originally played by Lee Cobb in the first film). Hes working a case of a series of killings that mimic the style of a dead serial killer known as "The Gemini Killer" which eventually leads him to a nursing home of possessed old people and a few old friends from the past (Pazuzu and Father Karras). The gruesome killings mimic everything right down to the details that were kept a secret by the police back in the 70's when The Gemini was on his rampage. As the investigation continues on and Kinderman digs further, things get personal when his friend; father Dyer (another supporting character from the original Exorcist also played by a different actor) is murdered with a personal "note" left behind that only Kinderman would get. Things get even creepier and more supernatural when Pazuzu, the demon that possessed Reagan in the first film, takes over the bodies of old people in a nursing home and gets them to commit copycat crimes of the Gemini killer (Pazuzu also returns in the form of father Karras). With all the connections to the first film, this feels more like the real sequel than the actual sequel (and the fact that Blatty had nothing to do with the part 2 makes part 3 feel more connected to the first too).

Atmosphere and pacing where two major strengths in this film that pretty much went unnoticed. Exorcist 3 managed to capture that cold/grey/windy fall D.C./mid-atlantic vibe that we saw in the first Exorcist. This may not have been directed by William Friedken but his style is everywhere. This exorcist is more of a supernatural neo-noir or a psychological thriller than it is a traditional horror film. That's kinda what I love so much about part 3 is that the first half of this film feels like a detective film with this looming presence of creepiness or a thin layer of horror. The more the film goes on you know something supernatural or frightening is on the horizon. But its still not without its share of creepy moments - in one quick scene we see one of the elderly women from the nursing home possessed and crawling around on the ceiling (a movie moment that's always stayed with me since I was 10) There's another scene that always bugged me out as a kid - early on in the film when Detective Kinderman is home late at night his dauthter comes downstairs in the dark for a brief moment and I swear she looks exactly like Reagan (Linda Blair) from the first film for a split second. These Exorcist films are no stranger to subliminal or hidden messages so I wouldn't put it past Blatty for placing that scene in the film to yet again remind us of the first one (you'll have to excuse me, I recently watched Room 237, a documentary about far fetched subliminal messages in The Shining, so ive been looking at horror films differently ever since). This one may not have turning heads, projectile vomit, defiled crosses or classic lines like: "Do you know what she did? Your cunting daughter?" But it still features great performances from great actors like George C. Scott, Brad Douriff & Jason Miller, along with some pretty random cameos (Patrick Ewing, Fabio and Larry King). Lets also not forget The Exorcist 3 has one of the greatest startle scenes in a horror film in quite some time...

Is The Exorcist Part 3 a classic? Did it have the same impact or spawn a million bad knock-off films where some little girl gets possessed like the first Exorcist did? No, of course not. But it got an unfair shake no-thanks to the stigma left behind by its predecessor; The (awful) Exorcist Part 2: The Heretic. But thanks to the small cult following (and movie blogs like PINNLAND EMPIRE) it’s been slowly getting the recognition it deserves.

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Monday, October 22, 2012


Had anyone else even suggested writing about Bones & Demon Knight on PINNLAND EMPIRE I woulda immedietlly dismissed the idea but John Cribbs (1/2 of the pink smoke) gets a pass. I mean after all, he did let me write about Drawing Restraint 9 (a movie he hates) on his site so its only fair. And besides, Ernest Dickerson is responsible for the movie that made me want to become a DJ (Juice), so why not give his two ventures in to the horror genre a second chance? Plus I'd be lying if I said Demon Knight wasnt on heavy rotation in my VHS player back in the day...

Demon Knight
I was going to take this opportunity to once again defend Ghosts of Mars, a movie so unjustly reviled it waylaid John Carpenter's career for almost a decade. But since Carpenter himself is anything but underrated, I decided instead to write about Ernest Roscoe Dickerson, whose approach in the two horror films he directed could be positively defined as "Carpenter-esque" (his style is a little more raucous, but I'd say he managed to get closer to the spirit of Carpenter than, say, Robby Rodriguez with Planet Terror or Neil Marshall with Doomsday.)
Most people know Dickerson best for shooting Spike Lee's first six movies and John Sayles' Brother from Another Planet, or for his directorial debut Juice. Not as many realize that, seemingly inspired by working camera on George Romero's anthology series Tales from the Darkside, Dickerson went on to direct some pretty decent horror movies that didn't really catch on at the time and haven't had any kind of resurgence since. Just recently up in Toronto, I was telling Marcus about how you never hear Dickerson's name brought up in conversations about legitimate horror directors. This discussion was based on my recommendation of Def by Temptation, which I inaccurately claimed Dickerson directed (he was the DP, the director was James Bond III, who played Monroe in School Daze) but I also freely endorse his 1995 effort Demon Knight and 2001's Bones. Neither of them are classics, but considering their time and place (the 90's was an awful decade for popular horror movies) they deserve more respect their the bare-bones, unbought bargain bin dvd releases can bring them.

Demon Knight
Tales from the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight was the first of two in an as-of-yet-incomplete trilogy of spin-off movies from the popular HBO show, and while it's got sex and comedy and mutilation etc., it's not really of the same "snarky EC comic-influenced/macabre parable with twist ending" formula that the show followed (although there is a clever sequence where a Tales from the Crypt comic mirrors what's going on in the movie frame for frame.) As I said, it's much more like a Carpenter movie with a lone badass (Bill Sadler, appearing in what must be his only theatrically-released lead role) holed up in a single location that's under siege by a bunch of monsters, led by slick, chrome-domed demon Billy Zane (this marking the middle of his "villanious role" career between Dead Calm and Titanic.) Sadler (the "knight" of the title?) is some kind of Connor MacLeod-like ragged hermit who happens to be immortal, tasked with carrying Jesus' blood around in a crucifix-shaped flask so that Zane and his clawed companions can't use it to take over the world somehow. It's the flask itself they need for some reason, the blood inside actually hurts them - Sadler uses the liquid to create membranes across door and window frames that seal out Zane's gang and protect the unfortunate folk in the church-turned-hotel he happens to stumble into on this particular demon night. Trapped along with Sadler are a pre-Willy Jada Pinkett, Lowell-era Thomas Haden Church and the always delightful Dick Miller: the group fight amongst themselves, turn on each other and try to find a way to escape as Zane exploits their weaknesses to his advantage in an attempt to gain entrance and obtain the all-important flask.

