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by Bill Gibron

28 Nov 2009

By the mid ‘70s, Australian cinema was desperate for an identity. It had bathed in the beauty of faux Golden Era Hollywood mimicry and wallowed in the excess of easily achieved grindhouse exploitation. But with the arrival of the new decade came a desire to look inward, to explore the nation’s still relatively new folklore to discover a sovereign as well as artistic imprint all its own. Brits Tony Richardson and Mick Jagger traveled Downunder to tell the story of noted Aussie bad boy Ned Kelly, but it took a homegrown filmmaker (by way of France) to finally uncover the truth about the brutal Outback. Philippe Mora’s 1976 triumph, Mad Dog Morgan, set the stage for many memorable motion picture statements about the continent’s violent growing pains. Long forgotten, we today have Lloyd Kaufman and Troma to thank for rescuing this gem from obscurity and giving an otherwise clueless fanbase a chance to experience it for themselves.

Daniel Morgan is considered a national treasure in Australia, an Irish ex-patriot who came to the country looking for gold, but wound up confronting the colonial corruption rampant in the still struggling land. A truly demented and disconnected Dennis Hopper, clearly locked in the middle of his love affair with “recreational pharmaceuticals” plays the beloved bush ranger, a man who witnesses racially motivated massacres and evil land owner atrocities and decides to stand his ground. After serving six years hard labor for robbery, he teams up with an exiled Aborigine named Billy (the expressive David Gulpilil) and together they terrorize the countryside in true Robin Hood mode. Morgan is not an ordinary thief so much as a karmic counterbalance. He lets the downtrodden keep their coins (while stealing their clothes), while seeking revenge for those who’ve wronged him - and the nation - long ago.

Of course, such individual anarchy can’t be tolerated, and so Supt. Cobham (a menacing Frank Thring) calls on prison warden Sgt. Smith (Bill Hunter) and, eventually, renowned lawman Detective Mainwaring (Jack Thompson) to hunt down and deliver Morgan - dead or alive. As the reward continues to grow, the locals rebel. They admire the outlaw for standing up to the government and many will do everything in their meager power to protect him. As he moves from highwayman to accidental killer, his legend grows even stronger. Eventually, Morgan is betrayed by a wealthy plantation owner and his servants. Surrounded on all sides and unable to plot an escape, the myth becomes a martyr for his adopted homeland. To this day, the name Daniel Morgan inspires great awe and appreciation in Australia.

Partly influenced by the spaghetti western and definitely guided by the work of William Goldman and George Roy Hill in their counterculture take on the genre - Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid - Philippe Mora’s Mad Dog Morgan is one of those lost titles that didn’t deserve the banishment. Sure, it’s impressionistic and complex, relying on the audience to fill in blanks regarding motivation and historical import. But thanks to the unusually picturesque vistas Mora incorporates into his narrative, along with the striking sense of time and place, Mad Dog Morgan discovers its own magic. Told in scattered, symphonic manner, the first “movement” focuses on the foundation for the icon’s anger. The second section illustrates how his legend was born and cultivated. The third act, however, is where Mora’s vision goes slightly askew. While we recognize the need for the character’s comeuppance, it is handled in a manner both far too dreamy and disassociated to be wholly effective.

Indeed, Mora seems to be experimenting with style and form throughout. The opening sequences are all quick shot selections and ‘blink and you’ll miss them’ moments. Within the first ten minutes, our hero has been shamed, shackled, and sent up the river. His prison abuse is handled quickly and almost too matter of fact, while his team up with Billy appears offhand and random. Once we get to the meat of the narrative - Morgan’s wilderness travails and the government’s obsession with stopping him - Mora’s mannerisms work like a charm. We fall into the rhythms he’s creating and enjoy every stop along the way. With talented Australian actors like Thring, Hunter and Thompson, we get a perfect complement to Hopper’s Hellspawn theatrics. The drug-addled actor is not bad here - in fact, he is fantastic and fascinating in his structure and style. In some ways, he’s like Tom Hulce in Amadeus, or punk director Alex Cox taking on the story of 19th century mercenary William Walker - contemporary, but wholly complementary.

Indeed, without Hopper’s slightly surreal take on the man, we’d have a halfhearted representation of history - facts without the fire to inspire. But within the infamous actor’s myth-busting is a lot of courage, a great deal of magnetism, and just the right amount of rogue to give us a reason for Morgan’s lasting impact. Hopper’s scenes with Gulpilil are indeed wonderful, loving without being sexual, proud without de-evolving into outright chest thumping. We get the connection (even if one is never really established) and are never really bothered by in and out nature of Hopper’s Irish brogue. Indeed, we are supposed to get a stranger in a strange land vibe from the character, a sense of being unstuck in time, and the cocaine-fueled feeling the American brings to the part cannot be discounted. It definitely works in his favor. He is a rock solid center to a full realized, if reluctant, masterwork.

