Monday, June 23, 2008

The Eden Formula (Starring Jeff Fahey)

The Eden Formula begins with an airborne shot of Los Angeles at night, lights flickering blue like a thousand tumbling turns on the freight train to pornsville. Shining up from the below, shifting into blurs, the mass of glaring blue retches forth, consuming the black of night. A strong tone of bluish valour echoes visual symphonies at the floating camera as it passes overhead. It’s a graph on which are plotted nodes of becoming, blue pockmarks giving words to thought, noiselessly lurching towards a final blackening.

This opening is not simply an attempt to justify the cost of hiring a helicopter for the day. Nor it is a chance to squander the final energies of the special effects team, to give them something to do while the titles-man finishes choosing fonts (oh Helvetica, oh Verdana, how are we to make these decisions?). This sequence establishes the mood of the film, declaring artistic intentions and gesturing to stylistic devices to be witnessed in abundance later. In fact, the entire film can be discovered laid out in these fleeting moments of introduction, a narrative exposed to the most perspicacious of eyes, nooks and crannies of story lit by anticipatory light. The colour of that light? The most scorching blue one could ever envision.

These images of night time cityscapes, glaring blue sparkling in a lightless gulf, anticipate the arrival of Jeff Fahey. They foretell his presence in the confines of this chunk of cinema we know as The Eden Formula. They have the responsibility of preparing the humble viewer for the reams of blue splendour awaiting him or her. Less than thirty seconds in and Fahey has already stolen this film and claimed it as his own!

Industrial terrorists and dinosaurs, corporate greed and broken fraternal bonds, these are the themes running through The Eden Formula. Fahey plays Harrison Parker, a research scientist working at a large company located in downtown L.A. He develops a serum – the eponymous formula – that can reproduce living cells, allowing for the recreation of organisms. Any organisms, it seems. For Fahey’s paymasters have taken it upon themselves to use this formula to create a Tyrannosaurus Rex, which they house in the basement of their corporate headquarters.

Fahey’s not long in describing to corporate peon Dee Wallace Stone his moral misgivings about the situation when a group of industrial terrorists led by Tony Todd arrive to steal the formula. They seize control of the central security facility and, by electronically unlocking every door, unwittingly unleash the dinosaur. Those pesky terrorists! As if Todd hadn’t caused enough havoc having spent much of the 90s running around in the guise of the Candyman. Well he’s met his match with Fahey. Todd seems to find the blue radiance of Fahey so blinding that he’s forced to spend most of the film wearing sunglasses. Even though he’s indoors. And even though it’s night. Such is the hurt dealt the eyes by those unwilling to submit to Fahey’s glistening sky hue.

Our hero must prevent Todd and co from acquiring the formula, escape the building in which he and his colleagues are held, and sort out the dino issue. A series of problems for sure. But not the sort of problems from which Fahey would shy away. Far from it. It transpires that Fahey was in Desert Storm and is a Special Forces badass with a host of hand-to-hand combat skills to go alongside his PhD in genetic engineering. Further complicating events, we have Fahey face-to-face with his old military superior, none other than Tony Todd. It’s a web of relationships to rival the most convoluted of soap operas. Here Fahey and Todd must square off in the arena this Sci-Fi Channel Original calls its narrative, battling across eighty minutes of zesty cinema nourishment.

Characterisation enters new levels with Fahey’s juggling of attributes: erudition and ingenuity mingle easily with the ability to kick a man in the sternum. One moment Fahey leads his pals to stairs they never knew existed, thus facilitating their escape – even the security guard who undoubtedly walks these paths on an hourly basis was oblivious to their existence. Next he’s killing a man by a mere whack of the boot. Fahey is the holder of traits not possessed by others; perhaps he siphoned off their qualities the night before filming, I don’t know. There is a scene in which a woman is shot through the shoulder and Dee Wallace Stone attempts to help her by tying a rag around her elbow. Clearly Fahey’s erudition remains for the most part his own.

The sinister corporation is a staple of the sci-fi universe, from Aliens and Resident Evil to Fahey’s own Lawnmower Man and Absolute Zero. They demonstrate our fear of large corporations, of that curious mix of the palpable (the people, the offices, the plants) and the abstract (the stocks and shares). Material and immaterial collide in the corporation and this produces anxiety. (Naturally the general iniquitous nature of a body that strives solely for profit also causes anxiety, or should do at least.) Unfortunately most films see fit to personify corporate malice, anthropomorphising the source of pain and suffering – usually in the guise of a snivelling corporate lackey. This isn’t symbolic representation. These films point to actual individuals pulling strings, shady chairmen dancing immoral pirouettes, bloated finance directors willing to sacrifice whatever is necessary to meet ends. Sure there are bastards atop the corporate chain willing to plumb the depths of human decency, but take them out and the system would still function as it does.

