Chemical warfare, SAMCRO, and more freakin' movie reviews

Greetings from the land of naturally-occurring chemical burns!

I spent some time this weekend in utter masochistic foolishness, going through the early stages of making hot pepper powder. I picked and sliced up a bunch of habanero and cayenne peppers, put them in a dehydrator, and will later grind them into powder. This sounds like an easy thing to do, right? Oh-no-no-no, my friends, it's anything but! Y'see, these peppers are hotter than Satan's ol' lady in thigh boots, and processing them is more dangerous than refining nitroglycerin. First I had to wrap all of my fingertips in masking tape, then put on surgical gloves. Surgical gloves alone aren't worth much; the pepper juice will eat right through it; this is some serious, serious shit. I forgot to use a face mask so I was soon pouring out snot all over my shirt, and even though I was reeeeeallly careful when I blew my nose a couple of times, I ended up with a bright red, burning nose-area, and the juice ate a hole through one of the thumbs of the glove, and that's the one finger I'd forgotten to masking-tape, so my thumb is STILL constantly burning like somebody's holding a lighter to it, a day later and after washing it about 1000 times in everything from soap and water to milk to alcohol to Noxema. Nothing gets the capsaicin off of you; it has to wear off. I can still put my thumb in my mouth and burn my tongue. And I'm really not looking forward to putting my contact lenses in tomorrow. This stuff is comprable to law-enforcement-grade pepper spray. I sneezed a lot, I vomited once, I roared profanities... but I got them lil' bastards in the dehydrator. And later I get to try to run them through a coffee grinder, which definitely requires a face mask and a well-ventilated area (probably the carport, if the ATF doesn't surround my house). It's like I've got my own meth lab, except legal, more dangerous, and... delicious! The resultant powder is righteous stuff, better than anything you can buy, which is the only reason I'm stupid enough to subject myself to this torment.

But I'd planned to do an entire bucket full, and now I think I'm probably gonna stop at just the one load. I'm gettin' too old for this Steve-O shit.

Anyway, more movie reviews this week. Plus one major TV show recommendation: Sons of Anarchy season 1 just came out on DVD, and you should pick it up. The new season starts on FX September 8, and you should watch that, too... just to see Henry Rollins playing a white supremacist, if nothing else. (Gotta be a hard role for Hank, because he's about the most anti-racist person you could imagine... he's got an anti-racism rant at the end of his You Saw Me Up There DVD that'll make you yell "Hell yeah!" even while it brings tears to your eyes). Anyway, Sons of Anarchy is probably the best thing on TV since The Shield, and if you know how much I love The Shield you'll know how high this praise is going. I got completely addicted to it and wasn't able to do much else for the week after I got the season 1 set. I've been addicted to many TV series -- The Sopranos, The Shield, Oz, Deadwood, The Wire, Lost, etc. -- and Sons of Anarchy ranks up there with the best of 'em, with the potential to be even better. It's based on Shakespeare's Hamlet in a vague way, with the young vice-president of SAMCRO (Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Original chapter) coming into conflict with the president of the club (Ron Perlman) when he finds a manuscript his late father left behind, lamenting the criminal direction the club was taking. As the club's gun-dealing activities get them under the scrutiny of the ATF, bodies pile up, brotherhood gets strained, tragic stuff happens, and... fuck, dude, just watch the show, you will not regret it. It's worth buying the DVD set sight-unseen, just trust me on it. Katy Sagal will make you forget that she was ever Peg Bundy, and Charlie Hunnam will make you forget he's British (he's even got that white-trash walk down pat, and I've been seein' that all my life so I'd know if it didn't ring true!).


Birthright (B&W, 1951) Educational hygiene film (with titty!) about the tragedy of a chicken farmer named John and his family. John’s not much better at raising chickens than he is at acting (and at acting he -- and everybody else in this film -- suh-uh-uh-uh-UUUCKS!) so he gets frustrated and goes out drinking one night and has a one-night-stand with a waitress who gives him VD. John raises spirokeets better than chickens and soon infects -- and impregnates -- his wife. She’s not big on doctor check-ups and doesn’t know she’s been be-clapped, so she’s incubating a VD baby! Luckily they get it tended to in time, and we’re treated to some graphic birth-of-a-baby footage, including a normal birth and a really excruciating-looking breech birth. The cast is made up of extremely rural Southerners who definitely aren’t professional actors; their terribleness gives this an almost surreal atmosphere.

