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by Bill Gibron

2 Dec 2009


Guy Ritchie can give you a headache. No, not with his ‘70s post-modernism mixed with unhealthy doses of MTV-schooled stylization. No, not even with his cockney rhyming, slang happy cast of cartoon-like characters. Certainly, his stint as Madonna’s own personal boy toy filmmaker forced more than one viewer to run for the medicine cabinet (or in the case of their only feature collaboration, a rancid remake of Lina Wertmueller’s brilliant Swept Away, the porcelain throne below it), and their eventual divorce could give anyone the TMZ shivers.

No, Ritchie’s real ability to boil your brain comes with his undeniable inconsistency. One moment, he’s delivering an amazing bit of anarchy like Snatch. Then next, he’s dropping the cinematic equivalent of a deuce in your lap (2005’s Revolver). Even his first film, the often acclaimed heist flick Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels belies this migraine making hit or miss ideal. While his last effort, RocknRolla, resulted in a shot at bringing a beloved fictional character back to revisionist light (his take on Sherlock Holmes is mere weeks away), one can’t help but feel that too much was made out this initial effort, a clever if cluttered walk down old school English gangster gratuity.

Eddie (Nick Moran) fancies himself quite the card sharp. With the help of his friends Bacon (Jason Statham), Soap (Dexter Fletcher), and Tom (Jason Flemyng), he pools together the $100K required to enter Harry the Hatchet’s (P.H. Moriarty) high stakes game. When the sly street tough is finished with the lad, he’s in debt for nearly $500K and has only one week to raise it. If not, his father’s (Sting) bar is in jeopardy, as are all of his pals’ fingers. Desperate for a means of making that kind of cash, they get a brainstorm. Eddie and Bacon’s next door neighbors are drug dealers. They’ve overheard their own desire to rob a bunch of pot growing gits of their money and dope. So they decide to lie in wait, let the criminals do all the work, and then relieve them of their ill-gotten gains after. Naturally, things don’t go as planned.

Like any runaway train ready to trample all over past genre contrivances, Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels takes a little while getting started. Since we’ve already met characters like this in his later work, and because the writer/director currently has said signature moves down to a cinematic science, the growing pains practiced here are frequent and obvious. Unlike Snatch, say, that finds a way to make several divergent narratives roar in the movie equivalent of a bawdy, pissed pub sing-along, this earlier effort needs some time to completely tap in and make the connections. Indeed, when we learn that Rory Breaker (an excellent Vas Blackwood) set the man on fire that we see coming out of the bar early on, the sudden shock of the link indicated Ritchie’s less than smooth sense of transition trickery.

Equally incomplete are the various motives involved. Hatchet Harry may actually be creating this entire card game with the hopes of landing Eddie’s father’s club, but said stratagem is never made clear. Similarly, the whole antiques gun issue feels like the most routine of red herrings, a way of keeping a couple of wacky characters in the story while providing the fodder for a “what next?” kind of Italian Job finale. There is no denying that Ritchie is head and shoulders above his UK crime thriller brethren. The closest the country had previously come to producing something similar was way back when Danny Boyle first burst on the screen with 1994’s Shallow Grave, and even that was more Hitchcock than post-modern histrionics. No, the effect this film had on the national noir type was immediate and undeniable. As with most influential titles, the reputation extends far beyond the actual entertainment value.

That doesn’t mean this movie is bad. Far from it. Indeed, some of the performances are so memorable you wish they were given more time to blossom and grow. Former illegal bareknuckles boxer Lenny McLean is so good as Harry’s right hand muscle, Barry the Baptist, that when we learn he died shortly after making the movie, our heart sinks a little - not just for the man himself, but for the power and abject magnetism he brought to the screen. Jason Statham (who’s also present, though in a much more subdued role) can only wish he can be this bad-ass as he heads toward his middle years. Similarly, Jason Flemyng is so slickly slimy as Tom that his current career as a mainstream movie “star” seems a million miles away. While there are other novel turns here and there (Sting just said the F-word!), this is really Ritchie’s resume builder - and he tries to make the most of it.

