Wednesday, 12 November 2008

The Cheap-Arse Film Review #6- "BRAIN DEAD."









PRICE: 99p

No, sadly not the "Brain Dead" with the kung-fu fighting preacher. Don't feel too bad, I made the same mistake myself. I mean, how many films can there be out there called "Brain Dead?" Well, as it turn out, at least two. This "Brain Dead," stars the Bills Pullman and Paxton, which was a selling point in and of itself, because I always
had a sneaking suspicion that they were the same person, so if nothing else this puts that theory to bed.

I've always found both actors interesting for two reasons. First of all, they're both just a little bit, well, odd. Pullman moreso than Paxton, he's got this weird, jittery, unnerving quality about him, even though most of the time he's playing a pretty nice guy. He's like that guy that lived next door to you when you were a child. He seemed normal, was polite, your Mum and Dad never had a bad word to say about him, and maybe even had a wife and children of his own. But you knew there was something not right about him, like he had a basement full of torture devices or something. Whereas Paxton, well, he's just sleazy. He's always
got this glint in the eye, this smirk like he's mentally undressing everyone on-set, the production crew included. And again, he's sometimes called to play characters where this characteristic doesn't really gel with what's being asked of him.

The second reason is, they're both pretty much like water off a duck's back. Their performances never stick in your mind, even if you've quite enjoyed the movie you've just watched. I mean, I sitting here trying to think of movies they've been in, and I'm really struggling. I know Pullman was in "Casper," because I had an unhealthy obsession with that movie when I was a child, which resulted in me seeing it three times in cinemas (which ranks it at number two on the list of movies I saw the most times on the big
screen; "The Royal Tenenbaums" is at number one with five), then bought it on video and watched it until, and I'm not kidding when I say this, the tape broke. But after that... was he in "Independence Day?" I just IMDb'd it, and yes he was, playing THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES. A central character. I remembered that Jeff fucking Goldblum was in this movie, but I couldn't remember Bill Pullman playing the leader of the Free World. Same deal with Paxton. I know he was in "Twister." I wish I didn't know that, frankly. But after that, nothing. Again, I turned to IMDb and found out that he's actually been in alot of movies I like: "Near Dark," "Commando," "Predator 2," "True Lies," "Aliens," "Frailty." And yet off the top of my head I couldn't have named any of those. Which tells me something about both of these two, which is yes, it's not impossible to enjoy their work whilst it's happening in front of you, but they don't have the charisma to make any real lasting impression. So sticking them both in the same movie, and even having them do scenes together, should be fascinating.

(Speaking of "Casper," I'm reminded me of something that happened to me involving that movie. If you don't want to read this, feel free to skip, because it really has nothing to do with the rest of the review...

... last year, I was mooching around a local DVD shop that was
having a closing down sale, and found "Casper," on DVD for a really reasonable price. Not a pound, but still reasonable, so out of nostalgia and a desire to see if the movie was as good as I remembered it, I picked it up and headed for the counter. On my way though, another film, well documentary really, that I'd been meaning to see for a while caught my eye. It was also going cheap, so I decided fuck it, I'd have both. I walked up to the counter that had a very pretty woman with pink hair and a nose piercing sitting at the till. She smiled at me, I smiled back, then handed over my purchases. She looked at "Casper," laughed, shook her head, then scanned it. Then she looked at the other DVD and her smile disappeared. She looked at it some more, looked back at "Casper," back at the other DVD, back at "Casper," then looked up at me with a look of pure, unadulterated disgust, as if any man who would choose to watch this combination of movies must have something deeply wrong with him. I handed her the money, she snatched it off me, practically threw both DVDs and my change at me, and I left the shop.

What was the other movie I bought, you ask?

"Inside Deep Throat."

By the way, "Casper," was alright.)

So anyway, enough of this, let's get to the movie. From the off, I like the credits. Some movies like to try and get creative with their credits, sometimes with horrifying results (hello, "Going Overboard"), but not this move, this movie is no bullshit, just white text on a black background, with brain scans thrown in periodically. Some might think this looks cheap,
but I quite like it. It's stark and clinical, like the credits of a movie about the human brain should be, and there's ominous, "BA-DOOM-BA-DOOM" music playing over the top, which is always cool.

