#51 - God of Thunder

Dedicated To
Ousmane Sembene
1923 - 2007

Added 6/11/07

Well Howdy, Mr. Doody, and boys and girls at home and kids in the gallery, let’s go! It’s Electric Theatre time! A pretty good week at the movies this week, starting off with something really special as…


The A-Picture - Brand Upon The Brain!

Guy Maddin is a Canadian filmmaker who’s been perfecting his unique blend of silent film aesthetics and oversexed narratives since the 1980s. I’ve seen several of his movies and while I haven’t loved each and every one, I respect and admire his unwavering adherence to his independent style. Even at his worst, Maddin is a singular voice in cinema. Brand Upon The Brain!, his latest feature, shows him at his peak. You’ve never seen anything quite like it and once seen, you’ll never forget it.

All of Maddin’s movies feel like they’ve been recently unearthed from a secret surrealist time capsule buried circa 1925 but Brand Upon The Brain! is, to the best of my knowledge, his first all-out silent film. (UPDATE: shows how good my knowledge is...after I originally posted this, I was informed he's made at least two prior to this: Dracula - Pages From A Virgin's Diary and Cowards Bend The Knee. I gotta get out more.) And outside of freshman film classes, it’s probably the first silent movie made since Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie back in 1976. Maddin’s film follows a housepainter named Guy Maddin who goes back to the island where he grew up, a lighthouse/orphanage run by his possessive mother and mad scientist father. Celebrated teen detective Wendy Hale arrives to investigate Guy’s parents. Seems orphans leave the island with bizarre puncture wounds in the back of their heads. Wendy decides she’ll make more progress on the case disguised as her own twin brother, Chance Hale. This results in much sexual confusion for both young Guy, who’s in love with Wendy, and Guy’s sister, Sis, who falls for “Chance”. Their investigation reveals that Guy’s father has been harvesting orphan nectar from the brains of their young charges and injecting it into their mother in an attempt to reverse the aging process. That’s really all you need to know about this movie and just typing the phrase “orphan nectar” has me giggling so give me a moment to collect myself.

OK, I’m back. Brand Upon The Brain! is one of Guy Maddin’s best, most distinctive films and if all you ever get to see is the film itself, you should. But in select cities, including Los Angeles this past weekend, it’s being screened as a live event. Now I’ve seen several silent movies with live musical accompaniment, including Broken Blossoms in Minneapolis, Nosferatu in San Francisco and Potemkin in Seattle, and every time it’s absolutely incredible. But nothing compares to what’s being done with Brand Upon The Brain!. In addition to an 11-piece orchestra performing Jason Staczek’s terrific score, there’s a group of live foley artists contributing sound effects and a rotating group of celebrity guest narrators. The night I saw it, we were treated to a magnificent performance by Daniel Handler, author of the Lemony Snicket books. Other interlocutors have included Crispin Glover, Eli Wallach, Barbara Steele and Udo Kier. If you live anywhere near a city where Brand Upon The Brain! is being performed like this, run, do not walk, to the ticket booth. It’s an amazing experience. Check out the movie’s website at www.branduponthebrain.com to see if the live performance will be coming to a theater near you.

Even if you miss the live show, don’t forget that there’s still a movie at the heart of all this and it’s well worth seeing. Isabella Rossellini, who’s no slouch herself, provides the narration on the pre-recorded soundtrack. And if you do get to see the live show, it’s worth seeing the movie again on its own. With so much going on during the live performance, it’s easy to focus on other aspects and lose sight of the incredible visual details that Maddin packs into his carefully composed frames. Whichever way you get to see it, you should. Brand Upon The Brain! is funny, bizarre and a reminder of how amazing film can be when in the hands of a real artist. It’s one of the best films of the year and remember, it takes the weight of many orphans to sink a casket. (* * * *)


It’s been a long time since William Friedkin directed a really good movie. His last film was 2003’s The Hunted, a movie I kind of enjoyed despite the fact that when I discuss it with people who hate it, I find I can’t disagree with their many criticisms. You’d have to go all the way back to 1985’s To Live And Die In L.A. or 1988’s underrated Rampage to find a really solid Friedkin movie. So it is with no small amount of relief to report that Bug is actually really good. Ashley Judd stars as a cocktail waitress living in fear of her ex-con ex-husband. She hooks up with Pete (played by Michael Shannon), a seemingly decent guy who ultimately reveals himself to be completely unhinged. Pete, you see, is convinced there are aphids breeding in his body and that the army put them there. Based on a play by Tracy Letts, who also wrote the screenplay, Bug occasionally feels too much like a filmed stage play. But Friedkin’s direction and the excellent performances by Judd, Shannon and Harry Connick Jr., of all people, as Judd’s ex make this a memorable and disturbing psycho-horror-thriller. The story depends entirely on whether or not you believe Ashley Judd’s character could succumb to Shannon’s paranoia and she pulls it off beautifully. Both Judd and Michael Shannon deliver fearless performances and Friedkin makes the most of his limited playing field, lending the movie a claustrophobic feel that pays off in the last act. For years, I’ve thought that Ashley Judd is a fantastic actress who is almost always wasted in useless supporting roles or as the lead in lame suspense thrillers. Bug shows us what she can do when given the chance. It’s her best role since John McNaughton’s waaaaaaay underrated Normal Life back in 1996. Bug hasn’t made much of an impression at the box office so your chance to see it in theaters may have already come and gone. But give it a second chance when it’s released on DVD. It’s a creepy, effective movie, much more frightening than most so-called “horror” movies. (* * * ½)