Oddly enough, for its arrival on Blu-ray, there are some real limitations to what Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels has to offer, content-wise. Granted, the 1080p picture looks amazing, Ritchie’s destaturated designs coming across with the necessary ambient grit and seedy London swagger the movie all but exudes. There’s also a featurette on said cinematography, as well as a compilation of all the film’s expletives. But a couple of years back, a “Director’s Cut” was offered with added scenes. That is not available here. Nor is said excised footage restored as a bonus feature or extra. Also missing from previous versions is a Cockney Dictionary, which might be helpful to those of you unfamiliar with the randy jokester jargon. But what would really be nice is a Ritchie commentary track. If any film needs a sense of perspective and import, it’s this one. Sadly, no said statement is offered.

Still, for all its minor flaws and digital packaging failings, Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels is a highly effective film. It is easy to see why it took an ill-prepared, post-Pulp Fiction fanbase by storm and how it set Ritchie up for future successes (Snatch, RocknRolla) and beyond expectation failures (Revolver). It’s the perfect example of a showboating headscratcher, a movie that makes its frequently fun points without ever really getting into the business of engaging you as a thriller or a dark comedy. Instead, the jokes appear haphazard and random, the violence a necessary evil of a movie made within the criminal context of this particular social arena. What his other movies have done summarily or languidly, Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels does with some clear novice stumbles. It’s creative and very clever. It’s just not a classic. 

by Bill Gibron

1 Dec 2009


Last time around, we compared this brilliant BBC detective series (with sophisticated sci-fi overtones) to David Fincher’s equally excellent masterwork Zodiac - and the reasons still remain rather obvious. Both offered slightly unreal looks at standard police procedurals circa the late ‘60s/early ‘70s. Both were a magnificent combination of vision and performance. And both took their time to develop storylines and characters that served sometimes symbolic, always multilayered purposes. We also argued that, for all its entertainment value, the experience wouldn’t be 100% percent complete until the entire run of Life with Mars, Series 1 and 2, arrived on DVD. Well, said wait is over - and as we stated before, it was definitely well worth it.

Like the first eight installments, Life on Mars Series 2 represents another masterful example of this old school detecting vs. new world law enforcement ideal. Centering on the surreal adventures of millennial cop Sam Tyler (John Simm) suddenly transported back to 1973, it’s time travel taken to sly, sophisticated heights. Arriving around the time of David Bowie’s hit song (thus the title), the Detective Chief Inspector takes up with the Criminal Investigation Department of Manchester under the auspices of Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister). There, he works with the rest of the force to solve crimes while dealing with the differences between his time, and the past. In the last eight episodes, Tyler also hopes to uncover the truth behind his current Billy Pilgrim-like situation.

Over the course of all sixteen sensational episodes (eight for each season), the series shows Sam’s difficulty in coping, his by-the-book approach clashing significantly with the ‘70s ‘anything for a confession’ conceit. Series 2 gets more into the situation itself, suggesting that our hero may be medically incapacitated in the future (he is hit by a car at the beginning of the storyline, hinting that he is now in a coma), a true anomaly of physics, or just mad. There are elements of the supernatural and suspense, as well as halting humor and the kind of fish out of water formulas that never seem to fail. When meshed with amazing acting from Simm and Glenister (among others), smart scripting, and a truly moving finale, we wind up with something very special indeed.

There’s just something about the British when it comes to television drama. They can take a standard storyline - say a police psychologist who uses his cunning and insight to ‘crack’ cases - and turn it into the stuff of Shakespearean tragedy (right, Robbie “Eddie Fitzgerald” Coltraine?). It’s the same with Life on Mars. Each episode uses Sam’s dilemma as a backdrop for what is, otherwise, a sometimes straightforward exploration of crime and punishment. There are individual cases to be solved, the backdrop of messages from the future, and a strange little spectral girl adding elements of intrigue to the whodunit.

It’s easy to see why this material failed when translated over to America (the ABC version ran for one season in 2008). The storylines contained in the first eight episodes offered, just like in the final run here, require concentration and a continued investment. You can’t just tune in, pick up a red herring or random clue, and feel vindicated when the bad guy is caught. No, Life on Mars is meant to be culture shock as social commentary, an attempt by creators Matthew Graham, Tony Jordan, and Ashley Pharoah to expand on the typical police plotlines with elements both human and out of this world. 

