Archive for March 21, 2011

I’ll admit it, for most of the 1990s and into the early 200s, I was an absolute black metal junkie. Simply put, this amazingly misanthropic music was — and is — like nothing I’ve ever heard before (or since). Most folks just plain don’t get it, but if you’re on the same antisocial wavelength as those who create the stuff, it’s pure audio magic (or at least it can be when at its best). I still listen to it on occasion, sure, but my tastes are pretty dated by now — most of the scene has become way too showbiz-like and it’s just too hard to keep up with all the new, more raw stuff still (fortunately) emerging from the underground. Still, the whole 1990s Norwegian scene — since that was the epicenter of the black metal universe at the time, both for the music and — ummmm — other reasons, will always hold a special place in my black heart.

So I was excited when I heard about documentarians Aaron Aietes and Audrey Ewell and their independent cinematic effort Until The Light Takes Us. Released in 2008 but shot primarily over a period of years much earlier in the decade, it promised the first comprehensive celluloid glimpse into the infamous “black metal mafia” that kept all of Norwegian society on knife’s edge for the better part of a decade or so. I knew it would never be as comprehensive an overview as that provided by authors Michael Moynihan and Didrik Soderlind in their seminal book Lords Of Chaos, but I figured it would at least be pretty good.

Unfortunately, while it did get some midnight movie and festival screenings around the country here and there, it never made it to my home city of Minneapolis, so I had to wait for the DVD. And now that I’ve watched it through a couple of times, I have to say my initial impression/guess was right — it is, indeed, pretty good.

It’s shot entirely on HD video, but the filmmakers seem to have bypassed most of the limitations inherent in that format and the whole thing actually looks pretty moody and appropriate to its theme.The soundtrack, too — both the black metal and non-black metal selections — complement the “storyline,” if you will, nicely. All in all its most competently and professionally done.

I do, however, feel that the net could have been cast a bit wider in terms of viewpoints shown on screen and subjects interviewed. For the most part, the only people involved directly in the scene that we really hear from are Hellhammer of Mayhem, Fenriz of Darkthrone, and Varg Vikernes of Burzum. Sure, if you’re only gonna talk to a few people these are probably the first I’d go to, as well (and for the most part their English is surprisingly good), and I appreciate the fact that there are time limitations involved and what have you, but I do think the scope ends up being a bit too narrow, even for a 90-or-so-minute film.

I didn’t really expect anything new to emerge here in terms of broadening the amount of information we already knew about, and sure enough all the basics of the most historic moments of the scene’s history are covered, from the suicide of original Mayhem vocalist Dead to the arson fires at numerous Norwegian churches to the eventual murder or scene ringleader and Mayhem founder Euronymous at the hands of his former protege (of sorts), Vikernes, so the “”need to know” information is all present and accounted for.

But therein lies the other problem for seasoned black metal veterans such as myself — simply put we already know all this stuff. Sure, it’s intriguing to see it all discussed by the principal players involved, but it’ still old (if always interesting) hat. How the scene has evolved since then, both stylistically and philosophically, is only briefly touched upon, mostly by Fenriz. It makes it all seem somewhat dated, even if it is pretty amazing to see actual news footage of Fantoft Stave Church burning to the ground.

There are intriguing clues as to what is going on down on a deeper level scattered throughout, such as when Vikernes states that Satanism had nothing to do with his music or his actions (which is absolutely true), but his anti-Christan, pro-pagan/heathen sentiments are given only the briefest examination by the filmmakers. Stated most basically, they maintain a respectful and non-judgmental attitude toward the subjects of their work, but don’t seem to have either the time or the inclination to go into the subject as deeply as fans such as myself would like. I was hoping that the deleted scenes that serve as the only bonus feature on the DVD (which features both exceptional widescreen picture and stereo (although 5.1 woulda been nice) sound quality) would fill on some of the gaps, but alas, not really.

I don’t want to sound too negative, really, because on the whole the film is, as I said, well done, and avoids the simple route of veering into pure shock-value territory, which too much of the media “attention” surrounding some of the more admittedly spectacular events associated with this music went in for. I think the film would serve as a great introduction to the music and more specifically the period of the music’s history that it covers to someone previously unfamiliar with it, but I also honestly have to wonder how much interest somebody who’s not already “into” black mental would have in this flick in the first place. They’re largely preaching to the choir here, it stands to reason, and a more thorough and comprehensive overview probably would be more than welcome by most of us, especially since these filmmakers so obviously understand just what the hell it is they’re talking about

For those of us who know the story, though, there’s nothing much new to be found here — but it is nice to see it recounted this stylishly and this well. I was hoping for (though admittedly not expecting) greatness, I admit, but am more than happy to settle for good.

