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Hipster Holy Grail: A Letter from Death Row (1998)

The Hipster Holy Grail is a weekly experiment where I try to find and review a movie that's at least 10 years old and has less than 1,000 ratings on IMDb. I always hope to discover something amazing. Sometimes I don't.  This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

Once you get past the amateurish filters, the low-budget video format, the uneven / inconsistent acting, the unearned sense of importance, the mind-boggling plot, and the over-stylized dialogue, A Letter from Death Row is a surprisingly engaging little movie.  Its flaws are way too severe to overlook, but there might be a good movie somewhere in here.  Behind all the garbage.  I'm just not sure if you want to go wading waist-deep to look for it.

My Rating: 1.5 / 5

The Plot Summary

Michael Raine (Bret Michaels) has been convicted of murder and sentenced to death.  As he waits for his execution, the film cuts between him narrating the story from some point in the future and his day-to-day life in the present.  This is meant to throw you into a state of confusion and uncertainty, which is all very ~~clever~~ as you'll eventually see in the unpredictable surprise ending.

After a few minutes of flashy editing, the movie settles into its A-plot.  Jessica, an aspiring writer who works at the Governor's office, visits Raine every day to interview him for a book she's working on.  She's curious to hear his side of the story, and after he warms up to her, he obliges.

Raine was convicted of raping, then killing, a prostitute named Kristi.  The principal evidence against him is that A) he was found at the scene of the murder, and B) he's featured on a videotape that shows him committing the rape.  Raine insists it was circumstantial, though.  He was at the scene because Kristi invited him there, and the video was taken out of context - actually, she was just into some really kinky sex games, and she was a willing participant in a rape fantasy scenario.

In between interviews with Jessica, Raine is subjected to daily abuse at the hands of sinister guards who torture and beat him.  They do so at the instruction of the Warden, a vile and corrupt figure who believes he's giving his prisoners the punishment they deserve.  The Warden's mistreatment extends to others as well, including a lovely fellow named Danker who is killed and later used as a scapegoat by the guards to explain away Raine's bruises.

When Raine tries to tell Jessica about the abuse, the Warden exacts swift retribution and has him locked up in solitary confinement with another prisoner named Lucifer.

(Side note - I'm not sure what the term is when you put a prisoner in solitary with somebody else.  It's not really solitary, is it?  And you're already confined.  It's just that now you're in a slightly smaller cell.  Actually, it doesn't even look like all that terrible of a cell, outside of the reduced living space.  I'm not sure I understand what's going on in this part of the movie.  Or most of the rest of it.)

Anyway, Lucifer is a former priest who was convicted of the murder of an altar boy.  Naturally, he, like Raine, is also innocent, and he shares his story: once upon a time, the Governor came to his church to confess his sins and admitted that he'd frequently slept with a prostitute named Kristi.  More importantly, he felt like he was falling in love with her and was insanely jealous that any other man might sleep with her.  This compelled him to think violently.

Almost immediately after confessing this, the Governor then told Lucifer never to repeat it under threat of death and/or worse.  Lucifer was then framed for the murder of the altar boy to conceal the Governor's shame.  Now Lucifer is just waiting for the right opportunity to strike back, and he keeps hinting at the day he will take his vengeance.  He tells Raine not to repeat a word of his story to anybody else.

Raine then also realizes that he was framed for murder by the Governor as revenge for sleeping with Kristi, and he's at the center of a deep web of corruption and conspiracy.  The problem is, he doesn't know how to prove it.

Some more violence and interviewing happens, and eventually Lucifer breaks out of prison.  This comes as a shock to everyone except the audience.

Seriously, you'd think you'd be able to put the pieces together here and realize that Lucifer is planning to break out every time he says something like "I'm getting out of here" or "I'll bring the Governor to justice" or "the day of reckoning is soon at hand."  But nobody seems to figure this out - least of all Raine, who actually seems pretty surprised when the break-out scene eventually does happen.

I understand that people might think Lucifer is just posturing or being a loudmouth since he's on Death Row and prisoners talk shit all the time, but wouldn't the guards want to take this into consideration?  Like, isn't that one of your main responsibilities as a guard?  To make sure prisoners don't escape?  Seems like you'd want to keep an eye on the one who's always muttering, "I'm going to escape."

I guess it's like how your friend always says he's moving to Canada whenever there's an election, and then one year he actually does it.

Anyway, everybody is totally clueless about where Lucifer might go until Raine has another genius revelation that he's probably going to the Governor's house.  (Oh, right, that Governor.  You think any of these blood-inked ramblings about justice may give us a clue?)

