Tuesday, January 11, 2005

JOHNNY B HEART NETFLIX, PART ONE

Still subscribing to Netflix, thankyouverymuch, and lately I've watched a gaggle (clutch? school? pride?) of films or recent vintage , with one notable exception. Here they be. Five star rating system.

THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK ***
Continuation of David Twohy's not-bad sci-fi actioner Pitch Black, starring Vin Diesel as the title character, who was established as an technology-enhanced convict in the first film, but is bumped up into some sort of ├╝ber-warrior this time out, complete with manifest destiny and everything. Of course, and this is to his credit, Diesel plays him the same exact way he did in the first flick: dour, hypercapable and sullen, with no sense of humor. He doesn't so much as choose to lead the free universe against the evil menace, it's more like he gets pissed off at being inconvenienced. I don't know exactly what to think about this- this was obviously crafted with a lot of care and imagination, and a lot more money than its predecessor, which makes the CGI and matte effects very impressive. I wish they'd spent a little more time developing the story; it's epic enough, I suppose, and there are a lot of somewhat interesting characters but a lot of it doesn't make sense. For example, the prison planet Crematoria (ouch, what a dumb name) has its hellish prison under the surface- up top it's so close to the sun and its rotation is such that the surface gets cooked by intense sunlight on a frequent basis. But, despite the apparent complete lack of any sort of vegetation whatsoever, the atmosphere is breathable! In fact, the control center of the prison surfaces at regular intervals and opens vents which allow fresh air to rush into the underground prison. At one point, the escaping Riddick and his motley crew take advantage of this and make a mad dash across the planet's surface to the spaceships which are docked on the other side of a mountain range, and have to outrun the advancing intense sunlight which is at their backs. While up in the mountains, they actually have to stop climbing, in the light which is already hot enough to disintegrate a couple of the unlucky prisoners...but the air is not superheated and the have no trouble breathing. Science quibbles aside, if you're a fan of this sort of intergalactic quest-type film, there's much to like about Chronicles...the evil empire (called "Necromongers") are sufficiently repulsive, there is a nice tie-in with Pitch Black in the form of Keith David's holy man Imam, not to mention Riddick's young admirer Jack (now named Kyra) and played with an appealing mix of sass and verve by a cutie named Alexa Davalos. The requisite slumming distinguished actor/actress is Dame Judi Densch, who plays some sort of emissary from a planet of ghost witches or somesuch. It's kinda pretentious, overblown and often dumb, but I liked it a lot better than either of Lucas's Star Wars prequels, so there ya go.

ORGY OF THE DEAD **
It will probably come as no big surprise to anyone that I am a bit of a fan of the work of Edward D. Wood, Jr.; ever since seeing a picture or two from his Plan 9 From Outer Space in Famous Monsters as a kid, then getting to see both it and its companion in awfulness Bride of the Monster once or twice on Channel 5 (Nashville)'s the Big Show in the 70s, I have taken every opportunity I could get to experience the weird-assed spawn of this man's feverish imagination. The Rudolph Grey book Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. was required reading for me, along with Weldon's Psychotronic books, which cited his films, and the Burton semi-biopic. I think what I came away admiring about him, even as I laugh and shake my head at the amateurishness of his output, is how much commitment he had to his craft and how much he burned with the need to be involved in movies. If only I had that kind of fire inside me, who knows- I might be drawing comics somewhere. Anyway, all this personal junk aside, Orgy was one of the two or three Wood films I hadn't seen, and make no mistake- it's bad. Ludicrously bad. Wood didn't direct this one (Stephen Apostolof was the man behind the camera), he only assisted and wrote the alleged screenplay- and it's full of his hilariously ponderous pronouncements. His old buddy Criswell is here, looking liquored up and obviously reading from cue cards, but he's the only one from the Mighty Wood Players that turns up. Basically what this is is a nudie flick, the sort they used to show in Burlesque theatres back in the early-mid 60s, with Wood's typically ham-handed horrorshow ideas shoehorned in. Criswell is the "Emperor of the Dead", who presides over what I suppose is nightly nude dancing in a graveyard in order to pass judgement on "lost souls". At his side is Elvira lookalike Fawn Silver and two guys dressed up in awful-looking mummy and wolfman costumes. They get to provide comic relief. The strippers come out one at a time, and each one dances to a theme, based on the crimes they committed in life: one loved gold above all else, so Cris has gold coins poured over her head by two strapping slave men in striped shorts, then she gets dunked in a boiling pot (actually, they lay her behind it, and it's obvious) and emerges covered head-to-toe in gold paint, just like Shirley Eaton (Apostolof says in an interview included on the disc that the James Bond film indeed was the inspiration for this sequence) in Goldfinger. A Hawaiian girl threw herself into a volcano, so she does a fire dance. You get the picture. A writer and his shrewish girlfriend are out driving around at night looking for this cemetary (to get ideas for his stories, he says), have an accident, and when they come to are discovered by the monsters, tied to posts, and forced to watch the strippers being "judged". Funniest line (out of many contenders) has the boyfriend saying, "They wouldn't dare put both of us in the same grave, would they?"; to which the girlfriend replies, "I hope not, I hate you". You'll want to fast forward past the strippers' routines; they're (mostly) attractive but they dance like they're on Thorazine- and savor the wretched bad acting and ludicrous dialogue as only our Eddie could write. Orgy is worth it for Wood buffs and connoisseurs of bad cinema, but everyone else should just stay away.

MAGNOLIA ****
After Boogie Nights, which I liked a lot, I had kinda gotten behind with my P.T. Anderson film viewing. Here's what he followed that film with, and I remember it getting mostly good reviews upon its release, but I think its length, lack of a distinctive concept, and the fact that it didn't come on any cable networks that I subscribed to at the time meant that I'm only just now getting around to viewing it. It's a sprawling film, with multiple storylines that only really converge at the end. It's chock full of good perfomances, from Anderson regulars such as Julianne Moore, the great William Macy, and Phillip Seymour Hoffmann, not to mention Tom Cruise as a motivational speaker/huckster who has parental issues with dying dad Jason Robards. The movie's not wildly inventive, nor is it directed with a lot of spark, and the big even which connects all the characters is just plain silly...but my attention rarely strayed and I was very interested in where it was all going. It didn't seem as long as its 3-hour running time would have you think. The movie doesn't end as much as it just expires, and leaves you hanging just a little, but overall I liked Magnolia because while I might not have been as impressed with the destination as I had hoped, I enjoyed the trip.

More to come.

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