Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Once Over Twice: Urgh! A Music War

(1982) Directed by Derek Burbidge; Starring: Various Artists; Available on DVD (Warner Archive Collection).

Rating: ****

Democracy has spoken!  Based on my recent poll, blog readers have voted for me to explore underrated films as a new semi-regular feature.  Okay, we’re only talking three votes to one for the other contenders, but hey, it’s still a majority (Thanks to everyone who voted, by the way!).  Without further ado, I present for your consideration The Once Over Twice. *  It’s an Island of Misfit Movies, if you will, shining the spotlight on a different underrated, overlooked gem.  It’s a personal journey, not swayed by popular opinion or critical consensus.  These are films that I like more than they probably deserve.  Although I enjoy them for strictly selfish reasons, I hope that you’ll discover a new favorite in the months ahead.  

The long-awaited omnibus concert film Urgh! A Music War DVD comes from the Warner Archive collection, a repository for oddball movies with limited appeal, or films that the studio didn’t have enough faith in to produce in mass quantities.  As a result, these are made-to-order DVD-Rs, with minimal packaging.  It’s a bare bones edition, to be sure, without chapter stops, director commentary, or any other extras, except for a trailer.  Also, they’re quick to point out that the transfer has not been remastered, although the anamorphic video seems surprisingly good, all things considered.  The audio, while not earth-shattering, seems acceptable for a concert film of this vintage.  The performance by the group Splodgenessabounds has been omitted from this release for some reason, which might upset some purists, but the rest of the film appears to be intact.  This might sound like a lot of griping over a relatively obscure concert film from the early 80s, but these are really just minor nitpicks.  For years, I was almost resigned to the fact that I wouldn’t see this again in any form.

Memory can be a fickle thing.  The problem with re-watching something that you haven’t seen in years is that your recollections can be better than the actual film.  I was happy to discover, as a result, that this almost 30-year-old movie still holds up.  The roster reads like a who’s who of contemporary artists from this vital era.  It’s by no means exhaustive, but it does represent a sizable cross-section of the alternative (before anyone called it “alternative”) music scene from the late 70s/early 80s.  It’s a great primer for those who’d like to get their feet wet, learning about bands from the era, as well as a trip down nostalgia lane for those who remember listening to many of these artists the first time around, like yours truly (Yeah, I feel old).  Watching the artists strut their stuff in their prime is like seeing a perfectly preserved bug in amber – a window into another time.   Almost 40 performances, representing nearly as many diverse musical sub-genres are represented here: avant-garde pop, punk, reggae, post-punk, psychobilly, new wave, and just about any other classification you could think of that would fall under the alternative music umbrella.

It’s beyond the scope of this post to catalogue and analyze every performance (you can find a complete listing here.), but I think it’s only fair to mention a few standouts.  When performance artist Klaus Nomi hits the high notes, it’s a surreal moment that dares you not to look away.  Gary Numan roves around onstage with his little motorized chair, looking like an alien detachedly commenting on life on earth.  We also get to witness the Cramps and a totally unhinged Lux Interior that has to be seen to be believed (yet cannot be unseen).  Other notable performances include: XTC (not long before they stopped touring altogether), Oingo Boingo, Dead Kennedys, Steel Pulse, Devo, Pere Ubu (The lead singer David Thomas looks like a dead ringer for Otho from Beetlejuice, and I can’t help but wonder if his appearance somehow influenced Glenn Shadix’s role in the Tim Burton Film.), Wall of Voodoo, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, and many others.

Urgh! A Music War is not a perfect concert film.  It randomly jumps around from venue to venue and genre to genre with little rhyme or reason.  The viewer is immersed head first, without the benefit of any narrative cohesion to tie it all together.  Not all of the individual performances are gems, but the hit-to-miss ratio is quite strong.  It’s also a little too obvious that The Police were the top draw of that era, so they appear three times (Well, technically speaking, the third performance is actually a shared affair, with other bands participating), versus once for everyone else.  Of course, it also helps when Miles Copeland, bother of Police band member Stewart Copeland, participated in the film’s production and was the president of A&M Records, which released the soundtrack.  Don’t get me wrong.  I like The Police, but this seemed a bit excessive.