It’s the system of money and shareholders that pains Fahey in The Eden Formula. He mumbles sadness and regret at how his good work’s been appropriated by his corporate overlords. His breakthrough was never intended to produce a gigantic killing machine but the powers above insisted upon something to awe the shareholders, preferably something big and carnivorous. Fahey is the site of exploitation, his proletariat lips pursed in a gesture of defiance. A bulwark fighting monetary sleaze is Fahey, a man whose labour and creative power has been co-opted. He’s the everyman held captive by a system built to privilege the few over the many. His is an exploitation driven by patriarchal avarice and the abstract flows of capital.

Away from the struggle against big business, and indeed the sight of Fahey, there are several moments of tedium. Firstly we are given various scenes of Dee Wallace Stone driving around L.A. trying to persuade cops that there’s a dinosaur on the loose. They don’t believe her. Then there’s the dinosaur in question rampaging through the metropolitan landscape, eating hobos and interrupting film shoots. Both the dino and Wallace Stone prove to be dreadfully boring spectacles. Alas everything seems diminished in the absence of Fahey. But is it not the case that banal scenes in a Jeff Fahey film are in fact Fahey’s modesty? Could it be he suffers terrible guilt at his omnipresent awesomeness and insists upon an injection of shite on occasion? Could that explain the sewer scenes in Lethal Tender, the kung fu in Ghost Rock, or the entirety of Darkhunters? The sporadic seconds of Faheyless phenomena in The Eden Formula all point in this direction.

I bet when John Carl Buechler made Ghoulies III: Ghoulies Go to College he thought he’d never top the achievement. And with good reason: Ghoulies III is a fantastic slice of comedy-horror and by far the best Ghoulies flick. But with his Fahey collaboration he has done just that. Admittedly, Fahey is the main cause of this and had he starred in the aforementioned film it would remain Buechler’s best.

Fahey’s grand synthesis with cinema continues unabated through The Eden Formula. Its jerky camera, which makes everything seem like a point of view shot, is only confirmation that it is through the eyes of Fahey that we see the world. Just remember, when we watch a Jeff Fahey film, we genuflect in the glow of a media marvel that will never be surpassed.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Assault on Dome 4 (Starring Bruce Campbell)

I’m not the first wayward student of the geek arts to proclaim Bruce Campbell a genius. And I won’t be the last, I assure you. His screen presence mesmerises all who bear witness to it, engendering an outpouring of enthusiastic praise across all creeds and colours, sparking words like god and icon. The self-deprecating sense of humour, the good nature with which he approaches the worshipping fans, the general diligence that propels his career, these are the traits that place him atop the B-movie roster. He enlivens the most dire and plodding of films with but a mere stroke of the chin, setting afire spectatorial glands by way of fleeting cameos and brash one-liners.

Any film fortunate enough to carry the credit ‘Bruce Campbell’ can be expected to offer at least a moment’s grace, even if the rest leaves much to be desired. The pantheon of characters spun from Bruce Campbell’s fecund acting talents is both rich and blinding – a prolific and consistent set of filmic highlights: characters who distract from shoddiness, who ameliorate the woeful, raising the mediocre to exalted heights, turning shite into gold.

Take, for instance, Terminal Invasion. A group of people are stuck at an airport, snowed-in by the weather outside. One of the group is an alien, a vicious sort intent on making internal organs external. Cue tension as they endeavour to find out who is human and who isn’t. All standard fare, typical Sci-Fi Channel output. But throw in Bruce Campbell as a heroic convict and a substandard version of The Thing becomes a piece of art, a ninety minute barrage of Bruce fighting both aliens and the distrust of other characters. This Jack, a cipher for the Bruce Campbell persona, is a typical example of how films are suddenly bettered by a smattering of Bruce.

