Thumped’s Random DVD Trip #12 – The Raven & Playback

Thumped’s Random DVD trip: Wherein Hector Grey enters the Xtravision across the road and grabs the first couple of things that appear in the shelf. This week: The Raven & Playback.

In the late eighties, John Cusack and Christian Slater stood shoulder to shoulder, the shiny faced future of film. The Raven and Playback suggest that maybe everyone was wrong about that.

If there was a man ever in need of rehabilitation in the eyes of the many millions who watch his work, it’s John Cusack. Of course, looking upon this louche, impossibly rich, endurably handsome, irritatingly smooth and inconceivably famous actor, a man who has tread the celluloid for nigh on thirty years without, apparently, aging a day, and wondering “where did it all go wrong, John?” might seem a little self indulgent on our part, but we’re going to do it anyway. The guy who was pretty fucking cool back in high school, that guy who grifted with an effortless élan, the man who made being a worn out assassin a thing of maudlin, quixotic beauty; that guy. Where the fuck did he get to? I have a theory, and it involves Con Air, and some kind of collision with the force of ferocious vacuity that is Nicolas Cage. See also the strange case of Malkovich. Actually, scrub that, Malkovich was never much cop. An emasculated Brando, a sober Burton, ephemera, destined to make one or two good movies before becoming a parody of himself. It says much that Cusack was the best thing in the film that bears Malkovich’s name, and that Malkovich would be so self aware as to let himself be parodied in it. He is, after all, doing that himself. But unlike Malk, Cusack made many great movies, some cool ones that weren’t particularly good but within which he still sparkled, and the occasional howler, which were still a little better for having him in them. Yeah, America’s Sweethearts. Yeah, you.

However, his work of the last decade would keep a scatologist busy for a month. The numbers just don’t add up: 2012 + 1408 = shit. But he still has that little tic that he does, and we’re almost prepared to forgive. Almost. At least he’s avoided remaking The Wicker Man, and his face seems to be set in a constant state of hangdog apology, as if he’s just defecated on the rug. We’re not going to boot him out just yet, are we? We can live with a bit of crap, can’t we?

In The Raven, Cusack is playing American writing legend Edgar Allen Poe, a man with a penchant for the macabre and the odd pitcher of booze. Although Cusack eschews Edgar’s fulsome moustache for a mean little goatee, he attacks the part like Depp might one of those meatless bones that Tim Burton has been tossing off lately. You know, with a gay abandon, schlepping from camp outrage to tic infused intensity in a second. The story is based around the writing of Poe, sort of, and the fact that he was progenitor of the detective fiction genre. He wrote gruesome tales of murder and invented the good guys to unravel the machinations of the nefarious perpetrators. The premise therefore, is that he’s be good at solving some killings himself right? I mean, Jessica Fletcher can do it, after all. So when people start turning up, all kinds of dead, dispatched in manners hitherto described in Poe’s own tomes, the local constabulary turn to him for advice. And advice they get, manic, camp advice. After his betrothed is kidnapped by the dastardly, unknown murderer, Poe has to unravel clues and write some slasher fiction in the local paper to appease the murderer and get more clues in order to rescue the girl and get to the end of the movie without embarrassing himself too much. And, well, he does okay. It’s not a glorious return to form, because, let’s face it, it’s not a great film. It’s okay. A little bit of a gothic whodunit where you know who actually dunit isn’t really going to really matter in the grand scheme of things. It’s wasn’t Ambrose Bierce or Theodore Roosevelt or anything. Don’t worry, it’s not a spoiler. You knew this already.

The film also tries to tie into the actual, real, enduring mystery of Poe’s own death. He was found, wandering around the town, dressed in someone else’s clothes and in a state of bewilderment. He never regained lucidity and died a couple of days later. Records since then have been lost (or destroyed or hidden or Abraham Lincoln ate them in a brothel) so no one really knows why or how Poe died, at a mere forty years of age. It’s a mystery, see, an actual real mystery, and may have even made an interesting film on its own. But then, you’d need a serious player to pull of the real nuance of a pretty broken, deliriously alcoholic, half mad old bollix like Edgar Allen Poe, and all Johnny Cusack wants is to chew on the scenery (everything seems to be ham, after all) and for you to like him. Bless.

