Witch Hunt (1994)

“Cast A Deadly Spell”, a made-for-HBO TV movie which starred HP Lovecraft as a private detective in a noir-ish 1940s LA where everyone uses magic, was a surprise thumbs-up from us; and it seems, from lots of other people, as they made a sequel to it a few years later.

Gone was director Martin Campbell (although writer Joseph Dougherty returned); he was replaced by Paul Schrader, who is more famous as a writer – he gave us “Taxi Driver”, “Raging Bull” and “The Last Temptation Of Christ”. Gone is the entire cast of the first movie, most prominently Fred Ward as HP Lovecraft – he’s replaced by Dennis Hopper, who was in the stage of his career when he seemed pretty happy to coast in lesser projects. The other main draws are Eric Bogosian as Senator Larson Crocket, Penelope Ann Miller as Kim Hudson, a movie star and wife of a murdered studio executive, and Julian Sands as the mysterious Finn Macha, for some reason trotting out a genuinely bizarre Irish accent.

So. This is more something that uses the same basic building blocks to tell a completely different story than it is a sequel. Gone is the noir look of “Cast A Deadly Spell”, to be replaced by a much more TV-movie looking bright LA, kind of Sunset Boulevard crossed with the paintings of David Hockney (although nowhere near as interesting as that would actually look). It’s set in 1953, although it’s very vague on the details, having tons of props that people who pay more attention than me have dated to 1958 at the earliest.

They’ve made it a red scare movie, but replaced communism with magic. I’m not entirely sure this works? Okay, both are easy to learn, simple to understand and very beneficial to life, but communism was never as widespread and as beloved as magic is here. Senator Crocket is trying to ban magic, organises rallies and Senate hearings against it; at the same time, the murder of the producer is pinned on his wife, who was being fazed out of his movies in place of a younger starlet. Lovecraft investigates and the two come together (obviously, or this would be a very strange movie indeed).

There are some fun touches, such as near the beginning when a group of execs summon Shakespeare from the 16th century, who looks horrified, only to be glimpsed in a later scene having completely transformed into a typical LA scumbag; and the running gag of Lovecraft never being able to produce the right business card, carried over from the first movie. And, in a curious bit of continuity, a main character being a transvestite. But it just doesn’t work.

I’ve been trying to ponder a way to describe this. Imagine a “Friday the 13th” sequel that’s a political thriller, where Jason just sort of idly wanders through a few scenes not really doing anything. Having HP Lovecraft as a character in a movie where there’s no mention of his mythos, and where magic is an extremely flimsy metaphor, just seems pointless? It’s also really not helped by Hopper, who’s indifferent to proceedings, and director Schrader, likewise. I wonder what persuaded either of them this was worth their time? Did HBO throw a lot of money at them, or were they both working cheap that week?

I’m sorry to report that nothing really works. It’s not a good detective, horror, or comedy movie, and everyone gives off a strong vibe of wishing they were somewhere else. The world only needs one HP-Lovecraft-is-a-private-eye movie, and this isn’t it.

Rating: thumbs down

Advertisements

The Glory Stompers (1968)

glorystomp1

Directed by: Anthony M. Lanza

In Peter Biskind’s glorious book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood Dennis Hopper is depicted as an unstable drug dependent maniac. He’s a spent force, no longer the cherubic innocent young man who starred opposite James Dean. In the sixties Hopper bears all the scars of popular American culture and the death of the rock n’ roll era; he personifies its descent into despair.

‘The Glory Stompers’ came before ‘Easy Rider’, but ‘Easy Rider’ wiped the film from Hopper’s filmography as his one true biker movie, which is just as well because ‘The Glory Stompers’ is an embarrassment, one of the worst films I’ve had the misfortune to sit through. Yes, it is even worse than ‘Clawed: The Legend of Sasquatch’.

In the film Hopper plays Chino, leader of an outlaw biker gang called The Black Souls. Small and wiry, like a disorientated chimp Hopper staggers through each scene dropping several “maaaan’s” at the end of each of his lines. Chino rules by fear, but it is difficult to understand why a biker would throw Karate poses and use Judo chops when he engages in fisticuffs.