But Lucifer never actually gets far enough to enact any vengeance - he is killed by a co-conspirator who helped him to escape.  After his death is announced on television, Raine receives a letter, and this is when the movie kinda goes off the rails and gets really confusing - and I say that as if the rest of it makes any sense, which it barely does.  I have to be honest, I can't even remember what the letter says at this point, but it serves as a catalyst for all the dramatic reveals that happen in quick succession.

Basically, as soon as Jessica finds out that Raine has the letter, she demands to see it, and then inadvertently reveals herself as the True Killer.  Turns out she's in love with the Governor and wants to become his new wife.  Through convoluted reasoning, we find out that she orchestrated the death of the altar boy whose murder was what landed Lucifer's conviction, then she broke Lucifer out of jail and killed him, and she was also responsible for killing Kristi.  Now she's planning to kill the Governor's son to wipe the slate clean.

All of this is deduced by Raine right around the time when he is personally visited by the Governor, and the two of them get into a screaming match about Kristi's murder.  When the truth comes out, the Governor is able to catch Jessica just in time to prevent his son's murder, and Raine is exonerated and let out of prison.

...and then it turns out all of that was bullshit and the entire movie didn't happen, because Raine is actually still in prison and just rambling to himself.  His narration is being told on the day of his execution, and he's completely lost his mental faculties, which is why he invented this whole story about a conspiracy.  In truth, he's actually just a deranged killer.  Yup, it's a He's Crazy ending.  Because we don't have enough of those.

The Stuff I Liked / Didn't Like

This is not an easy movie to compliment.  Every time I think of something positive I want to say (and quite a bit of it is me being overly charitable), I am immediately subdued by a way more negative thing to say.  All of the movie's pros are totally canceled out and it just ends up being a confusing series of crappy video filters.

On the one hand, it has a dull opening and takes forever to get interesting.  On the other hand, when it does start getting underway, the pacing is great for the first act and the story starts to get engaging.  Most of the actors are pretty terrible and over-act all their lines.  But Bret Michaels is surprisingly competent in the lead role - convincing enough to carry the movie.  (By comparison to the rest of the cast, at least. In any other movie his performance would be just awful.)  The script is confusing nonsense with some of the worst narration I've ever heard, but it pieces out just enough information at a time to keep you strung along for more.  And then it throws out total nonsense, which ruins whatever pacing it built up earlier.  So... yeah.

I'm going to try to sum up the negative and then move on to the positive, but forgive me if I keep bouncing back and forth between them.

The main problem I have with the movie is that it's just so rough and unpolished.  I can forgive the weak acting only because I understand that most of the cast is made up of unprofessional actors and everybody's struggling to find their way around the script.  Unfortunately, since the cinematography so frequently relies on amateurish film tricks, the poor acting is highlighted moreso than it should be and you end up noticing just how silly most of the line readings are.

It's another one of those cases where they're trying to be too "precious," which I last complained about at length in my review of Let the Devil Wear Black.  Where the movie needs to just be straightforward and concise, there are all these distractions that don't add anything useful to the overall effect.  Now and again the movie makes use of a video filter, like color inversion, but it doesn't seem to signify anything other than "something weird's happening."

There's also a bunch of title inserts to divide movies into "chapters," which is meant to give you the feeling that future-Raine is writing his story at a desk rather than narrating the movie from a prison cell.  The movie doesn't actually feel like it can be parsed down to chapters, though - it all blends together like one long, drawn-out affair where you can't tell your days apart.  (In other words, exactly what I expect prison to actually feel like, which means the effect of the editing is actually kinda successful in that respect.)  These chapter inserts just end up getting in the way.

I don't know whether it was Bret Michaels who added that stuff to the movie or not - he co-directed with Marvin Baker, a dude whose other films I don't recognize.  But considering that I've seen Bret Michaels's other directorial feature and it wasn't terribly distracting, I think I'm going to put the blame for this one on Baker.

(Side note: "Put the blame on Baker" sounds like a new truism, doesn't it?  If somebody stubs their toe and gets angry about why that couch was in the way, you'd just shrug and say, "Put the blame on Baker.")

The movie also does that thing I hate where it tries to be a serious, dramatic arthouse piece (by way of its editing and film effects) and then immediately contrasts that with long, lingering shots of strippers.  You can't have it both ways, guys.  Serious, dramatic pieces of art don't cross-dissolve between four different angles of a woman shaking her breasts at the camera.  Not unless it's filmed in black and white and set to ambient chanting while you see the specter of crashing waves in the background.

