Video Reviews

Media reviews by Robert Buchanan
  1. Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride: Hunter S. Thompson on Film
  2. The Call of Cthulhu
  3. Crazy as Hell
  4. DoggieWoggiez! PoochieWoochiez!
  5. Istomin-Stern-Rose Trio: Brahms Trios Nos. 1-3
  6. Jesus Camp
  7. Lynch
  8. Mardi Gras: Made in China
  9. Martha Argerich and Friends
  10. Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus
  11. Session 9
  12. Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie

Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride: Hunter S. Thompson on Film

Directed by Tom Thurman
Narrated by Nick Nolte
Starring Hunter S. Thompson, Johnny Depp, Bob Braudis, Tom Wolfe, Bill Murray, Ralph Steadman, Anita Thompson, Benicio Del Toro, Sean Penn, John Cusack, William F. Buckley, Gary Busey, Leonard Maltin, Harry Dean Stanton, Douglas Brinkley

As documentary tributes come, this one is pretty extravagant, considering that the iconic author-journalist-adventurer-madman was only depicted twice onscreen: in the uncomfortably literal and clumsy Where the Buffalo Roam and Terry Gilliam's phenomenal adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Still, Thompson's life and bibliography are provided brief but adequate mention herein, and while the subject matter is decidedly limited, it's compensated by a choice selection of photographs, archival footage and interviews with the man's literary contemporaries, numerous film stars, sheriff, illustrator and widow, all of whom knew him well from longstanding and involved friendships.

HST fans will learn little to nothing new about their hero here, but even the initiated should enjoy this well-produced (albeit rote) account of Thompson's uneasy and conflict-driven flirtation with celebrity. Narrated by a gravelly-voiced Nick Nolte and featuring titles illustrated by Ralph Steadman in his inimitable style, this is an impressively slick dedicatory overview of a man whose talent and behavior propelled him into the kind of fame that he was fundamentally averse to. Unfortunately, too few of his real-life exploits - which directly informed both his stories and their onscreen realizations - are discussed, and as a result, this is a bit limp. Thompson was equally petty and profound, cruel and compassionate. It's understandable that his friends wouldn't want to discuss this and that so little of his uglier side is evident from his public persona, but in barely mentioning this very significant aspect of Thompson as both a person and a writer, this documentary rarely strays from a one-dimensional evaluation of its subject. Still, it's hard not to be moved by the ancient and weathered Harry Dean Stanton as he reads a letter and sings Danny Boy to his late friend. Regardless of his many faults and vices, nobody can claim that Hunter Stockton Thompson was unable to inspire lovely sentiment in those who knew him.


This grisly icon is a souvenir for those drawn by The Call of Cthulhu

The Call of Cthulhu

Directed by Andrew Leman
Starring Matt Foyer, Ralph Lucas, David Mersault, Chad Fifer, Noah Wagner, Patrick O'Day, Barry Lynch, John Bolen

Devotees of silent films and the great scribe of Providence alike will certainly enjoy this video, a faithful adaptation of Lovecraft's tale of ominous divinity shot in exacting imitation of expressionist films, courtesy of The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society. Its production's period detail is astounding - sets, props, costumes and miniatures designed in imitation of interwar conventions and German mise en scène are of exceptional verisimilitude. Appropriately, its performers play their roles in calculated exaggeration, mimicking the theatrical gesticulation of most silent-era acting. Stop-motion animation deployed to realize the story's gruesome god-beast are merely a cherry atop this flick's sundae.

Shot on DV treated with effects in simulation of vintage 35mm film stock, the movie's cunningly designated "Mythoscope" is a treat to behold, though still lacking the natural contrast and depth of film. Telecined Super 8 stock subjected to like processing would yield better results, yet this is but a quibble - just as director Andrew Leman's mode incorporates a few contemporary conceits, so the photography is to be recognized as an inevitability of latter-day presentation. Likewise, an apposite, quality score composed by Ben Holbrook, Chad Fifer, Troy Sterling Nies and Nicholas Pavkovic is realized by dint of synthesizers, yet drolly advertised on the picture's fantastic theatrical poster as a "Rich Symphonic Score!"