Ocean's Thirteen

Wow, another Part Three this summer! Awesome! I wish all movies could be the third parts to franchises nobody really wanted in the first place, I really do. All snarkiness aside, I had a pretty good time at Ocean’s Thirteen, although that may be the result of the lowest of low expectations. After all, you can probably count on one hand the number of times the second sequel to a just OK movie turned out to be superior to its abysmal predecessor. With Ocean’s Twelve, director Steven Soderbergh and his cast seemed to have the attitude that we had a good time making the first movie, people enjoyed the first movie, ergo people enjoy seeing us have a good time. That self-satisfied attitude sunk Ocean’s Twelve. Ocean’s Thirteen makes more of an effort, jettisoning most of the in-jokes and lazy plotting for a clear but labyrinthine heist plot revolving around Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and his team out for revenge after casino owner Willy Bank (a perma-tanned Al Pacino) cheats amiable father figure Reuben (Elliot Gould) out of his share of a hideous high-tech new Vegas hotel. The goal is straightforward. The methods are enjoyably convoluted. Clooney and Brad Pitt still mistake laziness for too-cool-for-school swagger a bit too often but Matt Damon, Casey Affleck, Scott Caan, Don Cheadle and the rest all deliver memorable moments. The links to the preceding movies are there for the faithful but the story doesn’t hinge on them, making this a fine jumping on point if you wisely chose to skip Eleven and Twelve. Ocean’s Thirteen isn’t going to be listed in film reference books as anybody’s best work but it is a fun, lightly entertaining movie. Sometimes you want a bolt of scotch. Sometimes you want a beer. Sometimes you just want a nice, fizzy gin and tonic. Ocean’s Thirteen is a satisfying G&T for a hot summer afternoon. (* * *)


I Drink Your Blood

I’ve known about this movie for years thanks to its notorious double-billing in the early 70s with the equally-subtly titled I Eat Your Skin. I assumed that it couldn’t possibly live up to its title. I assumed wrong. A group of Satan-worshipping hippies roll into an all-but-abandoned town, harassing the few locals left and raping a girl. Her younger brother doesn’t take kindly to that, nor to their slipping his grandpap a dose of LSD when he goes to confront them. For revenge, he shoots a rabid dog and injects some meat pies with the dog’s blood. Next thing you know, you’ve got a town full of rabid axe-wielding hippies on your hands! I Drink Your Blood is a spectacular example of exploitation filmmaking, with gallons of blood and a beyond-outlandish plot. Its debts to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead are so blatant that director David Durston should still be paying off the interest on that loan. If you loved the faux-exploitation of Grindhouse, check this out. If you think it sucks, go sit in the corner with the rest of the posers. This is the real deal. (* * *)

The House Of Yes

It seems like Parker Posey’s been turning up a lot here lately. I can’t explain that, apart from I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with her movies and have maybe been trying to give her a second chance lately. In this 1997 indie, Parker plays Jackie-O, a Kennedy-obsessed young woman of privilege barely recovering from a recent nervous breakdown. Her tenuous mental state is put to the test when her twin brother (Josh Hamilton), with whom she shares a very close relationship, brings home his fiancée (Tori Spelling) for Thanksgiving. Based on a play by Wendy MacLeod, The House of Yes feels very stagy throughout, with arch, theatrical dialogue and essentially a one-set setting. But the moments that work are rich, with Posey delivering a tart, funny performance. Surprisingly, some of the most effective moments are courtesy of Tori Spelling and Freddie Prinze Jr. as Posey and Hamilton’s younger brother. Yeah, I was shocked myself. Not an entirely effective movie, The House of Yes boasts enough worthwhile material to make it worth checking out. (* * *)

The Gravedancers

The AfterDark Horror Fest trudges on with a disappointment. The Gravedancers was the one movie in this series I was really looking forward to. Director Mike Mendez’s previous movie, The Convent, was a fun surprise but his follow-up doesn’t make much of an impression. Three old friends reunite at the funeral of the fourth member of their group. One discovers a weird incantation written on a card instructing them to dance on the graves. This conjures up the spirits of the deceased, who naturally bear a grudge. The Gravedancers eventually comes to life in the second half, with some kind of neat creature effects reminiscent of Poltergeist and amusing performances by Tcheky Karyo amd Megahn Perry as a pair of paranormal investigators. But for the most part, The Gravedancers is unburdened by the sense of humor that made The Convent so enjoyable. Mike Mendez is a talented filmmaker and I hope his next movie plays more to his strengths than this mostly dour exercise did. (* * ½)

Now Playing at the Hell Plaza Octoplex - Penny Dreadful

This is the kind of title that lends itself to lazy movie critics, so I’ll play along. I can only assume Penny is a typo and they were trying to name the movie Pretty Dreadful. Rachel Miner stars as a young woman with a fear of riding in cars. Mimi Rogers, slumming like no actress before or since, is her therapist. Her cure is to make her confront her fears, a remedy that might have a snowball’s chance in hell of working if she was a better driver. Unfortunately, she hits the world’s creepiest hitchhiker out in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night, so of course she offers the guy a ride. Effective horror movies have been built on stupider premises than this but not many. Miner is a completely unsympathetic protagonist, in full-blown panic attack mode from frame one and utterly incapable of making a single intelligent decision. She spends most of the movie trapped in a car and it’s about as exciting as you might assume. This is a terrible movie and if you’re tempted to watch it, I recommend you go lock yourself in your car for 92 minutes instead. About as much will happen to you as happens in the movie and you’ll probably get more out of the experience. (*)

Your pal,