Demon Knight
When I saw this in the theater - jesus - 17 years ago, I was instantly sold the minute Sadler is introduced mixing himself some ketchup and mustard soup and scarfing it down. Not as weird and amazing as Marion Cobretti cutting himself a piece of pizza with a pair of scissors, but still enjoyable. Zane seems to be having a blast ripping people's guts out while lamenting the loss of his designer sunglasses, shooting fire from his penis at one point and using his demon powers to tease the desperate survivors. These are the scenes that make Demon Knight so enjoyable, even though they are clearly derived from the Nightmare on Elm Street model of victims being transported to a surreal dreamscape in which they are seduced by whatever's been established as their characteristic vice; even the aforementioned "comic book/live action" sequence had already been done in Nightmare 4 or 5 (Billy's older sister Lisa Zane was the one who killed Krueger in Freddy's Dead, a family connection which may have very well netted him the part of the nameless "Collector"). The best one by far is dipsomaniac Dick Miller tempted by demon booze and nude Hooters girls in a simulated tropical bar setting - fuck Jack Torrance! Not so easily enticed is CCH Pounder, who runs around most of the movie with one arm - when Zane offers her the arm back, she extends her stump: "Is that a yes?" "No, that's me giving you the finger!" Pounder has another nice moment when she barks "Get that pussy off the table!" and the resident floozie instantly hops off her perch. After a beat, Pounder clarifies: "I meant the cat." That's what you get for letting the Pounder loose! With Demon Knight, Dickerson delivers a brisk 90 minutes of action, gross-out set pieces and comedy; it makes up for being derivative by never being dull. The real challenge came with Bones, for which he was tasked with taking goofy pothead/urban linguist Calvin Broadus and turning him into a believable badass monster.

Now try as they might, rappers-turned-actors haven't made much headway into Hollywood horror films. Ice T got to pull a bat out of his afro in Leprechaun 4: Leprechaun in the Hood, but other than that he didn't have much to do. Busta Rhymes embarrassed himself by appearing in the awful Halloween: Resurrection; Redman got killed by a doll in Seed Of Chucky; Rah Digga was the sassy nanny in the 13 Ghosts remake...based on these examples, there's no question that Snoop Dogg's role as pimpin' numbers runner/neighborhood favorite Jimmy Bones is by far the most prestigious. It may have seemed like funny stunt casting, but Snoop is actually perfect as the soft-spoken mack in a polyester pimp coat and Lincoln Continental who's murdered by his crew after rejecting a corrupt cop's plan to peddle crack 'round the neighborhood, his bones buried in the basement of the gothic brownstone where he was killed. 20 years later, some kids hoping to turn the building into a club to launch their positive message music group* disturb the bones of Jimmy Bones, thus freeing his soul from hell so he can seek his vengeance. Snoop - who had already been fake-killed and resurrected by the devil in the Murder Was the Case short film - is a surprisingly intimidating boogeyman, his performance no doubt enhanced by the direction of Dickerson, who guided Tupac to his most memorable role in Juice** and turned Ice T into a sympathetic hero in Surviving the Game. It was also a smart move by the director to have Snoop's character be played by a literal dog for half the movie, a doberman that projectile vomits maggots into the hero's face before announcing that "the gangsta of love don't eat no fried chicken!"

How can you not love a horror movie with the title card appearing in graffiti? Dickerson returns to Demon Knight's workable formula - one central location (in this case, a cool skull-shaped brownstone), a playful yet unrelenting demon who picks off the characters one at a time - and strikes a similarly dexterous balance of laughs and gore to turn what could have been a silly rehash into a pleasure, solid B-minus horror movie. The supporting cast includes Khalil Kain (Raheem from Juice), the beautiful Bianca Lawson, Deezer D from Fear of a Black Hat and Pam Grier, who kind of awesomely plays herself in flashbacks wearing a giant afro (I don't remember her looking like that in the 70's.) A'la Demon Knight, Bones is a bastard son of the Elm Street series: like Freddy, Bones has a creepy nursery rhyme theme song and a cache of bad puns, including one about being on "a high - a supernatural high" that rival Freddy's worst (thankfully the painful "soul food" pun was already taken.) In its defense, Bones (and Demon Knight) is better than half the actual Nightmare films and has enough of its own personality to make it stand out. One nice touch is Ricky Harris' severed head that stays alive after being separated from its body by Bones to argue with him: "I killed you, you kill me - we even! Damn, why you gotta get all meta-fuckin-physical, shit!" Severed heads are Dickerson's visual motif: there's a whole "trophy room" full of them in his Hard Target-like Surviving the Game and Demon Knight has a memorable Dick Miller decapitation. Another great visual is Dickerson's representation of hell as an H.R. Giger-like wall of writhing pitch black bodies that Bones' victims are sucked into: again, kind of a throwback to the squirmy souls caught inside Freddy's chest in the Elm Streets, but still a neat-looking and well-executed idea.

Sadly Bones was not the launching pad for Snoop to become the next modern horror icon, but he's believable as the smug pimp who's got all the stats while all anyone else gots is "quo," transformed into a vengeful hellspawn. Following this and dramatic roles in Baby Boy and Training Day from the same year, his film career was reduced to cameos in a predictable stream of stoner comedies and playing Huggie Bear in the big screen Starsky & Hutch.*** For his part, Dickerson went on to direct episodes of such beloved shows as The Wire and Dexter; I never saw his Masters of Horror because, well, those are mostly unwatchable. I guess I should check it out (if it's on Netflix Instant.) Anyway, I'm glad he's working on The Walking Dead now because he's a super-competent and underutilized horror director.


Demon Knight 
BOX OFFICE: $21,088,568 from $21 million budget
imdb RATING: 6.5/10 (not bad actually)

BOX OFFICE: $7,316,658 from $16 million budget
imdb RATING: 3.9/10

* Leprechaun in the Hood also features a well-meaning positive message rap group who inadvertently ressurect the monster while trying to get their act off the ground. (That one's for certain; I haven't seen Bones in 10 years so I'm not 100% sure they're a positive message rap group...but they're definitely an unsigned music act who bring the monster to life.) 

** Juice also featured a number of rapper cameos including Doctor Dre, Fab Five Freddy and Treach. 

*** He did make another horror movie in 2006: Hood of Horror, in which he again plays a demonic dog.

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Friday, October 19, 2012


Librarian, film enthusiast & hardcore soccer fanatic (and not one of those American soccer fans who suddenly loves the sport only when its world cup time) - Jersey native Leanne Kubicz picked the perfect film that pretty much embodies what this Halloween series is about this year on PINNLAND EMPIRE. Decades before Toy Story 3 had us going "Wait a minute, this is a kids movie??", Disney blessed us all with this strange nightmare. I give Leanne props for tackling such a creepy, flawed and forgotten about film.


