Tag Archives: 2015 Reviews

Onward, wingnut soldiers!

By Dennis Hartley

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“To Ellis Island!”

Oh dearie, dearie me. So as if it wasn’t appalling enough that over half of ‘Murca’s state governors (Republicans all, save one) have banded together to stand their ground against the invading Syrian hordes, esteemed Republican presidential hopeful Cardinal Richelieu Ted Cruz has suggested that we take in Christian Syrian refugees only. Because, you know, there’s no such thing as a Christian terrorist.

Except for maybe, this guy:

On Friday, July 22, 2011, at around 3:30 p.m. local time, a 2,000-pound homemade fertilizer bomb planted in a car exploded and ripped through the central area of Norway’s capital, Oslo, blowing out windows in government offices, killing 8 people, and wounding dozens more.

As police and rescue crews rushed to the scene, 33-year-old Anders Behring Breivik had already begun to make his way to a small island called Utoya, which is about 25 miles northwest of Oslo and was at the time hosting a camp for youth members of a Norwegian political party. […]

At approximately 6:34 p.m., he surrendered without a fight to police. He had killed 67 people and wounded 33 more by then. Two more people eventually died in the hospital. He later said in court he had hoped to kill all 600 on the island.

Remember him? Interestingly, he and Sen. Cruz share some views:

In Internet postings attributed to Breivik, he blamed Europe’s left-wing parties for destroying the continent’s Christian heritage by allowing mass immigration of Muslims.

Yeah, but that was Europe, you may be thinking.  There’s no history of God-fearin’ members of  America’s religious right engaging in acts of terror, right?! OK, a few. Alright…maybe enough for a top dozen list.

But aside from the 2009 Holocaust Memorial Museum shooting, and the 2010 Texas IRS attack, the assassinations of abortion clinic doctors Barnett Slepian (1998) and George Tiller (2009), the 2014 Jewish Community Center murders, the 2012 Sikh Temple shooting, the 1997 Olympic bombing, and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, etc., what have you got? Surely those are  anomalies; merely hiccups.

Besides, what good could ever come from taking in a Syrian refugee?

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A real son of a (you-know-what)

Oh, Lord (in the event that you actually do exist)…give me patience.

Masticating and gesticulating: An Italian Name ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 14, 2015)

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In my 2012 review of the French dramedy Little White Lies, I wrote:

In 1976, a Swiss ensemble piece called Jonah, Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 unwittingly kick-started a Boomer-centric “midlife crisis” movie subgenre that I call The Group Therapy Weekend (similar to, but not to be conflated with, the venerable Dinner Party Gone Awry). The story usually centers on a coterie of long-time friends (some married with kids, others perennially single) who converge for a (reunion, wedding, funeral) at someone’s (beach house, villa, country spread) to catch up, reminisce, wine and dine, revel…and of course, re-open old wounds (always the most entertaining part).

 Not unlike Little White Lies, Francesca Archibugi’s An Italian Name (Il nome del figlio) nestles betwixt The Group Therapy Weekend and Dinner Party Gone Awry. And as in many Italian films, there’s a lot of eating, drinking, lively discourse…and hand gestures.

The dinner party of note is a cozy and casual late night get-together at the home of school teacher Betta (Valeria Golino) and professor hubby Sandro (Luigi Lo Cascio). There are only three guests; Betta’s brother Paolo (Alessandro Gassman, son of the late great actor Vittorio Gassman), his wife Simona (Michaela Ramazzotti), and childhood friend Claudio (Rocco Papaleo), a bachelor, musician, and…referee (once the fur begins to fly).

If there’s one thing longtime friends know how to do best, it’s how to push each other’s buttons. It’s apparent that these five have known each other a long time; and once Betta and Sandro have sent the kids to bed and cracked open a few bottles of wine, the evening begins to take its inevitable course. Paolo, whose preternatural good looks and easy charm have undoubtedly led to his success as a high-end real estate broker, is a bit of a prankster, who enjoys winding up brother-in-law Sandro. The lovely Simona, the best-selling author of a Jackie Collins-style novel, is pregnant. Paolo announces with a straight face that the couple have come up with a name for the baby (if it’s a boy)-Benito. Sandro, a pompous, left-leaning academe, takes the bait…and so the (verbal) bloodletting begins.

There are echoes of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? throughout the evening’s proceedings, as dormant resentments resurface and new revelations come to the fore; the main difference here being that the overall tone isn’t as vitriolic. The smart, witty, rapid-fire repartee is executed with flair by the wonderful ensemble (in fact the dialog is so rapid-fire that I found it a challenge keeping up with the subtitles…and I’m a fast reader).

