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Kicking the Tweets
Tuesday
Mar152011

Pirate Radio (2009) Home Video Review

Boat and Switch

Two months ago, my wife and I sat down to watch Pirate Radio. It was late, we were tired, and only made it through the first twenty-five minutes. The plan was to finish it the next day, but we were so underwhelmed by the movie's first quarter that it sat in our DVD player until last Sunday evening. When I suggested we start over, I got one of those special dirty looks normally reserved for one of my really inappropriate jokes--so we picked up precisely where we left off.

Thank God for dirty looks.

Set in mid-60s Britain, the movie tells the story of Carl (Tom Sturridge), a teenager who's sent to live with his godfather, Quentin (Bill Nighy) after getting kicked out of school.  Fortunately for Carl, Quentin lives and works on a large boat that illegally broadcasts 24-hour rock and roll to the UK.  The crew is comprised mostly of middle-aged partiers and wacky DJs who drink, smoke and fuck everything in sight. Meanwhile, in London, a stuffed shirt named Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh) schemes to shut the station down, and brings in a lackey named Twatt (Jack Davenport) to help him find a legal course of action.

This is a great premise for a movie, and hopefully we'll get one someday.  For now, we're stuck with Richard Curtis's dreadful 2-hour mess.  The coherent portion of the story would take ten minutes to tell: government orders station to shut down; station gives finger to "The Man"; boat sinks due to technical malfunction; DJs are rescued by fans.  But because Curtis is known for writing and directing features, he has to pad out the run-time; instead of providing some historical/social context or delving into the lives of what are, I assume, supposed to be wild and interesting characters, he turns his film into a series of Benny Hill skits intercut with Dormandy and Twatt scrunching up their faces at all that crazy, loud Devil music.

I understand that this is a comedy, and not meant as an educational think-piece, but when I watch a movie featuring almost every mainstream British actor of the last decade, I expect them to have signed on because their characters actually have something to do or say.  Instead, I get scenes like the rejected Three's Company sketch in which Carl makes a deal with chubby lothario Doctor Dave (Nick Frost) to switch places so that the girl Dave has lured into his pitch black room will unwittingly take Carl's virginity.  "Date rape" doesn't seem like the right phrase, but "hilarious comedy" doesn't feel right, either.

There's also a wedding on-deck, with knee-slapping on-air narration; a pissing contest between crazy ex-pat The Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his rival DJ Gavin Cavanagh (Rhys Ifans), in which both men climb to the highest point on the boat and then jump into the ocean; and a ton of other scenes that I've forgotten already--none of them funny, or at all serviceable to the plot.  The closest we get to a consistent "B" story is Carl's quest to find his dad, who he believes to be one of the kooks on the boat. He figures things out, but his old man's so far gone that their relationship never evolves past that of silly, casual roommates; neither person seems to care that much (it's hard to tell much about Carl in the way of feelings, as his face is perpetually locked in a smoulder that suggests the Big Acting Break of a Gap model).

The one surprise Pirate Radio offers is its on-a-dime turn from cartoon comedy to the third act of Titanic.  Once the thingamajig ruptures in the boat, the mood turns from, "Oh, that's unfortunate," to, "Hey, we're probably going to die out here!" There's a lot of panic and scrambling and dramatic footage of water bursting down hallways.  Of course, one of the DJs has to go down with the ship, and as The Count gives his farewell address over the air with a few of his shipmates urging him to leave as the water quickly fills the studio, my only thought was, "How are all these people not getting electrocuted?"

In the end, everyone makes it out okay.  Legions of boats sweep in to pick up the stranded rock radio pioneers; even The Count escapes death by using his superhuman powers to bust his way up to the surface, even as the ship plunges into the sea with its unstoppable downward-pushing force.