Black Room, The (B&W, 1935) aka The Black Room Mystery. In one of his best movies, Boris Karloff plays ill-fated twins. One is kindly but has a paralyzed arm. The other is evil and rules over a village, oppressing the people and murdering local girls. The people have had about enough of his atrocities and are on the verge of revolt, so the evil brother abdicates the rule to the good brother and then murders him and hides his body in a pit in the castle’s Black Room. He then fakes having a bad arm and poses as the good brother, but continues his evil ways, even tricking a girl into marrying him. A family legacy is working against him, however. Excellent acting, good direction, and atmospheric cinematography make this classic Karloff.

Cremators, The (C, 1972) aka Dune Rollers. I’m not sure why I’m so fond of this dull, poorly-done sci-fi/horror schlocker, but I think it must be the narration and dialogue. It tries so hard to sound profound -- and fails so utterly -- that it’s almost like poetry. Edgar A. Guest poetry! A meteor falls, seen only by an Indian and a hammerhead shark (“He snapped greedily at the meteor as it fell. Quite reduced in size now, the fish swam away and, presently, he died. That was 300 years ago.”) Then in present times a hippie spends all his time running up and down the beach like an idiot. The narrator informs us that the sand dunes are “like vast creeping monsters, kept traveling around” and “the word ‘ecology’ became a warning note, as it left dead, lifeless things in its wake. Some, like Ian Thorne, sought the loneliness of the lake country and a last chance to turn the tide against the creeping death.” Even though the narrator makes it sound like Ian’s been killed by ecology, he hasn’t, and as he’s studying bugs and tide pools he finds some funny glowing rocks (“like someone’s drowned jewelry”). He hands a few out, and whoever has them gets chased by giant rolling fireballs which turn them to ash. Repeated footage of the wind blowing away a three-inch smiley-faced stick figure made of cigarette ashes follows each kill, and a couple of rusty fenders and a car frame are used to represent a burned car. Ian keeps studying the rocks and insects (a girl asks him “How come you’re so into bugs?” and he says “It’s what I want!” and then they go on about wanting to be “haunted by personal memories.” And then they discuss how they “curse at the pillow that’s wet, and you beat it out, trying to go back to sleep again.”) He finds some of the rocks inside the beach-hippie’s dead cat. He and a colleague decide this fireball is a mother trying to collect its baby rocks, and they have to find some way of appeasing it. Very low-budget and slow-moving, yet somehow likeable. Used to come on late-night TV, and the story it’s based on (“The Dune Roller” by Julian May) can be found in Alfred Hitchcock’s Stories Not For The Nervous. Oddly, the woman in this film (Maria de Aragon) played Greedo in Star Wars.

Cruising (C, 1980) Controversial, unjustly-panned neo-noir by William Friedkin following undercover cop Al Pacino into a personal hell as he infiltrates the homosexual leather bar scene, searching for the killer (or killers) who is knifing gay men and leaving dismembered corpses in the river. Pacino’s happily married, not gay, so he has to strike a careful balance of appearing to be part of the scene while not getting too involved in it. The psychological strain gets to be too much for him and he starts fearing that he may be gay, and even may be the killer. He can’t keep track of his own loss of identity and is stuck between worlds, and hunting down a killer has the same mechanics as stalking a victim. The identity of the killer is left unresolved, which dissatisfied some viewers, but that’s kind of the point -- there’s always a killer out there. Gay groups protested this film during production, trying to stop it by making lots of noise to drown out the dialogue and using reflectors to screw up the lighting. Critics also protested that the film made gay life look sleazy, violent, and ritualistic, but I think that’s a politically-correct, reactive criticism, since Friedkin is not dealing with gay life in general (and states this directly) -- he’s dealing with the leather bar SM subculture. I’m no expert, but any scene based on costumes and role play and scenarios is ritualistic (and so what?), clubs based around sex are sleazy (if they’re any good!), and sadomasochism -- gay or straight -- does have a dark, violent side, which is part of the appeal to the participants. I don’t know if Friedkin depicted that world accurately or not, but I don’t think he dealt unfairly with it in the context of a serial killer story, and the film doesn’t make any real statement on gays in general. Not being gay, I can’t say if any of it should be offensive to them or not, but I have gay friends and, from a sympathetic perspective, don’t think it should be. Pacino gives one of his best performances and handles a volatile role with a great degree of skill, and Friedkin’s direction is near masterpiece level, creating a unique, oppressive, threatening atmosphere, which any undercover-cop-seeking-out-a-serial-killer story should have, and leaves implications about Pacino’s character’s psyche open, and therefore universal. The film’s confrontational and likely to make you uncomfortable (especially if there’s any homophobe in you) but don’t movies about killers that don’t make you uncomfortable fail miserably? If this film had been made a few years later, it could look like a metaphor for AIDS -- a faceless, random killer with an identity that can’t definitely be pinned down. Now that the uproar has died down and time has passed, this film deserves critical re-evaluation, because it’s far too well made for the dismissive treatment it’s gotten from some reviewers (Mick Martin & Marsha Porter’s book was especially cowardly -- it’s controversial so they just ducked dealing with it at all -- just a condemnation with no detail.) Friedkin planned to use a lot of music from punk band The Germs, but ended up just using one song even though he became a big fan.