There are films that I loved as a child that I still find excellent. E.T. continues to make me cry and the Anne of Green Gables miniseries is better now than when I was a kid (the dry Canadian humor completely went over my head the first time around). Yet there are films that I remember from childhood that do not hold up to my former memory. One such film is Return to Oz starring Fairuza Balk as Dorothy Gale taking another adventure through Oz.

Return to Oz is a forgotten fantasy movie for a reason; it’s an arduous slog that leaves you disappointed. This film debuted when I was six and I watched it about a year or two later on VHS. I recalled this film being really exciting but I find with adult eyes this falls far from what it could have been and left me annoyed. Though The Wizard of Oz is respected due to a nostalgia aspect, not for being an outstanding example of musical theatre, it handles Baum’s source material* better than the latter work. By holding too faithfully to the book illustrations and not simplifying the narrative, Return to Oz misses the mark that it ambitiously tried to reach. The main problem with Return to Oz is that it expects the audience to have prior knowledge of The Wizard of Oz but does not deliver the narrative in any way that resembles the classic. Everyone has imprinted the colorfully corny Garland Dorothy and the merry old Land of Oz and the 1985 version completely flips the standpoint to grim realism. We first meet Dorothy (six months after the tornado) in the middle of the night, unable to sleep as Auntie Em checks in on her. This time around Dorothy’s Aunt and Uncle are clearly anxious due to Dorothy’s constant chatter about Oz and her insomnia. Instead of chalking Dorothy’s imaginative tales and sleeping problems up to simply being a growth phase, they turn to a drastic measure - A clearly depressed Uncle Henry, unable to complete construction on his tornado-damaged home and with a too-fanciful niece to raise, decides to send Dorothy to have electroshock therapy. Yes, it has come to this; Dorothy is going to get her brain fried…

Dorothy is transported to the Land of Oz via a near-drowning in a raging river after escaping the ECT treatment with the help of a mysterious blond girl. The jarring aspect of Dorothy’s escape from an asylum into Oz renders the fantasy with a wash of unease and sadness that never lets one enjoy the kooky characters and magic fully. And so the film proceeds as a series of dark episodes with seemingly delightful characters sprinkled about that do not succeed in lightening the suffocating tone. Did I mention that Dorothy also has a chicken named Billina as a sidekick on this journey? Yes, a Jar Jar Binks-style comedic chicken whose jokes fail completely in every way. Toto gets scant screen time in this version and it is unfortunate that a wise-cracking chicken takes his place. Return to Oz is a gorgeous film, truth be told. The art direction is impeccable and lush. The villains’ costumes blend intricacy and terrifying details that have stuck in my mind for years. The Wheelers, this film’s substitute for Flying Monkeys, first appear with a flash of terror but ultimately show to be embarrassingly lame at battle. It is a shame that such well-crafted boogie-men did not deliver on my childhood memories. The Princess Mombi does deliver in her role as the many-headed pursuer of Dorothy thankfully. Princess Mombi is a particularly upsetting villain as she turns maidens into stone, steals their heads and wears them to suit her mood. Mombi captures Dorothy and intends in adding her head to her wardrobe. “What a happy story this is!” I thought as I was simultaneously creeped-out and bored. A headless evil princess imprisoning a young girl and her goofy mish-mash of found-friends should be highly suspenseful and stir emotional attachment, yet it never does.

No fault should be heaped upon Fairuza Balk who as a small child fills the role of this Dororthy. She did a very serviceable job with a script that is mostly implausible. Balk’s performance does not grate and plays well against the large cast of fanciful creatures (including a sofa) that populate Oz.
The overstuffed story and constant exposition serve to distance Dorothy from emotional connection with the audience. When I speak of constant exposition, I am not exaggerating. The amount of information that the audience has to process about the now-dilapidated Land of Oz and the new characters is introduced by random bits of dialogue. I became increasingly incredulous to this plot device as more implausible situations occurred and were not explained with anything more than a passing comment. The musical version employed songs to explain the various characters’ motivations; this film does nothing but state blunt facts and leaves you to deal with them with no warning. It’s an approach which separates the audience from the fantasy and leaves you perturbed. I was not invested in Dorothy’s journey; I just wanted this improbable film to end.

* I am cautious to compare films that are adapted from novels to their origin, for these are two wildly different mediums. Comparisons can lead to problems, as the mediums are processed differently. For example, when was the last time you heard someone complain, “Blade Runner sucks. Where are the empathy boxes?” Even the exclusion of a huge plot point from the source does not render the adaptation incorrect; it is how well the story is told, simply that.

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Wednesday, October 17, 2012


Following up his Expendables triple feature (Delta Force, Out For Justice & Marked For Death), Matt Reddick is back again with an often forgotten about John Frankenheimer horror film (co-starring Talia Shire in a non-Rocky/Godfather related role) that I haven’t thought about it YEARS. Enjoy…

First, thanks to Marcus for giving me some time here to share my thoughts.

I only decided to watch Prophecy because it was directed by John Frankenheimer. I’ve been a fan of his since I watched The Manchurian Candidate in college. I watched nearly all of his other movies and, with the exception of his 80s films, really enjoyed them. Prophecy, AFAIK, is not available on DVD so I only recently found it on the internet. It was made during a time of the “eco-horror” fad, which followed the success of Jaws. Most of them had the same basic premise: Animals or the environment gone amok after humans have destroyed their habitat or offspring. Most were terrible (The Swarm, Squirm, Empire of the Ants, Food of the Gods) and a few were somewhat interesting (Piranha, Orca). I vaguely remember seeing most of these as a child but they didn’t leave much of an impression. It was just something to watch. The opening scene sets the mood perfectly for a horror film - Bouncing lights with animals panting, the wind howls as the credits roll which is immediately followed by the introduction of decent (yet typical) suspenseful 70’s score. The editing gets more hectic but the shots are more fully composed and we understand that there’s a group of men with hunting dogs racing through a forest at night. They die mysteriously. The following scenes show the aftermath with classical music playing over it. That in turn leads us to an introduction of the two main characters (Talia Shire and Robert Foxworth). Just under 10 minutes it’s effective and solid filmmaking. I was impressed and engaged.

As an aside, I’m always fascinated by 70s movies that have urban settings. Were things as ridiculously bad as they appear (below) here in D.C.?