I was baffled by Pirate Radio, considering how much I love Richard Curtis's Love Actually.  That film, too, was a comedy with a large cast and multiple storylines; its success lay in the fact that each of the characters and sub-plots were fully realized and cut together in a way that flowed effortlessly.  This movie is like a collection of writer's room notes that someone put to film.

It's not enough to rely on big personalities and a bitchin' classic rock soundtrack; movies with this caliber of talent and production value should stand for something, or at least mean something.  Wasting a potentially great comedy about freedom of speech and the transformative power of music on slapstick gags that went out of style before the time in which the movie is set is a cosmically unforgivable offense. Hell, for all its historical relevance, Curtis could have set Pirate Radio in 2009 on an old school bus in Arizona and populated it with Disney Channel stars.

But that's not the film he chose to make.  And now that this two-month odyssey of pain is over, I can finally relegate Pirate Radio to the Davy Jones' locker of my memory.

Monday
Mar142011

Rubber (2011)

Steer Clear

Writer/director Quentin Dupieux's Rubber is available to watch On-Demand ahead of its April 1st theatrical debut.  I recommend skipping both media altogether and waiting for it to pop up on Netflix.  This will allow you to A) fast-forward through the interminable tire-rolling-down-the-road scenes and B) avoid paying to see the film, outside of your monthly subscription (which some Netflix-ers often describe, curiously, as "seeing it for free").

Yesterday, I paid $9.99 to rent Rubber from my television.  That sounds ridiculous only to those who haven't seen the movie's trailer.  Honestly, how can you watch that inspired two-and-a-half minutes and not be compelled to see the rest as soon as possible?  I'm here to walk you back from the ledge.

"Come on, Ian," you may think, "How could you possibly be disappointed by a movie about a killer tire with psychic abilities?"

Not easily.  But I'd argue that Dupieux hasn't really made a killer-tire film.  The trailer is just about the sum-total of that angle of Rubber, and leaves out the other 78 minutes of the filmmaker's meta-commentary.  This isn't a horror movie.  Rubber is French performance art wearing an ill-fitting horror movie party dress--and you're bound to be disappointed once you get a hand up its skirt.

The opening is ingenious.  A car rolls through the desert, knocking over cheap wooden chairs that fall apart on impact.  It stops.  The trunk pops open and out springs Lieutenant Chad (Stephen Spinella) a small-town cop who casually grabs a cup of water from the driver on his way to addressing the camera. He delivers a surprising, funny monologue about how every movie, no matter how revered, contains at least one element that makes no sense (it's a more-in-depth variation on Michael Yorke's time travel disclaimer from Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me).

Chad hops in the car and it drives away, leaving a lanky accountant (Jack Plotnick) to pass out binoculars to a group of spectators who've been standing behind a red velvet rope just off-camera during the speech.  The audience is a cross-section of people you might sit with in a movie theatre; among them are know-it-all film nerds; obnoxious teenage girls; clueless, middle-aged parents; and a cranky old guy in a wheelchair.  On the accountant's prompting, everyone faces the same direction and looks through their binoculars.  Together, they watch the official opening of the movie.

I loved this off-beat beginning.  It set everything up perfectly, and I couldn't wait to check back in with the spectators at the end of the film, after the crazy tire-on-a-serial-killer-rampage had ended. Unfortunately, I didn't have to wait very long to see this crowd again: After five minutes of watching the tire dig itself out of a junk yard and wheel through the desert, blowing up up a rabbit with its "mind" and rolling over a scorpion and a water bottle, we meet back up with the audience, who've begun to get antsy and hungry.

It's here that Dupieux reveals his intentions with our time, and it's not pretty.  What he'd sold as an outrageous take on Killer Something movies was actually a confused analysis of both the moviegoing experience and slasher films--his resulting thesis, Rubber, suggests to me that he is not versed enough in either subject to make such a comment.  As the film bounces between the spectators bickering and eventually being collectively poisoned by a turkey presented by the villainous accountant, and the tire-on-a-rampage--which involves a lot of rolling past unsuspecting people and either blowing their heads off or not blowing their heads off--it becomes clear that Dupieux has two interesting ideas but no connective tissue by which to weave them into a feature film.