The breezy 94 minute film plays like a tight, one-act play; which apparently (as I learned after the fact) is what it was in its original incarnation. Director Archibugi and co-writer Francesco Piccolo adapted their script from a play by Alexandre de la Patelliere and Matthieu Delaporte. I was also blissfully unaware that de la Patelliere and Delaporte directed their own screen version of their play (released in France in 2012 as Le prenom), so I’m in no position to say whether the Italian remake is better or worse. One thing that I can say for sure…An Italian Name is one of the most enjoyable films I’ve seen this year.

Buck Turgidson meets the press

By Dennis Hartley

Bless me father, for I have sinned. I did a bad, bad thing. Something I haven’t done in a long, long, time. Something that made my thumbs go numb, and left me feeling so…dirty. Out of morbid curiosity, I recorded all of those circle-jerk pundit shows this morning. I wanted to confirm that the Republican candidate reaction to the Paris attacks was on schedule. It was. Now I’ve worn out the “FF” button on my DVR remote. I should have stuck with my default, which is to turn to my pal Digby for a recap, instead of suffering the tortures of the damned (she’s made of sterner stuff than I). To save you even more time, here’s a distillation of all the right wing nuttery this morning:

Spy vs. acronym: Spectre **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 7, 2015)

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In my review of Sam Mendes’ 2012 James Bond adventure, Skyfall, I wrote:

I’m sure you’ve heard the old chestnut about cockroaches and Cher surviving the Apocalypse? As the James Bond movie franchise celebrates its 50th year […] you might as well add “007” to that short list of indestructible life forms. […] Love him or hate him, it’s a fact of life that as long as he continues to lay those gold-painted eggs for the studio execs, agent 007 is here to stay.

Mendes set the bar pretty high with his first stab at the venerable legacy; in fact I was impressed enough with his Bond installment to include it in my top 10 films of 2012 list. Unfortunately, as it turns out, Mendes may have set the bar too high; or perhaps by saying “yes” to Spectre (Bond #24, if you’re counting) he baited the sophomore curse. Whatever the reason, I found 007’s new outing to be a bit shaky, and not quite so stirring.

Unless you live in a cave, I’m sure you’re aware that Daniel Craig is back on board, as are Skyfall screenwriters John Logan, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, joined this time out by Jez Butterworth, who co-scripted the 2010 political thriller Fair Game (my review).

The story picks up with Bond still grieving the loss of his mentor, M (Judi Dench). As foreshadowed in the previous installment, 007 now answers to a freshly anointed “M” (Ray Fiennes), with whom he is already at loggerheads (as we know, he’s a great agent in the field, but has “issues” with authority figures). An enigmatic “last request” from the late M sends Bond gallivanting off to Mexico City for an unauthorized hit job. This sets up the traditional jaw-dropping action sequence opener, which doesn’t disappoint (…yet).

The plot gets a little murky from here; Bond next heads for Rome, long enough to, erm, pump the lovely widow (Monica Bellucci) of a nefarious hit man for information regarding a shadowy international cabal of assassins, spies, terrorists, extortionists, gypsies, tramps and thieves who generally engage in Very Bad Things, and crash one of their board meetings…where he is recognized and called out by its CEO (Christoph Waltz) and subsequently run out of town and dogged all over Europe and North Africa by a hulking henchman named Hinx (Dave Bautista). He is soon joined on his escapade by the lovely daughter (Lea Seydoux) of yet another recently departed nefarious hit man.

Back in London, M is embroiled in an inter-agency scuffle with (to my recollection) a new character in the Bond canon, “C” (Andrew Scott). “C” is the type that our friends across the pond might refer to as a “smug git”. He views M and his agents as anachronisms; much too “analog” in an age where there are so many high-tech surveillance/operational alternatives (you get the impression that this guy would feel right at home with the NSA).

One of the main problems with the film is that it never quite gels for either of these two distinct narratives; when Bond’s exploits in the field and M’s political woes back at the home office do finally converge, it feels tricksy and false in a curiously rushed third act.

It frequently seems as if this film wasn’t being directed by a “person”, but rather by an evenly divided focus group of Bond fans; half of them the adrenaline junkies who really dig the gadgets and the babes and the chase scenes and the shit blowing up, and the other half (like yours truly) who have applauded Bond 2.0’s sense of grittiness, intrigue, and character development that (arguably) flirts more with John Le Carre than Ian Fleming.