How many ways can a film suck? Let’s do a quick checklist, shall we, in relation, to this, Hollywood’s latest megamillion-dollar (well, okay, $70 million dollar, to be precise) waste of time.

1. It can have boring characters.

Check. Battle : Los Angeles doesn’t even have actual characters per se, it’s just got dull, bog-standard stereotypes dressed up in uniform. There’s Aaron Eckhart, who pretty much always sucks and just gets cast because he’s got a square jaw, as the forced-back-into-action military veteran who’s got to lead a platoon (or whatever they’re called) into battle despite the fact that he just got some men killed under his watch in Iraq (or maybe it’s Afghanistan) and was on the way to file his retirement papers. then there’s Michelle Rodriguez playing the same part she always does — a bad-ass superheroine-type who’s tough as nail but also supposedly sexy (even though she isn’t and never has been). Then we’ve got the guy about to get married, the African dude who joined the army to get his US citizenship so he could go to med school when his tour of duty was completed, etc. You’ll forget their names and their faces by the time they (mostly) get killed, and you won’t care when they die.

2. It can have an uninteresting story.

Battle : Los Angeles scores again on that front. After being given the most cursory “introduction” to the characters possible, we learn that the world is being invaded by giant fucking flying saucers with battle-ready robots spewing forth from them and by the time we learn what they’re doing here — evidently they want to rip off all our water — we no longer care (if we’re sane).

3. It can be poorly directed.

Another hit! Battle : Los Angeles is directed by grade-A hack Jonathan Liebesman who can’t decide if he wants to make Saving Private Ryan or Cloverfield and seems to get stuck somewhere in the middle. It’s trying to put us in the “middle of the action” at all times, but since we don’t give a single, solitary, flying fuck about any of the “action,” the middle of it is nowhere you’ll want to be. You just want everyone to get killed and the whole thing to end. Except it drags out for a brutal, interminable 116 minutes. Stay home and watch your toenails grow instead, it’ll be a more productive — and involving — use of your time.

4. It can have bad acting.

Bingo again! Battle : Los Angeles features atrocious, cardboard-cut-out acting from all involved. Nobody does anything above and beyond showing up to earn their paycheck.

5. It can have laughable dialogue.

Bull’s-eye! Battle : Los Angeles features some of the most ham-fisted dialogue to come out of Hollywood in recent memory, and that’s really saying something. No one has anything to say beyond brave-sounding bullshit and useless military jargon. this stuff makes John Wayne look positively fucking subtle by comparison.

6. It can have a stupid, intelligence-insulting premise.

On this score, Battle : Los Angeles is even more guilty than on the others. At its core this overstuffed pig is nothing more than a high-tech military recruitment film, designed to portray all our men and women in uniform (and form all cultures and all parts of the world — today’s army will take ’em all, aren’t they wonderful?) as noble, purposeful people of the highest integrity and unflinching virtue. PTSD , horrible injuries, even death — it all just goes with the territory when you’re fighting for all that’s right and good, doesn’t it? A small price to pay for defending — uhhhmmm — “freedom.” The hard, cold reality — that our government and, more specifically, its corporate bosses, view these guys and gals as nothing more than hamburger for their always-churning meat grinder is conveniently glossed over. Have fun dying for Halliburton and GE, suckers. Hollywood will always be around to spend millions portraying you as noble warriors for truth and justice rather than poorly-paid hired thugs for the corporate class. Might have something to do with who owns the studios, I’m willing to bet. Sure, there’s danger — but danger is cool!  Sure, you might end up on a morgue slab — but you’ll get there the “honorable” way. Your life — and death — will have meaning and purpose, unlike it does now (since most of that meaning and purpose has been robbed from you right from the outset by the same greedy bastards who will then tell you how “heroic” it is to put yourself on the line protecting their ever-increasing profit margins).

Ya know, I think I’m gonna stop right there. Sure, the list could go on and on, but the fact is that there are only so many ways for me to implore you to not see this film under any circumstances whatsoever. Honestly, it makes the Transformers flicks looks like complex, intricate woks of cinematic art. I, for one, welcome our new alien overlords — if it means that no more movies like this will ever be made.