After twenty minutes, Rubber becomes a series of filmed sketches (not comedy sketches, but filmic doodles that we must endure on our bumpy journey to the end credits).  The tire finds its way to a motel and stalks a pretty French girl named Sheila (Roxane Mesquida); it kills the cleaning lady (Tara Jean O-Brien) who dares kick it out of the shower; and draws the attention of a boy named Zach (Remy Thorne), who tries to warn his clueless dad (David Bowe) and the cops about its evil schemes.  Though these may sound like coherent scenes, they play like distractions--as if Dupieux needs filler between oh-so-groundbreaking moments of This-Is-Just-a-Movie shenanigans.  Why bother getting attached to a moment or an idea, after all, when you can cut back to the spectators clawing apart a turkey like Day of the Dead extras, or another five-minute meta-logue by Lieutenant Chad where he reveals to his fellow officers that they're all just actors in a really bad movie?

Again, these are cute ideas for about twenty minutes; after that, if a filmmaker intends on taking me into the Twilight Zone, he or she had better deliver one hell of a trip.  Rubber meanders when it should race, and by the time Sheila and Lieutenant Chad play a Wile E. Coyote prank on the tire involving explosives and a mannequin, I was done with Rubber and done with Dupieux.

The one thing that somewhat engaged me throughout was the amazing special effects work.  I still don't know if the tire's movement was accomplished using CG, remote controls, or both.  Either way, the gag is seamless.  You can have your transforming robots and shifting buildings; if you want to dazzle me, put a sentient tire on the screen and make me wonder how I'm seeing what I'm seeing for over an hour.

There's also the matter of the exploding heads.  Dupieux's effects artists and compositors deliver scene after scene of eerily convincing gore.  I re-watched that rabbit burst twice, and didn't see any cutaways. Same with the first few human head-pops.  It's apparent that the headless dummies are, well, dummies; but there's no evident trickery between a victim looking on in confusion and their brains splattering the screen.

Had Quentin Dupieux comitted to making a sincere horror movie with a ridiculous premise, or even a horror farce that played up the genre's worst conventions, Rubber might have had a chance.  Instead, his film has a cynical, grooved surface that becomes evident once the shiny novelty wears off.  It's as if he's made the film specifically to be under appreciated when it hits theatres, so that he can claim he's made a cult film.  He likely imagines wild midnight screenings at art-house theatres nationwide, where people show up in cheesy sheriff's costumes bearing whole turkeys to share with their friends, while dodging inflated toy tires ahead of the previews.

That might happen.  But I think once more people get a look at this thing, they'll realize how calculated yet undisciplined it is.  There's a throw-shit-at-the-screen vibe to Rubber that suggests Dupieux doesn't care whether or not his movie is entertaining, simply because he's covered his ass with the opening soliloquy about movies not making sense.  Cult films are built on the sincerity of their awfulness (or awful greatness), and filmmakers manufacture underground pop wackiness at their own peril.

Saturday
Mar122011

Battle: Los Angeles (2011)

Trench War(of the Worlds)fare

It's not easy to admit, but sometimes a movie is so bad that I'll begin writing my review while watching it.  My critical mind is always buzzing, but if what's on screen is so bad, so dull, that I have to focus on something in order to avoid falling asleep, I'll compose and edit on the fly.  Yesterday morning, five minutes into Jonathan Liebesman's Battle: Los Angeles, I'd narrowed the title of this review down to either "Semper Sci-Fi" or "No Cliche Left Behind".  The first, sadly, was already taken; the second may actually be a cliche--but that's not necessarily a reason to dismiss it.