Devils, The (C, 1971) aka The Devils of Loudun. Crazed masterpiece from Ken Russell, adapting Aldous Huxley's novel, was the target of massive controversy and censorship. As a plague ravages the French city of Loudon and Protestants are being persecuted, narcissistic priest Urban Grandier (Oliver Reed) lives like a libertine, indulging his lusts with women and exerting a lot of political power, which puts him in the way of the ambitious Cardinal Richelieu. A hunchbacked and sexually-frustrated nun (Vanessa Redgrave) is so overwhelmed with lust for Grandier that she suffers blasphemous visions of sex with him, in which he assumes the guise of Christ. Richelieu exploits Redgrave's erotomania to make it look like Grandier is some sort of incubus who’s gotten the whole convent possessed by demons. In short order nuns are letting all their repressions go and enacting blasphemous orgies, including the mass sexual assault of a giant crucifix. A fanatical witchhunter/ exorcist drives the whole spectacle, and a pair of demented “medical men” use it as an opportunity to try all sorts of vile experiments to drive out the demons (earlier Grandier had stopped them from torturing plague victims with hornets as a “cure”). Grandier is falsely accused and tortured while Richelieu’s government has its way with the city, no longer under Grandier’s protection. There’s plenty of substance but style is clearly Russell’s preoccupation, setting up an atmosphere of hallucinatory madness right from the start and then seeing how far he can push it, until the movie’s just a circus of debauchery, gore, and blasphemous images. Staunch Catholics won’t be pleased, but lapsed Catholics may be delighted. The film has been notoriously hard to find in uncut form; even the “uncut” bootleg DVD (from EuroCult) is missing a few scenes, supposedly, although I can’t verify that those scenes were ever actually included in any legitimate print. The quality of that DVD is nowhere near as poor as rumors would lead you to believe, although an upgrade would still be welcome; Warner Brothers has had this listed as an upcoming release for almost a decade now, but keeps chickening out in fear of a church backlash. Religion ruins everything.

Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion (C, 1970) aka Le Foto Proibite di una Signora per Bene. Pretty Dagmar Lassander is almost raped one night by a sadistic jerk, but at the last minute he leaves, saying he’ll be back for her later. She becomes obsessed with him, and eventually he contacts her again, blackmailing her for sex in exchange for an audiotape that implicates her husband in a murder. After that he blackmails her with threats to send her husband photos taken during the first blackmailing session. Rather than falling for that again, she ‘fesses up to her husband... but that results in new kinds of trouble, with the blackmailer still stalking her and her husband thinking she hallucinated it all in the midst of some neurotic breakdown. The ending isn’t any big surprise, and this giallo is more preoccupied with sex than violence (it’s nearly completely bloodless), but it’s stylish enough (thanks to Luciano Ercoli’s direction) and has a decent Ennio Morricone score, so it’s worth watching despite not being A-list giallo material.

Gits, The (C, 2005) aka The Gits Movie. Well done documentary on the great punk/grunge punk band and the tragic murder of their lead singer, Mia Zapata. It’s great seeing footage of Mia and hearing people talk about her, but it’ll also bum you out and make you really angry at the bastard who killed her and robbed the world of her incredible talent. The first half is concerned with the rise of the band, its influence, and its success (they were just about to go to a major label). The second half deals with the murder, its effects (it pretty much destroyed the whole local scene), and the hunt for the killer, who was eventually caught by a lucky DNA match. Very engrossing throughout, with some of the best music you’ll ever hear, but all that coolness will make you feel the real weight of the loss that followed, and it’s a damn heavy one.