The UK has always had a fondness for science fiction, with shows like Doctor Who, Torchwood, and Primeval garnering huge ratings within a contemporary reality TV dynamic. Life on Mars is different - a hybrid of sorts between grim reality (England in 1973 was no picnic) and fanciful wish fulfillment. One of the main themes that runs throughout the series is Tyler’s desire to return back to the 21st Century. Of course, there’s a complication, and her name is Annie Cartwright (Liz White). Thrust into the middle of the ‘70s concept of gender inequality, the character instantly earns Sam’s attention. Over the course of the series, she also gains something far more personal.

It’s this kind of investment - emotionally, intellectually - that makes Life on Mars so resonant. The show never excuses the era, illustrating obvious flaws like sexism and racism while celebrating the police’s ability to solve crimes under seemingly backward conditions. We see the usual suspects - armed robbers, gangsters, drug dealers - interwoven with darker, more diabolical crimes. As Sam struggles to make sense of his life, the rest of the Manchester force must confront the kind of calm, controlled detecting he brings to their male machismo methodology. The interpretations of these wholly different men are uniformly excellent, with Simm and Glenister simply great as the differing DCIs.

Of course, the biggest problem with any series like this is how immersive and involving it is. Just as we get to Episode 8, and some questions appear to be answered, we are thrown back into the mix and left wanting more. That’s where this new DVD set really eases the pain. Acorn Media offers the second (and final) half of this amazing production on four discs loaded with added content. There is an amazing documentary which discusses the Life on Mars phenomenon, a look at the end of the series (it did return - sort of - in the ‘80s inspired reinvention Ashes to Ashes), and a look behind the scenes of Episodes 3, 5, and 7. As always, there is clarity in many of these conversations and overviews, bits and pieces of plot and characterization that amplify our understanding of the show’s main narrative purpose.

If it seems like many of the sentiments in this review merely mimic the initial reaction to Life on Mars Series 1, you’d be right. Consistency is one of the British dramas strong points, a show like The Prisoner capable of delivering installment after installment of well honed, expertly crafted entertainment. Sure, there is a slip up here and now, and no singular story arc is ever going to provide universal appreciate amongst the devoted (there remains some minor controversy over the explanation of Sam’s ‘reality’). But like experiencing a magnificent movie, and then getting a chance to immediately dive into the sequel, Series 1 and 2 of Life on Mars provides.

In Fincher’s film, we got the distinct impression that if forensic science and inter-department communication had been ever so slightly more advanced, the Zodiac killer would right now be rotting in a jail cell somewhere. Instead, the limits of the past flummoxed even the most loyal law enforcement official. Life on Mars is another example of police procedural as filtered through a far less sophisticated time. Everything else about the show, however, is thoroughly modern - and marvelous. 

by Diepiriye Kuku

29 Nov 2009


Wait: A gay hero? They are going to unmask the ‘blacky,’ and solve the murder. But will all turn out dandy?

Pow! Boom! Crash! Crunch! No punches, just blows. This was 1961, and this scene at least was the birth of the gay hero. We see the people mourning over their losses, and folks belittling on others’ debts- this is a real feel good flic with all the highs and lows of any melodrama. Instead of a red suit with emblems and tights, this hero wears his dignity and refusal to be silenced by shame.

1961’s film Victim is a classic. It’s not slapstick comedy, nor a thriller. But the one liners are often thrilling slaps in the face:

“But Mr. Farr’s married, sir.”
“Those are famous last words,” sir shoots back.

“Insincere bastard,” says the fag hag hanging off the bar, perched on her regular stool.
Well, what else can I be,” replies the barman, presaging something about the characters of his well-wishing.

“Nature played me a dirty trick. I’m gonna see I can get a few years peace and quiet in return,” said another sinner.