I was completely zoned, watching the same quick cuts to different soldiers gearing up for training exercises and kissing their loved ones good-bye during precious down-time that I've seen thirty times before:  From the guy kissing his pregnant wife before rushing out the door; to the world-weary staff sergeant counting the days until retirement; to the macho best friends joking about "chick stuff" in a flower store ahead of a wedding.  I kept flashing on Roger Ebert's half-star review (which I hadn't yet read), the abysmal Tomatometer rating, and my own mental clock, whose second hand crept like minutes as it eroded the nearly two-hour run-time.

Soon, meteors fall from the sky, all over the world.  News crews capture fuzzy footage of mysterious shapes crawling out of the ocean--that quickly open fire on boats and surfers while marching towards major cities.  A platoon from Camp Pendleton rushes to assist the effort at Santa Monica Airport, which has been established as a Forward Operating Base.  Led by a fresh-out-of-Officer-Candidates-School Second Lieutenant named Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez) and his second-in-command's last-minute replacement, Staff Sergeant Nantz (Aaron Eckhart), they carry out orders to sweep the area around a local police station for civilians who didn't make it out during the evacuation.  Much of Battle: Los Angeles takes place during this mission; the men have three hours to get in and out before an air strike levels Santa Monica.

You probably won't be surprise to know that screenwriter Chris Bertolini includes every well-worn war/alien-invasion-movie convention in his script.  You might be surprised to know that this didn't affect my enjoyment of the film whatsoever.  Despite a weak opening ten minutes (and a saccharine closing five), I found Battle: Los Angeles to be a mostly excellent film that does right what so many recent attempts at both war movies and alien invasion movies have done wrong.

Is that a bait-and-switch?  You bet your ass, it is.  But so is Battle: Los Angeles.  If you take out the bookends, you're left with a fascinating bouillabaisse of fiction and documentary elements that combine to make something new and delicious.  In a way, the clichés hold everything together (there's something I never thought I'd write) and make possible this outrageous fusion of Independence Day, Restrepo, and District 9.

Independence Day is the most obvious place to start.  The 1996 mega-blockbuster is, some have suggested, ripe for a re-make/sequel.  Liebesman and Bertolini have rendered that idea moot with their film, lifting story elements directly from it (most obviously--perhaps unforgivably--the post-climax line about contacting military posts around the world with instructions for blowing up the command centers). The key difference is that Independence Day pre-dates both the War on Terror and the Blair Witch Project/Cloverfield era of filmmaking.

Liebesman wisely ditches the cute relationship side stories once the massacre starts.  The body of Battle: Los Angeles is comprised of chaotic street fights shot with the on-the-ground verite of an embedded news crew; though frequent perspective shifts remind us that we're watching a fictional movie--bringing it more in line with Saving Private Ryan.  We get a global sense of the invasion with the intimate perspectives of those fighting the war, combined with the new-century pop sensibility that mass destruction is something to be feared rather than fetishized.

Frankly, this is the movie I wish Restrepo had been.  It's practically blasphemy to suggest that a dumb sci-fi shoot-'em-up could be more compelling and real than an Oscar-nominated documentary about soldiers in Afghanistan--but I stand by that assertion.  Though archetypical, the characters in Battle: Los Angeles are interesting, funny and courageous.  Most of them die before the end credits, and each death--regardless of how far in advance we see them coming--sucks (some of them hurt, but most of them just suck).

Contrast this to Restrepo, which focuses on the soldiers who live while asking us to feel something for the ones who don't, even though we barely learn anything about them--it's the idea that we're supposed to be , by default, deeply affected by every soldier's death in this tragic, unjust conflict.  While true in terms of patriotic consciousness, the reality is that most Americans seem to believe the War on Terror ended the same week the iPad debuted.

We're a distracted nation of ADD narcissists; we need shit spelled out for us.  And the triumph of Battle: Los Angeles is that it's a sober reminder not only that there's a war going on (not against aliens, obviously, but one whose consequences are--or could be--just as dire) but that it's being fought by kids and shell-shocked old men who take the atrocities they've witnessed/committed to work with them every single day.  One can definitely see the pro-military propaganda in Battle: Los Angeles--particularly in the last twenty minutes--but rather than selling the glorification of war, it pushes an apolitical agenda of brotherhood and dedication to country.