Anyway, as the plot is introduced, dread sets in. Not the expected fearfulness from a horror movie. Instead, a bland, preachy message movie starts to develop. I’ll try to summarize: A doctor, for the flimsiest of reasons, is sent to a logging site in Maine to investigate the environmental impact that the loggers are making. Additionally, the local Indians are protesting and blockading the logging operations while people are mysteriously disappearing. The script makes an effort but I found it a little stale. The owner of the logging company (played by Richard Dysart in a solid turn) gives a typical broad brush of the legal and ethical actions of the company. He’s also casually racist towards the Indian tribe. Armand Asante, as the leader of the protesting tribe, is obnoxious, arrogant, and unintentionally hilarious. A lowlight is his fighing a chainsaw-wielding logger with an axe! Foxworth is cynical, irritable and in typical 70s fashion, has a bleak outlook on life. Talie Shire might be the most interesting character. She is a professional cellist, who, after finding out she’s pregnant, struggles with her relationship with Foxworth (who does not want children). The operations of the logging company are shown in great detail, to the detriment of the narrative, yet it still manages to be interesting. The wife’s pregnancy subplot adds an interesting element, particularly later, when she realizes she’s eaten mercury-tainted fish (a second viewing reveals s several shots showing Shire’s POV). The mutated monster is also a female and, predictably, becomes enraged when her cubs are threatened. The environmental theme is emphasized to include not just nature, but societal and personal responsibility as well.

Ultimately, the monster is what sinks this film. About half way through we’re shown a decent look at the bear, but the kill is straight up comedy:

The final confrontation, where the mother bear runs wild trying to recover her cub, drags on for almost a half hour. The argument for keeping it is so it can be presented as evidence to the EPA! The budget restrictions certainly did no favors. The bear looks cheap and rubbery and inexplicably can run on its hind legs. There are several dolly shots to cover the problem of filming it running; having the camera and monster gliding on a (off-screen) track ruins any suspense or fear. Considering that the monster’s size is supposed to be an intimidating factor, there are way too many close-ups, especially in the fight scenes.
Overall, I would rate this 3/5. It has some very interesting ideas but awful special effects. On the flipside, those very same elements provide many laugh-out-loud moments. Considering the talent that was involved, it’s more a case of lamenting what might have been. This isn’t nearly as bad as IMDB/RT would lead you to believe.

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Monday, October 15, 2012


You really like the dark, don’t you, Michael? You can be yourself in the dark. But, you know? There’s one dark place that we have to be very careful in. - Randy Quaid (Parents)

Halloween is a great time to get together with friends to watch a scary movie. If you're tired of the same ol' Friday The 13th/Nightmare On Elm Street suggestions, why not give a more unconventional film like Parents a shot? Parents is The Shining meets Nickelodeon. Norman Rockwell meets Ted Bundy or an episode of Pete & Pete guest directed by John Wayne Gacy. Bob Balaban knew the kids of the 80's (like myself) who watched Nickelodeon's Are You Afraid Of The Dark and read those RL Stine books would grow up and grow out of that stuff but would still be looking for something to fill the void once they reached adulthood...

Bob Balaban gives off a strange vibe. Sometimes he comes off like a creepy accountant by day and serial killer by night. Other times he reminds us off that out of touch father who cant connect with his kids (pretty much the role he played in Ghost World) but behind closed doors he's a sexual deviant with a questionable porn collection. It's like he's wound way too tight, ready to snap at any moment and go on a chloroform napkin killing spree in the park. Bob Balaban may not be JT Walsh or Harry Dean Stanton but he's still a great character actor that doesn't get the proper recognition. There's more to him than guest spots on Seinfeld and his appearances in Christopher Guest's movies. And besides his underappreciated work as an actor, he's also a somewhat underrated director responsible for one of my all-time favorite movies; Parents - the story of a young boy ("Michael") that suspects his parents (Randy Quaid & Marybeth Hurt) are cannibalistic serial killers. Throughout the film Michael has these disturbing visions, reminiscent of Danny in The Shining, about his parents committing horrible murders. The only people who believe Michael's theory are "Sheila"(Michael's only friend) and his guidance counselor. To further emphasize our suspicions, Balaban constantly shoots Quaid & Hurt through dark creepy lighting whenever we see them though Michael's point of view. Parents is a film about what goes on beneath the surface and how things aren't exactly as they seem. Besides being a horror/comedy, Parents is very much a noir. What makes it such a unique noir is that it's a film geared towards adults but is told from the perspective of an 8 year old. Up until the final moments of the film Balaban makes everything subjective & ambiguous. Before the explosive finale, he gives us just as much evidence to support that Michael's parents are disturbed serial killers and just as much evidence to show that they aren't.

Parents is brilliant right down to the box cover art which pretty much captures the movie's vibe perfectly - from the font to Randy Quaid looking directly at us. This film may be silly but it's still a film that both Freud & Kinsey would love to over-analyze if they had the chance. There's a ton of sexual undertones and Freudian moments - Michael's mother seems almost flirtatious with her son, his father sometimes talks & acts like a pedophile and there's a pivotal scene where Michael walks in on his parents having sex. This is a film that plays on those feelings we had about our mom & dad when we were kids - "Who are these strange people?" It may belong to the same school of dark comedies as Heathers, Meet The Applegates or Shakes The Clown, but it also gets a lot of influence from more serious sources like David Lynch (specifically Blue Velvet) or those A&E specials on serial killers. I know that any movie that has any scene that's remotely surreal or strange gets an automatic comparison to David Lynch but trust me, this comparison is worthy. It's more than obvious Blue Velvet left a lasting impression on Bob Balaban. The opening scenes of both films feature dark & disturbing secrets hidden behind white picket fences, chirping birds & friendly waving crossing guards. Parents could also turn the biggest, baddest, heftiest meat eater in to an outspoken vegan (forget vegetarian). Not only does Michael think his parents are cannibals themselves, but he suspects they're serving the dead bodies up to him every night for dinner (this predates Dahmer). In the film Michael never eats the meat his mother prepares for dinner. I don't know if it's the lighting or what, but every shot of meat in the film looks gross. This is a unique film. Very few horror/comedies will have you name dropping everything from Freud & Kinsey to Nickelodeon & Ted Bundy. Quaid's performance isn't too shabby either (he nabbed a nomination for best actor at the 1990 independent spirit awards). There will be a lot to talk about once this movie is over so I highly suggest getting together with a group of friends for a fun/unique movie together.

Blue Velvet/Parents

Parents also seems to borrow some visual elements from Kubrick's The Shining as well...