It's a delight to finally see a Lovecraft feature created with assiduous care and steadfast fidelity to its source material. Shot on a budget of only $50K, this microproduction's artistic success was assured by an abundance of talent in compensation for its relative poverty. This represents a cultural opposite of Hollywood film making, and it's so much better for it.


Crazy as Hell

Directed by Eriq La Salle
Starring Michael Beach, Ronny Cox, John C. McGinley, Eriq La Salle, Jane Carr, Tia Texada, Shelly Robertson, Khylan Jones, Twink Caplan, Sinbad

This movie is about a mental patient who claims to be Satan. In consideration of its premise and title, one can guess just how silly it is...but those who haven't seen it can't imagine the guilty delights to be had in its one hundred and thirteen inane minutes!

It all starts stupidly enough with the contrived, slow-motion mass flailing of a state hospital's motley mental patients, scored by some of the most incomprehensibly bad music that you'll ever hear. Into this embarrassing maelstrom comes a repellent, narcissistic celebrity psychiatrist (Beach), who intends to treat the hospital's loonies with understanding in lieu of pharmaceuticals. He's accompanied by a small group of filmmakers who constantly monitor him with an array of ubiquitous cameras for the purpose of assembling a documentary based on his activities. Why the facility's administrator (Cox) consents to all of this is unknown, but compared to the absurdities to come, this premise almost seems credible.

Before this braggart is able to make much progress with his stereotypical charges, a patient who claims to be Lucifer (La Salle) admits himself to the hospital's care, and this is where the giggles begin. Immediately, the self-proclaimed Lord of Darkness makes his presence known by dancing badly to the awe of his fellow patients, prancing around in silly outfits, exposing his manhood as an inquiry for honest feedback, raising a ruckus during a field trip to a local park and fucking a slutty nurse (Texada), all while irritating his arrogant star therapist to the point of laughably overacted insanity.

Apparently, screenwriters Jeremy Leven and Erik Jendresen (who adapted this mess from a novel by Leven) have never set foot in a mental hospital. If they had, they'd have known that most of Satan's attire and accessories - which includes scarves, chains and a cane - would be confiscated upon his commitment, and that orderlies (who are scarcely seen here) would be present to direct and discipline the hospital's oft-rampaging invalids, and to quell the many conflicts between Beelzebub and his keepers well before they escalated to their noisy, ludicrous conclusions. Every patient is based on a stock lunatic archetype, and as such, not one of them is presented with any measure of depth.

Beach is utterly, appropriately charmless in the lead; his lack of screen presence is matched only by his décor-gnawing zeal. McGinley is nearly as hammy as the exploitive, antagonizing director of the documentary crew, but at least he seems to be having fun. However, La Salle dominates every scene in which he appears - he's not at all imposing as he's supposed to be and his performance is a spectacle of blundered cunning - simply because he's pioneering innovative new ways to make an ass of himself. This is only advantageous: dialogue as preposterous as this would be wasted on a good cast, who in turn would be wasted speaking it! Only Cox, Carr and the career-depleted Sinbad manage to salvage any dignity in their relatively understated roles - an impressive feat, considering the script they're saddled with.

What makes this flick truly lovable is that La Salle obviously thinks he's terribly clever. Before the camera, his Mephistophelian character is played with such overwrought allure and outrage that it's impossible to watch him without either smiling or cringing. Behind it, his every shot is distinguished by hackneyed, gimmicky composition. As a result, not one scene is even remotely involving. Horror clichés are utilized with frequent, painful conspicuity: a flickering light, sweltering climate, prophetic crazies and the recurrent company of the departed. Each clue is loudly telegraphed, every plot twist totally predictable. The ending is especially risible: intended to induce surreal perplexity on the order of Buñuel or Lynch, it's merely trite, derivative and easily dissected.

A brief review can only scrape the surface of anything this intrinsically, dedicatedly awful. This is something to see, one of the most entertaining B-movies of the aughts and a fine example of how satisfying a movie can be when it's executed with consummate incompetence. Armchair riffers, go forth to see this, your next great conquest.