Obviously, some of the fashions have dated better than others, but many of the songs still sound contemporary.  It’s an interesting exercise to play “spot the influences,” and reflect on how many current artists have emulated the singers and musicians represented in Urgh! A Music War.  Love or hate ‘em, there’s a raw energy permeating the production that just seems forced in similar acts nowadays.  Alright, I’m starting to sound a bit like an old curmudgeon with my “things were better back then” soapbox rant, so I’ll wrap this up by saying that Urgh! A Music War is 2 hours well spent – or revisited.

* In case you might be wondering, the title for this feature references an X song with the same name.  X, coincidentally, makes an appearance with their song “Beyond and Back.”

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

August Quick Picks and Pans

Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown (2008) Frank H. Woodward’s straightforward, informative documentary about the life and work of the author H.P. Lovecraft.  Love him or hate him, you can’t ignore Lovecraft’s lasting influence on the science fiction and horror genres, and Woodward does a fine job painting a portrait of a troubled, but brilliant writer.  The film largely relies on interviews with several authors and filmmakers whose own work was heavily influenced by Lovecraft (including Guillermo del Toro, Stewart Gordon, John Carpenter, Peter Straub, Neil Gaiman and others).  Stylistically, the film doesn’t break a lot of new ground, with talking head interviews, accompanied by footage of his Rhode Island surroundings.  It’s most effective when Lovecraft is allowed to speak for himself, with snippets of his stories juxtaposed with artwork interpreting his horrific descriptions.  

Woodward’s documentary deftly skirts the line between fanboy adoration and a critical examination of Lovecraft the man and Lovecraft the writer.  The film doesn’t pull its punches with regard to exploring his xenophobic, borderline racist beliefs, but puts them in the context of early 20th century New England.  Lovecraft is shown to be a man of strong convictions, as well as contradictions (For example, his anti-Semitic views didn’t stop him from marrying a Jewish woman.).  The documentary also addresses the shortcomings of his writing through some of his most ardent admirers, while acknowledging his undeniable contribution to literature and enduring legacy.  Highly recommended!

Rating: ****.  Available on Blu Ray and DVD.

The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001) Have you ever had one of those times when you couldn’t decide between a comedy, absurdist family drama, horror, or a musical?   Okay, probably not, but The Happiness of the Katakuris might just be the movie you never thought you were looking for.  Based on the quirky Korean dysfunctional family film The Quiet Family, Takashi Miike decided to takes his version one louder, combining all of the aforementioned genre elements and more into one strange brew.  For the Katakuri family, every silver lining has a cloud.  Trouble seems to follow them when the patriarch Masao (Kenji Sawada) decides to leave his day job and open up a family-run bed and breakfast in the middle of nowhere.  It’s up to Masao and his family to preserve the illusion of normalcy when the few guests that manage to find the place end up dead.  You never really know what’s coming next, with scenes of high comedy, gory death, an animated segment, and random lyrical interludes.  If inspired insanity is your thing, then Happiness of the Katikuris could be the movie for you.

Rating: ****½.  Available on DVD.

Meet the Hollowheads (1989) In this obscurity from the late 80s, John Glover stars as Mr. Hollowhead, who works as a meter reader at a giant factory filled with enormous tubes.  The tubes serve some sort of vital function in his town, burg, dimension, whatever (don’t ask).  In a plot that could have been recycled from a 50s sitcom, Mr. Hollowhead, dreaming of a big promotion, takes his boss home for dinner to meet the family.  Unfortunately, his boss couldn’t care less about his sycophantic employee, but suddenly has the hots for Mrs. Hollowhead.  This ain’t Leave it to Beaver, though.  Meet the Hollowheads seems stuck in some sort of alternate reality where people eat goop delivered in tubes, and the family dog looks like a cross between a naked mole rat and Freddy Krueger.  I suppose it’s an attempt to make ironic statement about postmodern society, illustrated by 50s social mores, but your guess is as good as mine.  Be on the lookout for cameos by Anne Ramsey (Throw Momma From The Train, The Goonies) in her final role, and Bobcat Goldthwait, who has the film’s best line.  The style could only be described as Pee Wee’s Playhouse meets David Lynch, with sets that seem to be an alien’s interpretation of human society.  It’s definitely not for everyone.  In fact, I’m not exactly sure whom it would be for, but I applaud the cojones of the filmmakers for following their dreams (or acid trips) to make this film.