The movie begins, and we meet Bill Pullman's character, Dr. Rex Martin, who we quickly discover is conducting experiments on the human brain. We know this because his lab has a shelfing unit with lots of brains in jars on it that he insists on being refered to by name instead of jar number because, "every brain is a living record of a life... who knows what journey they're on now," which doesn't sound like something anyone with any real medical training would say, and when he enters said lab he finds one of his
assistance expermenting on a brain, stimulating parts of it in on order to make a very gross looking fake face perform expressions. It's the same face that's on the box, the thing that looks like a smaller, uglier version of Lady Cassandra from "Doctor Who," which lead me to believe that it played a big part in the rest of the movie. Maybe it starts talking, develops sentience and attempts to kill the people conducting experiments on it? That sounded like a plausible plot for this kind of film. Well, believe it or not, this scene is the only time during the entire movie that you see it, which makes the box art not only misleading with regards to the kind of movie you think you're getting, but it also can't be a good sign when the people in marketing deside that the coolest thing in the flick is something that's on-screen roughly ninty seconds, can it?

Later Dr. Martin is in his office when he's visited by his friend Jim Reston, played by Paxton. Now, after the build up I gave, at this point I should be writing something about how these two meeting caused the world to explode, but in truth, their scenes together are alright. Both are exactly how I described them in the third paragraph, creepy and letcherous respectively, but it works for the characters they're playing, so it's not that distracting. It's established in this scene that Reston and Martin have been friends since college, where both were interested in the woman
that would eventually become Matin's wife, before getting into the meat of what what would eventually become the plot, that being Reston wanting Martin's help dealing with Jack Halsey. Apparently he was an accountant who worked for Reston's company, Eunice, who went mad, killed his family, pleaded insanity and ended up in the Lakeside mental institution, which Eunice own (sounds like a massive confilct of interest to me, but never mind...). At this point I lost track of things a little bit, because Reston's story flies all over the place. At points he's indicating that he thinks Halsey is faking his insanity to get off charges, but then he says he knows for a fact that he's bouncing off the walls, says he wasn't happy "with some of the applications that his work might be put to," which makes him sound more like a scientist or a doctor than an accountant, and there's mention of "numbers." Numbers that they either need to know, or want Halsey to forget, I really didn't know at this point.

After a bit of initial reluctance, Martin agrees to meet Halsey when the temptation of having a fresh brain to play with is dangled in front of him. He travels to Lakeside, which looks more like a giant greenhouse than a nuthouse. Why anyone would think it's a good idea to lock dangerous, psychotic people in a place seemingly totally made out of glass, I've no idea. We finally meet Halsey, and it quickly becomes clear that the guy's a total fucking loon who barely knows what day it is. Halsey is played by Bud Cort, who most people
reading this will have the best chance of knowing from "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou," where he played Bill Ubell, the bond company stooge who gets quite offended when he's referred to as such. To put it bluntly, he's the best thing in this movie. By turns crazy, paranoid, funny and sympathetic, he's the only one who seems to have the sense to treat this movie like the cartoon it is and have fun with it. He babbles about smiling faces on money watching him and men having sex with his wife following him around, before agreeing to allow Martin to run tests on his brain, which prove that he's definitely not faking it. The tests are great, they involve Halsey just sitting in a chair with electrodes wired up to his head as a Commadore 64-worthy image of a brain appears on a monitor with the words "DISFUNCTION," and "PARONOID," flashing over the top of it. Martin shows his finding to Reston, who again starts talking about numbers, about how Halsey was working on "cornerstone technology," "classified shit." Seriously, is he an accountant, or a scientist? It's like this movie can barely decide what some characters even do. He then asks when Martin's going to perform surgery on him, which Martin says he's not ready to do, but Reston is insistant that he goes ahead with. Basically they want him either cured or brain dead, because "we need those numbers, or we need to make sure nobody will ever get them." ENOUGH WITH THE NUMBERS ALREADY! WHAT IS GOING ON HERE!? At this point the movie was legit giving me a headache.

