Reviews, articles, rants & ramblings on the darker side of the media fringe

Archive for August, 2011

Commodus

Commodus (Marcus Aurelius Commodus Antoninus Augustus; 31 August 161 – 31 December 192), was Roman Emperor from 180 to 192. He also ruled as co-emperor with his father Marcus Aurelius from 177 until his father’s death in 180.

Commodus had always laid stress on his unique status as a source of god-like power, liberality and physical prowess. Innumerable statues around the empire were set up portraying him in the guise of Hercules, reinforcing the image of him as a demigod, a physical giant, a protector and a battler against beasts and men.

The emperor also had a passion for gladiatorial combat, which he took so far as to take to the arena himself, dressed as a gladiator. The Romans found Commodus’ naked gladiatorial combats to be scandalous and disgraceful. In the arena, Commodus always won since his opponents always submitted to the emperor. Thus, these public fights would not end in a death. Privately, it was his custom to slay his practice opponents. For each appearance in the arena, he charged the city of Rome a million sesterces, straining the Roman economy.

Commodus raised the ire of many military officials in Rome for his Hercules persona in the arena. Often, wounded soldiers and amputees would be placed in the arena for Commodus to slay with a sword. Commodus’ eccentric behaviour would not stop there. Citizens of Rome missing their feet through accident or illness were taken to the arena, where they were tethered together for Commodus to club to death while pretending they were giants. These acts may have contributed to his assassination.

Commodus was also known for fighting exotic animals in the arena, often to the horror of the Roman people. According to Gibbon, Commodus once killed 100 lions in a single day. Later, he decapitated a running ostrich with a specially designed dart and afterwards carried the bleeding head of the dead bird and his sword over to the section where the Senators sat and gesticulated as though they were next. On another occasion, Commodus killed three elephants on the floor of the arena by himself. Finally, Commodus killed a giraffe which was considered to be a strange and helpless beast. In November 192, Commodus held Plebian Games in which he shot hundreds of animals with arrows and javelins every morning, and fought as a gladiator every afternoon, naturally winning all the bouts.

GLADIATOR: Portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix in Ridley Scott’s ‘Gladiator’ (2000). The story follows Russell Crowe as loyal Roman General Maximus Decimus Meridius, who is betrayed when Commodus, murders his father and seizes the throne. Reduced to slavery, Maximus rises through the ranks of the gladiatorial arena to avenge the murder of his family and his Emperor. Phoenix portrayed Commodus as a vain, power hungry and socippathic young man who is jealous of and despises Maximus because his father Marcus Aurelius favors the General over him. Marcus Aurelius died of plague at Vindobona and was not murdered by his son Commodus. The character of Maximus is fictional, although in some respects he resembles the historical figures of Narcissus (the character’s name in the first draft of the screenplay and the real killer of Commodus), Spartacus (who led a significant slave revolt), Cincinnatus (a farmer who became dictator, saved Rome from invasion, then resigned his 6-month appointment after fifteen days), and Marcus Nonius Macrinus (a trusted general and friend of Marcus Aurelius). Although Commodus engaged in show combat in the Colosseum, he was strangled by the wrestler Narcissus in his bath, not killed in the arena, and reigned for several years, unlike the brief period shown in the film.


Caligula

Caligula (Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus; 31 August AD 12 – 24 January AD 41), also known as Gaius, was Roman Emperor from 37 to 41. The young Gaius earned the nickname Caligula (meaning “little soldier’s boot”) from his father’s soldiers while accompanying him during his campaigns in Germania. 

Surviving sources present a number of stories about Caligula that illustrate cruelty and insanity; self-absorbed, angry, killed on a whim, and who indulged in too much spending and sex. He is accused of sleeping with other men’s wives and bragging about it, killing for mere amusement, causing starvation, and wanting a statue of himself erected in the Temple of Jerusalem for his worship. Once at some games at which he was presiding, he ordered his guards to throw an entire section of the crowd into the arena during intermission to be eaten by animals because there were no criminals to be prosecuted and he was bored. Caligula has also been accused of incest with his sisters, Agrippina the Younger, Drusilla and Livilla, and prostituted them to other men. He sent troops on illogical military exercises, turned the palace into a brothel, and most famously, planned or promised to make his horse, Incitatus, a consul, and actually appointed him a priest.

The validity of these accounts is debatable. In Roman political culture, insanity and sexual perversity were often presented hand-in-hand with poor government.