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming.

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989) What’s black and white and red all over?  It’s writer/director Peter Greenaway’s colorful, self-indulgent ode to gluttony and lust.  Michael Gambon stars as Albert, a sadistic crime lord, and Helen Mirren is his long-suffering wife, Georgina.  Most of the film takes place in Albert’s restaurant, Le Hollandais, where night after night the staff, patrons, and his entourage are subjected to his constant verbal and physical abuse.  Bored and disgusted by Albert’s oafish ways, Georgina steals away for a series of brief rendezvous with another restaurant patron, a 40-ish bookkeeper named Michael.  The camera doesn’t flinch from the ugliness of Albert’s actions.  It’s strong stuff, indeed.  If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you’ve probably noticed that I don’t normally mention MPAA ratings, since they’re often arbitrary and unreliable, but in this case the NC-17 was well earned.  Consider yourself warned.  Although I couldn’t really find any characters to identify with, I admired it from an artistic standpoint, especially for its original use of color to set the mood.  I won’t reveal how Albert gets his eventual comeuppance, but let’s just say that it’s original and fitting.  If you only know Michael Gambon through the Harry Potter movies, you might be in for a shock.  You may never look at Albus Dumbledore the same way again.

Rating: *** ½.  Available on DVD (Out of print) and Netflix Streaming.

Friday, August 19, 2011

These Are the Damned (aka: The Damned)

(1961) Directed by Joseph Losey; Written by Evan Jones; Based on The Children of Light by H.L. Lawrence; Starring: Macdonald Carey, Shirley Anne Field, Oliver Reed, Alexander Knox and Viveca Lindfors; Available on DVD

Rating: **** ½

Hammer Films produced some of its most memorable (and profitable) movies during the late 50s through the 60s.  This period represented a golden era for the small British production company, with its signature take on gothic horror.  But Hammer was much more than a one trick pony, with genre examples ranging from dramas to swashbucklers to comedies and science fiction.  One of the most distinctive, and sadly lesser-known Hammer films to spring from this era was These Are the Damned, a grim, thought provoking, and ultimately devastating Cold War sci-fi tale.  Director Joseph Losey, who originally moved to England in the 1950s to escape the Hollywood blacklist for his political views, was attracted to the deeply cynical material.  These Are the Damned was filmed in 1961, but would not see release until nearly two years later.

The film starts out seeming like one thing, and eventually becomes a different beast altogether.  In the opening scene, we’re introduced to a motorcycle gang led by King, played by a young Oliver Reed.  The gang’s entrance is heralded by an oddly infectious tune, “Black Leather” (another one of those songs that will be dancing around in your cranium for a week).  Simon (Macdonald Carey), an American tourist, is led into an ambush by a seductive young woman named Joan (Shirley Anne Field) and subsequently beaten up by the gang.  Fueled by curiosity and possibly a twinge of guilt, the woman, who’s also the gang leader’s sister, returns to Simon on his personal boat.  They leave on his boat, and strike up an uneasy May-December relationship.  King and his gang are never too far behind, however, watching their activities from the land like predators waiting for the kill.

(I think it’s only fair to warn you, dear reader, that it’s virtually impossible to discuss this film without some spoilers, so if you haven’t seen this yet, read on at your own risk.  I promise I’ll be gentle, though.)

Some writers have cited the film’s depictions of King and his gang, as well as King’s assault on a female artist, as an obvious influence for Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, which came out a decade later.  It’s certainly easy to draw superficial parallels between Kings’s gang and Alex and his droogs, but there are some significant differences.  In These Are the Damned, King was attacking the artwork and what it symbolized, not the artist.  His character is conflicted between displays of bravado and the demands of young adulthood.  He clearly possessed a conscience, whereas Alex was cold-blooded through and through.  Whether or not it was a major influence for A Clockwork Orange is inconsequential, as These Are the Damned stands out in its own right.