God Forgives... I Don’t (C, 1967) aka Dio Perdona... Io No!, He Never Forgives, Blood River, God Forgives... I’m not fond of cream pies in my spaghetti, so I’ve never been all that drawn toward the Terrence Hill/Bud Spencer Westerns. This one, though, isn’t a comedy or a parody, so I was much more inclined to check it out. Unfortunately, the plot is so overly-convoluted and hard to follow that it’s pretty uninvolving. Hill is a gambler and Bud is an agent for an insurance company. They team up to find the gold some bad guys robbed from a train, where all the passengers on board were slaughtered. They find it and hide it, but then the train robber (whom Hill had thought he’d killed) catches them and tries to make them tell where the gold is hidden by repeatedly dropping Hill down a well. They also torture Bud with a red-hot iron. Finally Hill leads one of the bad guys to the gold, but he pulls a trick and kills him, then calls the train robber out for a showdown. Meanwhile, Bud is breaking loose and planning some revenge of his own. Plenty of violence, but not much style, and is a little tedious. The DVD is overpriced, struck full-screen from a mediocre print. Spaghetti Western fanatics only.

Home Room (C, 2002) Excellent, underrated (in fact, almost unnoticed) and very well-written drama set in the aftermath of a school shooting. While the school is closed for mourning, the principal demands that a highly-antisocial goth girl (Busy Philipps from TV’s Dawson’s Creek) go spend time with a lonely student (Erika Christensen) recuperating in the hospital. Christensen is a brain whose intelligence intimidates the other students, so even though she has a sunny personality, she doesn’t have many friends. Philipps is a very smart bookworm, but her contemptuous attitude is causing her to flunk out, and she has no friends and doesn’t want any. In fact, the only person she ever even talked to was the school shooter, and she’s under investigation by the police. This odd couple does manage to bond, somewhat, and the role of Philipps in the shooting becomes clear. They also come to some understanding of what was behind the shooting and what it means, and also what turned Philipps into such a hostile, alienated weirdo. The budget for this indie film was pretty low but the production values are good, and the actors are good and have been given a smart, thoughtful script that examines things but wisely doesn’t try to provide too many answers to things that probably aren’t explainable, anyway. It manages to avoid being trite or superficial, while most movies with this kind of storyline wouldn’t be able to avoid that trap. A perfect example of why it pays to “dumpster-dive” the $3 racks at BigLots.

Watch the whole thing online starting here.

Long Island Cannibal Massacre (C, 1980) No-budget backyard production from teenage gore-monger Nathan Schiff, this rinky-dink bloodfeast involves a cop investigating a series of killings on Long Island. A biker and his buddy with a pillowcase over his head murder people and gives parts to a guy who looks like Jim Croche, because he needs the meat to feed his cannibalistic leper father, who looks like one of the monsters off an old cover of a Terror Tales comic book. Other leprosy is simulated with heavy applications of peanut butter. And that’s about all that passes for a plot, which nobody’s watching this movie for anyway. The gore is very splashy but amateurishly done, Andy Milligan style (Schiff even uses a lot of the same stock music Milligan did, I guess as an acknowledgement), and includes a head run over by a lawnmower, disembowelment, gut-gnawing (including some done by 10-year-old girls!), tongues ripped out, smashed faces, heads squished in car doors, impalement, and a climactic chainsaw fight which looks incredibly dangerous and does include some impressive dismemberment effects (even though the victims lie rigidly still as their parts are sliced off). This never looks like anything but a home movie, shot in 8mm, and it’s not particularly compelling; in fact, it’s pretty dull for the most part and is mainly interesting as an example of what one can accomplish with almost no money but lots of slaughterhouse leftovers and fake blood.

Malibu High (C, 1979) aka Death In Denim, High School Hit Girl, Lovely But Deadly. Some real sleazy nastiness stealthed in under a title that leads you to believe it’s going to be some fun teen comedy. Kim’s boyfriend Kevin dumps her because she’s a chunky, not-particularly-pretty bitch with a gruesome one-piece-bathing-suit tan and a crappy, sullen attitude. She’s also pretty dumb and drinks and smokes pot, so she’s flunking out of school. Also, her mother nags her a lot, and her father hung himself. Deciding to get back at everybody and solve her grade and money problems, Kim decides to become a hooker. She goes to work for a pimp named Tony, a Steve Buscemi-type guy who does his business from a van with flower print upholstery that’ll make you look at blindness as a fringe benefit. She pulls trains of customers and blackmails her teachers for A’s. Every time she does something especially shocking, there’s a burst of music that sounds a lot like the old PBS logo theme. She soon drops Tony for a higher-class pimp, who manages to get her to do assassinations instead of turning tricks! Soon our young sociopath is piling up bodies, even taunting her principal into a heart attack when he starts questioning her grades. Even grindhouse trash has a sense of morality, though, so you know Kim is headed for big, well-deserved trouble. No movie that’s entertaining can really be called “bad” in my book, and this surprising cheapie is highly entertaining and far better than I expected, but the acting is pretty awful (everybody seems to be shouting to compensate for budget sound equipment), and the whole thing is unintentionally hilarious. There’s some blood, nudity, and mile softcore sex to keep the sleaze factor high.