While it would be nice to report that Troma goes the full “Criterion” on Mad Dog Morgan, those hoping for a pristine video presentation of the original uncut version of the film (loaded with Fulci-esque gore) will be a little disappointed. Granted, we aren’t dealing with the 1.66:1 pan and scan horror of the last transfer, but the faded colors and occasional artifacting are troublesome, even if the film is back to its 2.35:1 original aspect ratio. At least the sound is up to snuff, while still suffering slightly from 33 year old technological constraints. The score, by Patrick Flynn, is fabulous, reminiscent of a discarded Morricone jewel. As for added content, the two disc set gives Mora, Hopper, cinematographer Mike Molloy, and associate producer Richard Brennan a chance to sit down and recall their time taking on this project. The anecdotes are funny, informative, and often rather sharp. This was clearly a difficult film to make, and all the bonus feature participants respond like veterans of a great and mighty war.

And in some ways, they have a right to feel that way. Mad Dog Morgan may have been big in Oz, but it was a minor blimp on the 1976 cinematic scene. It was well received and reviewed but quickly ignored by an audience who’d long written off Dennis Hopper as one of the ‘60s most notorious acid (and other) casualties. It’s too bad, really. Held in the proper esteem and guarded by preservationists who could guarantee that future generations experienced the effort in all its powerful picturesque glory, Mad Dog Morgan might be one of post-modern moviemakings definitive titles. As it stands, it’s a unique offering in a corporate canon that has more blood and breasts than cultural epics. Troma should be proud to have this “Tromasterpiece” as part of their collection. The rest of the industry should be ashamed for letting it slip away in the first place. 

by Sarah Zupko

28 Nov 2009

Warning: major geek alert. Lost season five is releasing on DVD and ABC is offering up something special for hardcore Lost aficionados. The DHARMA Orientation Kit comes with the full fifth season on Blu-ray, of course, but they’re housed floppy disc style in a large binder wrapped in a cardboard box. Very retro. The binder contains the basics for new DHARMA recruits: a VHS orientation video, printed guides to the compound, and embroidered patches to add to your clothes and make you the supreme über geek. As we’ve come to expect with Lost DVD releases, the set is packed to the gills with extras, such as on location featurettes and several documentaries including “Lost 100” that looks back at the first 100 episodes of the iconic show. This set screams gift, especially as it’s a limited edition and likely to become a collector’s item.


by Karen Zarker

28 Nov 2009

This is perfect, just perfect, for that person in your life who’s read Oliver Sacks or for that someone who loves the Annals in Science articles in the New Yorker—and is especially attracted to those articles on neurology. This is for the amateur anatomist who went to Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds when it was in town and strolled through the exhibit in quiet reverence.

When it comes right down to it, what we are, and who we are, can be distilled down to that very delicate, highly complex, amazing mass of gray matter, which weighs in at an average of three and one-fourth pounds. The brain’s anatomy, its physical and perceptual growth, what happens to it as it learns, when it suffers illness or injury, what constitutes personality, how we perceive the world—all is presented within historical timelines (e.g., brain surgeries, past and present; brain development, from fetus to senior citizen). Our sense of self, our sense of others, our sense of things outside of ourselves and others, our comprehension of objects and ideas, our ability to be athletes and artists are all rendered in a digestible yet brain-engaging format for the perpetually curious layperson with an interest in anatomy, psychology, and identity.

In addition to the gorgeous graphics in these comprehensive 256 pages, (and occasional pop culture examples, not without humor), the book comes with a DVD-ROM with some cool graphics and summarizing features to complement the text. That might appeal to those who haven’t yet made it to a Body Worlds exhibit. The rest of us will be completely absorbed between the pages of this book. Don’t interrupt the reader—for all its problem solving and fantasy-generating might, the brain can’t process two similar tasks (e.g., processing speech and processing text) at the same time.


by Karen Zarker

28 Nov 2009

The brooding apocalyptic teenager, the flouncing, flower-tossing nature lover, the novice scientist with quizzically furrowed brow all have this in common: they will love, if they do not already love, the History Channel’s stellar series, The Universe, seasons one through three, and they will simply devour this box set which includes those shows plus feature-length Beyond the Big Bang. “We’re all gonna die, anyway” pessimists and “Isn’t life glorious?” optimists can share the couch and the popcorn bowl on this one. Simultaneously terrifying and inspiring, touching every nerve that inspires human storytelling past and present, and sparking our imaginations about the future, I’m thinking the only kind of person who would not find fascination in this series might be unconscious, and I wish them a speedy recovery.


by Christel Loar

28 Nov 2009

In the early 1950s, Hank Williams could be heard performing every weekday morning on radio stations all across the southern United States. These 15-minute “morning shows” were pre-recorded in Nashville and many of the songs Williams recorded for these broadcasts thankfully survive. Packaged like its predecessor, Hank Williams: The Unreleased Recordings, as a three-disc box set, Hank Williams Revealed features three full programs in their entirety exactly as they were heard by listeners more than half a century ago, as well as stand-alone songs, in-studio conversations with Williams, and banter between him and the members of his band, the Drifting Cowboys. These candid conversations are something rare as far as Williams is concerned, and they provide unique and intimate insight into a man who, for as much as he is an icon of country music, has always been something of a mystery. The recordings reveal a personality that is much more lively and filled with humor than one might expect from listening to his most popular songs. Williams tells stories and talks easily about his music and his life as he performs his songs, many of which are alternate arrangements to familiar favorites, and some of which were never performed by Williams outside these studio sessions.

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