As they attempt to evade their pursuers, Simon and Joan stumble into an underground compound by the sea, populated by nine unusual children, all around 11 years of age.  They quickly discover something very odd about the children, who are cold to the touch and paranoid about being under surveillance.  They attend class remotely, by television, lorded over by the watchful eye of Bernard (Alexander Knox).  They feel as if they’re being prepared for something, but unsure of what.

The real villain is Bernard, whose arrogance and single-minded devotion to his work prevents him from stopping to consider the ethical minefield he’s created.  He doesn’t merely think, but knows that he’s right – a sentiment that echoes the Cold War paranoia of the time.  Bernard is convinced that humanity is on the inevitable brink of nuclear annihilation, and these nine children represent our only hope.  These future inheritors of the Earth are paradoxically dangerous to all other humans, and are doomed to stay apart from the rest of society as government prisoners until a future apocalyptic date.  The discovery of their existence by outsiders does little to change the children’s situation.  Now that Pandora’s Box has been opened, what is there to do but seal the box again?

This dilemma leads to a conclusion that feels like a punch to the gut.  These Are the Damned does not coddle us with a pat ending, or sum everything up in a proselytizing morality speech.  We’re never left off the hook for a second.  It’s a reminder of how the best films can engage our minds to consider alternative viewpoints about our world, and defies stereotypes about sci-fi movies as simply mindless, unrealistic, or escapist fare. This is one of the forgotten jewels of Hammer’s crown, and deserves to be better known, taking its place among other genre classics of the 1960s.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Classics Revisited: The Haunting

(1963) Directed by Robert Wise; Written by Nelson Gidding; Based on The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson; Starring: Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson and Russ Tamblyn; Available on DVD.

Rating: *****

“…it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more.  …and whatever walked there, walked alone.” * – from The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

What’s It About?

The Haunting is one of the finest haunted house stories ever committed to celluloid, despite the complete absence of visible ghosts.  Screenwriter Nelson Gidding’s adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel relies on the power of suggestion to provide the scares.  Jackson reportedly approved of Gidding’s faithful, but not slavish adaptation of her book.  In the middle of writing his screenplay, Gidding suddenly realized that he was painting a psychological portrait of a woman’s nervous breakdown, and not a simple ghost story.  He understood that it’s not what you see, but what you think you see that’s most terrifying.   Director Robert Wise filmed The Haunting in a suitably imposing British manor, allowing the surroundings to speak for themselves as a suitable stand-in for a spooky New England mansion.  Wise and Gidding’s “Show them nothing” approach counted on the audience’s ability to fill in the blanks regarding the implied supernatural occurrences.

Wise chose to shoot The Haunting in black and white when color was becoming the standard.  Although black and white was clearly the perfect choice for setting the mood, this would be his last non-color film.  It’s hard to imagine how this would have looked in color, although it’s fair to speculate that Wise’s film would have been robbed of much of its power.  The black and white cinematography masterfully conveys somber tones, from the darkened hallways to the eternally staring, bone-white statues in the house’s conservatory.  Wise used infrared film for the exterior shots of the house to create an unworldly effect.  When we’re first introduced to Hill House, its gothic structure stands out with menacing grays, contrasted by luminescent white clouds amidst a foreboding dark sky. 

Dr. John Markway (played by Richard Johnson) is an anthropologist with a keen interest in the supernatural.  He’s fascinated by the myths and legends that surround Hill House, and is determined to discover its secrets through rigid scientific investigation.  Three guests accompany him: dowdy Eleanor, a 30-something recluse; Theodora (“Theo”), a free spirit with demonstrated psychic ability; and Luke, young heir to Hill House, playboy and all-around skeptic.  Over the next few days, the strange occurrences in the house will test their psychological fortitude and (in the case of Luke) skepticism.