Istomin-Stern-Rose Trio: Brahms Trios Nos. 1-3

Directed by Roger Benamou
Performed by Eugene Istomin, Isaac Stern, Leonard Rose

Shot in 1974, this episode of the Classic Archive television series features a startling, impeccable performance by one of the twentieth century's finest chamber ensembles. Brahms' Trios are among his most soulful and demanding works, and they're interpreted faithfully here, in broad strokes and carefully controlled flourishes. Rose was the greatest American cellist of his age, an influential musical pedagogue and a studied master of Brahms' contributions to the cello repertoire. His unmatched familiarity with this material is evident here, and the interaction between he and his partners is flawless. The entire performance is brilliantly shot and edited to delineate each distinct passage for dramatic effect. All three musicians and their beautiful instruments are granted roughly equal screen time, appearing individually, in pairs or altogether in accordance with the prominence of the instruments.


Jesus Camp

Directed by Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady
Starring Becky Fischer, Mike Papantonio, Ted Haggard

Controversy in promotion of this video was largely generated by media hype in order to advertise it as a shocking exposé. If you're a sheltered suburbanite who receives all of their news via NPR, believes everything they see on TV and thrills to elections paid by the public featuring candidates purchased by special interest groups, then this is sure to disturb you. I watched this to see insane Christers doing outrageous things for my amusement, and while their conduct is embarrassing, it's hardly as ludicrous as anything I could have expected. This documentary exhibits activities at Kids on Fire, an evangelical children's summer camp. Both the people who run this camp and their charges are dedicatedly obnoxious. Here's what you'll see:

These troglodytes' antics are periodically interspersed with footage of Mike Papantonio, an invertebrate Christian liberal, as he conducts his radio show. He spends most of his screen time bleating about mean-spirited fundies, their intolerance and the enormous political clout that they ostensibly possess. Never mind that they're too preoccupied with relatively unimportant topics (gay marriage, abortion, promotion of creationism) and too ignorant of urgent, essential issues (nuclear proliferation, immigration, international conflict centered in west Asia, external Federal debt, etc.) to actually achieve anything important. To hear Papantonio tell it, these hicks aren't exploited by a government bought and sold by multinational enterprises, Israel and insurance, finance and pharmaceutical industries with the deepest imaginable pockets via interest groups. No, they're running the show because they voted for George Bush, who promised them little and delivered even less. Ultimately, these are only more dumb Americans who've turned to religion in lieu of a moronic subculture as an outlet for their idiocy and a means to distance themselves from what they rightly perceive (for all the wrong reasons) as America's vapid, degenerate, ever-declining mainstream culture.

Of course, directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady daren't concentrate on anything that might provoke substantive controversy. In one scene, an overbearing Missourian hausfrau leads her children in a Christer pledge of allegiance derivative of Francis Bellamy's absurd oath while they clutch miniatures of Charles Overton's ridiculous Christian Flag, the flag of the United States and the flag of Israel. This was shot and cut so that the former of these is featured in a close-up and the latter is afforded minimal screen time; after all, it's acceptable (though in fact, wholly passé) to offer a negative examination of kids throwing their lives away on Christianity, but to take hard note that they're also being raised to be unobtrusive, compliant little Zionists might offend some in the choir that Ewing and Grady are preaching to, and they can't have that.

If you're unfamiliar with trite, noisy evangelicals and want to learn about how they operate, this is a suitable (albeit shallow) first-hand examination of some genuine lunatics. If you're looking for unintentional humor, don't bother because it's really not that interesting; you'll get more mileage out of Jack Chick tracts.


Lynch

Starring David Lynch

Shot over the course of two years in 2005 and 2006, this video documentary presents a non-linear record of filmmaker David Lynch's personal and professional activities during that time. Lynch paints, sculpts, addresses his website subscribers via webcam, celebrates Bastille Day, tells several entertaining anecdotes (of course, a few of these are culled from his disconcerting years in the cesspool of Philadelphia) and explains his personal approach to art and its relation to his practice of transcendental meditation. He's also shown scouting locations, preparing sets, recording sound and shooting his three-hour video feature, Inland Empire.

It's a bit surprising to see the iconic filmmaker occasionally infuriated by ineptitude and depressed by his own lack of direction, but to watch him surmount these obstacles to realize his weird and unique vision is all the more heartening. Lynch's enthusiasm is truly inspirational for any sort of artist, and his advice is invaluable. We're shown too little of his interaction with his performers (Weronika Rosati and Laura Dern, among a few others), and that's a pity - Lynch is as much an actor's director as any other.