As confusing as the last 16 minutes (Jesus, has it really only been 16 minutes?) have been, it's following the next scene that thing's really go apeshit. Martin is shown casually walking out of his building carrying a jar with a brain in it under his arm (as you do), when he's attacked by a bum who screams "THAT'S MY BRAIN! GIVE ME BRAIN!" at him continually. I liked this scene because it reminded me of the bit from "The Simpsons," where Chief Wiggum listens to a
crazy homeless man jabber at him for a couple of seconds before asking, "So, who's stealing your thoughts?" During the scuffle, the jar ends up being thrown into the air and smashing on the ground at the same time that Martin gets hit by a car and cracks his head on the windscreen. Now, apart from being the most unsubtle kind of visual symbolism it's possible to see, this scene may as well hang a sign around it's neck that says, "FROM THIS POINT ON, NOTHING'S GOING TO MAKE SENSE. NOT THAT IT MADE MUCH ANYWAY."

And as expected, after this, the film descends into being little more than a series of dreams within dreams, the first one being Martin having his research taken away from him and then seeing all his beloved brains falling to the floor. When he wakes from that, we finally meet his wife Dana, played by Patricia Charbonneau. She's not a very good actress, but she's not in alot of the movie so it doesn't matter that much.

The surgery scene follows shortly afterwards, which strangle takes place in the board room of the Eunice building, in a room with two way glass that seems to exist for no other reason than for surgery to happen there. That must have been a strange request to ask the architect- "Say, now that you've made room for the large table, how about a fully-functioning operating theatre?" I really shouldn't be complaining about logic at this point, because the movie has made it totally obvious that nothing that's happening now is real, but the point should be that we shouldn't really know if things are
happening or not. Making it this obvious is taking the fun out of it, and also makes it very difficult to be emotionally involved with anything.

In any event, this particular scene is the best in the movie, and again, that's totally down to Bud Cort. During Dr. Martin's procedure, which he dubs "a kinder, gentler lobotomy," Halsey hallucinates, appearing on a beach still strapped to the chair, the top of his head removed, seeing his wife and chldren still caked in their own blood saying things being said by others in the room around him, sometimes with their own voices, sometimes with the
voices of the people speaking. It's a genuinely haunting moment, aided by Cort's performance, or more specifically his facial expression, a combination of confusion and heartbreak. It belongs in a better movie than this. He belongs in a better movie than this.

After the procedure is completed and appears to be a success, with the memory of what Halsey did to his family appearing to have been erased from his mind, Reston announces out of nowhere that they should market this to people who like plastic surgery, because after all, if people like changing their appearence, wouldn't they like to
be able to chance their minds, their personalities, their souls? This is later dubber "The New You," and finally I think to myself that something's actually kind of making sense. Operating under the likely assumption that nothing here is real, this scene must represent Martin's fear that his research will be misused, and now the rest of the movie will be about him trying to put a stop to Eunice doing just that, as things get stranger and stranger all around him.



During the op, Halsey makes reference again to the man that he says was following him around the institution, only this time we see him- he's a laughing man with a demented grin, wearing a white, blood-splattered suit and holding a knife, played by Nicholas Pryor. Once
the op is complete, Halsey can no longer see him, only now (DUN-DUN-DUUUUUUUN!) Martin can. He follows him everywhere, appearing in his car, as a hitchiker by the side of the road, in the restaurant where Martin and his wife meet up with Reston and his superior, the stress causing him to act like he's drunk and make a fool out of himself, and finally inside his own house, where he sees Reston and his wife having sex on the dining room table. The Man In White promptly kills them both, stabbing them in the eyes, Martin enters the house to look at the bodies sad for a bit, before a neighbor knocks on the door to tell them to keep the noise down, only to see (DUN-DUN-DUUUUUUUN! again) that Martin is holding the bloody knife. he insists loudly that he didn't do it, and then, boom, we wake up from that dream into what must be another dream. This one, however, plays that old chesnut of having the doctor be revealed to be the patient, with Martin being told that he's actually Halsey. His doctor is again played by Pryor, and it's odd, but he's nowhere near as good an actor in this role. When playing a psycho, he's suitably-deranged looking with an awesome cackle, but the second he has to recite actual dialogue, it's like he's reading aloud from the phone book. That's a tired cliche, but it's the only way I can accurately describe what hearing him say lines.