Caligula has been played by Ralph Bates in the 1968 ITV television series ‘The Caesars; John Hurt in the 1976 BBC television series ‘I, Claudius’; John McEnery in the 1985 miniseries ‘A.D.’; Szabolcs Hajdu in the 1996 film ‘Caligula’; and John Simm in the 2004 miniseries ‘Imperium Nerone’. A feature-length historical film ‘Caligula’ was completed in 1979, in which Malcolm MacDowall played the lead role. The film alienated audiences with extremely explicit sex and violence and received extremely negative reviews.


Southern Comfort ****

A squad of Louisiana National Guardsmen set out for weekend manoeuvres in the bayou. Their objective is simple; all they have to do is navigate through the swamp to a designated meeting point then they can go home. These weekend warriors, led by Staff Sergeant Poole (Peter Coyote) are a disparate group; private Spencer (Keith Carradine) is the cool intellectual of the group, who has organised some prostitutes for the squad at the end of the training; Corporal Hardin (Powers Boothe) has been transferred from Texas; Corporal Lonnie Reece (Fred Ward) the redneck racist; Stuckey (Lewis Smith) the loose cannon; Sergeant Casper (Les Lannom): Corporal ‘Coach’ Bowden (Alan Autry), a gum teacher by trade who is more than a little gung-ho and private Tyrone Cribbs (T.K. Carter), and Simms  (Franklyn Seales) are excellent support.

As they bitch and complain while trudging through the swamp they realise that recent rains have cut them off form their objective, desperate to finish the job and go home they steal some local Cajun canoes. In a moment of stupidity, Stuckey fires off some blank rounds at the locals who return live fire, killing Sergeant Poole. The guardsmen make it to the opposite shore where leaderless, their lack of experience is exposed as panic sets in and a thirst for revenge clouds their judgement.

They catch a one-armed local (Brion James), blaming him for Poole’s death, they beat him and accidentally destroy his home before dragging him off through the swamp to bring him to ‘justice’. However, they are pursued by a group of locals (including Sonny Landham) who know the swamp and are far more equipped to deal with the game of cat and mouse which unfolds.

Director Walter Hills feature ‘Southern Comfort’ (1981) stirs up comparisons to John Boorman’s ‘Deliverance’ and to a lesser extent ‘First Blood’. The film is an intense chase-thriller, full of suspense, exhilarating, tense and atmospheric. An excellent script, lean and taut, Hill spends a brief amount of time introducing us to the characters before throwing them and us headlong into the action. Their various character flaws bubble to the surface as their situation worsens and the tension mounts. The cast are all solid delivering a good ensemble performance.

Beautifully shot by Andrew Lazslo, cinematographer for Hill’s ‘The Warriors’ and ‘Streets of Fire’ as well as the similar ‘First Blood’. Using the light and reflections within the swamp to full effect to create a claustrophobic and haunting setting; the Cajun hunters are almost ghost like, we never see them clearly until the end of the movie.     

The soundtrack by Hill regular Ry Cooder is eerie and seductive. It draws the viewer into the scenes, expanding the visuals; it’s both unnerving and beautiful. Cooder has supplied scores for other Walter hill movies ‘The Long Riders’, ‘Streets of Fire’, ‘Crossroads’ and ‘Geronimo’ as well as beautiful scores for ‘Alamo Bay’ and ‘Paris, Texas’.

The film was seen at time of release as a Vietnam allegory but that perception has waned slightly over the years. It still looks and feels contemporary and any first time viewer would be hard pressed to say with any certainty when it was made or indeed, when it is set.

Highly recommended; this is another triumph of muscular film making from director Walter Hill. Southern Comfort is as good as the best Vietnam movies of the 80’s and better than the rest.

Quality: 4 out of 5 stars

Any good: 4 out of 5 stars


Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

Mary Shelley (30 August 1797 – 1 February 1851) was an English novelist, short story writer, dramatist, essayist, biographer, and travel writer, best known for her Gothic novel, ‘Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus’ (1818). She also edited and promoted the works of her husband, the romantic poet and philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley.

In May 1816, Mary Godwin, Percy Shelley, and their son travelled to Geneva with Claire Clairmont. They planned to spend the summer with the poet Lord Byron, whose recent affair with Claire had left her pregnant. The party arrived at Geneva on 14 May 1816, where Mary called herself “Mrs Shelley”. Byron joined them on 25 May, with his young physician, John William Polidori, and rented the Villa Diodati, close to Lake Geneva at the village of Cologny; Percy Shelley rented a smaller building called Maison Chapuis on the waterfront nearby. They spent their time writing, boating on the lake, and talking late into the night.