Friday, October 12, 2012


Besides Ghost Dog, most of what I write about Forest Whitaker on PINNLAND EMPIRE isn’t very nice. This may be a little misleading to some of you readers because he’s actually one of my favorite actors so I owe him this blog entry which is full of nothing but nice things (for the most part). I don't mean to be so harsh on him but it’s just that he hasn't been in a good film or taken a worthy role in a while. Actually his last great performance was in a film that hasn't even been seen by most people outside of Europe (which is a bit strange because it isn’t even a European film). Mary, Abel Ferrara's 2005 religious drama that didn't get released theatrically until 2010, might be the greatest piece of acting Forest Whitaker has ever done in his entire career with the exception of maybe Bird and his stint on The Shield. It played at big festivals like Toronto & Venice, but like so many small films that make the festival circuit it had a tough time getting a distributor and barely saw the light of day. One moment Whitaker is explosive & scary (in a scene where he discovers his wife had complications with her pregnancy) and the next minute he's a vulnerable insecure cry-baby on his knees in church begging god for forgiveness (his character in the film is not only a fraud but he also cheats on his wife). Now, Mary isn’t JUST about Forest Whitaker (the film also stars Juliette Binoche, Marion Cotillard, Matthew Modine & Heather Graham) but he still kinda steals the show. Giving an actor free range to do whatever he/she wants can be a gamble and I get the feeling that’s the advice Ferrara gave Whitaker (the two have worked together before on The Invasion Of The Body Snatchers remake). Luckily Forest Whitaker didn't take advantage of that advice (that Ferrara may have very well not even given him but for all intents & purposes of this blog entry - let’s just imagine he did). Whitaker is calm and controlled in some moments when his character needs to be and when it’s time to go all out and lose it - he does. This is an Abel Ferrara film, so heavy handed religion (specifically Catholicism) should be expected. Not many people have come close to matching Harvey Keitel’s intensity in the chapel scene at the end of Bad Lieutenant (Abel Ferrara's masterpiece) but I'd say Whitaker came very close in an almost identical scene. Giving Forest Whitaker so much praise almost feels pointless as Mary doesn't even have a US region DVD yet and its main theatrical run was only for one week at Anthology Film Archives (unless I’m mistaken). If you happen to own a Multi-region DVD player I highly recommend getting this. Not only is Whitaker great, but so is the film…kinda. …Ok look, I’m gonna be honest - Mary is FAR from a masterpiece but I needed to call it that in order to get your attention. It IS very “interesting”. Let’s call it a flawed masterpiece. I appreciate the fact that Mary, along with Ferrara’s last seven years of work, is evidence that he’s still growing as a filmmaker (no matter how old he is) and is putting aside his fascination of working with rappers and “gangsta” culture (Ice-T, Schooly D, King Of New York, etc).

Mary wasn't exactly a response to Mel Gibson and The Passion Of The Christ...but at the same time it kinda was. In the film Matthew Modine plays; "Tony Childress" - an egocentric filmmaker/actor (clearly half modeled after Gibson and half Modeled after Ferrara himself) who's just finished shooting a film about the life of Christ told from the perspective of Mary Magdalene titled; "This Is My Blood". Childress’ film has some striking similarities to not just The Passion Of The Christ but The Last Temptation Of Christ as well (which, coincidentally stars quite a few Abel Ferrara regulars like Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel & Victor Argo) and its causing quite an uproar - the lead actress; "Marie Palesi" (played by Juliette Binoche) has a nervous breakdown once the production wraps, runs off to Jerusalem to find herself and become closer with God, theaters that are scheduled to play the film are receiving bomb threats all over the U.S. and everyone from The Black Panthers to the Jewish community are up in arms for reasons ranging from racism to anti-Semitism (sound familiar?). When sensational talk show host; "Ted Younger" (Whitaker) sees an opportunity to expose Childress and his film, he invites him and Marie on to his show (Tony agrees to appear on the show as long as Ted comes to the movie premier which will give it more publicity). The only problem is that Marie is somewhere in Jerusalem with no plans of leaving any time soon and no one can contact her. Ted finally manages to reach her (he’s been having an affair with one of her friends played by Marion Cotillard) but Marie has no interest in appearing on his show or going to the premier of the film either. She’s given up acting and has become this new spiritual person. Halfway in to the film Ted Younger (who's been unfaithful to his pregnant wife, played by Heather Graham) has a spiritual breakdown, admits he’s a phony (his talk show is geared towards religion and theology but he admits to not really believing in god) and seeks out Marie for some kind of spiritual guidance. The "guy who once had faith in God but now doesn't" character is a bit cliché and has been explored numerous times from Diary Of A Country Priest (Bresson) & Under The Sun Of Satan (Pilat) to Italian For Beginners & To The Wonder (Malick), but Whitaker breathes new life in to that role and plays it differently (and more volatile) than anyone else has (to my knowledge at least). Binoche also gives a good performance and Marion Cotillard, who only appears in two scenes, is good too. Between Whitaker & Binoche (who never share any screen time together in Mary, they only talk on the phone) I'm surprised this film didn't get any kind of play in 2005. I guess Mary was overshadowed by two other films that came out that same year - Cache (one of the 10 best films of the decade which co-starred Binoche) and The Last King Of Scotland (Whitaker's Oscar winning performance).

It’s understandable that Mary would be misunderstood by the few people who’ve seen it. The film is a bit chaotic, the editing and transitions from one scene to the next are abrupt from time to time, there isn't much insight or depth in to why Juliette Binoche's character suddenly has a breakdown, there’s an explosion scene that looks totally fake due to the bad CGI effect explosion and Matthew Modine's performance isn't very good in my opinion (I've never really been a fan outside of Married To The Mob). Additionally, Whitaker and Graham playing husband & wife also seemed a little…I dunno what the term is, but it’s like he was trying too hard to show an interracial couple on screen where race isn’t the issue. But on the flipside, that is a somewhat progressive (and realistic) representation of many married couples today. Plus there wasn’t a whole lot of chemistry between Whitaker & Graham (at no fault of Whitaker’s). Maybe that was the problem – I just can’t imagine those two together in real life. Religion on film (especially Catholicism & Christianity) can turn people off pretty easily (and like I already said; Abel Ferrara can be a bit heavy handed with the religion stuff). But I appreciate Ferrara’s honest & genuine attempt at trying to do something different. Plus the score is really good and goes with the film well. Given the plot, along with the year it was released (one year after The Passion) many people thought he was just trying to ride the coattails of The Passion when in fact he was just trying to address it which is something he (and any other filmmaker) has every right to do. It’s just unclear whether or not Ferrara was being critical of Gibson or supporting his right to make The Passion. Even Ferrara's motives and mission behind Mary seemed unclear. In the film, Modine's character is somewhat of a megalomaniac who only cares about the hype & publicity around his new movie while on the other hand he becomes a martyr for free expression by the end (it ends with a bomb threat being called in at the premier of the movie and Modine refuses to leave). A movie like The Passion Of The Christ, which isn't good, along with the motivation behind it is gonna bring things outta people whether they like it or think it’s stupid. Given that Abel Ferrara is clearly a strong Catholic, I imagine he felt the need to make this. What I’m about to say is going to make no sense but this is his most flawed film yet at the same time one of his best films since The Funeral (a criminally underrated mob film featuring Chris Penn in his greatest performance). This is a long overdue write-up (which explains why it’s a bit long). If you remember my review of Go-Go Tales from early 2011, Anthology Film Archives did a great retrospective on Abel Ferrara’s work from the last decade, which were films that most Americans had yet to see. I’d say Mary was the best out of the bunch.