Julie Harris plays Eleanor.  She has spent the past several years of her life under her ailing mother’s thumb, catering to her every whim.  After her mother died, she found a new oppressor in her sister’s family.  Socially awkward and depressive, but inexplicably drawn to Hill House, Eleanor sees Dr. Markway’s invitation as a means to live life anew.  True to her character, Harris spent most of the shoot isolated from the rest of the cast.  Eleanor builds an uneasy relationship with Theo (Claire Bloom) that vacillates between contempt and sisterly affection.  They represent polar opposites: fashionable and uninhibited Theo versus plain, repressed Eleanor.  Although nothing was explicitly stated in the movie, the filmmakers implied sexual tension between the two women as well. 

Russ Tamblyn, who worked with Wise previously in West Side Story, plays the affable but roguish Luke.  During the filming of The Haunting, Tamblyn, who wasn’t prone to believing ghost stories, decided to take a stroll on the manor’s grounds at night.  This led to what could be described as a supernatural experience of his own, when he abruptly experienced a chill on top of his head.  He promptly returned inside, afraid to look back.  Although this didn’t precisely alter his views on the supernatural, it seemed to open Tamblyn and his character’s mind to the possibility of the unexplainable.

Why It’s Still Relevant:

Wise shrewdly chose to keep the ghosts in the mind, and not on the screen.  This doesn’t diminish the feelings of dread, but enhances them.  He understood the audience was capable of creating psychological terrors that could far surpass anything that mere visual effects could produce.  You wonder what’s lurking in the shadows, and your mind complies willingly.  The Haunting truly gets under your skin, staying with you long after the lights have gone on.

If the 1963 original was a masterpiece of doing more while showing less, then the dreadful 1999 remake is a textbook case of having little to say while showing more.  The remake erased any subtleties, with a “show don’t tell” approach that’s the complete antithesis to Wise’s version.  Only the characters’ names seem to remain intact.  It’s nothing more than a cynical exercise in Hollywood excess, showcasing overdone special effects and “ooga booga” scares, in the place of any real horror. 

In the absence of elaborate special effects, Wise relied on lighting, sound and acting to create the proper mood.  The performances by the cast are uniformly strong, building tension as the escalating events around Hill House become too frequent to ignore.  In the DVD commentary, Richard Johnson recalled a scene when Dr. Markway ascended a wobbly spiral staircase, one of the film’s most impressive set pieces.  Although the set’s staircase was designed to shake, depending on the tension of an inner supporting cable, Johnson felt genuinely apprehensive about scaling it, describing the scene as NAR (no acting required).  His emotions are real, and add an unintentional credibility to the supernatural phenomena in Hill House.

Reception for The Haunting was mixed during its initial release.  It didn’t really gain a following until years later, and can now be safely regarded as a classic.  Like Hill House, the film has stood the test of time, and will continue to do so for many years to come.  No matter what side of the fence you stand regarding ghosts and haunted houses, it can still send shivers up your spine, and remains the benchmark, by which all other haunted house films are judged.  Watch it with the lights out.

* For some reason, 80 years became 90 years in the film version.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Attack the Block

(2011) Directed by; Written and Directed by Joe Cornish; Starring: John Boyega, Jodie Whittaker, Alex Esmail and Nick Frost; Available formats: N/A

Rating: ****

It’s axiomatic that the summer movie season will be chock full of overblown predictable audience pleasers, unnecessary sequels and crushing disappointments.  I’m not ashamed to admit that I actually enjoy watching some of the films from the first category, as long as they’re sufficiently entertaining and push the right buttons.  On the other hand, the movies that I often look forward to the most are the ones that I didn’t know were coming in the first place.  These are the movies that sneak out of nowhere, beneath the radar, without the benefit of a multi-million dollar media blitz.  One such example is the recent release Attack the Block, the feature film debut by Joe Cornish.

Most of the action takes place in and around a low-income tenement building in a predominantly black South London neighborhood.  Sam, a young nurse (played by Jodie Whittaker), is mugged by several teenagers while walking home.  But this is not a typical night on the wrong side of the tracks.  Believe it or not, these same youths will become the protagonists.  Before long, a chain of unforeseen events will force their lives to become intertwined with Sam’s as they face a common enemy.  Adversity makes strange bedfellows.

