It was meant to be the sword and sorcery equivalent of Star Wars (Jedi was about to break and finalize the trilogy), an epic fantasy that was part space opera, part Renaissance fair, and all speculative spectacle. What it ended up being was a massively hyped flop that saw more merchandising then moviegoers over the course of its limited box office run. Oddly enough, the most lasting element of this otherwise forgettable battle between good, evil and a strange circular weapon (called a “glaive”) was a video game that stormed arcades for months after the movie was more or less forgotten. Still, over the years, Krull has developed a determined following, devotees able to overlook the narrative’s nonsensical elements (Laser spears? A less than convincing Cyclops?) to enjoy the average adventure at hand. In the hands of the prolific Peter Yates (responsible for such ‘70s classics as Bullitt and Breaking Away) what should have been an epic entertainment stumbled under Lucas like expectations, poorly realized effects, and performances that seemed pitched just a tad too high for the relatively low brow material.
Featuring a “dark” beast who lives in a constantly movie fortress of blackness, a prince with the power to control “the elements”, an apprentice wizard with a reckless habit of ill-timed shapeshifting, a dainty damsel in distress, and a band of compassionate criminals lead by Liam Neeson and featuring Robbie Coltrane, Krull‘s confusing mythology left many an intended audience member scratching their adolescent head. Main characters died for relatively dopey reasons, plot points got lost inside all manner of interstellar/medieval malarkey, and the polished level of visuals that fans were used to (thanks to American companies like ILM) was all but absent in this bungled British production. Still, in its own awkward way, Krull creates a kind of amusement amalgamation, a formula for fun that argues it attributes in the following fashion: if you don’t like one particular character or circumstance, just wait - something completely different is just around the corner. Today, such an all encompassing approach is part of cinematic sensibility. But back in the early ‘80s, film wasn’t supposed to be so fractured.
As a result, Krull is the perfect pick up film – a movie you can catch in snatches while it plays on some pay cable channel. No matter what point you come in on the story, no matter what sort of scene is playing out before you, the lack of continuity and context actually allows you to take pleasure in the individual moment, and if so inclined, to stick around for another exciting sample in just a few minutes. Things do sort of come together at the end, especially when the prince and princess jointly use their love – or some other manner of emotion – to provide power to smite the beast. As the monolithic castle implodes upward, moving shard by shard into the stratosphere, we are overcome by a feeling of ridiculous resolve. Evil has been defeated, virtue has triumphed, and miniature pieces of a movie set are flying off into space. If that doesn’t sum up a typical Greed era entertainment, what does?
Sean Penn is a terrific actor, but is that all it really takes to become a memorable film director?
Yes and no. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Penn has a rabid appreciation for craft, in addition to working with some of the most acclaimed thespians the world over. His understanding of the skill involved in great film acting (both his own and that of the people he directs) borders on the preternatural.
Penn’s 1995 tension filled-drama The Crossing Guard falls into some amateurish territory at times (with bizarrely maudlin and faux-artsy camera work), but when it comes to generously giving his company their respective moments, Penn excels. Each actor appearing here is able to register fully with the viewer, even when his or her screen time is brief. Case in point is Priscilla Barnes (who, at one point in her career replaced Suzanne Somers on Three’s Company), playing the emotionally bruised stripper pal of a central character. She has maybe two scenes but conveys a lifetime of hurt within them. The same goes for veteran character actors Piper Laurie and Richard Bradford, who also really pop out in their cameos. Penn, with even the slightest performance, clearly defines the role for the viewer. It is an apparent generosity that undermines his gruff, outspoken reputation and his penchant for lurid, pulpy material.