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Monday, October 8, 2012


A female's presence in a (good) road movie is either non-existent (most road movies involve men on some journey to find themselves due to some mid-life crisis or a divorce...There's too many examples to name) or in the form of a small girl partnered with an older man (Alice In The Cities, Paper Moon & Lolita). There's the occasional exception like Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise but generally speaking, it’s true. Women can have a mid-life crisis or go through some devastating event that can make them wanna hit the open road and never look back too (and please don’t say Thelma & Louise. I said GOOD road movie). I guess it was up to a woman (Lynne Ramsay) to bring some legitimacy to the female road movie genre with her sophomore feature; Morvern Callar - a road movie full of planes, trains & automobiles that takes us from Scotland to Madrid to the Spanish desert, then back to Scotland. The style of Morvern Callar is like Claire Denis in her prime (there are moments in Morvern Callar that do remind me of Nenette & Boni and Beau Travail) meets Andrea Arnold's Red Road (and I'm not just making that comparison because they're all female directors). Morvern Callar has the same realistic tone as her first feature; Ratcatcher (most of the cinematography is handheld, the dialogue is very natural and comes off non-scripted and all the moments just seem genuine) yet the atmosphere is a lot more dreamy (but not super David Lynch dreamy). The film's dreaminess is due to Samantha Morton's detached and slightly "off" lead performance, the use of slow motion, minimal dialogue and the soundtrack courtesy of music from artists like Broadcast, Aphex Twin & Boards Of Canada (which is music that you'll pretty much always find on heavy rotation on my iPod). Much like Olivier Assayas, Ramsay is another indie/art house director who doesn’t get enough recognition for her ear and use of great music (both original and pre-existing) in her films. Ramsay also pulled off a very dreamy style without it being so Malick influenced like her 90’s work. All of her early student films, as well as Ratcatcher, were straight outta the school of early Terrence Malick whereas Morvern Callar seemed more of her own style. On a side note, Ratcatcher also remains Ramsay's one and only “gritty” film (I mean how can a film with garbage and rats in almost every scene NOT be gritty?). There was more of a focus on (natural) beauty in her later work starting with Morvern Callar and she doesn’t shy away from showing things that are still kinda unattractive to see on the big screen as far as leading ladies are concerned. Throughout the film we see Morvern (Samantha Morton) prance around her apartment in "granny panties" with unshaven legs and squatting to pee in the bushes.

Morvern Caller represents the Lynne Ramsay that I miss so much. There IS a plot (a pretty straight forward one), but this film is more about the atmosphere. Going back the soundtrack for moment, not much is said (compared to more traditional movies) in the first 10-15 minutes of the film (I mean, there's a lot of background talking and noise but not much of it is really important or key to the story) so we rely heavily on the score. There's other moments like Morvern walking through a noisy rave with annoying techno music playing but she has her headphones while walking through the crowd not talking to anyone, or the scene where she hooks up with a random stranger in his hotel room yet hardly anything is said between the two of them. These are moments where music makes up for the lack of dialogue...

Morvern Callar is a rather unique take on dealing with the death of a loved one. The film starts on Christmas morning moments after Morvern's boyfriend (James) has just committed suicide on their kitchen floor leaving behind an unpublished book with instructions on what publishers to mail the book to. Instead of freaking out, Morvern is in a bit of a daze. Not even in shock. Its more along the lines of she doesn’t really care/hasn’t fully processed the fact that her dead bloody boyfriend is laid out on the kitchen floor. She follows his instructions on what to do with the book with the exception of one little change - she takes his name off as the author and puts her name on it instead. To me, this move on Morvern’s part was her way at getting back at her boyfriend who left her (maybe there were some unfinished things left between Morvern and James or maybe she felt cheated not getting that chance to say goodbye). Two interesting things about Morvern's boyfriend is that at no point in the film does she ever tell anyone he's dead (with the exception of one moment where she blurts it out to her friend but no one hears it) and just from a few lines spoken about James from the supporting cast we get to know him pretty well (he's kind of a gloomy, dark person...I guess that all adds up to him committing suicide, huh?). We get that James was still a pretty good boyfriend. Before killing himself he left behind personal Christmas gifts that Morvern seemed to really love (one of which is a personal mixtape titled; “music for morvern”, and the other is a leather jacket that she wears through the first third of the film which kinda reminds the audience of James’ presence even though he's dead). Instead of mourning, she cleans out James’ account (he left behind his bank card for her) and goes about her regular routine (she goes to a party, goes to work, hangs out with her friend, etc). She eventually uses her boyfriend's money and takes her friend (Lanna) on a vacation to Madrid. While on vacation Morvern and Lanna having a falling out between taking drugs and hooking up with random guys (we come to find out that James cheated on her with Lanna). Morvern ditches her in some random Spanish desert to meet up with two book publishers who're interested in her boyfriend's book (well...Morvern’s book now). As it turns out, the book is really good and she strikes a six figure deal. Over night she goes from being a broke grocery store clerk to having over $100,000 in her bank account. With that money she continues to travel (after making peace with Lanna) and the film ends on a rather open/subjective note with Morvern waiting at a train station platform. Besides Morton's detached performance (she's always great in my opinion) Kathleen McDermott (Lanna) is also a delight. Her performance is natural, cute, funny and according to the actress herself (on the special features of the DVD) the character she plays isn’t that much different from her real self.

Subtlety is another one of Ramsay's strengths with this film. At first glance Morvern Callar doesn't fit in with other classic road movies but when you take a step back and think about it for a minute you'll see that it has just as much sex, drugs & rock n' roll as other classic road movies like Two Lane Blacktop or Easy Rider. You also forget about the whole name change/book publishing part of the story up until the very end (the only time Ramsay addresses this is at the very beginning & end with one quick mention of it in the middle). By the end of the film its almost like; "oh yeah, I forgot she stole her dead boyfriend's manuscript and put her name on it.

Almost all of the films put out by Palm Pictures (minus Time Of The Wolf) are either about music in some way or it plays a major role in the film - DIG (a documentary about the rivalry between The Brian Jonestown Massacre & The Dandy Warhols), Demonlover (Sonic Youth), Stop Making Sense (Talking Heads), etc. I really can’t stress enough about how important music plays in Morvern Callar. This is one of my favorite recent discoveries (easily one of the 50 best films of the last decade) and I'd recommend it to just about anyone without reservation (something I usually have to do with most films I really like these days). My tagline for this film would be "an artsy chick flick that men can enjoy." Besides Claire Denis and Andrea Arnold (who I’m starting to feel is somehow spiritually connected to Lynne Ramsay as far as style is concerned), fans of Marina De Van (another progressive female director) and last year's I Travel Because I Have To (a similar premise to Morvern Callar except told from a male's perspective) will love this.

