20 January 2015

MANSON GIRL/2009

Vietnam and the Bible  made me do it!
I was an art student way back in my mostly wasted college days. An art degree hovers somewhere around a philosophy or literature degree in terms of future usefulness and anyone pursuing art as a college degree had best minor in cheap kitchen help or custodial labor to insure some sort of employment later in life. That is not to say I did not learn things in college (I was also interested in philosophy and literature…woo hoo!) and one thing I learned in my art classes was the value of subtly. Subtly is  not always necessary of course and is mostly absent in much modern cinema, art and music. People seem to respond now to ‘being hit overt the head with a hammer’ in order to receive a message. And the makers of the film Manson Girl (aka Leslie, My Name is Evil) seem to do nothing but but drive their anti-American message home over and over with a hammer. The anti-American message may have had more impact if the film makers had actually been Americans and not Canadians! Director Reginald Harkema just can’t stop pointing out how hypocritical Americans are–or, to be fair, those ‘evil’ conservative Americans- when they condemn Charlie Manson and his Family for the brutal Sharon Tate and  LaBiancas murders yet support or ignore war atrocities committed by the one true ‘evil empire’, the US of A, in Vietnam. The film ends with a shot of a Vietnamese woman holding a baby and the two of them being toasted slowly by some napalm. What the...? What does this have to do with Charles Manson? Nothing,  unless you're fat faced Michael Moore. Even more annoying then this malarkey laden message is the idea that somehow Charlie and his girls, including Leslie Van Houten, are the sad by-products of this truly sick –in the filmmaker's eyes anyway - conservative American culture. The problem isn’t even this inane attempt at adding some ‘deep’ message into the Manson murders that I, for one, do not need in a b-movie, but with the lousy quality of the film itself. To be sure there are moments were the film seems to be heading somewhere and the sets and some camera shots show genuine skill and ability on somebody’s part, but in the end the film is going off in too many directions and nothing gets tied together. It winds up being not in the least thought provoking as some reviewers try to claim but irritating and disjointed at best. One reviewer seems to moved into introspections of the profound sort when he writes:

Harkema’s ultimate mission, it seems, is to expose the hypocrisy of an American public that will condemn anybody involved with Manson and his cult at the same time as endorsing or ignoring the massacres of the Vietnam conflict.

I think Harkem’s ultimate mission next time out should be to make a film that, after all is said and done, does not suck the big one!


I can't help it! I'm hot for hopped up,
mass murderer type chicks!
There is one thing about this film, okay more than one thing but one thing at time, that I really hated. I have to address that now before I go into the reviled ‘spoilers section’ of my article. Any film that deals with Charles Manson must have an actor that can do a good Charlie. That is simply number one. The two Helter Skelter films with Steve Railsback (1976) and Jeremy Davies (2004) as Manson were watchable films because of the riveting performances of the two lead actors. I used to think Railsback was the definitive Manson but I think Davies outdid Railsback’s excellent interpretation in the 2004 version of the film version of  LA prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s book of the same name. Actor Ryan Robbins just is not even close. And not all of the problem is with his acting inability.The goofy dialog he is given where he keeps spouting off how he is Jesus Christ incarnate or something is poorly written and…well… poorly written. This again is Harkema as screen writer trying to make some sort of social commentary about something, I guess, but I don’t care what it is. I don’t. If I want to waste two minutes of life thinking on it what could I possibly come up with? That thinking about Christ too much and having Christian parents will drive you  to become insane like Manson? I am not a Christian but I get sick of the way Christians, conservative or liberal, Catholic or Protestant, are portrayed in films anymore, including this one. The parents of Leslie Van Houtan (played well enough, considering the corny lines she was written to read, by Kristen Hagar) and Perry, the young man who would sits on the jury to judge her  (played a bit over the top really by Gregory Robbins), are conservative Christian types.Perry's parents t seems, have driven their poor children over the edge with dinner prayers every night. In any case I almost barfed at the goofiness of the scene showing Robbins as a crucified  Manson/Christ in some sort of tie-dye robe. The man can’t really act good enough to carry the role and he is actually a bit too handsome and buff and his hair a bit too well trimmed to make his Charlie remotely acceptable. His constant psycho Sermon’s on the Mount seem like contrivances by Harkema who seems to want to bring back the old ‘down with the establishment’ movement –I guess the more evil establishment of America than Canada where life is perfect-  of those halcyon days of yore. I am more concerned with the more contemporary 'down with pretentious and crappy movies’ movement that  needs  more followers.

