Let the Corpses Tan (2017)

*. I watched this movie on a whim, mainly because I loved the title (which is a literal translation of the novel it’s based on, Laissez bronzer les Cadavres by Jean-Patrick Manchette). About two minutes in I was feeling a lot of Sergio Leone, but even more than that I was thinking to myself how much it felt like a movie I’d seen a couple of years ago called Amer.
*. As it turns out — and I did not know this at the time — it was directed by the same husband-and-wife team that directed Amer, Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani. Instead of gialli, however, it’s sending up the neo-noir gangster as defined by Quentin Tarantino. And I have to stop here and say that I do hate dropping Tarantino’s name into the mix so often, but let’s face it: his knowing, self-referential, retro, playful, film-for-film’s sake aesthetic is still with us.
*. I’d rate this movie slightly higher than Amer. The problem with Amer, or the main problem I had with it, is that it didn’t add up and was hard to follow. Here, because there’s a source they were working from, it’s at least easier to understand what’s going on. Even in the final act, which takes place in darkness, we can still figure out what’s happening.
*. It helps that the story is so simple. A gang of thieves steals a truckload of gold bars and hides out in an abandoned (and ruined) stone villa overlooking the Mediterranean. Also staying at the villa are some decadent artist types. A pair of cops come calling and the thieves fall out. As they always do. The bullets start to fly and nearly everyone ends up dead. It’s a story that goes back at least as far as Chaucer.
*. But I don’t think anyone who sees this movie — and virtually nobody who has commented on it — gives a damn about the story. Amer had almost no dialogue at all, and frankly they could have done the same here and it wouldn’t have made any difference. Guns and gold, that’s all you need to know.
*. Instead of telling a story, the only thing Cattet and Forzani are interested in is flash. This is a movie not just dominated by but entirely composed of gimmicks and stunts: extreme closeups, discontinuous editing, and what seem like a thousand other visual tricks meant to startle and surprise. Meanwhile, the soundtrack provides the perfect loud accompaniment, with cannon-blasts of gunshots, a Morricone-ish score that doesn’t back down a whit from the master, and lots of creaking leather.
*. There is also a lot of corrupted sexuality, as personified in the character of Luce, played by a fifty-year-old Elina Löwensohn who still looks hot as hell in a bikini. She is into bondage and (giving) golden showers. I think the latter point is meant to rhyme with the ecstasy-of-gold plot. I wonder if it’s in the novel.
*. The usual line is to chalk all of this up to the directors’ sense of style. I would not go so far. Style is meant to express something, it carries emotional (and sometimes intellectual) weight. It does work. What we get here is gimmickry. The endless stunts and flourishes don’t serve any purpose beyond themselves. They are meant to impress, but only to impress. Or to divert our attention from whatever isn’t going on.
*. Many of the reviews of the film talk about its style but then confess that this gets to be too much and in the end becomes fatiguing. I thought it got fatiguing very quickly. This is because I found it impossible to care a whit about any of the characters, or how the plot was going to resolve itself. I think this was because Cattet and Forzani may have cared even less.
*. In a way, I guess a film like this could be thought of as a contemporary exercise in pure cinema. The point then would be precisely that we shouldn’t care about the story or the characters, but only in the way these elements are rendered. The film is a kind of a crucible, with that brilliant Mediterranean sun melting everything down to . . . what exactly? Not all that glitters is gold.

Lone Wolf McQuade (1983)