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INSIDE THE PHOENIX PODCAST (and other updates: All Tomorrow's Children, Halloween & Rarely Recommended)

Well I no longer have to feel guilty about saying the phrase; "check out my site". With a little help from Jegman, PINNLAND EMPIRE is now a dotcom. This is perfect timing because not only is this a big week here at the site (reviews on Morvern Callar & Abel Ferrara's misunderstood masterpiece; Mary scheduled for this week) but it coincides with the podcast I did for Inside The Phoenix a few months back which you can finally check out right here. Listen as I talk about everything from film criticism & race to music & design.

When you're done listening to the podcast, check out the latest Rarely Recommended entry over at The Pink Smoke and read my write-up of Tom Noonan's underrated masterpiece; What Happened Was... along with John Cribb's write-up of Another Lonely Hitman.

After this week PINNLAND EMPIRE will be all about Halloween. Starting in Mid-October myself and a few other guest writers will be delving in to the world of underrated, unconventional & misunderstood Halloween-themed movies. Stay tuned...

And lastly, a very talented filmmaker, artist & musician by the name of Jon-Carlos Evans is doing an Indiegogo fundraiser for his feature film; All Tomorrow's Children - the story about a trio of misfit teens trapped in an American paradox of time travel and failed institutions. Go to this link right HERE to check out more info and to donate.

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Friday, October 5, 2012


When you put guys like Ben Stiller (the often forgotten about director of The Cable Guy) and Jim Carrey on a VERY short leash they can be hilarious. Seriously, does anyone remember the Ben Stiller show? That short lived sketch comedy series on fox that only lasted one season? It was hilarious (mostly thanks to David Cross & Bob Odenkirk's writing, but still...). Dare I say it was ahead of its time? Zoolander = Hilarious (guilty pleasure hilarious, but still hilarious). Something About Mary was great and his performance in Heavyweights was classic (although as my friend Doug Frye said - he’s been running that character in to the ground). It goes without saying that Jim Carrey can be a bit over the top (sometimes his humor has the opposite effect on me and makes me angry) but he’s had his moments (Dumb & Dumber, Me Myself & Irene, the first time he hosted SNL, etc). When it comes to the type of comedies I enjoy - the thought of Stiller & Carrey (along with a then-unknown Jack Black and Judd Apatow as producer) working together NOW sounds like a disaster but they pulled it off well in the 90’s. Today, some people recognize how funny Cable Guy is but I remember quite well how much people hated it back when it first came out. I guess that makes this a cult film - hated or misunderstood at first then loved later on by a devote group of fans. When I got to college in '99 I discovered that there were tons of loyal fans out there that "got" Cable Guy's humor (it also served as the perfect late night movie when we couldn't get any work done). It’s difficult to describe the humor. I guess ridiculously stupid yet hilarious and pretty smart at the same time. It was one of the early stupid/brilliant comedies that paved the way for future stupid/brilliant comedies like’ Saving Silverman (don't hate til you've seen it) or Freddie Got Fingered. Sure Cable Guy is filled with big laughs (Jim Carrey doing karaoke...yes, that shit is funny) but like so many underappreciated comedies, it’s the little moments in between that make this so funny - from Owen Wilson's cameo to the way Carrey casually reveals his name to be Larry Tate yet it doesn't sink in til moments later where that name comes from. Sometimes its the little random moments that make a comedy great. Think about it, all the great (somewhat) recent comedies have these random little moments that are just as funny as the big comedic moments - Super Troopers ("you guys are talkin' about shenanigans, right?!"), Grandma's Boy (YOU'RE a hooker!), Harold & Kumar (pretty much throughout the whole movie), The Footfist Way (Danny McBride grilling Julio after he screws up the karate demo), 40 Year Old Virgin (Kevin Hart's cameo), etc. Cable Guy had plenty of those moments. For example; if you're someone who can only take a guy like Ben Stiller in small doses, this movie is perfect. There's a very underrated and minor Menendez brothers subplot that plays out through the entire film (both roles are played by Stiller). Not only is it funny as hell (Ben Stiller’s' 911 call to the police about some Asian guy shooting his brother) but Stiller took a shot at an unexpected target like the Menendez Brothers when he could have easily been a hack and taken a shot at OJ Simpson which is what damn near every comedy was doing in the mid-90's. Give Stiller some credit for not going the easy route for a cheap laugh.

Honestly, I just don't think people expected Cable Guy to be as "dark" as it was. Now, you and I both know Cable Guy is PG-rated when you put it next to true dark comedies but like Parents or God Bless America, but as far as studio films’s pretty dark. There was this creepy tone throughout most of the film highlighted by moments like the answering machine scene ("we're having ourselves quite a little game of phone tag here, aren't we?") or that nightmare scene where Jim Carrey chases Matthew Broderick down the hallway. This movie should have bridged the gap between the baby boomers, generation x and generation y but it kinda backfired. It had everything - Television and movie references for older folks, and the kinda of humor for younger teens, directed by a prominent Generation X figure (with all due respect, Stiller DID direct Reality Bites). Unfortunately the old television references used in the movie, which the baby boomers shoulda related too, went over the heads of the younger teenagers who had no idea what stuff like My Three Sons was. On the flipside, the type of humor in Cable Guy that was geared towards younger people didn't seem to go over well with the older generation.
Now, The Cable Guy was obviously poking fun at stalking (specifically films like Single White Female & Fatal Attraction). We shouldn't really laugh at something like that (even though we do from time to time) because most of the time women are the victim and the outcome is never good. But because the stalking victim in Cable Guy is a man, it’s ok to laugh. Somehow men being stalked is kinda funny. Think about it - when a film about stalking is about a woman we get Single White Female, Never Talk To Strangers, etc. But with men we get...Cable Guy. But that's totally fine. I'm not complaining at all. Cable Guy is a great movie. Ben Stiller pulled off the impossible task of giving Jim Carrey something I like to call “controlled free range”. Carrey was his usual spastic self but he’s not in every single scene and his presence is balanced out by Matthew Broderick (technically, Broderick is the main character but does anyone really remember his presence at all outside of the mid-evil times scene). Seriously, are you gonna sit there and honestly tell me the mid-evil times scene isn't fucking funny? "Down, down, knights goin down!" Not only was that brilliant but it seriously made me wanna go to mid-evil times (I still haven’t been). Or how bout the basketball scene? Not so much the physical moments but its lines like; "You guys play here too??" or "we're playin prison rules, huh?" is what makes it so funny.
I'm claiming Cable Guy for MY Generation. We were the ones who kept it alive, didn’t totally dismiss it when it first came out and stayed with it from our teenage years into adulthood. You and I both know this isn’t exactly a “masterpiece” but dammit its funny and deserves respect.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012