When people ask me what my all-time favorite blaxploitation flick is, the question is a serious a serious no-brainer. Oh, sure, there are plenty of great ones to choose from —Black Caesar, Across 110th Street, Shaft, Foxy Brown — the list of classics is nearly endless. But the one flick that stands out above all the others, the one that holds the title of not only the greatest of all blaxploitationers, but also one of the very best revenge movies ever made, is Jack Hill’s incomparable 1973 Pam Grier starring vehicle Coffy. This is the one that set the standard, folks, and frankly it has yet to be matched.

The story’s simple enough — when the younger sister of hard-working inner-city nurse Coffy (we never get her first name), better known as “Coffy,” is sent into comatose shock after shooting up some bad smack, our intrepid (and deadly sexy) heroine is determined to bring down the whole fucking criminal underworld all by herself. That’s bravado, people. She’s got no skills, no training, just a bad attitude and a body to die for.  The chain leads way higher than even she could have guessed, though — all the way from street dealers to big-time pimps to Italian mobsters out of Vegas to crooked cops right to the would-be congressman she’s sleeping with!

Simple story? Hell yeah. All the best are. But if you’ve got the right the woman for the job, even the simplest set-ups can leave you gripped to the screen. And Grier was definitely more than up to the task. Hill (one of the great unsung heroes of exploitation moviemaking) had worked with Grier on a couple of Roger Corman women-in-prison productions shot on the cheap in the Philippines (The Big Doll House and The Big Bird Cage, to be precise) and figured she was ready to graduate from being a supporting player as the stereotypical bad-ass-butch-black-woman-in-stir to her own starring turn, and damn was he right.  Pam’s not only a total sexual dynamo here (she gets naked three separate times in the first 15 minutes alone), she’s a supernatural force of pure fucking vengeance. Her conscience troubles her a bit more than you’d expect in a film like this (check out her “the past few days seem like a dream” monologue early on to her cop friend Carter), but she can put that in a locked drawer when she needs to and just plain kick ass. You always get the feeling revenge is gonna be bittersweet for Coffy, though, because Grier gives such a tellingly multi-dimensional performance (and the long slow fadeaway of her walking, battered and bruised after killing all the bad guys (come on, did you ever doubt she would?), along a lonely,  early-morning beach at the end as the credits roll provides a surprisingly downbeat ending that the genre would later airbrush out of things as these films became more formulaic) that’s always grounded in reality (and yes, reality itself would become another casualty of this genre’s success as time wore on). In short, Grier’s  Coffy is not some cartoonish superhero, but a real woman dealing with an extraordinary set of circumstances and trapped in a situation beyond her control that she’d rather not be a part of. Sure, she hams it up a bit when going undercover as a Jamaican prostitute to grab the attention of mega-pimp King George (who’s even got his own theme song!), but even in the midst of the most over-the-top scenes here, like the notorious cat fight (you knew there had to be one) at George’s pad, there’s always something lurking under the surface in Pam’s extraordinary performance. She’s a bad-ass mama out for revenge with soul, a real life flesh-and-blood heroine rather than a cardboard cut-out. She’s not a super-woman here (although she’s got a super-woman body — damn, I’ll quit obsessing over it now), but if conscripted into a situation where that’s what she’s gotta be, then goddamn if she isn’t gonna be it, and worry about the consequences later.

There are some damn fine supporting turns here as well, to be sure — Booker Bradshaw as sleazy Councilman-Soon-To-Be-Congressman  Brunswick, Sid Haig as — well, the kind of hired-muscle-with-a-perv-streak he always did so well at the time — but really this is Pam’s show all the way. From the minute she blows that pusher’s head off with a shotgun  (and this is also surprisingly violent for a film of this type — another element that would be toned down as the blaxploitation formula took hold) in the film’s opening scene (which would later be aped by effects legend Tom Savini in the legendary head-shot scene in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead), she absolutely owns this motherfucker from start to finish. Honestly, if Grier’s Coffy said “you can fuck me, but I might kill you afterwards if I feel like it”, you’d be up for taking the risk. That’s how undeniable she is here.  I can’t think of higher praise than that.

Hill and Grier would be back less than a year later with Foxy Brown, which essentially tells the same story with a bigger budget, less graphic violence, less nudity, and frankly less heart and realism. It’s still a damn fine flick, but it’s a sanitized, de-fanged version of what you see here. This is the pure, grade-A, 100-proof stuff.