The story is simple: a man (David Morse) kills the young daughter of a jeweler and his wife in a drinking and driving accident. He goes to jail and is let out after five years. Played by former paramours Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston, (who has only four scenes in the entire film, but remains a constant, strong presence. When paired against her longtime real-life love, after a huge personal scandal, her hurt and bitterness seem even more poignant), the couple goes their separate ways: she tries to better her life while he just disintegrates. He is hell bent on killing the man who killed his little girl. The actors fully explore the dark corners of guilt and rage and are able to show quite clearly all of the fractures a trauma can cause to anyone connected. I really liked that Penn chose to explore all of the possible paths that grief can lead to and how it affects everyone in such a radically different way. The parallels to Penn’s other 1995 work, Dead Man Walking, where he played a murderer on Death Row, are evident: the films have a similar tone that don’t come off preachy despite their explosive subject matter. Each film is courageous enough to let whoever watches them to make up their own mind.
In the past, I have not been the biggest fan of Nicholson’s work, which for many film lovers borders on sacrilege. I find him slightly overrated, with a few bright exceptions (Ironweed and Penn’s follow-up to The Crossing Guard, The Pledge, being two of my favorites). His hostility towards his ex-wife, himself and Morse’s character are intense and wholly realized. He packs such nuance into the most ordinary gestures here and in scenes of extreme cliché he stays grounded. I felt like this was something deeply personal for the actor to do. His range, along with the sheer truth of this emotion is staggering. What is fascinating about Nicholson, in his later career stage, is watching the actor eagerly shed his own outrageous persona and going into completely foreign territory as a performer. Like him or not, Nicholson must be given credit for his ability to make risky choices.
My favorite of the cast, by far, was Morse. When I first saw this film, I wasn’t sure how the story would work (after all, we are expected to sympathize with a very unlikable situation and man) but Morse plays everything so subtly (which is something he has done again and again as a performer, perfecting the type most notably in 2000’s Dancer in the Dark). He is so wounded by his actions and his guilt that it cripples him. For such an imposing man, he manages to cut right to the heart of this character that made a terrible error in judgment and will pay for it for the rest of his life. It’s a brilliantly thought-out, incredibly detailed performance that defines the old line “you can’t judge a book by its cover” as Morse turns in one surprise after the next.
While the cast was really shockingly good and the story serviceable, ultimately Penn as a director falls flat, as he did with his first effort The Indian Runner. He has the ability to wrest interesting performances from not only his principles but also his ancillary cast and does a really good job exploring the bare bones of the script through character; but ultimately his visual style meanders and is sort of blasé. No matter, there will always be a line at his door when he begins casting on a new movie. If all else fails, he can always fall back on his career of being a great actor himself.
It’s beginning to sound like a SE&L mantra, but September’s last gasp as a source of small screen entertainment is overloaded with spotty selections – a below average animated flop, a startling personal/political drama, a flashy, mostly fictional bounty hunter biopic and a repeat of one of 2005’s biggest box office hits. And again, each one sits at the center of your favorite pay cable channel’s schedule this weekend, providing their own unique value and allure. Some may argue that this is typical of the movie networks’ programming style – mix and match until you find the proper combination of publicity and propaganda to rake in the regulars. At least each film featured offers something interesting, be it a revisionist look at science fiction action or an attempted CG update of a classic kiddie story. But the best bet is actually an off the radar effort providing one of our most gifted serious actors an intriguing individual to inhabit. That is also tells the relatively unknown true story about a man so disillusioned with the ‘70s that he would take out his frustration on the country’s commander in chief is another substantive selling point. If that subject seems too weighty however, the rest of the picks pack enough escapist entertainment to keep you calm for hours. Available for sampling the weekend of 29 September are:
HBO – War of the Worlds
Like an aging superstar stud, wandering onto a far more youthful playing field in preparation for showing the novices how the big boys do it, Steven Spielberg stepped up to bat in 2005 and blasted one out of the park with this smart, savvy remake/update. Juxtaposing fantasy with reality has always been one of the Blockbuster King’s greatest artistic strengths, but no one could have anticipated the “life during wartime” routine he used here. Instead of overpowering us with action and effects, Spielberg decided to keep everything within the POV of its main character – absentee dad Ray Ferrier. The result is a unique approach to spectacle, a cinematic twist that has planes crashing off screen and major battles playing out just beyond the character’s line of sight. Granted, HBO and Cinemax have milked this movie for months now – it premiered ages ago – but there’s no time like the present to revisit this stellar example of Spielberg’s motion picture prowess. Worlds is one of his more rousing successes. (Premieres Saturday 30 September, 8:00pm EST).