From this point forward, the movie really goes nuts. We meet Halsey again twice over the course of two almost identical dreams, one of which ends with him hiding in a closet and being discovered with his eyes stabbed out, the second again with him hiding in a closet, only for Martin to follow him and fall into water, where Halsey informs him that they're both in his brain (this is actually a clever pun on a line that's said a couple of times during the course of the movie, that madness is simply water on the brain). After some more stuff (yes, at this point, things are so difficult to either
describe or make sense of that I'm reduced to describing it mearly as "stuff." Call me unprofessional if you want, I really don't care), Martin/Halsey/Whoever is recaptured by Eunice and subjected to the procedure that the original/fake/imaginary/whatever Halsey was. And dear God, they're talking about numbers again. WHAT ARE THESE NUMBERS?! HAVE THEY HAD ANYTHING TO DO WITH THE PLOT AT ALL?! THEY HAVEN'T BEEN MENTIONED FOR ABOUT THE LAST THIRTY MINUTES! WHAT IS THIS "CORNERSTONE TECHNOLOGY?!" Please, someone help me.

And then, finally, finally, it looks like we may get some answers to some things. Martin wakes up again, in another operating theatre surrounded by doctors, who tell him that he'd been in an accident, and they were operating on him to relieve pressure on his brain, and over the course of the surgery he'd been suffering seizures, which I suppose is the excuse given for the dreams. Which is okay. It doesn't improve the quality of the flick even slightly, but at least they saw fit to give us something of a "EUREKA!" moment that all these movies need. Otherwise you've just dedicated the last 80 minutes of your life to watching jibberish, and nobody wants to
admit that to themselves.

So they're operating on him, his wife and Reston are there waching, and then... suddenly we're back in the Lakeside Mental Institution? And Martin's walking around in a very obvious wig with a bandage wrapped around his head? He goes into the toilet and sees Halsey there, who's very obviously dressed like a doctor? He takes off the wig to show the scar that indicated the top of his head has been cut off? He rips the top of his head open? Butterflies fly
out of it? Then we cut back to the operating thearte to see that Martin has died, and hear his wife told "At least he didn't feel any pain" in the kind of flippant manner that would imply this has to be another dream? Oh God. Oh God, they're not going to explain anything. They're just gonna leave everything hanging because they think it's cool and arty to not have to explain themselves. They're...

.. but then they do. Oh good.

Martin's a brain in a jar


... Martin's a brain in a jar?



And do you know what the funny thing is? I wan't going to be that down on this movie. I was going to try and focus more on the stuff I liked, like Bud Cort's performance, the fact that a couple of dated special effects accepted, it doesn't look too bad for a movie that's almost 20 years old, and that the overall mood for the piece is fairly creepy, which is exactly the kind of tone they should be going for. They even squeezed in one decent jump moment when Halsey's found with his eyes removed in the closet. But then it ended like that, and all good will went out the window.

You know what happened here? What I'm sure happened? Charles Beaumont, the writer of this movie, also wrote 22 episodes of the original "Twilight Zone" series, as well as two episodes of the 1980's relaunch, and that's what this feels like, a really long "Twilight Zone" episode, where he was told he could do everything he ever wanted to do on that show but wasn't allowed. Now, when some people come from a very restricting creative enviroment and are allowed to stretch themselves a little more, they either thrive and produce works of genius, or the freedom gets to them and they end up cramming every idea they weren't allowed to do before into one
story. I'm convinced that's what happened here. Some people work better with limits, they need to be told, "No, you can't do that, it's silly." Otherwise they end up writing "Brain Dead."



I really wish this had been the other "Brain Dead." I would much rather have watched zombies get hacked to pieces by a lawnmower.

Until next week, I'm The Cheap-Arse Film Critic, and I kick arse for The Lord.


David Wornica said...

That was great, Brilliant even!

The Cheap-Arse Film Critic said...

Thank you for commenting David, it's really appreciated. Feel free to read and comment on any of my other reviews.

bjoly said...

You need a TV show because as the gentleman up top said: "great". One thing though, you can't not have respect for Bill Paxton, he's the only man who faced the Terminator, Predator and the Alien. Of course the Terminator is the only one that didn't cause him a violent and bloody demise.

The Cheap-Arse Film Critic said...

I have nothing but the utmost respect for Bill Paxton, and his monster fighting abilities. I just wish he didn't look like he wanted to have sex with me whilst he was doing it.