‘The Glory Stompers’ tries to put across the danger associated with biker gangs but ends up spewing clichés. It is hopelessly inauthentic despite the encouraging sound of loud engines that rev over the opening credits. There are also gratuitous close-ups of shiny hogs, moustachioed bikers and nubile young women in bras. Until Hopper staggers on screen there is almost a reason to be optimistic that this won’t turn out to be a stinker.

Most of the story is built around The Black Souls kidnapping the innocent blonde girlfriend (played by Chris Noel) of a biker from The Stompers called Darryl (Jody McCrea). Hopper and co lay the boots, and Judo chops, into Darryl and leave him for dead. They realize when they have the blonde in their care that she is unnecessary baggage and rather than have more blood on their heads they hatch a plan to drive across to Mexico and sell her to some dubious Mexican chaps. Darryl in the meantime wakes up dazed and bloodied and follows the trail left by The Black Souls, he hops on his bike and heads off to rescue his girl.

The Black Souls are a pathetic bunch, although I’m guessing this probably wasn’t the intention of the directors. They are dysfunctional, sure enough, and rag tag, but come across more as wannabes, than a bona fide legit outfit. Hopper constantly bickers with his ‘mama’, who gets jealous of the blonde. You’ve got Magoo (Robert Tessier), a big lump who spends most of the film getting beaten up by the diminutive Hopper, and humourously rejected by women because he looks like disfigured Tolkien character. The conscience of the group is a clean cut biker called ‘Clean Cut’ who falls in love with the blonde and seems reluctant to indulge in the savage lifestyle of a biker. Then there’s a Keith Lemon faced member who provides the kind of impression of a bad LSD trip that might feature in an educational anti-drugs video.

‘The Glory Stompers’ is the kind of exploitation film that an auteur like Quentin Tarantino would flesh out, fill up with hip dialogue and turn into a violent classic. Unfortunately it is as unpleasant as inhaling a lungful of exhaust fumes. Hopper is creepy, but incoherent and unconvincing in his role and everyone bar Magoo seem hopelessly miscast as bikers. There is scope for firing shots at the objectification of women in the film with close up perv shots that veer into the world of Russ Meyer, but it’s a gripe with the times, and probably worth looking at in greater detail on another occasion.

– RJW
1/10

The Glory Stompers on IMDB
Buy Glory Stompers [DVD] [1967] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]
A Poster for your Wall

Space Truckers (1996)

Today’s two reviews are from films from the mid-90s, one of which was roundly panned on release, the other which seemed to sneak under the radar. This is the panned one. A low point, even in their chequered careers, of Dennis Hopper and Stephen Dorff, and an almost-unheard-of romantic leading lady part for Debi Mazar, how does this film hold up today?

truckers_poster

The basic plot of this film is some executive decided he wanted to do a science fiction film that year, but the only scripts they had were fragments – a bit of a Western, a smidgeon of a sequel to “Convoy”, some “Aliens”, and the world’s stupidest love triangle film, and didn’t so much mash them together, as just do one bit, then another bit, then another bit. Charles Dance pops up at the beginning as a robot-inventing scientist, but he’s killed by his evil boss! No! Charles Dance makes any film automatically better just by his presence – FACT.

ASIDE 1: Don’t you hate it in films when someone military-ish says “the monsters are 1 mile away, repeat, 1 mile away”. Does anyone ever do this in real life?

John Canyon (Hopper) is one of the few remaining independent space truckers, and is transporting square pigs across the solar system. They’re in appalling battery conditions, and the film doesn’t appear to have a moral stand on this…just another example of how certain things like spaceships have progressed a great deal but they never bothered figuring out a decent synthetic alternative to pork. Norm off Cheers is the boss of the square pig company, and him trying to stiff Canyon starts off the film. Canyon’s favourite bartender, Cindy (Mazar) who he’s sort of guilted into agreeing to marry him, and Mike Pucci (Dorff), a company trucker waiting for his first run, join him as they’re all on the run from the space-law.

ASIDE 2: One of Norm’s henchmen inadvertently kills Norm by firing a hole in the side of the space station with a pistol, which sucks a bunch of stuff out. If you know this is likely to happen, why let anyone have a gun?