Coffy is available on DVD from MGM as part of its Soul Cinema line. It features a nicely-done full-frame transfer, a solid stereo audio track, the original theatrical trailer, and a feature-length commentary from Jack Hill that’s absolutely gripping listening. It’s also playing free this month on Impact Action On Demand, available on most cable and satellite systems. I’m assuming most readers of this blog will have seen this before, probably numerous times, but if it’s been awhile, give it a go again — you’ll be very pleasantly surprised at what a bass-knuckled punch it still packs even after all these years. They just plain don’t make ’em like this anymore — and truth be told, even though Coffy was a solid box-office success, they never made ’em quite like this again even back in the day. This isn’t just “soul cinema,” it’s heart, soul, blood, and guts cinema. It’s everything you love exploitation films for, combined with everything that a lot of it (and everything else on celluloid, be it from Hollywood or the independents) is missing. It’s uncompromising, multi-faceted, honest and arresting art, folks. It’s complex in spite of  its simplicity and provides no easy answers or feel-good moments. It’s a genre movie for grown-ups that doesn’t insult your intelligence and for once provides more steak than sizzle (although there’s plenty of that, too). It’s the straight dope and it’ll hook you forever.

Maybe I’m just a glutton for punishment, but when I heard there was such a thing as a Christian UFO movie, I just had to check it out. Little did I know before going in that what I would be treated to while watching writer-director Rich Christiano’s 2006’s straight-to-DVD release Unidentified would be the most hateful, self-righteous, and paranoid piece of religious propaganda since Ron Ormond’s christ-spolitation classic If Footmen Tire You, What Will The Horses Do? But while Ormond had the “evil” Soviet “menace” to provide an actual earthly source of worry, these days the Born Againers have to search a bit further afield to find proof of demonic activity here on on our world, and the UFO/alien abduction phenomenon provides a ready-made avenue for their — ummm — “philosophical explorations.” After all, if you don’t believe in life on other planets, but are convinced that something must be happening to account for all these sightings and reports — and your whole view of life, the universe, and everything (sorry, Douglas Adams) is based on an absolutely, independent-thought-crushingly literal reading of the King James Bible, well — the answer to all of this must be in there somewhere, right?

Well, Christiano thinks he’s got the answer, and he was willing to hustle up a reported $600,000 to get his point across in this shot-on-video sermon hung over the barest skin of a “plot.” All these UFOs, you see, are — drumroll please — manifestations of demonic entities!

You saw that coming, right? Honestly, if there’s one thing Bible-thumpers possess in even greater quantity than lack of imagination, it’s lack of intelligence.

Anyway, our erstwhile “hero” here is a schmuck named Keith who works at a supposedly “respectable” news magazine called “Both Sides” with his Australian buddy, Brad. Keith’s a lukewarm believer, while Brad is a devout nonbeliever. One day on a lark, their nice-guy editor sends them down to the heart of Texas redneck country to check out a report of a UFO sighting filed by a local auto mechanic. Since the magazine’s shtick is to cover “both sides” of every issue, Keith is assigned to take the view that the guy might be telling the truth while Brad’s covering the he-must-be-full-of-shit angle. The simple-minded grease monkey is reluctant to talk, though, and even though the boys have at this point essentially got no fucking story whatsoever, the aforementioned nice-guy editor decides there might be “something to all this,” and tasks the boys with writing a three-part series on UFO culminating in a big cover story in a few weeks.

Fortunately for our intrepid reporters (notice I haven’t provided one single actor’s name yet? That’s because they all suck — and I mean painfully suck — and don’t deserve a mention), more sighting reports start to pile up on their desks and soon they’re on their way to Louisiana to talk with a couple good ol’ boys who got abducted while they were out night fishing and a local woman right across town (the specific locale here is never mentioned, but the entire movie was shot in and around Riverside, California, mostly in a half-assed obviously-vacant-the-day-before office space that’s meant to serve as the “worldwide headquarters” of a major news magazine but looks a hell of a lot more like a disused former insurance office or travel agency) who got nabbed getting into her car after work one night.

Keith’s at this point getting some inside help with his investigative legwork from a fellow writer at the magazine named Darren, who just happens to be a hard-core holier-than-thou Christian who also happens to be the biggest asshole in a movie full of them (a role that’s supposed to fall to the dastardly unbeliever Brad, who actually comes off as the only moderately sane individual around). Darren notices a pattern in all these sightings — all the witnesses report smelling sulphur, and he immediately thinks of the brimstone stench the Bible apparently says most demons give off. Also, the young woman was abducted right across town has interests in the paranormal and the occult, the Louisiana yokels had been drinking before they were abducted, and the hapless Texas garage mechanic, well, his wife’s a — gasp! — Wiccan, and they found some porno rags in his truck! Ya see the pattern here? These people are all into bad, bad things (or their wives are) and the devil is using that as a foothold to get into their lives before taking over completely! Souls are on the line here, people, and it’s time for God’s army to fight back!