Through the mire of bit-parts – like his appearance at the start of Congo or his appearance at the end of Darkman – and the larger roles – his turn in Running Time or Bubba Ho-tep’s fine performance – it’s easy to ascertain a pattern. The diamond in the rough, the light punctuating the dark, Bruce consistently brings a smile to the lips and a shot of glee to the head. Whilst I am one to wax hyperbolic on the B-movie individual, forever inclined to celebrate the star’s very essence, Bruce’s appeal stretches considerably further than the peculiarity of Jeffrey Combs or the teeth of Gary Busey. Bruce is the most universally loved of Made for TV and Straight to Video’s thespian faces – he rules deservedly at the pinnacle of low budget heaven.

In Assault on Dome 4 (aka Chase Moran), Bruce repeats his past and future feats of cinematic salvage. He plays Alex Windham, a vicious master-criminal who breaks out of prison and takes control of a scientific research facility by the name of Dome 4. “Die Hard on a space station” is how Bruce describes the flick in If Chins Could Kill. He’s clearly correct to do so. Just before Windham and his cronies take over the compound and terrorise its inhabitants, the film’s hero, the rather lame space cop Chase Moran, arrives to visit his wife. The villains assume control before he can reach the wife and he must fight to rescue her and the hostages, taking out henchmen one by one and irritating Windham by sneaking stealthily around the dome.

As befitting the situation, Bruce hams it up greatly as Windham, creating a wonderfully caricatured image of criminality. We are introduced to him as he is being imprisoned within a high-security jail, lamenting to the warden that he is a misunderstood artist whose work of galactic terror goes unappreciated, undervalued by those minds too small to fathom his grandeur. He’s later featured quoting Shakespeare and Julius Caesar, mixing a lofty, aristocratic mentality with torture and bloodshed. Windham harbours the messianic vision of acquiring his own planet, one populated by less evolved humanoids who would worship him as a god. By doing this he’d escape the bland, artless hordes of Earth, creating like a good aesthetician a world of blossoming artistic culture. Bruce has rarely played such an ostentatious fellow and it’s a joy watching him orate in such highfalutin tones.

Beyond the ambit of Bruce Campbell lies an array of other familiar film faces. The mosaic consists of Jack Nance (Pete from Twin Peaks), Brion James (Swayze’s Steel Dawn, Fahey’s The Underground) and Mark Bringleson (a man who has had the good fortune to be marked by the scent of both Lou Diamond Phillips and Jeff Fahey, the former by appearing in The First Power, the latter by playing the villain in the classic Lawnmower Man). It’s a picture tessellated by Bruce, he is the star around which everyone else orbits. Even those not too familiar faces are inclined to follow suit. Joseph Culp’s hero Chase Moran is thankfully an unfamiliar visage, his tired action sequences and abundance of chinless posturing driving the film to pits of quality. His wife, too, is nothing more than an object to be paraded in front of the camera in a series of short skirts and fodder for Bruce to act sleazily. She’s the inverse image of Chase Masterson in Terminal Invasion, for at least ol’ Chase exhibited some heroic virtue and wasn’t mere adornment.

The Die Hard rip-off is an enterprise doomed to failure. Lethal Tender couldn’t transpose Die Hard’s awesome dynamic to a water purification plant, despite the presence of Jeff Fahey. Assault on Dome 4, with its slowed down action shots and vapid protagonist, also fails to emulate the tale of John McClane. But that we know. Obviously this TV Movie is going to be no masterpiece. Where it does get points, morphing into something watchable, is with the inclusion of Bruce Campbell. Again his soaring charisma and endearing spirit turn a film no one would have cared to waste five words on into a film worth a thousand. And maybe, by dint of a sharp imagination, you can watch the film and imagine Bruce had actually played Hans Gruber and was involved in some wondrous concoction known simply as The Battling Bruces.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Dark Wind (Starring Lou Diamond Phillips)

The field of cultural consumption is normally one of autonomy. You watch a film, there’s a film, there it is, unravelling before your eyes, stealing sight and blinding at one moment, the same moment, holding the gaze till a time when the light yields to black, the DVD comes slowly to a halt or the projector wheezes to a standstill. The film, watched and finished, becomes a memory, a fragment in the head, left to be pondered and dissected and filed for later reference; but in the real it is no more. The flickering images are past, slipped from time’s present, now mere background glimmer in the distance, hard to see, impossible to make out, drowned out in a wash of new films, new shows, new albums, new this, new that, left hermetic and standing alone.