Although it's well edited, the Super 8 stock on which this was shot has yielded distinctly unphotogenic results. There's not much here that Lynch fans don't already know, which is unfortunate, as they're the only people who are likely to take much of an interest in it.

If you're a Lynch devotee, this is worth a rental or broadcast viewing. Otherwise, you'll probably be wasting your time.


Mardi Gras: Made in China

Directed by David Redmon

Documentarian David Redmon explores both the manufacture and ephemeral use of those cheap, tacky beads thrown to drunken and whorish revelers during Mardi Gras, revealing both the determination and hardship of the Chinese who make them and the trashy vapidity of Americans who briefly wear them before discarding them. Candid interviews with the earthy factory workers who expertly churn out hundreds of thousands of beads, the factory's domineering (though not entirely unscrupulous) owner, a stateside importer and a variety of brain-dead, flagrantly ignorant Merkun recipients staggering through filthy Nawlins (shortly before the hand of God smote it) illustrate what John Maynard Keynes, Deng Xiaoping, the globalist perversion of capitalist markets and the decline of American civilization have wrought.

Admirably, Redmon treats all of his subjects with respect, granting them opportunities to explain their backgrounds, circumstances and perspectives. Poverty and excess are predictably contrasted, as is the polite reservation of the Chinese with the obnoxious slobbering of their American customers. All of the usual points are touched on: the outrageous exploitation of a working class in a developing market, the tawdry waste of American society and the enormous cultural gap that separates the two. However, Redmon also unintentionally conveys a common affliction of the working, owning and consuming classes that's so endemic of modernity: none of these people have any great sense of purpose. Without ideology or dogma, these people are free to define themselves through individual experience and personal preference, but they lack that enriching, resolute momentum that political, social and religious movements once instilled in the peasantry, an impetus that only a select few can generate for themselves, especially in a world in which corporate and governmental dominance too often squashes entrepreneurial ambition.


Martha Argerich and Friends

Directed by Jano Darvas
Performed by Martha Argerich, Nicolas Economou, Mischa Maisky, Nelson Freire

Like most of Mozart's piano sonatas, the Sonata for Four Hands is playful, lively and melodic, a fine and appropriately engaging piece with which to begin this video's proceedings and showcase the virtuosic interaction between Argerich and the late Nicolas Economou. Unsurprisingly, Economou is assigned the first of this work's two parts, sparing Argerich the sonata's numerous short trills, flourishes that she admittedly dreads in Scarlatti and Mozart compositions. This is not to suggest that Argerich's secondo isn't rigorous; as usual, she sets a brisk pace that Economou expertly matches, and the playing of the two pianists is perfectly synchronized.

Argerich and Mischa Maisky perform a transcription of Schumann's Phantasiestücke for cello and piano, which bears a denser tonality than the original arrangements for clarinet and piano. In the Zart und mit Ausdruck and Lebhaft, leicht movements, Maisky subtly follows Argerich's lead in echoed variation of the themes that her piano piece establishes; in the final Rasch und mit Feuer movement, his cello is aggressively dominant, and both musicians function as flawlessly when playing in concurrent meter. Though Argerich and Maisky have played together on scores of recordings and live performances over the course of thirty years, this early collaboration is just as good as anything they've done of late.

The first of two presentations by Argerich and Nelson Freire is Rachmaninov's Suite for Two Pianos, a work that this reviewer cannot ably or impartially address due to a dearth of musicological knowledge and a distaste for Rachmaninov's typically convoluted works. Even a dilettante can recognize the vulgarity of a composition written to exhibit virtuosity for its own sake; the Waltz and Tarantella movements of this piece are surely the most graceless, meandering renderings of these dances that I've heard. I wouldn't suggest that Argerich and Freire didn't do this work justice as Horowitz and Rachmaninov surely did. This is a demanding and soundly conceived composition, one that's played with brilliance and impeccable skill. It's also one of the more tasteless erudite appropriations of proper dance forms that I'm aware of.