The main character coming out to his wife was one of the most powerful scenes. She drags him out of the closet- not to throw him away, but only to help him realize that he has actually known and expressed love in their relationship. She insists on her love for him, but as importantly asks him to be true to himself; her ego is small and her compassion grand. She offers him the opportunity to acknowledge his love for ‘that boy’ for perhaps the first time in his life. She accuses guilt of displacing her in his heart, not the ‘way’ he was, an interesting distinction on all the preaching against the Down Low (it’s society that breeds guilt, silly).

A Human Stain, A Gay Hero and Modern Martyrs

Race still marks difference in our society with minorities often burdened with the task of unraveling race, let alone racism, and whites often unable to perceive the hegemony. The post-Civil Rights strategy of Obama portends to ignore ‘race’ altogether, promising that the best of us arrives from taking care of all of us.

People wonder why there is no Malcolm X, nor Martin Luther King to galvanize queer people. But, unlike 1961 London, or pre-2003 USA, or pre-2009 India, the modern gay movement won’t be fought on the marching ground, and we won’t have martyrs like Harvey Milk serve as our only impetus for change. Each and everyone of us has the power to assert agency in our daily lives. The Internet has exponentially, for example, increased the means by which radical, anti-white-washing, anti-polarizing voices can spread across the universe. Stains of inequality which sat and shroomed in pockets in the old world, such as Apartheid in South Africa or Jim and Jane Crow in the American South, can no longer persist in the modern world. Might this be the fate of caste in India?

How might have the Suweto uprising changed had there been mobile phone cameras and MMS texting, let alone E-mail, blogging, and posting videos to YouTube?!? Where one radical picture of Hector Pieterson- a slain Black school boy- galvanized resistance against Aparthied, and evidently sparked an entire revolution, the visualization of the beating of Black Los Angeles motorist Rodney King brought home the normative way in which ‘race’ materializes in law-enforcement. Thanks to just mobile phones, let alone other technologies, witnesses can testify around the world to micro and macro atrocities that others never wanted to believe existed. Now consider the viral video of fights, including in schools (search YouTube for “school fight” and do not be shocked that most results are not dramatizations, are almost always ‘boys’, and often before a cheering crowd.

Then consider Derrion Alberts, a Chicago youth who was beaten to death near his school on the way home. Those street fights are a real and present danger, a known but ignored reality of modern urban decay. The video not only brought some of the gang members to the clutches of justice, but also provided an anchor for other mute witnesses and community members to take a stand: The viral nature of the video clip, and its circulation in the media encouraged folks to name the accused, in a neighborhood where gang violence silences many through retaliation. A concerned citizen specifically took the video in response to lack of action taken against the regular street violence in front of his sister’s high school, and still he remains hidden for fear of his safety and allows the medium of video to represent his presence; that videographer witnesses, and agrees to testify. “Damn” and “Oh my God, get closer” a young sister says off screen during the video of Derrion’s last minute. Damn” someone says after Derrion’s death, “dey still down ‘er goin’ at it.”

Also, think about regimes which silence an entire people. Think about the police crack down in Guinea, the citizen reporting from Iran, or the role Internet video in modern terrorism. Video in the hands of the people can assert the kind of agency that topples dictatorships and oppressive ideologies like never before. Moreover, that kind of footage is almost tangible. It’s more real than The Blair Witch Project, and more personable than the reality TV show Big Brother - even with the run-of-the-mill racists rows with Shilpa Shetty and greasy Jermaine Jackson’s coaching that Indian princess). We face our violence and are forced to acknowledge that violence is deeply ingrained in our society and interwoven into who we are- what it means to be a man, for example. 

Boys must learn not to hit girls, and men are shamed for hitting women. But I know many a bitch that will beat a nigga down (like Precious’ mama); but those are the ‘quality’ chicks the commercial rappers cheer about (“beat dat bitch witta bat”). Nonetheless, we approve men committing violence against men, and even encourage it as a part of being a man. Boys are especially given toy weapons from miniature tanks and battle-ready starships, to guns and swords for potty training! We are a beat down nation! Americans really, really get high on violence. After comedian Bernie Mac: We hate like a mutha fucka! And we Americans love us some mutha fuckin’ violence!