This brings me to District 9, which has two major points of comparison to Battle: Los Angeles.  I'll start with visula effects.  District 9 proved that a filmmaker can make realistic-looking alien creatures convincingly share the screen with actors for a relatively nothing budget.  I'm sure the money behind Battle: Los Angeles eclipsed D9 by a country mile, but I was relieved to see that the effects artists employed the same attention to detail as those working under Neill Blompkamp.  Roger Ebert lambastes this film's effects; in particular, the aliens, which he refers to as "stick figures"; and while I agree that the few glimpses we get of the ground troops remind me of Lego's Bionicle toys, I never doubted their realism.

Ebert's weird sticking point suggests that every sci-fi alien has to look cool or conventional in order to be accepted by audiences; he derides the invaders' fusion of biology and technology as lame.  If those are the universal standards for quality aliens, I guess we can just write off the Borg from Star Trek and the visitors from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Ebert also takes a potshot at the look of the ships, which he doesn't feel were designed elegantly enough; again, this logic dismisses the effectiveness of the flying pie slices in Star Wars and Firefly's Serenity).

The second comparison I'll draw to District 9 is Battle: Los Angeles' political allegory.  Neill Blomkamp was so confused and yet so heavy-handed in his Apartheid allegory that I felt like I was watching a Michael Moore documentary from frame one.  On top of that, he abandoned any sense of resonance or purpose less than halfway in (along with the documentary style that opens the picture) in favor of a trite story about an unlikeable, spineless asshole.  Battle: Los Angeles scores points not only for consistency in its tone, but also for using subtext to convey its message.  You might think that watching American troops fighting a war in 2011 is just text, but the film's point--if it can be said to have one--is that the people of Earth are the insurgents in an occupation.

That, too, sounds trite, but it's kind of a brain tickler.  The aliens invade Earth, ostensibly because they need water to survive and fuel their ships.  They launch an unprovoked offensive using weapons that the opposition can't hope to outmatch and show no signs of opening a dialogue--aside from the unstated, "We want what you have.  You are irrelevant."  In our current, real-world global conflicts, it could be argued, America is the unstoppable, imperial force grabbing resources from nations whose populations we could wipe out with the flip of a switch--if only they weren't sitting on top of so much of what we crave.  Battle: Los Angeles paints us as the rebel freedom fighters, and if one were to switch on the news after coming home from the theatre, it's possible--not likely, but possible--that one might have a new perspective on the various riots and coups happening around the world.

Yes, parts of Battle: Los Angeles are cheesy; there are a few too many shots of Aaron Eckhart looking morosely or longingly into the camera; a few too many acts of harebrained heroism; and the scene where a civilian picks up a machine gun to fend off encroaching aliens could have used a bit more context (was he a munitions expert, or just a gangbanger in a nice shirt?).  But overall, I think this is the best, most effective assemblage of war and sci-fi genre tropes we've seen in a long time.  Perhaps if Columbia Pictures had sprung for Aaron Sorkin to polish the dialogue, the clichés wouldn't have been as distracting.  But as it stands, this is a solid film that deserves to be seen.

Note: I spent more time than I'd intended criticising Ebert's criticism, which I hadn't intended to do.  I was so puzzled by his half-star rating that I read his review shortly after arriving home.  I found it to be not just overly harsh, but also dishonest in light of similar films he's praised.  I can't speak to his mood, perspective, or any of the myriad baggage we bring with us into any movie; but there's a definite "someone shit in my cereal" tone to his write-up that I think undermines his analysis--hence my mini-review of his review. 

Friday
Mar112011

Evil Bong 2: King Bong (2009) Home Video Review

The Grass is Always Meaner...