Rather than try and clear their names, they just decide to do some more trucking, Cindy and Mike strip down to their underwear on the flimsiest pretext, and take a secret load to a high Earth orbit, which we know to be loads of those robots from the beginning of the film (they had 5000 of them, apparently). They’re jacked by pirates, get to hear the immortal phrase “wang-pulse”, but do they make it back to Earth? Who does Cindy want to be with? What happens to those robots?

This film isn’t so much rotten as pointless. Absolutely soulless, it gives no reason for its own existence at any point. There’s no sense of the Universe these people operate in, they just bounce from one thing to another, and it’s the definition of the Shakespeare phrase “a tale told by an idiot…full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. Not so much plot holes as plot black holes! Because of the space setting! No, seriously, that’s a good joke.

First up are the robots. They’re super-tough, their container is said to be made out of near-indestructible material, and they’re due to be taken to high Earth orbit. So you’d think re-entry would be a doddle for them, right? Wrong. The containers are destroyed, as are the robots, while Canyon’s truck makes it down fine, ish. Then there’s Debi Mazar. She’s a fine looking woman, no doubt, but everything about her- her look, her voice – says “wacky best friend” rather than “main love interest for two guys”. Even in the grunge-loving days of the mid 90s, I don’t buy it (Janeane Garofalo, who is a roughly similar actress from a similar period, with a similar look, has something far more about her than Mazar).

5019254205_d164f0ea86_z

There’s one redeeming feature, and that’s when Charles Dance pops up again as the Pirate King, as he managed to survive the attack on him at the beginning of the film. He realises what sort of film he’s in and hams it up superbly. Sadly, no-one else bothers, and when the film ends, everyone apart from reviewers who need to retain a few facts should just let it slip from their minds and into the mental recycle bin. Thumbs firmly down.

Space Truckers on IMDB
Buy Space Truckers [DVD] [1996]

Swing Vote (2008)

Swing Vote (2008)

In an unprecedented (and implausible) turn of events, the latest U.S. election between Republican incumbent Andrew Boone (Kelsey Grammar) and Democrat candidate Donald Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper) has resolved itself in a complete dead heat. The heat is so dead, in fact, that its outcome lies in the hands of just one citizen; Ernest ‘Bud’ Johnson (Kevin Costner), a New Mexico resident and deadbeat dad, who earns a reprieve after his vote malfunctioned. Given the obligation to complete his vote and decide the election, Bud becomes the most famous man in America, leading to courtship from both political parties. Bud gleefully exploits this new-found attention, much to the chagrin of his civic-minded daughter. As the date of his vote looms and the fate of both the country and his relationship with his daughter Molly (Madeline Carroll) in the balance, will Bud do the right thing? What is the right thing anyway? Lucky for Bud, this movie isn’t that interested.

The main problem with partisan satire is in alienating about half of your potential audience, and also courting accusations of satiety. Once seen to take sides, you are to an extent no longer the outsider. No longer the archetypal Pueblo Clown figure, favoured by the likes of Stewart Lee and high-brow comedy theorists, mocking the system from some exterior vantage point and — above all else — never doing voiceovers for the Prudential. To do so will firmly place yourself within the narrative, and undermine any effort to ridicule the process.

Now the problem with bipartisan satire; Republicans. Not so much a specific judgement on those who vote Republican, or even particularly the fiscal conservatism at its bedrock. It’s more a call on the homopobia, racism, gun-coddling, historical revisionism, and Galtiphile exceptionalism that clings to that particular bedrock like so much foetid barnacle.  A bipartisan approach is ultimately a re-enforcement of the status quo, communising every polarising issue. Swing Vote, amounting to little but a middling vehicle for what will optimistically be known as ‘mid-period Costner’ by the more resilient pockets of his fanbase, is this form of cop-out. It at least cops out with a compelling premise, one with potential, but only gets round to sprouting on screen.