But by trying too hard to please everyone, you end up with both sides getting short shrift. The action fans will probably start looking at their watches every time the story moves back to HQ (I couldn’t help noticing that many people at the full house promo screening I attended chose those moments to take their restroom breaks), and those longing for a bit more complexity may view the action pieces as distracting and perfunctory this time out.

Ultimately, Spectre plays more like a “greatest hits” collection than a brand new album.

Speaking of which…Sam Smith is obviously a talented fellow and has some great pipes, but “Writing’s on the Wall” has got to be, hands down, the most ponderous and overwrought Bond theme of all time. It goes on longer than the Old Testament. Seriously:

If you managed to make it through that entire video, please accept my condolences. You deserve a palette cleanser now, so here are my picks for the Top 5 Bond movie themes:

“A View to a Kill”performed by Duran Duran

“For Your Eyes Only”performed by Sheena Easton

“Goldfinger”performed by Shirley Bassey

“Live and Let Die”performed by Paul McCartney

“You Only Live Twice”performed by Nancy Sinatra

Frightfully amusing: 10 horror comedies for Halloween

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 31, 2015)

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The nightly news is horrifying enough…so here’s ten funny ones. Alphabetically:

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Bubba Ho-Tep – This 2002 tongue-in-cheek shocker from Don “Phantasm” Coscarelli could have been “ripped from the headlines”…if those headlines were from The Weekly World News. In order to enjoy this romp, you must first unlearn what you have learned. For example, JFK (Ossie Davis) is still alive (long story)…he’s now an elderly African-American gentleman (even longer story). He currently resides at a decrepit nursing home in Texas, along with  Elvis Presley (midnight movie icon Bruce Campbell).

The King and the President join wheelchairs to rid the facility of its rather formidable pest…a reanimated Egyptian mummy (with a ten-gallon hat) who’s been lurking about waiting for residents to pass on so he can suck out their souls. Lots of laughs, yet despite the over-the-top premise, Campbell’s portrayal of “Elvis” remains respectful; even poignant. Davis also nails that sweet spot; he embraces the inherent camp of his “JFK”, yet  retains the dignity of its namesake.

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Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter – “What he doesn’t know about vampires wouldn’t even fill a flea’s codpiece!” This unusually droll Hammer entry from 1974 benefits from assured direction and a clever script by Brian Clemens, one of the creators behind The Avengers TV show. Captain Kronos (Horst Janson) and his stalwart consultant, Professor Hieronymus Grost (John Cater) are called upon by a physician to investigate a mysterious malady befalling residents of a sleepy hamlet…rapidly accelerating aging.

The professor suspects a youth-sucking vampire may be involved…and the game is afoot. Along the way, the Captain finds romance with the village babe, played by lovely Caroline Munro (*sigh*). The film was released at the tail end of Hammer’s classic period; possibly explaining why Clemens seems to be doing a parody of “a Hammer film”.

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Delicatessen– Love is in the air…along with the butcher’s cleaver in this seriocomic vision of a food-scarce, dystopian “near-future” along the lines of Soylent Green, directed with trademark surrealist touches by co-directors Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro (The City of Lost Children). The pair’s favorite leading man, Dominique Pinon (sort of a sawed-off Robin Williams) plays a circus performer who moves into an apartment building with a butcher shop downstairs.

The shop’s proprietor seems to be appraising the new tenant with a “professional” eye. In Jeunet and Caro’s bizarre universe, it’s all par for the course (and just wait ‘til you get a load of the vegan “troglodytes” who live under the city). One particularly memorable and hilarious sequence, an imaginatively choreographed lovemaking scene, stands as a mini-masterpiece of film and sound editing.

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Eating Raoul– The late great Paul Bartel directed and co-wrote this twisted and hilarious social satire. Bartel and his frequent screen partner Mary Waronov play Paul and Mary Bland, a prudish, buttoned-down couple who are horrified to discover that their apartment complex is home to an enclave of “swingers”. Paul is even more shocked when he comes home from his wine store job one day and discovers Mary struggling to escape the clutches of a swinger’s party guest who has mistakenly strayed into the Bland’s apartment.

Paul beans him with a frying pan, inadvertently killing Mary’s overeager groper. When the couple discovers a sizable wad of money on the body, a light bulb goes off-and the Blands come up with a unique plan for financing the restaurant that they have always dreamed of opening (and helping rid the world of those icky swingers!). Things get complicated, however when a burglar (Robert Beltran) ingratiates himself into their scheme. Yes, it’s sick…but in a good way. Just wait until you meet Doris the Dominatrix.