Evil Bong 2: King Bong is a huge improvement over its predecessor.  I'm not endorsing the film, just stating a fact.

The story is still a disaster, and all of the horror elements have been officially scrubbed from this alleged horror franchise--resulting in something that is un-classifiable, genre-wise.  The first movie wasn't funny enough to be a comedy and not imaginitive enough to be science fiction, but at least it had scenes where characters were devoured by the haunted breasts of kush sirens.  There's none of that in the sequel (we still get lots of breasts, but they stare instead of eat).

Not thinking of Evil Bong 2 as a horror movie is key if you're going to tolerate it (enjoyment is out of the question).  It's like The Wizard of Oz meets Half-Baked meets the "Hawaii Bound" episode of The Brady Bunch--as filmed in a nature preserve.

The story picks up several months after our heroes Larnell (John Patrick Jordan), Bachman (Mitch Eakins), Brett (Brian Lloyd) and Alistair (Brett Chukerman, taking over from David Weidoff) vanquished EeBee, the demonic, soul-snatching bong of the title.  After having moved out of their apartment, Alistair revisits his friends and finds them suffering from the exaggerated effects of too much pot smoking.

Bachman is given to amnesiac bouts of extreme narcolepsy; the typically cut and athletic Brett has gained several hundred pounds and can't stop snacking; and Larnell's libido is out of control (I can now say that I've seen someone fuck a skateboard on camera.  Yay!).  Alistair suspects that the evil bong is somehow responsible.  He tracks down Rabbit (Sonny Carl Davis), the delivery man who introduced they guys to EeBee in the last movie; Rabbit recounts the South American legend that the previous owner had shared with him, and the next thing you know, the whole gang is traipsing through the (ahem) jungle.

Here they meet Velicity (Amy Paffrath), who I imagine was a classmate of Denise Richards' The World is Not Enough character at Hot Scientist University (if that's not already the title of a Full Moon Feature, it should be).  She's been collecting samples of a very potent strain of marijuana that may one day cure illness and make the whole world smile through red, slitted eyes.  Unfortunately, her partner is Larnell's cranky, crooked grandfather, Cyril (Jacob Witkin), who wants to sell as much of the shit on the street as he can, science be damned.

Through a bunch of shenanigans that I can neither remember nor care to explain, Rabbit is taken captive by the sultry members of the lost Poon Tang tribe and sacrificed to their god, the skull-faced, stone monster, King Bong.  By "sacrificed", I mean that he's transported inside the bong, where his soul will eventually be harvested.  As with the climax of the first film, Alistair, Larnell and company must also venture inside King Bong to save both their friend and mankind.

Three things make Evil Bong 2 semi-worthwhile.  The first, believe it or not, is a twofer of plot and production values.  Though the movie falls prey to the meandering dialogue of the original, writer August White has enough sense to at least get his characters moving; maybe producer/director Charles Band told him that there'd be more money to pump into the sequel and to let his imagination run wild. Regardless, the jungle sets provide a welcome distraction from the boner jokes, and the medical marijuana angle adds a layer to the story that was desperately missing from the first movie.  Also, the look of King Bong and EeBee (who pops up as King Bong's jilted ex-lover) is vastly improved over the papier-mâché-and-kids'-paints props of Evil Bong.  They're still cheesy as hell, but I could at least stand to watch the villains this time around.

The second plus is the casting of Brett Chukerman as Alistair.  I didn't realize what was off about David Weidoff's performance in the original until I saw Chukerman step into his shoes.  Weidoff played Alistair exactly as he was written: as the Fourth Nerd from the Left in any Disney channel sitcom.  He embodied the lack of self-esteem that White's dialogue suggested, resulting in the kind of character that the other roommates would surely have pummeled to death on first sight, rather than welcome into their home. Chukerman's Alistair is more of a snob.  I can't be sure if the actor just embarrassedly rushed through his scenes, or if he believed his character had grown a spine (and lost a girlfriend, apparently) since his last encounter with EeBee; whichever is true, the resulting version of Alistair still speaks in lame technobabble and pointlessly big words, but he's got a marvelous sneer that suggests he would kill these slackers in their sleep if they so much as pondered giving him a wedgie.