Hey, actors who need rehabilitation, and not the Betty Ford type? We were just talking about that, right? After a slew of unsuccessful, or worse than that, pretty shit movies, who is ultimately at fault? The studios? The agents? The actors themselves? While one doubts that John Cusack, seated on a throne made entirely from the bones of James Spader and Andrew McCarthy, is probably not musing on how he’s managed to fuck it all up, one wonders if Christian Slater, on a cracked vinyl lounger that’s been stuffed with yak hair, is shaking his head and asking why? What did I do wrong? I mean, apart from the obvious, you know, not having a great deal of talent to begin with or emoting entirely through the medium of eyebrow. In fact, pretty much just being a Jack Nicolson tribute act. Apart from that. A lack of talent does not necessarily need to be an impediment in Hollywood after all. Then there’s all his extracurricular activity. Car chases and run ins with John Law and the rest of it. That shouldn’t be an impediment either, should it? Let’s face it, you’re nobody in Hollywood til you have a mug shot. Just ask Hugh Grant.

Slater’s the only recognisable face (and it’s Jack Nicolson’s, isn’t it?) in Playback, the second of our two descents in awfulness this month, and, to add insult to everything else, it’s little more than a cameo. Shame, really, because in playing local cop Frank Lyons, he’s actually quite good. He’s leery, creepy, a bit of a perv. He likes to look at hidden camera footage from the girls’ locker room and rub his own thighs in lascivious glee. There’s a sense that maybe none of this is acting, but his twitchy, sweaty deviancy is, sadly, one of the high points of this straight to dvd cliché-fest. And let’s face it, Christian Slater is pretty awful, so there’s your bench mark.

In anyways, a gang of small town high skool kids, played by some chiselled chinned twenty somethings, are doing a video project on an infamous local murder that occurred in the town a decade and a half ago, when an adoptee sliced his family open, mum, dad, sister, hamster, goldfish,etcetera. Unwittingly, (but of course,) they unleash some kind of evil. The evil seems to be transferred via video tapes. How or why isn’t really explained, but that’s cool, right? Our hero Julian (JULIAN!) involves his hoody wearing weirdo sort-of mate, Nate, who works down the tv station and lends the cameras to our chums. He’s also in the business of filming all the local hotties for his mate, the aforementioned Officer Lyons. In return Officer Lyons gets Nate all the original tapes from the crime scene. The killer you see, was an amateur filmmaker, going so far as to film himself doing all his murdering. Nate, becoming obsessed with the case, watches the tapes, and evil hops into his body. Not any kind of evil either, but the kind that means he can control the minds of other poor souls. Why? Who knows! WHO CARES! It’s something to do with some evil cunt from 100 years ago who made film in Paris of something. Really, you won’t give a shit. BELIEVE ME, YOU WILL NOT GIVE A SHIT.

Playback probably looked good on the page. It looks less good on the screen. It’s a mess of ideas that never really gel, and the characters are as wooden as, well, wood. This is where Christian Slater shines, and maybe that’s his new thing. Star in movies so humdrum that we are left saying, hey, you know what, Christian was pretty good. A sleepwalking Slater has better chops than most of the cast here. He can make the leaden exposition sound like words people might actually say. Creepy, crummy people, granted, but he does do that kind of dissolution well (again, probably not acting). Normally I can’t stand Christian Slater, let’s face it, who can, but to see him reduced to the filmic equivalent of turning up behind the counter at McDonald’s, being the best damn burgerslinger he can be, is pretty sad. At least for Cusack, his turkeys are huge. Thanksgiving huge. Size of those fucking turkeys, man. Christian is left with the crumbs, god love him. Oh, Humanity! What have we done? Surely the ever-young Cusack could have played one of the high skool kids in Playback? What a movie that would have been. One wonders what kind of indemnification Cusack actually has, that Slater doesn’t. How does John stay at the top table, while Christian sleeps on a bench in the park covered in piss? Metaphorically speaking of course. Or, well, maybe not. Maybe that’s where he lives these days. Maybe that’s the difference. One imagines that John Cusack smells absolutely terrific, where as Christian looks as if part of him has not only died, but reeks of it too.

In summary, don’t watch Playback. You may enjoy The Raven, if only for its slick production values. Frankly, I doubt it.

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