Cinemax – Domino
The filmic fates were just not ready to smile on this sleek Tony Scott style-fest. During the pre-release publicity, it was revealed that some of the storyline here was “enhanced” (read: massively altered) to smooth over some of real life bounty hunter Domino Harvey’s less than genial cinematic traits. Then, near the end of June 2005, Harvey was found dead, the victim of an accidental overdose. Nothing ruins your otherwise routine ‘rock ‘em, sock ‘em’ action pic more than an air of unease and the purposeful avoidance of your subject’s possible personal problems. What was supposed to be a break out turn for actress Keira Knightley – a chance to move away from all the frilly dresses and dainty accents – quickly de-evolved into a contrasting creation seemingly insensitive to Harvey’s plentiful personal demons. Though turns by a newly revitalized Mickey Rourke and Delroy Lindo helped keep this superficial ship afloat, this film is a clear case of fact overpowering the forces of fiction. (Premieres Saturday 30 September, 10:00pm EST).
Starz – Chicken Little
This is it? This is the reason Disney decided to dump 2-D animation for the far more artistically infinite (and fiscally viable) CGI process? If so, someone needs to grab a drawing board out of the dumpster and start rethinking this crackpot cartooning decision, A.S.A.P. If this unnecessary update of the classic children’s nursery rhyme feels a little familiar, it’s because its alien-influenced narrative is highly reminiscent of 2001’s Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius. Besides, the House of Mouse understands almost instinctively how to micromanage all the fun out of its supposedly timeless family fare. With an over reliance on obvious pop culture references, showboating stunt casting, and a lack of legitimate charm, it’s no wonder Pixar’s John Lassiter was brought in to save the company’s pen and ink product. Without him, this dumb cluck’s sky wouldn’t be the only thing falling. (Premieres Saturday 30 September, 9:00pm EST).
ShowTOO – The Assassination of Richard Nixon
Based on a startling true story that most US citizens probably never knew existed, the illusions to 9/11 may have undermined this amazing movie’s potential popularity. Sean Penn plays a disgruntled member of the ‘70s rat race, looking to any target for his failing American Dream. Finally fed up, he decides to hijack an airplane and crash it into the White House. As history, there are many things amiss with this otherwise insightful drama. But as a pure psychological portrait, graced with another carefully considered bravura turn by the always interesting Penn, this is a stunning look at mental despair and human humiliation. While we may never know what drives a supposedly normal person to acts of outrageous self and social destruction, Assassination at least begins the process of understanding. If you failed to catch this compelling effort the first time it aired, now is your chance to play a little historical catch up. (Saturday 30 September, 9pm EST)
Seven Films, Seven Days
For October, the off title idea is simple – pick a different cable channel each and every day, and then find a film worth watching. While it sounds a little like an exercise in entertainment archeology, you’d be surprised at the broad range of potential motion picture repasts in the offing. Therefore, the first seven selections unearthed this week include:
30 September – Team America: World Police
South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone prove that clever social satire can come in any form, be it animated – or in this case – a full blown puppet production. (The Movie Channel – 9:30PM EST)
1 October – The Owl and the Pussycat
In order to establish her acting chops, determined diva Barbra Streisand took on the role here of a hooker with a heart of sarcasm. It remains one of her best efforts. (Flix – 6:15PM EST)
2 October – Scarface (Edited Version)
How do you make an uber-violent crime epic into a comedy? Strip away all the swear words, and giggle at the silly substitutions overdubbed onto Oliver Stone’s script. (American Movie Classics – 8PM EST)
3 October – Annie Hall
Woody Allen won multiple Oscars for this considered comedy. While a little dated from today’s relationship standards, Hall is still very funny, and very insightful. (Turner Classic Movies – 8PM EST)
4 October – Murphy’s Romance
An aging James Garner woos a determined, if directionless Sally Field. Sparks, and stellar performances, fly. (Encore Love – 9PM EST)
5 October – A Sound of Thunder
Need a break from all the GOOD sci-fi/fantasy flooding the motion picture marketplace? Then give this below-average B-movie a try. (Action Max – 10:30PM EST)
6 October – Cast Away
Tom Hanks stars as a Fed-Ex man stranded on a desert island. Once this movie moves to the mainland, it looses a lot of its dramatic drawing power and punch. (TNT – 8PM EST)
Vision is hard to come by in films. It takes more than a keen eye for imagery or an imagination doped up on daydreams to fulfill the peculiar promise of cinema. People go to the movies to be transported to places they’ve never been before, to see and experience things that only exist in the most magical regions of the mind’s eye. What they don’t want to see is the same old slop, reprocessed and repackaged to resemble what came down the pipe just a few months ago. Yet over and over again, those talentless titans of Tinsel Town deliver derivative goods, groan inducing retreads of ideas and images that didn’t really work the first time through the viewfinder. Sure, banking on originality is a gamble. But the payoff can be sweeter than sweating out the criticism.