On occasion this autonomy is ripped apart. A trace bridges the gap between one object and another, creating linkage where none would have seemed evident. Usually this trace accompanies certain figures, those radiant masters of the audiovisual arts, icons such as Jeff Fahey or Henry Bowers from IT: they take from one film and transplant to another – they are the surgeons of cinema.

I found an unexpected instance of this earlier today. Having spent a relaxing afternoon watching The Dark Wind, a film where Lou Diamond Phillips is a Navajo cop investigating dirty drug-homicide happenings on a Native American reservation, I thought I would unwind even more by following that up with a dose of Colbert. So on I threw last Thursday’s Colbert Report, ready for the laughs to tumble out the mouth. Was it not the case that Colbert dedicated an entire segment to the news that Native Americans are being pandered to by the presidential candidates? And did he not go so far as to actually interview a Native American activist on the issue?

Scream coincidence you might, I accept that, for coincidence is a wonderful thing, infinitely more magical than the workings of Fate or God – its arbitrariness makes it a sublime art. Yet this is not coincidence: this is the trace of Lou Diamond Phillips free from The Dark Wind and overflowing into the arena of The Colbert Report. The latter acts as an afterimage of what Lou Diamond Goodness packed the former, the slimy residue secreted by his screen presence and ability to squint at the camera. It would not have surprised me had I seen a flying Lou Diamond Phillips replace the eagle in Colbert’s opening sequence.

But it was not quite that explicit. Lou Diamond moves in subtle ways, always keen to push his minions to consider his actions deeply. He leads by example: examples wrought from Hollywood’s sparkling kiln, dressed up in swathes of enchantment, set to satiate the hungry cinema fiend with nutritious installments of Lou Diamond Drama.

The Dark Wind (1991) is one such example. Lou Diamond is Jim Chee, a member of the Navajo Police – no, not a gimmicky tribute band, but an actual band of badass cops intent on maintaining justice on a reservation shared by Navajo and Hopi tribes. When a man is found dead, young Chee becomes drawn into a series of events that include a robbery, drug smuggling and a plane crash. Events become more convoluted as Chee progresses, requiring him to use every clue-sniffing trick he has in fully mapping the conspiracy facing him and the community. Exasperated, he uses his skills of gentle rumination to claw away the layers of ambiguity and solve the case.

He is an action hero whose pen outdoes his sword. Every step is a word written in celluloid, etched in filmic ink. No impetuous assaults on possible culprits, no Lou Diamond Fists enacting violent reprisal. His mien is calm and considered, a bastion of tranquillity. Watch as he slowly picks apart the case granule by granule, questioning locals and whispering to shrubs, discovering footprints and coughing up the sound of pan-pipes.

Ah, but the meticulous pace at which he works benefits us, the humble viewers. For we all know that no one would solve such a mystery more quickly and more easily than Lou Diamond Phillips. It’s his great, buzzing selflessness that has him proceed slowly and methodically, stretching out the running time to almost two hours, all so he can draw us into the matrix of events, stroking our curiosity glands with his nimble fingers.

According to the film, the dark wind is a force that causes people to do bad things. Gusty iniquity is rife in Lou Diamond’s terrain and he must combat its carriers. Lou Diamond fights the man, the feds, the big power structures that piss all over the human race everyday, striking a Foucauldian blow straight to the balls of the social-symbolic edifice, all without once giving up his search for the truth.

The Dark Wind proves to be an exercise in Brechtian aesthetics, a trait I had not expected. As the narrative unfolds and cryptic events lead Lou Diamond around the desert, an odd visitor penetrates the screen at regular intervals: the boom mic. Lest we forget Lou Diamond’s Lou Diamond Perfection, allow me to speculate that this intrusion was intentional insofar as Lou Diamond allowed the mic to be drawn to him and his Brechtian impulses. It’s his rich desire to rattle the mind of the passive spectator that motivates such an occurrence; perfect is the smack of boom mic that juts out from Lou Diamond’s sense of artifice.

In the end, the film is a fun jaunt through the noir desert on the back of Lou Diamond Phillips, his narration acting as the warm wind against the face, cheeks flush with the burn of heartfelt caresses dealt by his palms. Sure, you can see where director Errol Morris (yes, he of acclaimed documentary-fame) would have liked to mix up the visuals a little, and perhaps he would have done so had artistic differences between him and producer Robert Redford not ousted him; but that notwithstanding, watching Lou Diamond Phillips run detective sprints within the walls of the 4:3 make this an above-average piece of cinema.