*. So there’s this cop, you see. Actually he’s not a cop, but a semi-mythical frontier figure known as a Texas Ranger. Name of Walker. No, that’s not right either. Name of McQuade. J. J. McQuade. Chuck Norris.
*. Even the toughest thugs and gangsters on the border grow still at the mention of the words “Texas Ranger.” This McQuade is a bad-ass who likes to power around the border in his mud spattered Ram Charger, living off a diet of Pearl Beer. Pearl Beer and nothing but. When he cracks one open it’s like Popeye ripping the lid off a can of spinach.
*. As a cop his methods are . . . unorthodox. But he gets results. Even though his so-called superiors are always busting his ass for not being more media friendly. His marriage has broken down but he’s still on good terms with his ex and his daughter. It’s just that being a cop was too hard when it came to having a relationship. You know how it is.
*. Luckily for him, this means he’s available for a random hot babe (Barbara Carrera) to fall in love (and in bed) with him at first sight. She’s easy on the eyes and she can clean house. Too bad she already belongs to a mean dude who smokes a cigarillo and who also knows karate (David Carradine). Hell, the mean dude even drives a car with a license plate that says CARATE.
*. McQuade works best on his own. A bit of a “lone wolf,” you might say. Though he does have an older mentor figure named Dakota (L. Q. Jones). But then admin saddles him with a rookie partner, who’s also Hispanic. McQuade just hopes the kid won’t get in his way. He also hopes the damn Feds sent out by Washington don’t get in his way either.
*. Some bad guys are up to some bad things. Like smuggling weapons . . . somewhere. To terrorists. Maybe. The Ranger is on their case, but then they push his daughter off a cliff and send her to the hospital. And kill his mentor. And kill his dog! That’s going too far. Now it’s personal. But first the chief has to put him on leave. He doesn’t want the Ranger turning this into a vendetta.
*. So McQuade and the kid and the black FBI guy (the only Fed you can trust) head south of the border to take out Mr. Carate. This they do with machine guns, rocket launchers, grenades, a crossbow, and lots of karate kicks. Bad guys go flying through the air from explosions. Good guys dance between hail storms of bullets. The black FBI guy gets gut shot, but it’s no big thing. He can walk it off. The babe gets killed, dying in McQuade’s arms. Damn. Now it’s really personal. McQuade and Mr. Carate draw their weapons on each other but then toss them away so as to settle this mano a mano. Then McQuade blows Mr. Carate up, because it was written into Carradine’s contract that his character couldn’t be bested in hand-to-hand combat.
*. You can tell from this synopsis why Chuck Norris went on to become such a figure of fun in later years. There’s being an action star and then there’s a career built on cookie-cutter stuff like this.
*. But while Norris is a terrible actor, and his movies generally range from bad to very bad, Lone Wolf McQuade is pretty easy to take. The whole thing is done up as a kind of homage to spaghetti Westerns, down to Francesco De Masi’s score, so highly derivative of Morricone. The mix of martial arts and the Western had been done before with David Carradine playing the monk Caine in the television series Kung-Fu. Basically the masters of the martial arts are now gunslingers, and vice versa. Kurosawa had raided the genre, Leone had ripped off Kurosawa, and now there was no telling East from West.
*. The fight scenes are reasonably well handled. And if they’re over pretty quick at least they’re not edited all to hell like so many other martial arts movies. Norris and Carradine wanted to do as much of the fighting themselves as possible, and I think that helps.
*. The script, as I’ve outlined, is just a string of clichés. Apparently John Milius had a hand in it, and it sounds like something he didn’t spend a lot of time on. He didn’t get a credit for writing but was listed as a “spiritual advisor.” Whatever that means.
*. Just before they fight Carradine says to Norris “I’ve waited a long time for this.” Like what? 48 hours? I think that’s as long as it’s been since they met.
*. OK, I do have to admit that driving his truck out of its grave Bat Out of Hell style was great. If I were rating movies on a scale of 1 to 10 that scene alone would be worth a point.
*. They were clearly setting McQuade up to be a franchise hero, though it would take a decade for Norris to return as Walker, Texas Ranger. But the years didn’t matter. He’d always been a dinosaur.

On Dangerous Ground (1951)