Something streaks out of the sky and smashes into a car.  When the teens investigate the vehicle’s interior, looking for valuables, something leaps out and scratches their leader’s face.  He decides to pursue and kill the creature, but their troubles are just beginning.  It was the first, but not the last of the invaders, with bigger and badder nasties just lurking around the corner.

John Boyega plays Moses, the leader of the gang of teenagers who mugged Sam.  Boyega endows his role with great complexity.  Still waters run deep.  He’s not big on words, but you can see the wheels turning in his head.  He never smiles or cracks jokes like his cohorts, because his current life seems too much to bear.  He’s looking for a way out, but stuck in circumstances beyond his control or inclination to change.  One of the characters comments that trouble follows him everywhere.  This certainly seems to be true from a metaphorical sense, and in reality.  As the situation quickly escalates, he realizes that he should have stayed home and played his Xbox.  He isn’t particularly likable at the beginning, but as his character unfolds, we begin to appreciate him.

Attack the Block goes beyond the normal stereotypes with regard to Moses and his friends.  Cornish spends a lot of time with these inner city kids, when most films would have relegated them to supporting roles or comic relief.  Similar to Moses, his cohorts aren’t initially likable or sympathetic.  The teens are street smart, but scared in the face of uncertainty, lending credibility to their characters.  They’re a close-knit group, bound together by a general air of desperation and aimlessness.  Thanks to Ron (Nick Frost) and his weed room, a steady supply of pot is in plentiful supply.  Self-medication seems to be de rigueur for all concerned. 

Speaking of Frost (who often appears in films with his counterpart, Simon Pegg), you would be led to believe by the trailers and ads for Attack the Block that he has a more prominent role in the film.  His character is funny, but not really essential to the rest of the story.  It’s more likely that his name was used as a bargaining chip to sell the picture, since the rest of the cast is comprised of unknowns.  He certainly lends some weight (pun unintended) to the proceedings, but it’s the newcomer, Boyega, who’s the real star.

(Minor spoiler alert!) Since this is an alien invasion movie after all, the other unsung stars of the show are the sightless creatures, which resemble a furry black amalgamation of a dog, bear and gorilla, with luminous sharp teeth.  I’m not sure what the evolutionary advantage is for blind creatures with glowing teeth, but it sure looks cool.  The effects work relies heavily on good old man-in-suit costumes, with CGI taking a back seat.  The script doesn’t spend a lot of time speculating about how the creatures got there, but that’s not really the point.  The main focus is on how the characters band together to deal with the invaders, utilizing whatever means they have at their disposal to fend off the threat to their turf.

The weakest element of Attack the Block is the local drug kingpin Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter), who doggedly pursues Moses after a misunderstanding.  He seems oblivious to the rest of the chaos that’s going on around him, viewing Moses as a potential threat to his dominance on the block.  Compared to the rest of the story, his inclusion seems a little heavy handed.  Cornish tries a bit too hard to blend cultural significance into the mix, when the overall narrative could have been a little tighter without this subplot.  Even without Hi-Hatz, much of the social commentary would have remained intact. It’s fairly clear that Moses and most of his friends don’t have a lot of choices.  Even in 21st century society, there are double standards for whites and blacks.  Calling the authorities doesn’t amount to the same thing when you’re instantly suspect.  In this neighborhood, matters (including alien invasions) need to be taken into the residents’ own hands. 

So what exactly does this film have to say about racial tensions?  Well, this isn’t exactly Do The Right Thing with aliens.  At its heart, Attack the Block is a rollicking good sci-fi action movie with a dash of comedy and a smidgen of social commentary.  Don’t expect to write your master’s thesis about the socioeconomic dichotomy in South London, based solely on this film.  Just sit down, turn your brain off, and have a good time.  Or as the character Moses would likely say, “Allow it.”