“It proved a wet, ungenial summer”, Mary Shelley remembered in 1831, “and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house”. Amongst other subjects, the conversation turned to the experiments of the 18th-century natural philosopher and poet Erasmus Darwin, who was said to have animated dead matter, and to galvanism and the feasibility of returning a corpse or assembled body parts to life. Sitting around a log fire at Byron’s villa, the company also amused themselves by reading German ghost stories, prompting Byron to suggest they each write their own supernatural tale. Shortly afterwards, in a waking dream, Mary Godwin conceived the idea for Frankenstein:

I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.

She began writing what she assumed would be a short story. With Percy Shelley’s encouragement, she expanded this tale into her first novel, Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, published in 1818.  She later described that summer in Switzerland as the moment “when I first stepped out from childhood into life”.

In 1986, Ken Russell turned the tale of that night in Geneva into the film ‘Gothic’.

Although primarily known for Frankenstein, Mary wrote the even darker ‘The Last Man’, published in 1826.  The book tells of a future world that has been ravaged by a plague. The novel was harshly reviewed at the time, and was virtually unknown until a scholarly revival beginning in the 1960s. The Last Man received the worst reviews of all of Mary Shelley’s novels: most reviewers derided the very theme of lastness, which had become a common one in the previous two decades. Individual reviewers labeled the book “sickening”, criticised its “stupid cruelties”, and called the author’s imagination “diseased”. Mary Shelley later spoke of The Last Man as one of her favourite works. The novel was not republished until 1965. In the 20th century it received new critical attention, perhaps because the idea of an apocalyptic future has become more relevant. Ahead of her time.


El Paramo

New trailer for The Squad (El Paramo), a new Colombian military horror film. Synopsis:
All contact with a military base high in the desolate wastelands of Colombia has been lost. The authorities – believing the base to have fallen to a terrorist attack – send a nine-man squad to investigate.When they arrive, the men discover a shocking scene of carnage, and only one survivor – a mute woman in chains.
Gradually the isolation, the inability to communicate with the outside worldand the impossibility of escape begin to undermine the sanity of the soldiers.They start to question the identity of their enemy, and the true nature of the strange, silent woman. Is she a terrorist? A victim? Or something moresinister? Something supernatural… Paranoia takes root. Prisoners of fear and the terrible secret they share, their humanity abandoned, the men turn savagely on each other.


Death Valley

MTV’s new show ‘Death Valley’ premieres tonight on the US Network. Sounds like fun, here’s the synopsis from the MTV site:

A year ago, vampires, werewolves and zombies mysteriously descended upon the streets of California’s San Fernando Valley. Death Valley is the dark comedy that follows the cops that capture the monsters, and the camera crew that captures the cops.

Follow the horrific yet comedic exploits of the newly formed Undead Task Force (UTF), a division of the LAPD created to combat the emergence of monsters in the San Fernando Valley. Death Valley showcases the outrageous and courageous men and women working the toughest beat in the US: Death Valley.

Balancing dark humor with horror, the show is built upon cold-blooded conflict and character driven comedy, following the cops bent on keeping the streets safe from the presence of the paranormal. Documenting each case of zombie, vampire and werewolf encounter is the daring camera crew that is embedded within the task force, quickly revealing that the monster problem goes much deeper than anyone could have possibly imagined.

Full of subtext about living in today’s insane world, Death Valley is at its core a fun, non-stop thrill ride featuring chases, hardcore kills, and extraordinary creatures. The zombies are disgusting, menacing and brutal, the vampires are dangerous, smart and powerful and the werewolves are beastly and insane. From “blood-for-sex” prostitution busts to undead traffic jams, every call from dispatch will take you to a place you’ve never been: right to the bleeding heart of Death Valley.


William Friedkin

William Friedkin (born August 29, 1935) is an American film director, producer and screenwriter best known for directing ‘The French Connection’ in 1971 and ‘The Exorcist’ in 1973; for the former, he won the Academy Award for Best Director. His most recent film, ‘Bug’ (2006) won the FIPRESCI prize at the Cannes Film Festival. He’s just completed the comedy/drama  Killer Joe which is due for release later this year.

After seeing the movie ‘Citizen Kane’ as a boy, Friedkin became fascinated with movies. He began working for WGN-TV immediately after high school. He eventually started his directorial career doing live television shows and documentaries. As mentioned in Friedkin’s voice-over commentary on the DVD re-release of Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’, Friedkin also directed one of the last episodes of ‘The Alfred Hitchcock Hour’ in 1965, called “Off Season”.