Watch the whole thing online starting here.

Severed Arm, The (C, 1973) Some spelunkers exploring an old mine cause a cave-in and are trapped for a couple of weeks with no food and very little water. They finally resort to cannibalism, and rather than killing anyone, they just slice an arm off of one of their friends, Ted. Immediately afterward they hear diggers coming to rescue them. Ted, gone crazy from the ordeal, is sent to an asylum. Years later one of the cavers gets a corpse’s arm in the mail, and soon someone with a hatchet is stalking them all, taking an arm from each of them. One of them is an obnoxious radio personality named “Madman Herman” (played by Marvin Kaplan, the neurotic telephone repairman from TV’s Alice); he tells the unfunniest jokes since the non-legendary “Maddog Bonner,” who you’ve never heard of and for good reason. The potential victims band together to try to stop Ted before he dis-arms them all. They try to get help from Ted’s daughter, but they’re still driven to near panic by Ted’s unstoppable quest for revenge, which leads to a very bleak, morbid-in-its-implications climax. There are rumors that this movie is gory in its uncut form, but all the versions circulating on DVD are fairly tame, which just a few mildly graphic scenes. The old Video Gems videotape is reportedly uncut, but it’s pretty hard to find and supposedly doesn’t have much more gore -- just a shot of Madman Herman’s arm lying in his lap. In any case, it’s very low-budget but has a weird, cheap atmosphere I’ve always liked. You have to give it credit for being different.

Watch the whole thing online here.

Signs (C, 2002) Very entertaining, very well-made, and incredibly, unbelievably stupid alien invasion movie from apparently-only-had-one-really-good-one-in-him auteur M. Night Shyamalan. Ex-pastor Mel Gibson and his family find crop circles in their cornfield and discover they’re not the only ones, because it’s happening all over the world as aliens are linking up landing zones for an invasion. It’s fairly intense and has some scary moments, but it’s also weighted down by so many over-the-top contrivances that really makes its simpleminded message about the importance of believing in God hilarious. Instead of being an effective scary movie, this heavy-handed treat-the-audience-like-idiots attempt at drippy message-sending turns into something resembling a very special Halloween episode of Touched By An Angel or something. It’s realism is also compromised by way too much silliness, with all the tinfoil-hat business and such. Shyamalan is turning out to have the movie-making talent of a Speilberg, but the ideas of an Ed Wood. It’s sub-moronic but it’s entertaining, even if you have to grit your teeth at some of the kill-a-diabetic manipulation (I dare you to get through the “did I ever tell you how you were born” bits without rolling your eyes! I defy you! And no fair stabbing a screwdriver into your cerebral cortex!). Shyamalan’s next, The Village - one of the absolute worst big-budget movies ever made -- makes this look like a masterpiece, though, as it takes his “Hallmark Channel” complex even further down the road to Pussyville.

We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen (C, 2005) Nice, made-with-love documentary on oddball punk band The Minutemen that was a long-planned project by some guys who were big fans. Lots of good vintage live footage that’s kind of surprising; I didn’t know so much of their stuff had been filmed, and luckily there’s also an extensive interview from the D. Boon days. Just about every big name in the 80’s California punk scene appears, giving props to the band. Some (Henry Rollins and other Black Flag members, Jello Biafra, Keith Morris) appear too briefly. Mike Watt gets to talk a lot, driving a van around to historic sites (which are mostly gone now, turned into Pet Smarts or apartment buildings), and drummer George Hurst is interviewed separately. The band’s history, impact, and significance are all well covered. The DVD also includes several live shows, which are worth the price by themselves. Even if the Minutemen aren’t your favorite band (they’re not mine -- I have lots of respect for them and love them lots, but my taste runs toward less-jazzy (and admittedly less musically competent) hardcore), this is a very well-done, compulsively-watchable documentary, not only on an important band but on the DIY ethic, and collaboration in general.

This isn't included in the DVD, but has to be one of the funniest videos, for one of the best songs, ever.

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