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Ed Wood– Director Tim Burton and his favorite leading man Johnny Depp have worked together on so many films over the last 20-odd years that they are surely joined at the hip by now. For my money, this affectionate 1994 biopic about the man who directed “the worst film of all time” remains their best collaboration. It’s also unique in Burton’s canon in that it is somewhat grounded in reality.

Depp gives a brilliant performance as Edward D. Wood, Jr., who unleashed the infamously inept yet 100% certified  trash classic, Plan 9 from Outer Space on an unsuspecting movie-going public in the late 50s. While there are lots of belly laughs, none are at the expense of the off-beat characters. There’s no mean-spirited intent here; that’s what makes the film so endearing. Martin Landau steals his scenes with a droll, Oscar-winning turn as Bela Lugosi. Bill Murray, Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette and Jeffrey Jones also shine .

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I Married a Witch– Clocking in at 77 minutes, Rene Clair’s breezy 1942 romantic fantasy packs in more wit, sophistication and fun than any ten modern “comedies” you’d care to name put together. I’ll tell you what else holds up pretty well after 70 years…Veronica Lake’s allure and pixie charm. Lake is a riot as a witch who re-materializes 300 years after putting a curse on all male descendants of a Puritan who sent her to the stake.

She and her equally mischievous father (Cecil Kellaway) wreak havoc on the most recent descendant (Fredric March), a politician considering a run for governor. Lake decides to muck up his relationship with his fiancé (Susan Hayward) by making him fall in love with his tormentor. All she needs to do is slip him a little love potion, but her plan fizzes after she accidentally ingests it herself. And yes, hilarity ensues.

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J-Men Forever!– Woody Allen may have done it first (What’s Up, Tiger Lily?) and the Mystery Science Theater 3000 troupe has since run the concept into the ground, but Firesign Theater veterans Phil Proctor and Peter Bergman did it best with J-Men Forever. I am referring to the concept of re-appropriating footage from corny, no-budget B-films and re-dubbing the soundtrack with comic dialogue. I’ve been a devotee of this film since it aired on the USA Network’s after hours cult show Night Flight back in the 80s (alright, raise your bong if you remember that one).

The creators had a sizable archive from the old Republic serials to cull from, so they were not restricted by the narrative structure of one specific film. As a result, Proctor and Bergman’s wonderfully silly concoction about saving Earth from a nefarious alien mastermind called “The Lightning Bug” benefits from quick-cut editing, perfectly synced with their trademark barrage of one-liners, puns and double-entendres, all set to a rock‘n’roll soundtrack. “Schtay high!”

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No Such Thing– Director Hal Hartley’s arch, deadpan observations on the human condition either grab you or leave you cold, and this modern Beauty and the Beast tale is no exception. TV news intern Beatrice (Sarah Polley) is sent to Iceland to get an exclusive on a real-life “monster” (Robert Burke), an immortal nihilist who kills boredom by drinking heavily and terrorizing whomsoever is handy.

After her plane goes down en route, her cynical boss (Helen Mirren) smells an even bigger story when Beatrice becomes the “miracle survivor” of the crash. The Monster agrees to come back to N.Y.C. if Beatrice helps him track down the one scientist in the world who can put him out of his misery.

The pacing in the first half is leisurely; dominated by the Monster’s morose, raving monologues, set against the stark, moody Icelandic backdrop (I was reminded of David Thewlis’ raging, darkly funny harangues in Naked). Once the story heads for New York, however, the movie turns into a satire of the art world (a la John Waters’ Pecker), as the couple quickly become celebrities du jour with the trendy Downtown crowd. Obscure, but worth a look.

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The Rocky Horror Picture Show– 40 years have not diminished the cult status of Jim Sharman’s film adaptation of Richard O’Brien’s stage musical about a hapless young couple (Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon) who have the misfortune of stumbling into the lair of one Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry) one dark and stormy night. O’Brien co-stars as the mad doctor’s hunchbacked assistant, Riff-Raff.

Much singing, dancing, cross-dressing, axe-murdering, cannibalism and hot sex ensues-with broad theatrical nods to everything from Metropolis, King Kong and Frankenstein to cheesy 1950s sci-fi, Bob Fosse musicals, 70s glam-rock and everything in between. Runs out of steam a bit in the third act, but the knockout musical numbers in the first hour or so makes it worth repeated viewings.

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Young Frankenstein– Writer-director Mel Brooks’ 1974 film transgresses the limitations of the “spoof” genre to create something wholly original. Brooks kills two birds with one parody, goofing on James Whale’s original 1931 version of Frankenstein, as well as his 1935 sequel, Bride of Frankenstein.

