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To hell and back

Daniel Johnston 'rockumentary', 'Omen' reviewed.

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BEDEVILED: Johnston.
  • BEDEVILED: Johnston.

Sometimes the artist is a comfortable, willing medium for his muse, sometimes not. Sometimes, the muse overpowers the man, sending the artist teetering on the invisible line separating genius and insanity. But does not discount the work he’ll produce along the way — that’s the hypothesis of director Jeff Feuerzeig’s “The Devil and Daniel Johnston.”

Musician/songwriter/artist/filmmaker/cult-and-folk-hero Daniel Johnston generated a following in the early 1980s through the circulation of homemade albums, introducing fans to the young, mentally unstable West Virginia songwriter with an obsession for pop-culture icons like Casper the Friendly Ghost and Captain America. Johnston translated these obsessions into music, pounding out melodies on keyboard with lyrics that were as revealing as they were catchy.

As his fame rose, Johnston found himself a recipient of an Austin Music Award. He got a spot on MTV and work with the Butthole Surfers and Sonic Youth. Other artists began to record his songs, including Pearl Jam, Tom Waits, the Flaming Lips and Yo La Tengo.

Johnston also expressed himself on film and tape, making satirical sketches of his zealot mother on 8 mm film; recording a conversation with the unrequited love of his life, Laurie, begging her to tell him on tape that she loved him; and shooting autobiographical concert footage in which he appears on keyboard looking like a demented, dark-haired Schroeder.

Feuerzig’s directorial genius is apparent here, perfectly matching Johnston’s footage with interviews from his parents, friends and acquaintances.

As Johnston’s fame and recognition rose, his shaky mental state gave way to severe violent outbursts (he once attacked an elderly lady in her home) and delusional thoughts (he believed he could fly like Captain America and once turned off the engine of a plane his father was piloting, sending them crashing). From the young kook obsessed with film and song, we arrive at a sedated, drugged, overweight zombie in a mental institution.

Don’t get me wrong, the film is not a downer, and that’s not where the story ends. There are more touching and hilarious moments than there are disturbing ones: Johnston signs a record deal, gets commissioned for an art showing, and appears in concert later where fans participate in a sing-a-long.

Don’t be surprised if you find yourself humming a few bars of his songs as you leave the theater.

Where Johnston’s deteriorating mental state could have easily been exploited, Feuerzeig puts the emphasis on his music.

As a side note, fans of keyboardist/songwriter Wesley Willis will find much to love in this film.

— Amy Brawner

“The Omen,” a remake of the Academy Award-nominated 1976 original, follows the original almost scene-for-scene, but adds some 21st century blood, gore and special effects to make it a modern day thriller complete with a classic storyline.
In this version, director John Moore takes creative license, adding a little spice and blood to make some scenes that were already a bit risky for the ’70s even more over the top for today’s horror movie crowd.
Moore leads us through the problems of the Thorn family as they make the move from Rome, the movie’s opening setting, to London, where the father (Liev Schreiber) is enjoying a recent appointment as the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain. Thorn’s wife, Katherine (Julia Stiles), begins to notice changes in their son and suspects, as she confides to her therapist, that her son Damien (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) is neither her son nor human. Both suspicions are correct.
Additional scenes improve the suspense factor of this film over the original, with Moore using vivid and colorful dream sequences to show the true creepiness of Damien that the original couldn’t quite seem to convey. Moore also creates more eerie encounters between child and mother that show a real evilness that wasn’t as apparent in the original.
The film is loaded with a few more tension-breaking, make-you-jump scenes and suspense that will have you crawling out of your chair. Most of all, though, the beautiful scenery and the acting make the movie. While it may not go down in cinema history — as few horror flicks of today do — it is worth seeing if you enjoy horror films with decent plots and open endings. It is most definitely not for kids or the weak-spirited.
— Amy Bowers

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