I didn't write the music! Or this lame script!
So what the hell is the movie about? It is a fictitious account of how the lives of sniveling cry baby, drug abuser, hippie-slut and cold blooded murderer Leslie Van Houten crosses paths with jury member Perry something or other and they exchange over acted glances during the trial. Perry has stood up to his super conservative father by saying he did not want to go fight in Vietnam and his father of course goes bananas denouncing his decision as un-American. The parents of both Perry and Leslie are one dimensional comic book styled charactures at best and do not come even close to the portrayals of ‘true believing’ middle class  Vietnam era Americans in films like Oliver Stone’s (a real American  filmmaker who actually served in Vietnam and not an America hating Canadian like Reginald Harkima) Born on the Fourth of July. The scenes of the family at dinner or in their kitchens and living rooms are often set up in some stylized fashion that looks like a garish comic book drawing. Poor Leslie leaves home because mom and dad argue a lot and it hurts her feelings and soon she is a Deadhead looking westcoast flower child who hooks up with some of Charlie’s girls. She buys into Charlie’s preachings and allows his sexual advances and ultimately will stab a lifeless Rosemary LaBianca sixteen times in her stomach and never show any remorse. Van Houton’s  real life story is far more interesting than this lame little film leads you to believe. She was granted two retrials and her original defense lawyer Ronald Hughes disappeared and was later found murdered. Maybe by free Manson family members? No one knows. The courtroom scenes are simply terrible and there is a huge American flag hanging on the wall –that looks like the Bruce Springsteen Born in the USA album cover- behind the defense team and as far as I can find this is simply not true. It never happened. I may be wrong and if someone can produce a picture that proves this I will recant. Oh I guess this is another hammer over my head message from director/writer Harkema, something about…umm…America and… ah… shit, I don’t know. It’s too deep for me man. Any courtroom room film has to have believable courtroom drama and this one has none. Maybe the guy is making a parody of American justice with the bad acting and poorly written lines. Oh yea, that's probably it.
How Canadians imagine courtrooms in the USA.
Leslie Van Houtin overcome with guilt
while in jail. Poor thing.
The murder scenes of the LaBiancas are a bit poorly done as well. Overacted and poorly shot. Well, more than a bit. It is hard to know if some of the scenes in the film were done in such a crappy fashion on purpose or if it was some part of Harkema’s higher vision that went over my head. I think it may be that the scenes were done the best they could be, which was not much. There seems to be attempts at comedy almost but I am not sure if it was intentional. The scenes of Leslie and Perry meeting eyes and sighing to themselves is just corny. And not even that cool sort of corny that rates a rewind. The movie has it moments but not really that many. The film makers try to insert some sort of political and social message into the film but utterly fail on every level. If you want to make a movie about napalmed villagers in Vietnam then do it, but to try to show some connection between those events and the Manson murders on any level is absurd at best and shows more the superficial intentions of the anti-American filmmakers more than any truth about American society.

The sleaze king of Baltimore John Waters actually said he was offended by the film’s original title (Leslie, My Name is Evil) as was, get this, Leslie Van Houton herself and both have denounced the film and said they would never see it. Who the fuck even cares what that nut job thinks and why would that ruthless murderer and criminal even have an opportunity to see it. Some reviews try to give the film credibility by saying something like it sparks debate and dialog over these issues. But back to my art classes. My old mentor Mark Pritchet once said about things that spark discussion and debate that a group of people could stand around a pile of dog shit (not exactly his words) and talk about it. But in the end all they are talking about is dog shit. Get my point? See, I can be deep and sarcastic too, just like Reginald Harkima.

At least John Waters believes in me!
 

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