In contrast to the Rachmaninov suite, Ravel's transcription for two pianos of his La Valse is a miraculous accomplishment. To hear this famous series of Viennese waltzes gradually take shape and spring from a dissonant haze is extraordinary in an orchestral context; executed on a pianoforte pair, this work is nothing less than astonishing. Just as Ravel wrote Gaspard de la nuit as "a caricature of romanticism," this morose, frenzied tribute to the most famous of ballroom dances expresses Ravel's Romance-era nostalgia and regret in the aftermath of the Great War. Some interpretations of this work suffer from languid pacing, but both Argerich and Freire perform with the exacting dexterity and at the feverish tempi that this piece requires.

This video's recording is generally well shot and edited. Camera angles alternate between close-ups of hands and faces, and wide shots of the musicians and their instruments. The Mozart sonata benefits most from the photography: the shots of Economou's and Argerich's profiles are striking, as are angles framed beneath the piano's lid, emphasizing the pianists' expressive faces as the instrument's hammers strike its strings in the foreground beneath them. During the Phantasiestücke, Maisky is granted more attention, presumably because the greater elaboration of his part provides the viewer with more to see. Freire and Argerich are both afforded roughly equal screen time, and close-ups of their hands display the measured grace of their phrasing. However, a wide shot of both pianists at their respective instruments is something of a hindrance, appearing too often and lingering for too long. While the efficacy of the video's composition varies, numerous pans and zooms are implemented to great effect, providing the visuals with a fluid sense of movement to complement that of the musicians.


Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus

Directed by Jack Perez
Starring Deborah Gibson, Sean Lawlor, Vic Chao, Lorenzo Lamas, Jonathan Nation

A warning to all schlock enthusiasts and avid riffers alike: this recent addition to the great trash pile of American B-cinema isn't a tenth as entertaining as its title suggests. The epic struggle between the titular gargantuan beasts is far too brief (six minutes at the most); far more attention is granted to the offensively untalented cast and ridiculous-looking military personnel who wear Ray-Bans, brandish M-16s and posture prominently in two-thirds of the movie's establishing shots.

If Debbie-deb Creamcheese wants us to respect her more distinguished moniker two decades after her lightweight music career peaked, maybe she should learn how to act. She's hopelessly wooden, and most of her co-stars don't fare much better. However, Lorenzo Lamas is something else entirely; he's introduced almost forty minutes (though still far too early) into the video and gnaws every cheap plastic set that he's in as some sort of obnoxious, omnipotent military authority who makes Albert Rosenfield from Twin Peaks seem affable in comparison. He says "sharkzilla" twice and it is not funny either time. He spews calculatedly racist quips so that the other cast members can respond with vapid revulsion and the audience can shake their heads at this colorful character. If Lamas doesn't feel like waking up early to show up on the set of a B-movie, that's fine. He should step aside so that Mark Hamill or Bruce Campbell can take his place and at least try to make the role somewhat fun and interesting.

It's extraordinary that a video in which a huge shark flies out of the ocean to chomp on a jet airplane and the Golden Gate Bridge is so boring. As extravagantly bad as this is, it's also hopelessly bland, and nowhere near as funny as it could have been if production company The Asylum didn't take their substandard work so seriously. Now, there are a few riotous moments - maybe this is only because I was so tired at the time, but Gibson's epiphany regarding the age-old natural hatred that exists between immense sharks and octopuses make me laugh so hard that my face felt as though it were about to tear itself off of my skull. However, this hilarity is only one of a few bright stars in this feature's murky and uneventful sky. Maybe this should have been a Japanese production. If so, the many conspicuously fake Japanese of the cast would have been authentic, the creatures more rubbery and the fight scenes more creatively executed. As it is, this is fit to fall asleep to.


Enormous, imposing Danvers State Hospital, as preserved in Session 9.

Session 9

Directed by Brad Anderson
Starring Peter Mullan, David Caruso, Stephen Gevedon, Josh Lucas, Brendan Sexton III

If nothing else, director/screenwriter/editor Brad Anderson possesses proven faculties for generating palpable dread and coaxing arresting performances from a gifted cast - and David Caruso, as well! For those eager to see cardboard Caruso diverge from his usual MO, this is perhaps the most ideal example available of the crime drama star's acting, and for once or twice, he's quite good! As usual, he's nonetheless overshadowed by two of his co-stars: Scotsman Peter Mullan (relatively unfamiliar stateside, though widely recognized in the U.K. for the eccentricities that he imparts to his roles) and co-screenwriter Stephen Gevedon.