The classic examples all prove the point. Hitchcock may have been the Master of Suspense, but audiences flocked to his films because of their iconic style, not their clockwork plotting. David Lunch sets his world in the unpredictable plain of dreams, and then slowly lets the nightmare limits of the locale seep into the slumber. Quentin Tarantino takes every trick he’s learned from three decades in front of the screen – big or small – and amplifies it through his own engorged ego into something sublime and special. In the Hollywood hierarchy, it would be nice to see a Burton for every Bay, a Gilliam for every glorified video director. But the commonplace commands commerce, and as long as the derivative is driving dollars into the BO coffers, no one is going to be calling for creativity.
It’s the same even in exploitation. The outsider arena of moviemaking did have its prophets, those inspired thinkers who moved beyond the T&A tendencies of the medium to expose the raincoat crowd to something freaky – and not necessarily deaky. But they were the rarity in a business more concerned with the bodkin than the beatific. Though true geniuses like Doris Wishman reinvented the filmic language while staying set inside a certain type of tale (in her case, the nudist and/or roughie realm) others had to seek solace in less trodden paths. Whether it was the gore film, the drug scene, the dippy hippy power of flower or the sexual revolution, these visionaries tried to find a way to get their thoughts and metaphors on screen. Many failed. But those who succeeded have a tasty Technicolor testament to be remembered by.
Fredric Hobbs was such a motion picture maverick. After helming the musical mindfuck called Roseland (about a mystical place where lust and dreams run wild…or maybe it was really a psychiatric institute sex farce) Hobbs wanted to champion environmentalism and government corruption in a showcase that would send a strong message to the Establishment. What he decided to use as his messenger however can only be called “different”. Taking a leaflet out of the “nature run amok” school of schlock and plopping it directly into one of the most offbeat settings ever conceived for a monster mash, (one of those recreationist societies that preserve everything the way it was 100/200 years ago) Godmonster of Indian Flats was born.
The film’s plot is loaded with symbolism, counterculture ideology and some of the oddest ducks this side of an irradiated game preserve. A local mine, once the home of a “legendary” creature, starts leaking a foul smelling gas. Naturally, a pregnant sheep gets a whiff, and before you can say “genetic mutation”, a bloody bulbous fetus makes a fantasy sequence appearance. That’s right, a drunken shepherd, rolled for his money by the denizens of the local dive bar, has a vision with bones and a golden light. One case of the DTs later, and our mangled mutton is born. The resident scientist, who works at the local college cum powerplant ruins, takes the sickly sweater makings back to his lab, where he nurses it back to health with a combination of chemicals and over the top tirades.