Gene Wilder heads a marvelous cast as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced, “Franken-schteen”) the grandson of the “infamous” mad scientist who liked to play around with dead things. Despite his propensity for distancing himself from that legacy, a notice of inheritance precipitates a visit to the family estate in Transylvania, where the discovery of his grandfather’s “secret” laboratory awakens his dark side.

Wilder is quite funny (as always), but he plays it relatively straight, making a perfect foil for the comedic juggernaut of Madeline Khan, Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, Cloris Leachman (“Blucher!”), Terri Garr and Kenneth Mars, who are all at the top of their game. The scene featuring a non-billed cameo by Gene Hackman is a classic.

This is also Brooks’ most technically accomplished film; the meticulous replication of Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory (utilizing props from the 1931 original), Gerald Hirschfeld’s gorgeous B & W photography and Dale Hennesy’s production design all combine to create an effective (and affectionate) homage to the heyday of Universal monster movies.

13 songs the lord never taught us: A Halloween mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

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Something tells me there will be more than a couple Halloween parties this weekend. If you’re short a DJ ,  may I offer a few frighteningly apropos suggestions for your playlist? Alphabetically:

1. The Ballad of Dwight Frye– Alice Cooper

I’ve gotta get OUTTA here!” Alice Cooper’s highly theatrical paean to the screen actor who played a succession of loony characters, most notably  “Renfield” in Tod Browning’s 1931 version of Dracula. Just remember…”sleepin’ don’t come very easy, in a straight white vest.”

2. Bela Lugosi’s Dead- Bauhaus

This is the Goth anthem. “I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m dead.” We get it.

3. Black Sabbath– Black Sabbath

Album 1, side 1, cut 1: Howling wind, driving rain, the mournful peal of a bell, and the heaviest, scariest tritone power chord intro you’ve ever heard. “Please God help meee!!“Talk about a mission statement.

4. Careful With That Axe, Eugene- Pink Floyd

The Floyd’s most ominous dirge is basically an instrumental mood piece, but Roger Waters’ eerie shrieking  is the stuff of nightmares.

5. Death Walks Behind You– Atomic Rooster

Lock the door, switch the light…you’ll be so afraid tonight.” A truly unnerving track from one of my favorite 70s British prog-rock bands.  Keyboardist Vincent Crane pulls double duty on this list; he had previously played with The Crazy World of Arthur Brown (below).

6. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde– The Damned

You know what they say: You’re never alone with a schizophrenic! Choice cut from the U.K. pop-punk band’s finest LP, The Black Album.

7. Fire- The Crazy World of Arthur Brown

Yes, that Arthur Brown…heir to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, the forefather of Alice Cooper, and most importantly, the god of hell fire!

8. Goo Goo Muck– The Cramps

It would be sacrilege not to include the kings of Pyschobilly…

9. I Put a Spell on You– Screamin’ Jay Hawkins

This cat must have scared the living shit out of middle America, smack dab in the middle of the drab Eisenhower era. “Moohoohaha!

10. Riders on the Storm– The Doors

In my review of the documentary When You’re Strange, I wrote:

I can still remember the first time I heard “Riders on the Storm” by the Doors. I was all of 14. It haunted me then and haunts me now. Even though it wasn’t a movie, it was my introduction to film noir. Distant thunder, the cascading shimmer of a Fender Rhodes and dangerous rhythms. “There’s a killer on the road. His brain is squirming like a toad.”  Fuck oh dear, this definitely wasn’t the Archies. […] Morrison’s vocals really got under my skin. Years later, a friend explained why. If you listen carefully, there are three vocal tracks. Morrison is singing, chanting and whispering the lyrics. We smoked a bowl, cranked it up and concluded that it was a pretty neat trick.

11. Season of the Witch– Vanilla Fudge

Donovan’s original version doesn’t hold a candle to this marvelously histrionic psychedelic train wreck.  Eat your heart out, Bill Shatner!

12. Sympathy for the Devil- The Rolling Stones

“Something always happens when we play this song.” Famous last words there from Mick Jagger in the 1970 rock doc Gimme Shelter, moments before the cameras (unknowingly, at time of filming) capture the stabbing death of an audience member.  Now that’s scary.

13. 21st Century Schizoid Man– King Crimson

Cat’s foot, iron claw, neuro-surgeons scream for more…at paranoia’s poison door...”  And that’s  the most optimistic part of this song!

Honorable mention:

(backwards) Stairway to Heaven– Led Zeppelin

Rumor has it there is a painting of Jimmy Page  going all to hell. If you believe in that sort of thing (there are two paths you can go by).

Pleasant dreams!