But first Keith’s gotta get right with the Lord himself. His wife Colleen is a devout believer/sucker, but Keith’s been slacking. He hasn’t found much time to read the Bible these days. His work’s been consuming his life and he’s been ignoring the missus. He hasn’t even been going to church regularly. And like Darren says — you’re either with Christ, or you’re against him. Keith has a hart-to-heart talk with God and decides to get back on board the team. He’s headed for heaven! Not even Brad can stop him!

Of course all the UFO contactees have been paid a visit by “national security” (did you know there was a government agency with that exact name? Neither did I), and Keith catches a break when a grizzled “national security” old-timer decides to talk with him off-the-record a la “Mr. X” from Oliver Stone’s JFK. It seems that according to this former insider he and Darren are on the right track, they just need to keep their noses to the grindstone and keep reading that Bible!

Somehow towards the end the whole thing devolves into an extended harangue about the supposedly-forthcoming rapture and how Satan is going to use UFOs to deceive people into accepting a false explanation as to how and why the Christians have all been taken up into heaven while the God who supposedly loves us puts the rest of us through seven years of trials and tribulations before Christ comes again to apparently rule over a planet his old man has has just decimated. Whatever. It didn’t make much sense to me, either.

A few points stand out here looking back on this stinker —first off, for a supposed UFO movie, there are no actual, you know,  UFOs to be seen. The various “abductions” are all represented by a bright light shining on the victims, but no flying craft are ever on display. Secondly, Christiano has a real asshole, absolutist view of Christianity. There’s a long scene where Brad’s arguing with essentially everyone else at the office and demanding that Darren answer a pretty simple question — if I don’t believe in Jesus, am I going to hell? Darren, Mr. “my way or the highway” Christian, doesn’t even have the balls to answer him directly — he just says “I know what the requirements are.”  Brad then goes on to ask everyone else if they’re going to heaven, or if they’re headed to the hot room downstairs. This is supposed to be the big “moment of truth”/turning point the whole movie hangs on, but it just comes off as one smug, self-satisfied bastard refusing to give a guy a direct answer before the whole thing spirals down into a big, pathetic harangue designed to make unbelievers looks like scared cowards — even though the only chickenshit dude in the room is the Christian. Nice recruiting job for Jesus, Mr. Christiano. And thirdly, apparently deception isn’t a sin anymore, because the Bible-thumpers do it with reckless abandon. First Darren tells the auto mechanic’s wife “Merry part” (supposedly a common phrase used by Wiccans when leaving a room) in order to discern whether or not she’s a wicked, Godless heathen, and then at the end, when it seems everybody at the office but Brad has turned their souls over to Christ, they all get together and fake a worldwide epidemic of disappearances with scared phone calls, lights going on and off, etc. — one of the women at the magazine even goes so far as to claim her own niece and nephew are missing — in order to fool him into thinking that the rapture is at hand. Then they admit that they were all just yanking his chain and everyone’s fine, but gosh, didn’t that put the fear of God — quite literally — into the hapless atheist from Down Under? I know, I know — ha fucking ha, right?

So that’s Unidentified in a nutshell — Christians supposedly have the answer to everything, if you think you’re already a Christian you’re probably not Christian enough unless all you do is read the Bible all the time, and if you’re not a believer — well, hell, watch this flick ASAP because it will show you how utterly fucking insane and zombified about 1/3 of this country of ours is. Honestly, if you watch this thing with the full awareness that this is how millions of people think, you’ll walk away feeling like you’ve just seen the most shocking horror flick in years.  It’s certainly not gonna win over any new converts — only the already-deeply-deluded will think the Christians in this flick seem like anything more than pompous pricks, so Christiano’s really only preaching to the choir here. But if you already viewed the born-again crowd with suspicion, you’ll walk away from Unidentified convinced of their complete and utterly hopeless delusional insanity.

Finally,while I caught this on DVD (since that’s the only format it’s ever come out on), I can’t fairly critique the extras or commentary or anything since I didn’t bother watching them. 85 minutes of this was quite enough, thanks very much. But I did enjoy having all my worst impressions of evangelical Bible-bangers not only reinforced, but amplified. If you see this movie and decide it makes sense, I urge you to seek out professional help — immediately.