Oh course, the local big wig Mayor Silverdale (played by Russ Meyer stalwart Stuart Lancaster in a mannerism so clipped you’re liable to cut yourself on his dialogue) wants to know what’s going on in the rundown wreck of a university. He soon has his own problems to contend with, however. A high-minded businessman from “back East” is in town trying to buy up all the indigenous mining rights. Seems Silverdale wants those little leases for himself. As the two industrialists battle it out for smelting supremacy, the baby beastie grows and gets angry. He breaks out of his flimsy cage and starts stalking the landscape. When Silverdale and his gang can’t kill the creature, they decide to capture it. How else do you expect to charge the public two bits a gander to see this notorious nuclear ewe?
There is absolutely nothing normal about this movie…NOTHING! Don’t let the corporate dealings and entrepreneurial underpinnings fool you – Godmonster of Indian Flats is the strangest, most surreal exploitation movie ever made. It offers up a Six Gun Territory theme park as a township without batting an eye, has its characters dressed like rejects from Disney World’s Diamond Horseshoe Review and infiltrates the insanity with an eight foot, carpet covered sinister sheep that enjoys moonlit dances with the neighborhood Earth mother. Honestly, Hobbs has crafted a certified jaw-dropper here, a film that fails to make a lick of narrative sense but keeps us spellbound in other, less plot-oriented ways. Lancaster is in classic form, playing Silverdale as a laidback loon, a madman too lethargic to go yokel on the locals. And he is surrounded by actors who all believe that this is their Method moment. There is lots of hammy thespianism here, and as the old saying goes; it’s never good to mix your meats.
Indeed, the Godmonster itself is what really sells this silliness. In one classic scene, it slowly ambles up to a group of children playing. As it takes its time attacking, the kids keep looking directly at the camera, waiting for their cue to react. A few screams, a couple of close-ups, a scattering of bratlings and a classic work of crackpot cinema is born. Godmonster of Indian Flats is one of those clichés in the pantheon of pathetic films – it really does need to be seen to be believed. From Silverdale’s elite squad of enforcers that appear like black dressed dandies from a gay rodeo, to the mindbending finale which resolves nothing and seems to infer victory for the villains, Hobbs’ hobbled hoot is hilarious. Disturbing and demented, but uproarious and original nonetheless. Besides, its films like this that prove once and for all that, when you’ve got your own style, substance will only hold you back.
The movies described in the User’s Guide are the hit list of Indian cinema. They’re not only the best films of all time, but they give you the best glimpse of what Indians enjoy, their sense of tragedy and comedy, their aspirations, their regrets. In short, it’s a visual chronicle of Indian society in the last 50 years. Enjoy.
Week 9: Dil Chata Hai (“The Heart Wants…”)
2001, Color, Hindi
Dir: Farhan Akhtar
It was India’s first yuppie movie. Dil Chata Hai was so hip and “modern” that audiences referred to it as a Hollywood movie dubbed in Hindi. The influence of Doug Liman’s Swingers and the John Hughes movies of the ‘80s pervades Farhan Akhtar’s coming of age story about three wealthy Bombayites fresh out of college and experiencing love for the first time. Akash (Aamir Khan), Sameer (Saif Ali Khan) and Siddharth (Akshaye Khanna), who have been friends since childhood, find their relationship threatened by Siddharth’s attraction to a lovely, but emotionally damaged divorcee. The three guys finally find romance, and each has an accompanying musical number according to true Bollywood fashion. The attractive leads and the beautiful locations in Goa and Sydney aside, the songs are the high point of Dil Chata Hai. Buoyant, catchy, sophisticated, they prove that long-time screenwriter and lyricist Javed Akhtar (Farhan’s dad), a staple the ‘70s and ‘80s, only got better with age. One particular song, “Woh Ladki Hai Kahan” (“Where is That Girl”), is a rare delight. Sameer takes his new girlfriend Pooja to the movies and as the film starts they envision themselves as the leads in the movie they’re watching, dancing through time, tap-dancing on a black and white soundstage, twisting on a beach, and frolicking along a picturesque mountainside like the famous heroes and heroines of past Hindi movies. It’s one of those glorious musical numbers where everything, the song, the chemistry between the dancers, the timing, is perfect. Dil Chata Hai was a refreshing aberration from more traditional, ritual-laced family fare to more stylish, progressive movies for upper-middle class audiences.