However, the true star of this feature is not manifest as flesh and blood, nor of the animate or sentient; this picture's imposing chief presence hasn't a single line of dialogue and it does not perform. Disquiet pervades very few historic sites as it did the Danvers State Hospital, most infamous of the Kirkbride institutions established for the treatment of the mentally deranged. Danvers was a magnificent, sprawling psychiatric facility enlarged by solaria and underground tunnels to accommodate its enormous inpatient body, presumably the locale where the pre-frontal lobotomy was first administered and a costly exemplar of the Victorian era's bold confrontation of mental illness as a fearsome epidemic. Following the widespread federal and state budget cuts of the Reaganite '80s and modern propagation of humane treatments largely unfamiliar to the DSH's deplorable paradigm, the hospital was shuttered in 1992. Thereafter, it became a home to squatters and playground for vandals as it gradually deteriorated.
Nearly a decade following the DSH's closure, yet years prior to its demolition, Anderson chose not only to shoot a picture there, but to exploit its ghastly milieu in supplement of a fine (if conventional) narrative. More than its decrepitude and furnishings, the very terror of Danvers' departed lingers ineffably onscreen, and Anderson's utilization of proven psych scare techniques are only bettered by the incomparable Danvers foreboding.

Session 9's premise is simple, its plot familiar: an asbestos removal crew arrive at the abandoned mental institution to clear it of the legal profession's favorite construction material. Before long, the strained relations of this eccentric crew deteriorate rapidly, and their audience is confronted with a hoary question: is this commission host to madness, and if so, who among this lot of evidently unstable working men is truly cracked?

All of this flick's characters are stock archetypes: discomfited authority figure (Cullen), irascible working man (Caruso), obnoxious heel (Josh Lucas, already typecast as a prick after American Psycho), sullen closet intellectual (Gevedon) and youthful bonehead (perennial churl Brendan Sexton III, in a rare departure from his usual disreputable characters). Each is as thoroughly defined as their surroundings by way of ample (though not excessive) exposition, just as the Danvers facility is introduced in detail to audiences unfamiliar with its history and legacy, and for which fiction is appended to fact to expand the Danvers infamy.

In all, Anderson's achieved that to which nearly every horror filmmaker should aspire: Session 9 raises goose flesh proud and terrifies, if only for intervals of a few minutes. Much of his deliberate style and methodology are superficially comparable to those of Kiyoshi Kurosawa, though Session 9 pales in comparison with Kurosawa's best. Anderson opts to contrast normalcy with impermeable, discrete moments of terror, and does so effectively, but that chill seldom abates entirely in Kurosawa's broader scope, always lurking as an undercurrent of his most mundane scenes.

Among this picture's chief assets is cinematographer Uta Briesewitz, whose excellent photography via high definition digital video (printed to 35 mm stock for theatrical distribution) is colored by contrast nearly so lifelike as that of film, though lacking its richness of hue. Paired with Anderson's fastidious composition, their product is a very attractive movie produced with a meager $1.5M.

Since Session 9 is immaculately shot, ably performed and as unsettling an American horror flick as any of the past fifteen years, why must it wind down so poorly? During its final fifteen minutes, it casts both ambiguity and over an hour of cunningly cultivated misdirection to the wind to clumsily play its final hand after it's been exposed, and the faltering acting of this denouement reflects its ludicrous dialogue. What might have been that rarity of a truly great contemporary horror movie ends as a good effort partly undone by a hopelessly American failure to sustain obfuscation.

Danvers is gone, now - stripped of its historic status and demolished almost entirety by developers during the middle aughts to make way for apartment complexes. As usual, this is what bureaucrats and politicians in receipt of graft refer to as "progress," and their serfs are expected to grin and bear it because profit's to be had wherever suffering must be forgotten. Thankfully, Session 9 is not only a notable motion picture of its genre, but one of a few fine photographic accounts of an imposing and historied locale that's passed from institutional notoriety to the annals thereof.

© 2009-2012 Robert Buchanan

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