There’s a lot to be done with the idea of a single voter deciding an election. It could be used to address the illusion of mandate, where ideas of competition, and ‘winning’, trounce the more democratic ideal of accurate representation. Similarly, it could be used to attack the disproportionate influence of the swing states themselves. What’s the real difference between a loveable dufus picking an election and a few hundred thousand Floridans doing much the same in 2000? Perhaps you could satirise the electoral college, a controversial system whereby a series of state representatives vote in the citizen’s stead. Or perhaps one could pluck the last taboo of Democracy. Do we actually need it? Perhaps things would be more efficient if one person just decided everything for us? If not, what can be done to remedy our disparities?

Swing Vote isn’t very interested in any of these big questions. At the most, it’s a lightweight, overly saccharine critique of political apathy, with no analysis of endemic social causes of disenfranchisement. “Bud” Johnson is modern Hollywood’s idea of a south-west Everyman, which never says more about the south-west than it does the attitude of Hollywood. He’s dumb, he’s lazy, and can’t hold a job on account of his dumb laziness. To cap it all off, he drinks Budweiser, and is named ‘Bud’, hopefully not because of the Budweiser. Not to say that there’s nobody out there who fits that particularly broad silhouette, but to hang an entire movie (and an ostensibly political one at that) on someone who doesn’t appreciate the stakes or even care that much about the outlandish turn of events that comprise his story, is patronising. His loveability stems entirely from Costner’s residual on-screen charm, something always rather more niche among a pantheon that includes the likes of Tom Hanks and…I don’t know…Tom Selleck? Whatever.

The main bulk of what could be considered ‘an satire’ occurs during the second act. Both campaigns, spurred by the opportunity of appealing to — and winning by — Bud’s vote, egregiously abandon their policies and make counter-intuitive pledges. GOP President Boone supports gay marriage, while Democrat Greenleaf becomes virulently pro-life, all based off sound bites from Bud’s lackadaisical interviews. The result is buffoonish, jarring queasily with the mawkish sentiment prevailing elsewhere in the picture. It’s as though Swing Vote, somewhat ironically, doesn’t have the courage of its convictions. The critique is squarely on the political class’ appeal to popular interests rather than internal ideology, without ever having to concede the merits of one policy over another. Gay marriage, or being anti-gay marriage, is just as good/bad as being pro-life, or pro-choice. There’s no interest on the part of the film-makers to get their hands ‘dirty’.

At the very least, both candidates are allowed to be in two minds about their ridiculous pandering, something that composes the majority of their character definition. It’s never that convincing, however, that either side would take this much of an ideological plunge on so flimsy a presupposition.

When the time comes for Bud to finally (spoiler alert) get his civics lesson  and, by extension, an active part in his own film, it’s an extremely perfunctory montage. Not to mention an extremely-late-in-the-game montage, occurring as it does well into the third act. Downhearted and chastened by the public turning on him for being a national embarrassment and effectively holding the election hostage, Bud makes amends by requesting to chair another national debate between the two candidates. Here he makes an impassioned introductory speech, apologising for his errancy and effectively blaming society’s problems on himself and his ilk. The system isn’t so much in error, or unfairly weighed against its people. It’s our fault for not properly engaging with the system. For not working hard enough, not making enough sacrifices, not having enough aspiration etc. Whether you agree with this sentiment or not, it’s an egregiously conservative coda for a film so otherwise bent on political ambiguity. Counting the vice-presidential debates, this would make for the fifth debate in a dramatically overrunning election. It’s amazing that the crowd are so pleasant!

Swing Vote was released in American cinemas on August 1st, 2008, a few months before the Obama/McCain election was to dramatically change the political landscape. Like many western democracies, the US is in the thrall of two-party centrism, where their relatively slender disparity consolidates people to often bitterly opposing clans. The wake of Obama’s victory, however, has exacerbated the US ‘culture wars’ to such an extent that the idea of both parties being “as bad as each-other” feels increasingly anachronistic. Swing Vote is more interesting as a political what-if? than as a movie, which is partly why the bulk of this review has focused on these implications, rather than its dramatic worth or the quality of performance. Perhaps another movie down the line will take these ideas more seriously, or at least have more fun.

Swing Vote on IMDB
Buy Swing Vote [DVD] [2008]