Mobile phone clips are just one technology revolutionizing how we act out. Societies’ recent past often show that once we actually ‘see’ our violence, we are transformed. Somehow time and distance can only be traversed through the person-to-person reportage, not just reporting, but witnessing and then testifying. Former slave Harriet Ann Jacobs’ (b.1813, slave; d.1897, free) Incidents in the Life of a Slavegirl is said to be the definitive book that introduced northerners to the lived reality of slavery allowing may to ‘see’ their complicacy through their tacit support of the Fugitive Slave Law. First published in 1861, Jacobs’ personal portrait of slavery sparked change. Hector Pieterson’s had the same ramifications in Apartheid South Africa, for there are many reports from (white) Afrikaners who claim to not have been aware of the extent of the oppression in which they were silently participating and, crucially, therefore approving.

Rev Dr. Martin Luther King had to go from place to place and show his face for people to understand the weight of Jim and Jane Crow, while the 1955 photo of Emmet Till’s open casket exposed many complacent Americans to the violence of racism- 14-year old Till’s head bashed in by sick white racists, all in a damn day’s work in that place and time. We all saw the ominous picture of the fencing where Mathew Shepard’s mutilated body was left to perish, and we promise to ourselves that this just should not happen. Yet, frankly our inactivity, and then mobilization around slight, localized causes like Prop 8 and military conscription demonstrates that we are still waiting on another Milk.

No, gays won’t have to march- there are plenty more ways for heroes to come out to battle. What if lynching had gone viral? Remember that Dr. King had no iPhone, hence the distance between Montgomery and Atlanta was enormous, but dwarfed by now the Internet (not to mention I-85). Just consider the hate crimes and non-violence protest organized around Jena Louisiana. No, Beyoncé, you cannot do for me what Martin did for the people! Ran by the men but the women kept the tempo No, B. you’re no shero like Fannie Lou Hamer, and certainly not Mahalia Jackson. The people are asking for a bit more substance, building on the impact of these images of real people- unarticulated through market forces- can create change; the mobile clip might supersede these modern divas.

Remember, the iconic image of Hector Pieterson!?! Still, we’re unfortunately still into martyrs. It took images like HU’s own Skip Gates’ arrest to give credence to the sitting president to address the violence of how race mediates how we interact on every level from the boys and gals in blue and the average citizen, to even civil public discourse. At least Big B did what he could do and fashioned a “teachable moment,” the sort that viral media gone rancid cannot. Too many folks eat images like a hit-and-run (or fire-and-forget), and we feel as satisfied as filling up with soda- what we in Kentucky call pop. It’s just empty calories. We feel temporarily full, high even from the fantastic sugar, sodium, caffeine combo; but soon enough we just piss that crap out and hunger for more. That’s how we do pop (culture). Luckily, our local convenient stores and school vending machine are always on point, offering a cooled supply of junk.

Might we ever see images of genuine, soulful luster and grandeur- happiness articulated through something other than material bliss, and come out the better? Might we ever lust for pop images that give us soul to satiate us with pleasures beyond hype and bling, and without the typical modern cynicism? The cynicism derides and berates anything critical, which leaves us to only feed off the pain, the sheer martyrdom of others. We get high off of a good beat down, and become excitable around shows of guns, tits and ass. No one really dare stand out, lest the sound-bite, viral media take a chunk out of their lives and call them a Smooth Criminal (Damn right, I said that sh*t! I could teach you, but I’(d) havta charge).

Might this technology continually produce videos like the brutal death of Derrion Alberts and galvanize Americans to transform ourselves into a non-violent society, which was King’s true dream, to recall the mantle upon which the Nobel Peace Prize stands! King sparked a social revolution, and the Nobel Prize apparently hastened, galvanized broader dialogue in support of his efforts. “I accept the Nobel Prize for Peace at a moment when 22 million Negroes of the United States of America are engaged in a creative battle to end the long night of racial injustice.” says King, opening his acceptance speech in Oslo in December of 1964. The Nobel Peace prize was awarded, and King accepted the Prize on behalf of a movement, which likens it more to a grant, a note of support. Notably, the Prize apparently focused King’s efforts on ending the violence of poverty and the violence of war. Peace is the real upgrade. At issue here is what sparks change, for change is inevitable.