The net effect of all these distractions is that the first half hour is a real slog to get through.  I kept thinking I was going to absolutely hate this movie - 0 / 5 hate.  But when it does eventually get to Raine being in prison and trying to figure shit out, the direction lets go of most (not all, but most) of those little pieces of flair and relaxes - and suddenly, it starts to get a little bit interesting and even the slightest bit suspenseful.  Parts of the movie are almost a thriller.

Don't get me wrong: it's total nonsense the whole way through.  I'm not going to pretend that the script makes sense or that the conspiracy against Raine feels well-thought out or believable at all.  But they sell it beautifully, and in the moment, you might be able to go along with it and say, "Wow, what a crazy scheme.  How's Raine going to get out of this one?"

By the time the twist ending came around, I was surprised to find myself a tad invested in Raine's fate.  The ending is, of course, totally lame - He's Crazy endings almost universally are - but I didn't mind it so much.  I was taken on a journey from Internet apathy to "huh, I sorta liked what you did there," and that's commendable.

The Part About Sheen/Michaels Entertainment 

A couple weeks ago, I reviewed No Code for Conduct, at which time I obsessed about the filmography of Bret Michaels.  It's not that a hair metal singer isn't allowed to write and direct movies - I just didn't expect it.  It's like finding out that Rachael Ray is also an accomplished painter.

In my review for NCfC, I hinted at A Letter from Death Row, stating that it was the second movie Bret Michaels directed in 1998 that starred both Michael and Charlie Sheen.  At the time it seemed pretty incredible: how do you get two A-list actors on your low-budget action project?  Well, turns out it's not actually that surprising - Sheen and Michaels worked together many times because they're both founders of Sheen/Michaels Entertainment.

Naturally, this has been my new obsession for the last week.  It's a treasure trove of useless trivia.

Their production company stopped making movies back in 1999 after a three-year run, during which they filmed no less than four Charlie Sheen vehicles (including Money Talks, which was co-produced by New Line and accordingly ended up being their highest profile movie) as well as two movies directed by Nick Cassavetes (including She's So Lovely, which I've never seen, but which rings a bell because I feel like it had a reasonably high profile back in '96 - '97).

I realize this is of little interest to most people, but I find it endlessly fascinating.  I picture Bret Michaels giving somebody a tour of his mansion some day and they're gushing about how "Talk Dirty To Me" is their favorite song, and Bret humbly shows off framed artwork of him with a bunch of musicians and maybe his guitar collection and so on.  Then they pass by a room that's stuffed to the gills with movie posters and memorabilia, and Bret just walks by it without a word.

Then the super-fan looks inside and goes, "Holy shit, what's all this?"

And Bret looks back, not really sure which room it is because he gets lost in his own house so many times, and goes, "Oh, right, that's the movie room.  From when I made movies."

"You made movies?"

"Yeah, a couple."

And the super-fan sees a life-size cardboard cut-out of Chris Tucker and says, "Is that from Money Talks?"

And then Bret goes red-faced and tries to redirect him.  "You know, I've got a couple of Grammys over here.  Wanna see?  It's just about time to polish them."

And the super-fan shoves his way inside and starts poking at all of Michaels's carefully arranged stuff, and suddenly Bret has to deal with this entire conversation he didn't want to have about Charlie Sheen's various addictions.

I don't know.  I guess what I'm saying is, I wouldn't mind seeing him direct another movie today.  I think the third time might be the charm.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?  (Added in March 2017)

I'm somewhat shocked to say it, but A Letter from Death Row barely gets any obscurity cred at all.  Technically it's under the 500 IMDb-rating threshold, but only just barely - my guess is that there's enough word of mouth among "what the fuck is that movie?!" circles that this one has made the rounds.  So, at about 490 ratings as I write this, it only gets 5 points for obscurity.

I will give it 10 points for Bret Michael's involvement, since even though his film career is not a total secret, it's definitely unexpected for most folks.  If you're trying to one-up somebody in a conversation about musicians-turned-actors, this would be a good one to try, but not exactly an ace card.

In lieu of a recommendation bonus, which is normally 15 to 30 points, I'm going to give it sort of an inverse bonus of 25 points for the overall feel and construction.  It's so bad on a technical level that you kinda want to make people watch it just to see what they do.  I can't call it a "recommendation," but damn if it isn't something you want to inflict on people.

That adds up to a total of 40 hipster cred out of a possible 100.  Not a lot, really.  If you're going to suffer through dreck, there's hipsterier options out there.  There's also better movies that would get you equal or more cred.

Where You Can Watch

If you go before it gets pulled for copyright violations, you can watch A Letter from Death Row for free on Youtube.

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