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Confessions of a Superhero

(2007) Directed by Matt Ogens; Starring: Christopher Dennis, Maxwell Allen, Jennifer Gehrt (Wenger) and Joe McQueen; Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming

Rating: ****

Confessions of a Superhero represents the dark side of cosplay. Director Matt Ogens follows four individuals who came to Hollywood to pursue their dreams, only to arrive at something less than they had envisioned. We see their ups and downs (okay, mostly downs) as they struggle to make ends meet while attempting to grasp the fame that’s eluded them so far. They eke out a living walking Hollywood Boulevard dressed as Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and The Hulk, collecting tips from tourists. Instead of narrating his documentary, Ogens takes a back seat, letting the superheroes speak for themselves.

Resembling a skinny Christopher Reeve, Christopher Dennis plays Superman. He claims to have been the son of actress Sandy Dennis (a clip from the film the The Out of Towners starring Jack Lemmon and his alleged mother is shown), although evidence seems to suggest otherwise. The documentary leaves the door open to speculate whether he’s simply delusional or one of Hollywood’s buried secrets. Dennis paints a depressing portrait of his childhood and adolescence, with a mother who couldn’t take care of him, jumping from halfway house to halfway house, and being addicted to crystal meth and speed.  He seems to have reinvented himself, inhabiting his adopted role seemingly non-stop, while trying to portray a wholesome image for the tourists. His obsession with all things Superman is embodied by an extensive collection of memorabilia that’s worth thousands of dollars.  Ironically (and probably appropriately), his girlfriend is a doctoral student in Psychology. She seems supportive of Dennis’ behavior, apparently cognizant of the fact that being Superman is Dennis’ link to sanity. 

Maxwell Allen is Batman with anger management issues (Is that redundant?). Not unlike Batman’s alter ego Bruce Wayne, he alludes to a darker past, shrouded in mystery.  Similar to Dennis, his recollections might only be partially true. Allen coyly recalls a few vague stories about working for an organized crime boss in Texas during the 80s. Even his wife only seems to believe half of it actually happened. Although the veracity of his stories is debatable, it seems clear that some past trauma helped to shape his current violent tendencies. Allen makes it clear that he works on tips alone, and isn’t above harassing the tourists to get the point across. We learn that his transgressions have led to several arrests.

Former high school prom queen and cheerleader Jennifer Gehrt is Wonder Woman. Gehrt hails from Maynardville, Tennessee, and her tale sounds like the archetypal clichéd success story, but without the success. Her dreams of making it big compelled her to quit college and leave her quiet small town for the glamour of Los Angeles, despite her minister father’s disapproval. When she’s not attending auditions and acting classes, she walks in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre with her fellow street performers. There is an underlying sadness about her. Although she’s still quite young, we get the feeling that her best days might be behind her.

Joe McQueen plays The Hulk, and seems to be the least comfortable, literally and figuratively, with his character. He arrived in L.A. from rural North Carolina, after selling his Super Nintendo for a bus ticket.  After living on the streets for four years, he’s renewed his initial desire to work as an actor. Of the four featured performers, McQueen is the most openly critical of his lifestyle. He comments about making “chump change” as The Hulk, while not being able to do what he set out to achieve. You can almost feel his discomfort as he walks the pavement in a cumbersome costume and bulky mask, even in 100+ degree weather. It’s disheartening to see him go through his numerous struggles to eventually land a bit part in a no-budget film production.

Confessions of a Superhero can often be painful to watch, but presents an honest glimpse into the lives of those who courted fame but didn’t make the cut. Because the performers are so visible to the public in Hollywood’s heart, their inner torment seems more intense -- so close, yet so far from becoming one of the stars on Hollywood Boulevard that they tread upon every day. They exist on the fringe as society’s cast-offs, regarded as legitimate performers by some, while viewed by others as little more than panhandlers.  We get no sense of closure during the film’s conclusion. We’re never lulled into the feeling that everyone is going to be all right. It would have been interesting to see an epilogue to these four individual’s lives, although for most of them their final act hasn’t played out yet.

Confessions of a Superhero won’t tell you anything you didn’t already know about Hollywood (Hint: it’s a tough place to make it big in Tinseltown.), but it humanizes the stories of some people who failed to become household names. What separates the celebrities from the wannabes?  It is a combination of talent mixed with sheer tenacity? Is it a good agent?  Or is it just plain luck?