Victim, with it’s extraordinarily woven narratives and almost melodramatic dialogues that liken the film to more of a stage production than a moving picture flic gives the film a quality of liveliness. Shot in Black and White, the close-ups and sustained dialogues really focuses our attention on experiencing the emotions involved- we are after all talking about a non-violent crime so the action is in the anxiety. At one point we even have an extreme close-up shot of one main victim panting, tears squeezing out of the corners of his eyes, having lost his freedom for the crime of homosexuality, ashamed, considering his next move. This finesse makes the experiences of the narrative as personable as Black Box Theater.

The finish of Victim shows that always cowards sell each other out and end up selling themselves out by not standing up for anything. They act out of fear, something that it seems far more easy to do today sitting behind a laptop or a flat screen, virtually experiencing the world. When communication is mediated by this technology, we are embolden to take a stance- to basically stand at one pole or the other- shades of gray are less hued now than in this pre-Technicolor film. The trouble is, for those who experience most of the world virtually, they’ve really nothing of substance to say, and are robbed of opportunities to develop skills for dynamic dialogue- not just posting something on a site, never knowing if it actually gets read. But, then there are those whose circumstances demand change. Some of us even tend to speak out more through these technological mediums, but only enough to leave a vile response or tacky, ill-worded reply to an article.

That sort of virtual existence we’re approaching is the theme of plenty of contemporary Sci-Fi flics from the 1999/2003’s Matrix Trilogy to 2009’s Surrogates, or for example, 1998’s Pleasantville. One can even see this polarized virtual reality in 1975’s The Stepford Wives  or its 2004 remake starring Ms. Nicole Kidman. Like the Stepford husbands living in a virtual reality, modern folk can also have an easier reality with which to contemplate. Yet, rest assured that these blokes and their modern net-freak flock are the true casualties of modernization. Few of these folks actually find the courage to stand up in their daily lives as does the main protagonist of the ironically named film Victim. A punctuating message of Victim seems to be that despite the cynicism, which was well dramatized in this film by the behavior of the flock, there are still those who refuse to cow down. Like the opening scene of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope few seem to consciously ‘get’ these dramatic twist.

Yet, that’s just the twist: There’s as thin a line between love and hate, as between courage and fear, dignity and humiliation- a line that the main characters of Rope failed to identify, but one that Victim’s ultimate hero has. Failing to locate that line could cost you your life. And perceiving that line takes a bit more than a sound-bite can handle. Yet, that’s what makes Victim also an action movie, where one outstanding citizen dares to go against the tide within the confounds of daily life. The action: daring to speak ‘out’. The heroine: Daring to stand by. Both are examples of everyday courage.

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 Bill Gibron

27 Nov 2009


Aiden Dillard must be Harry Novak’s bastard love child. Either that or he’s obviously spent time shoveling sawdust for Dave Friedman on the carnival circuit. If there hadn’t already been an exploitation genre to shake up the mainstream cinema, this uncorked crackpot would be soiling the contemporary medium as we speak. With his first film, 2006’s Meat Weed Madness, he introduced a skin laden allegory about sex, drugs, and rock and roll that was heavy on the first two facets and completely devoid of the third. He mixed Southern Gothic goofiness with a determined desire to show punk chicks sans skivvies, the result being something wholly original and uniquely rebellious. Well, now he’s back, belittling the War on Terror with his Jihadist themed sequel Meat Weed America. If you like your ladies pierced, painted, and in various stage of plump/pulp prettiness, this is the movie for you. If you want something akin to a sensible storyline, you’re clearly smoking something.

We begin sort of where the first film left off. Lord Meatweed is still running his cannibalistic cannabis empire. Jessie Bell is still sitting around, dreaming of a career as a model in New York. Even the beefy Bullpuckey is here, stalking the sexy young things that seem to populate Meatweed Manor like so much body lice. Of course, now there’s a new threat on the horizon. Evil terrorist Bin Smokin has enlisted the aid of a group of determined Jihotties to get revenge for what happened to his missing foreskin. It is his intention to take down the Meatweed family one by one, from insane crippled Tobacco advertising artist Sir Duke E. Weed and his sexy assistant, the Hempress to bodacious nun Sister Mary and her sexually frustrated servants of God. Eventually, Bin Smokin is seduced by the undeniable power of the protein-laced marijuana, destined to become part of the skin flicking Meatweed family - or die frying.