Lastly, we have Velicity.  Yeah, I gave her a hard time a few paragraphs ago, but in all honesty, she's exactly what a movie like this needs: A strong, smart female lead to balance out the franchise's misogynistic portrayal of women as either nude nymphs or snarky airheads (in my review of the first film, I referred to Alistair's girlfriend, Janet [Kristyn Green] , as smart; on reflection, she was smarter than her best friend, Luann [Robin Sydney], and about three steps ahead of her druggie crowd--so, a B- student, at best).  I enjoyed Velicity a lot, and totally bought her budding relationship with Larnell: She's a do-gooder chemistry whiz; he's a conspiracy theorist who believes Big Pharma will co-opt the healing weed the first chance it gets; together, they're an adorable Pothead Power Couple.

You may be wondering, "Ian, are you actually recommending King Bong 2: King Bong?"

No.

And, yes.

If you've never seen the first Evil Bong, your interest in the sequel probably can't be measured.  Though you could easily slide into King Bong, were you so inclined: The first six minutes are comprised of credits and a recap of the events of the first movie (book-ended, unbelievably, by six minutes of closing credits---cutting an allegedly 80-minute movie down to just over an hour of actual story).  Your life won't be poorer for not having seen the sequel to the talking-bong flick.

But if you were turned off by Evil Bong, I can heartily endorse part two.  It's brisk compared to the glacial pace of the first one; the special effects, sets, and costumes are more inventive; and when it was over, I didn't mind having spent more time with these characters.  This is an R-rated sitcom, not a horror movie, and it's just as stupid-cozy as the guiltiest junk TV.

Unlike 24 hours ago, I'm not dreading having to sit through the 3D third installment when it premieres next month in Chicago.  Despite all your sniffing dismissals, I can confidently declare Evil Bong 2 a successful sequel.  God, help me.

Thursday
Mar102011

Reefer Madness (1936)

Fun with Dick and Mary Jane

I can barely wrap my head around Reefer Madness.  The 75-year-old camp classic about the dangers of "marihuana" is a baffling piece of propaganda.  While easily dismissed as an out-of-touch morality tale made for and by scared white parents of rebellious teenagers, there's something deeper going on with this film--something darker.

But let's start with those parents.  The film opens with a hilarious crawl decrying the evils of wacky tobacky, highlighted by claims that it causes teens to lose their minds and that the drug is far deadlier than heroin or any other known narcotic.  We soon meet Dr. Carroll (Joseph Forte), a stern and proper wet blanket who addresses a gathering of concerned moms and dads.  He recounts the tragic story of three teenagers, which serves as the movie's central narrative.

Mary (Dorothy Short) and Bill (Kenneth Craig) are a couple of love-struck, All-American high schoolers.  Mary's younger brother, Jimmy (Warren McCollum) falls in with a shady crowd of older boys led by Ralph (Dave O'Brien).  Ralph invites Jimmy to an upscale apartment in the city that's owned by a couple of drug dealers named Jack (Carleton Young) and Mae (Thelma White).  Before long, the normally reserved Jimmy is dancing crazily with strange girls and losing his mind to the devilish allure of weed.

By the time Bill and Mary find out Jimmy's in trouble, the young boy has already run over a pedestrian with is car and allowed his perfectly coifed hair to go all shaggy-like.  Bill tries to drag Jimmy out of the drug den, but is himself seduced by pot and a woman of easy virtue.  This leaves Mary to clean up the mess; too bad for her, she becomes the victim of a surprisingly graphic and prolonged sexual assault before being accidentlally shot dead by Jack.  Thinking quickly, Jack plants the gun in the hand of a completely gone Bill, who then goes on trial for murder.