For the last few years the most prominent films on the subject of hip-hop culture have focused mainly on Tupac (Resurrection, The Death Row Records documentary, Tupac & Biggie) and/or Notorious B.I.G. (Notorious). And by "Prominent" I mean films that didn't just go straight to DVD but rather got some kind of a run in theaters. What's even worse is that these films focus more on the violence surrounding Biggie & Tupac's deaths rather than their music. Tupac and Biggie are both icons in Hip-Hop (and you have to admit that whether you're a fan or not) but after four films in a few short years all essentially focusing on the same thing...I think it's time to move on. I recognize there are exceptions like The Hip-Hop Project, Scratch (which played at Sundance), Freestyle: The Art Of Rhyme (which gained a lot of popularity through word of mouth and on DVD) but these days, generally speaking, if it isn't a tupac/biggie-related film it doesn’t get much play. Just off of that alone this Tribe Called Quest documentary was necessary. Now, Beats Rhymes & Life wasn’t without its own controversy (the documentary was in a mini-post production hell mostly due to Q-Tip and Michael Rapaport not seeing eye to eye on the final cut), but after the smoke settled we were left with a solid documentary (which was eventually co-signed by three out of the four members) that was long overdue. Furthermore, this documentary serves as an unofficial guide, especially for young African American males and young diabetics, on the subject of health. Beyond the group's history and behind the scenes turmoil, a major part of this documentary focused on Phife Dawg's battle with his diabetes-induced kidney disease and struggle to find a kidney donor. This is something I relate too pretty much 110% as I'm a type-2 diabetic who needed a kidney (and got one courtesy of my Uncle Dennis) because I was careless, stubborn and lived my life as if I didn’t have diabetes. Phife, who at times came off a little whiny in the film, is the epitome of that stubborn relative or friend we all know with diabetes who acts as if they don’t have it because you don’t usually see the effects of diabetes right away like you would other diseases. Diabetes is known as a "slow killer". But slow or not, diabetes can still KILL. Quite a few diabetics put too much emphasis on the “slow” part of that phrase and less on the “killer” part – “I can eat this candy bar or drink this soda. It’s not gonna kill me right away, so whatever.” But the problem is many diabetics (specifically type-2 diabetics like Phife Dawg) think like that too much and too often and end up going overboard. Next thing it’s the loss of your vision, a limb...or a kidney transplant. Just look at everyone from Heavy D (another hip-hop legend like Tribe) to Patrice O’Neal in recent years (both overweight black males). The subplot involving Phife's kidney transplant alone (he eventually got a kidney from his wife) would have made a great film. Let my story, as well as Phife's, be a lesson to you all - Diabetes is nothing to play with. However…had I not gotten kidney disease you all wouldn’t have this great "Kidneys On Film" series so it’s kind of a blessing in disguise, right?

It goes without saying that A Tribe Called Quest deserves to have their story told on the big screen. From Q-Tip's voice, to their iconic red, black & green album covers, to the their conscious lyrics (a term that's gotten a little played out over the years, but whatever...), to their innovation in jazz sampled-based production to their influence on so many artists or being part of one of the biggest/greatest (yet at times distant) hip-hop collectives; "Native Tongues" (de la soul, jungle brothers, black sheep, queen latifah, etc etc) - they're legends. In the last decade or so there have been a few hip-hop-based films like Q-Bert's Wave Twisters or Scratch to play at big festivals like Sundance, New York & Toronto, but those films, which are do serve a purpose, only represent subcultures within a subculture, whereas ATCQ is fairly universal and speaks to a lot more people than strictly DJing & turntablism. Naturally a lot of people initially expected someone like Spike Lee or even John Singleton (Q-Tip has worked with both directors in the past) to direct this documentary but I think Michael Rapaport (in his directorial debut) did a great job. From 'Zebrahead' (a movie that was originally meant for MC Search and also gave Nas a big push early on in his career with the song "Halftime") to working with people like Talib Kweli & Madlib (who did the soundtrack for Beats, Rhymes & Life), Rapaport has always been cool in my book. And on a side note, his performance in Bamboozled is one of the most criminally underrated supporting roles of the last decade. Beats, Rhymes & Life gives you the typical introduction & history of ATCQ intercut with their 2008 reunion for Rock The Bells which was filled with quite a bit of animosity and old feelings between Phife and Q-Tip (the main reason Tribe reunited in 2008 was so Phife could get money from the tour to pay for his kidney transplant and medical bills). For the most part, the right people were interviewed (De La Soul, Questlove, etc) and I was especially happy to see The Jungle Brothers interviewed because as I mentioned earlier, Natives Tongues, although legendary, are quite possibly one of the most distant & disassociated collectives in hip-hop history (this would make for another interesting documentary). I get the feeling that this documentary also shed a lot of light on Q-Tip's role as producer in the group. Up until this documentary many people have expressed to me in conversation (I won’t name names) that they always thought Ali Shaheed Mohammad handled most of the production when in fact it was Q-Tip.
Even if you aren’t the biggest fan of hip-hop this is still a film that can be enjoyed by most film lovers.
In the documentary Rapaport goes over Tribe's discography (with more of an emphasis on The Low End Theory & Midnight Marauders) and kinda grazes over their fourth album (Beats, Rhymes & Life). Besides the fact that’s the name of the documentary, it’s also the groups "cult album". In the summer of '96 when this album was released, it was initially met with mixed reviews and quite a few fans felt the album was just "ok" or disappointing. But over time people warmed up and it was eventually considered a classic like their first three albums. The documentary didn’t really get in to that or the fact that the Beats, Rhymes & Life album pretty much introduced Jaydee/J-Dilla (one of the most influential producers in hip-hop) to the world. But rarely has there ever been a film that’s so personal to me on more multiple levels, so it kinda gets a pass. Putting the diabetes/kidney subplot aside, not only was I born in St. Albans (Tribe's stomping ground) and lived there the first 7 years of my life (right around the corner from the famous St. Albans mural that’s featured heavily in the documentary) but The Low End Theory was literally the first rap album I ever bought as a kid.
Hopefully this documentary will pave the way for other long overdue (respectable) hip-hop documentaries on groups ranging from Wu-Tang to De La Soul.


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