Like hardcore action without the penetration or popshots, Meat Weed America is a ripe slice of scatological satire. It’s an insane combination of bare bodkin and political body shots, an anti-Fox News rant reduced to local emo skanks standing around in nothing but their Ed Hardy’s. It is indeed refreshing to see young ladies without major plastic surgery modification showing off their substrata, otherwise artistically modified mammaries arguing for their body painting enhanced natural beauty. Sure, Sister Mary has a rack that only a purveyor of XXX porn could appreciate and there’s quite a few examples of a less than toned male ‘member’-ship to go around, but Dillard knows how to capture his arrested adolescent audience’s attention. Once you’ve got ‘em ogling these pseudo Suicide Girls, you can turn around and trick ‘em into paying attention to your social agenda.

Meat Weed America is clearly aimed at the cold, callous nature of corporate culture. Sir Duke E. Weed and his “cigarettes are slick” conceits could do more for any non-butt campaign than a dozen of those lame t.r.u.t.h. ads. Similarly, Lord Meatweed’s freedom and liberty riot acts are enough to get even the most craven Neo-Con up and saluting the red white and blue. There are also some nifty pro-vegetarian and anti-sexism sentiments, even if it the ideas revolve around burlesque and barmaids in the birthday suit. It may all look like soft core smut laced with a NORML view of blunts, but that’s the beauty of Dillard’s work. While he’s socking it to your groin and other overused erogenous zones, he’s giving that biggest organ in the bin - the brain - a good going over. It’s carnal carnival barking at its best.

Dillard definitely does a good job with his under the radar cast. The delightful Debbie Rochon essays this kind of cockeyed vamp vixen in her sleep. Here, she is important to the director’s “miscreance as message” leanings. Similarly, Troma titan Lloyd Kaufman shows up as an acerbic art collector, his line readings always an interesting combination of solid professional support and “who gives a shit” showboating. As Jessie Bell, Carey Sveen looks the part of a Southern Belle gone to Meat-seed, while the manor’s lord and master (Carl Skoggard) is an unhinged combination of Rastafarian and right wing talk show host. Perhaps the most interesting performance however is given by Peter Stickles as Bin Smokin’. Avoiding all the Arab hating tenets that such a role would offer, he instead finds a perfect balance between comedy and crudeness. In fact, most of Meat Weed America is made up of the toilet in expert equilibrium with the talented.

Of course, the director really does love languishing in the world of the wanton. Even his own “unrated” introduction to the film finds him in a field, flopping his “fallacies” with nudist abandon. The DVD also offers up some interesting added content tidbits. There are short films, a trailer for the movie, a self-proclaimed “sexy” slide show, and a Behind the Scenes featurette that avoids all the standard EPK idiocy to show how true independent art is forged (read: it’s dang-gum hard!). While Troma tacks on a few of its own corporate sponsorship opportunities to maximize the marketing effectiveness of the title, the rest is pure Weed. While it would have been nice to hear Dillard droning on about his efforts, commentary style, such an otherwise crammed digital package does this movie proud.

It’s just too bad that the grindhouse has passed, the drive-in given over to home video, on demand, and various other forms of instant entertainment. For someone like Aiden Dillard, the raincoat crowd would definitely welcome his flesh and “bone” freak show, a surreal conglomeration of diatribe and debauchery. In the old days, when Hollywood shied away from taking on subject too confrontational or scandalous, Meat Weed America would be seen as a shining example of the ripe redolent rebellion. Today, it plays like a journey to the center of a skid row strip club’s mind. A few decades ago, before the Internet allowed everyone access to the vice-ridden and the prurient, a movie like this would be the only outlet for such “skin-aningans”. Aiden Dillard is clearly indebted to the previous generations of schlock meisters. On the other hand, don’t be fooled by its fetidness. Meat Weed America is clearly smarter than your average sex act. 

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