Going into this movie, I wasn't expecting a psycho-soap-opera.  Nor did I think I'd see such outrageous behavior be attributed to simply smoking marijuana.  As I've said before, I'm not into drugs, but I've spent enough time around potheads to know that, unless their stuff's been laced, they don't feel the urge to jump out plate-glass, multi-story windows; nor does the smoke compel them to partake in orgies or rob liquor stores.  Granted, the dope may have been stronger back in the 30s, but marijuana doesn't have an eighth of the effect that writers Lawrence Meade and Arther Hoerl claim it does.

Even if it did, though, I'm not sure the filmmakers' message was coherent enough to be effective.  Since I wasn't around for the release of Reefer Madness, I can only speculate on what the reaction might have been; but looking at it today, the film makes teen drug use look spectacularly fun.  Who wouldn't want to spend every day after school dancing, having sex, and hanging out with a suave, powerful guy and his mouthy, hot girlfriend?  Director Louis J. Gasnier makes a big deal out of emphasizing weed's ability to make one compulsively pull out one's hair and hyperventilate with manic, grinning spasms.  But a bad day at work has the same effect on me, so what's the point?  Reefer Madness is like a Depression-era New Jack City, where the drug kingpin rides high until the last possible second, when they kind of get their comeuppance.

(The best part of this whole setup is that not once do we see anyone give Jack and Mae any money for all the weed they smoke.  I guess the hosts have a "the first hundred times are free" policy.)

My inability to relate to the 30s also bit me in the ass when I began to seriously question the hypocrisy of the people behind the film.  Nearly all of the teens in this movie smoke regular cigarettes, and no one bats an eye.  Jack's alibi for shooting Mary involves telling the cops that he'd just invited one of his friends over for a beer after school, after which all hell broke loose; as if that wouldn't be considered a red flag by the police department and the PTA.  With everything we've learned about the harmful effects of alcohol and cigarette smoke in the ensuing decades, marijuana comes off looking pretty good by the end of Reefer Madness.

The movie itself holds up pretty well; despite its reputation, it's not a laugh-a-minute cheese-fest.  Sure, there's some great, unintentionally funny stuff here, but if you're very forgiving when it comes to old films, you may find a lot to love in the story and performances.  O'Brian and Young, in particular, play marvelous heavies.  Jack straddles the line between cold-blooded gangster and put-upon father figure to a bunch of stupid, reckless kids who pay for his sweet digs (again, via money that we never see).  Ralph, on the other hand, is a wild-eyed dope addict and amateur rapist who imbues his later scenes with a sense of genuine danger.  I think that if Reefer Madness had been about hallucinogens, heroin, or, hell, huffing gasoline, the audience would've been in a better position to accept this weird behavior.

And that's where the movie gets sinister.  Someone involved in the production had to have known that what they were selling was false; that all of the fake statistics and bogus "real world examples" of the narcotic hold on America's young was an utter sham and a smokescreen--which is really fucked up, considering Dr. Carroll claims to be leveling with his audience about drugs for the very first time.  We, of course, are in that audience, too, being looked down upon from the podium, with the words "Tell Your Children" (the movie's original title), flashing across the screen.

I wonder what kind of a country this would have been if movies like Reefer Madness really had leveled with people, instead of either making them afraid of drugs or inspiring them to experiment with them in secret.  Would pot-smoking have become a recreational reality like liquor and cigarettes?  Maybe, maybe not.  But this is a movie column and not C-SPAN, so let's work on wrapping this up.  I'm tired.

If you haven't seen Reefer Madness, give it a chance.  Do yourself a favor and watch it once, alone, before attending or hosting any Bad Movie Nights where it might be on the bill.  This goofy little piece of film history may surprise you with the twisted darkness rolled into its after-Sunday-school-special facade.