In 1965 Friedkin moved to Hollywood and two years later released his first feature film, ‘Good Times’ starring Sonny and Cher. Several other “art” films followed (including the gay-themed movie ‘The Boys in the Band’), although Friedkin did not necessarily want to be known as an art house director. He wanted to be known for action, serious drama, and for stories about an America turned upside down by crime, hypocrisy, the occult, and amorality, which he mounted up into his films.

In 1971, his ‘The French Connection’ was released to wide critical acclaim. Shot in a gritty style more suited for documentaries than Hollywood features, the film won five Academy Awards, including an Academy Award for Best Picture and of course, Best Director.

Friedkin followed up with 1973’s ‘The Exorcist’, based on William Peter Blatty’s  best-selling novel, which revolutionized the horror genre and is considered by some critics to be one of the greatest horror movies of all time. Friedkin’s directorial ‘ethics’ however, came into serious question when filming the now notorious scene where Linda Blair smacks Ellen Burstyn, causing her to fly backwards into a break-away table. Even after warning Friedkin the stuntman was “pulling her too hard,” Friedkin prompted him to pull her harder, resulting in a permanent back injury for Burstyn. The Exorcist was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. It won the Best Adapted Screenplay Award. Check out my review/reminiscence here

Unfortunately, Friedkin’s later movies did not achieve the same success. ‘Sorcerer’ (1977), a $22 million dollar American remake of the French classic ‘Wages of Fear’, starring Roy Scheider, was overshadowed by the box-office success of Star Wars, which was released around the same time. Friedkin considers it his finest film, and was personally devastated by its financial and critical failure (as mentioned by Friedkin himself in the documentary series The Directors (1999). I had the pleasure of seeing Friedkin present a new printof Sorcerer and perform an excellent Q & A immediately after. He was honest, engaging and a great raconteur… he also signed my Exorcist poster which is now a treasured possession.

Sorcerer was shortly followed by the crime-comedy ‘The Brinks Job’ (1978), based on the real-life Great Brink’s Robbery in Boston, which was also unsuccessful at the box-office. In 1980, he directed the highly controversial gay-themed crime thriller ‘Cruising’, starring Al Pacino, which was protested against even during its making and remains the subject of heated debate to this day.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Friedkin’s films received mostly lackluster reviews and moderate ticket sales. ‘Deal of the Century’ (1983), starring Chevy Chase, Gregory Hines and Sigourney Weaver, was sometimes regarded as a latter-day Dr. Strangelove, though it was generally savaged by critics. However, his action/crime movie ‘To Live and Die in L.A.'(1985), starring William Petersen and Willem Dafoe, was a critical favorite and drew comparisons to Friedkin’s own The French Connection (particularly for its car-chase sequence), while his courtroom-drama/thriller ‘Rampage’ (1987) received a fairly positive review from Roger Ebert. ‘The Guardian’ (1990) and ‘Jade’ (1995), starring Linda Fiorentino, received somewhat favorable response from critics and audiences. Friedkin even said that Jade was the favorite of all the films he had made.

In 2000, The Exorcist was re-released in theaters with extra footage and grossed $40 million in the U.S. alone. Friedkin’s involvement in 2007’s ‘Bug’ resulted from a positive experience watching the stage version in 2004. He was surprised to find that he was, metaphorically, on the same page as the playwright and felt that he could relate well to the story.

Later, Friedkin directed an episode of the hit TV series CSI: Crime Scene Investigations entitled “Cockroaches,” which re-teamed him with To Live and Die In L.A. star William Petersen. He would go on to direct again for CSI’s 200th episode, “Mascara.”

In June 2010, author William Peter Blatty, promoting his latest novel, revealed that Friedkin has committed to direct the feature film adaptation of his thriller, ‘Dimiter’. This would mark almost forty years since their previous collaboration, ‘The Exorcist’, not counting the failed collaboration between the two on ‘The Exorcist III’. The idea for the book itself actually came to Blatty while sitting in Friedkin’s office in 1972 during the first film’s production, as he read an article concerning the then atheist-run state of Albania executing a priest for baptizing a new-born infant. He has been working on it on and off ever since 1974, and, upon its completion, sat down with Friedkin for a one-on-one interview in The Huffington Post a few days after Blatty named Friedkin as attached to direct. According to the author, his friend and director has been eager to adapt the story for the last three years.