*. My DVD of On Dangerous Ground is part of a box set, Vol. 3 in the Film Nor Classic Collection. By this point it seems to me Warner Bros. were starting to scrape bottom (though they had more of these sets to come). I don’t mean this in terms of the quality of the films, but in their connection to film noir. The first film included in Vol. 3 is Border Incident, a movie about an investigation into illegal immigrant farm labour. The second, His Kind of Woman, is a very odd sort of crime comedy (also, like Border Incident, set partially in Mexico). Were these noirs? Well, they were about cops and criminals.
*. One can argue endlessly over the definition of noir. And indeed many people have. Since the 1970s it’s been a favourite topic for critics. Is noir even a genre? Does it describe a moral vision, a style of photography, a setting, or scripts grounded in hard-boiled, tough-guy fiction?
*. I don’t want to make a big thing over this but personally I think it’s a stretch to see On Dangerous Ground as noir. It seems to me more like a crime melodrama. But others disagree. In 100 Film Noirs (part of the BFI Screen Guides series) authors Jim Hillier and Alastair Phillips include it. And it’s in this box set. So there’s some consensus out there for seeing it through this lens.
*. As Glenn Erickson notes on the DVD commentary track, this is a movie that has enjoyed a revival in terms of its crtical standing. Its current high reputation, he tells us “is all retroactive.” When On Dangerous Ground came out it was not well received, for what I think the innocent viewer will understand as obvious reasons. Ida Lupino’s judgement was that it was well produced but suffered from a poor script. Bosley Crowther concurred, thinking director Nicholas Ray made the most of “flimsy material,” the story being “a shallow, uneven affair.” It’s a movie that splits in two, and however deliberate a decision this was (it’s not in the source novel), Variety thought it seeemed like “two pictures grafted together.”
*. I’d agree with these negative judgments. It is a poor script from A. I. Bezzerides (best known for writing Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, and making a surprise cameo here as the sleazy Gatos). Much of the dialogue strikes me as overwrought and formalistic, and in the second half the romance between Jim (Robert Ryan) and Mary (Lupino), however capably rendered, is just too much. Again, this was not a failing that anyone missed at the time. Ray’s original ending did not have Jim coming back to Mary but presumably continuing his lonely downward spiral in the city. But that would have been too bleak even for noir.
*. It is an interesting film to look at, and has some terrific photography in different modes, from the handheld camera in the early street scenes to the chiaroscuro in the shed. This made the poor quality of the DVD transfer I was watching all the more disappointing. You really need to see the restored version.
*. What is that thing in the farm house that looks like the sculpture of a tree branch? Is it a sculpture of a tree branch? Or is it supposed to be a tree?
*. Did Robert Ryan look like Sterling Hayden back in the day or what? I actually thought he was Sterling Hayden for a moment.
*. Speaking of misidentifications, when the cops chase down the man in the street, they’re going off a radio description that only tells them they’re looking for a man in a gabardine coat. No wonder they get the wrong guy! That’s not a lot to go by. How would you even be able to tell if someone was wearing a gabardine coat if you were just driving by them anyway?
*. In their chapter on the film in 100 Film Noirs Hillier and Phillips mention that it’s a favourite of Martin Scorsese “and a key influence on Taxi Driver.” This echoed something Erickson says in his commentary: that the later film On Dangerous Ground most resembles is Taxi Driver. I’m not sure I see much of a connection. Travis Bickle is, like Jim Wilson, an alienated loner who sees the city as full of garbage, but is there anything aside from that? Is Iris supposed to be Mary? Is Travis rehabilitated? Does he renounce violence? I don’t get it.
*. There’s a lot to like here. Bernard Hermann’s score really grabs you by the lapels as the titles come up (if you have lapels), and it nicely develops an echoing hunting theme as the chase after Danny begins. Both the city streets and snowy upstate landscapes are well evoked and juxtaposed. Danny is an interesting figure, bold even for the time. Ryan does a good job in what is a complicated role. Lupino does her best to get us to take Mary seriously. But I keep finding myself drifting back to those earlier judgments. This really is a flimsy script, both on a line-by-line basis and for its contrived and sentimental premise. That’s hard to overcome.

The Nun (2018)

*. The Nun marks the fifth entry in the Conjuring Universe franchise (following The Conjuring, Annabelle, The Conjuring 2, and Annabelle: Creation). Yes, it’s a universe. That’s what they call franchises now when they make enough money. And while the Conjuring Universe hasn’t drawn in the bucks of the Marvel and Star Wars series, their return on investment has been even more impressive.
*. Some of these movies have been OK. With The Nun, however, I think we’ve passed peak Conjuring. As with Annabelle it takes a spooky if silent design element and runs with it (a doll and a painting of a nun respectively). In this film the character of the Nun is traced back to a convent in Romania that sits on top of a portal to hell built by a duke in the Dark Ages (whenever that was). After a random bombing in the Second World War (the film is set in 1952) the portal reopens and shit happens.
*. It’s all pretty standard stuff, going back as far as Matthew Lewis’s The Monk. That familiarity, however, brings with it a lot of laziness. At the end of this film I wasn’t even sure who the Nun was. I suppose she’s an embodiment of Valak (a.k.a. Valak the Defiler, the Profane, the Marquis of Snakes), which is to say presumably a nun who was possessed at some earlier point. Perhaps we’ll need a prequel to this prequel to explain that a bit better. But in any event, almost nothing about Valak is clear, at least to me. Including what his/her game is. A lot of this obscurity may be due to the fact that, like Annabelle, the Nun doesn’t speak. I think she has one throwaway line at the end, but that’s it.
*. But the sense we have of traveling well-trodden ground goes deeper than this, and ties in to that notion of peak Conjuring I mentioned. These movies all share the same horror playbook, especially with the jump scares and slow pans that reveal figures lurking behind the protagonists. There are scenes where characters reach out to pull a veil back from a face. Several scenes. All done very slowly. There are shots down long corridors. There are dark rooms where we can only make out indistinct shapes before the lights are extinguished entirely. In fact, this film is so dark it becomes an eye strain after a while. I could barely see anything.
*. I also had trouble hearing a lot of the dialogue, which is too bad because what I did hear was pretty funny. When Irene (the good nun, played by Taissa Farmiga) explains that they have to seal up the portal with the blood of Christ her hunky but not too bright sidekick Frenchie says “Christ? Jesus Christ?” That’s a classic. Then, when the relic with said blood is found and the awestruck Frenchie says “Holy shit,” the priest responds “The holiest.”
*. Apparently the director (Corin Hardy) had a Catholic priest bless the set before shooting started. When the film was released it was reviewed by real nuns who discussed the film from a theological perspective. This is what the Church has been reduced to in the twenty-first century.
*. It was panned by critics and audiences but made a ton of money and a sequel was announced as inevitable. I can’t say anything nice about it aside from the fact that it looks good, based on the parts of it I could see. Say what you will of this gang, but they do know how to stretch a buck. You don’t waste money on big stars, or a name director, or even a script. You just go with what you know, and expect people to be willing to pay for more of the same. It’s worked so far.

Pet Sematary (2019)

*. Stick around long enough and every trend comes back in fashion. Stephen King’s hey-day was in the 1980s when it seemed like every other horror movie coming out was based on one of his novels or stories. It was also the period when he was doing his best work. But that was thirty years ago and so Hollywood decided to put the old wine in some new bottles for a younger generation that hadn’t grown up with his stuff. Hence the two-part It, The Dark Tower, and this new version of Pet Sematary.
*. I wasn’t a huge fan of the 1989 Pet Sematary, directed by Mary Lambert and written by King himself, but watching it again a few years ago I thought it held up pretty well. Plus there was a lot of it that I still remembered, which is something I can’t say for most of the movies I saw in the ’80s.
*. I don’t think this version will last with as long. That’s not to say it’s a poor remake. In some ways it’s quite effective. But for me at least it seems like a film that sets itself up nicely to land some heavy emotional punches but then misses on most.
*. Critics were divided, I think mainly for a couple of reasons. In the first place, it’s an even more unpleasant movie than the first, which was disturbing enough. Basically they double-down here on the sister with the spinal deformity and then throw in an older daughter who is then used to introduce a queezy incest angle.
*. Second, the book is changed drastically, giving us a completely different ending that is, again, even bleaker than the original. Though it has the saving grace of also being ridiculous. They wanted Ellie to be a nine-year-old to make her physical exertions more credible, but more credible in this case still doesn’t mean credible. And what exactly are the Munsters going to do once they’ve reconstituted as a family? Start a local zombie apocalypse?
*. The other thing that bothered me about the ending was finding out that it was picked by test audiences. Apparently they shot several endings, including one that followed the book, and they went with the one that tested the best. According to producer Lorenzo Di Bonaventura. “A lot of times with endings, you kind of just let the audience tell you what they’re feeling. We got to screen both of them to people and it just seemed like audiences really responded to that one.” With all due respect, this is no way to make a movie. I realize it’s how things are sometimes done, but I think a movie should have enough integrity in its story that the ending should be the natural conclusion, not just a selection picked from a drop-down menu of choices.
*. I don’t mind most of the changes they made, but as I’ve said, they don’t pay off the way they should. The scene where Ellie kills her mom is the worst example. That should have been a dramatic highlight but it plays as just depressing. Meanwhile, the way Louis ironically destroys his family by trying to save it is given a nice emphasis, but it results in that silly ending that is just too much.
*. The cast is solid, with Jason Clarke as Louis, Amy Seimetz as Rachel, and Jeté Laurence as Ellie standing out. The big let down is John Lithgow, who I thought well cast but who just suffers for being no Fred Gwynne. As with any remake there’s no avoiding comparisons to the original, and Gwynne did that part so well that Lithgow ends up seeming like a poor imitation.
*. Another thing that’s changed is that now we have CGI. This, alas, only leads to a really dumb (and not at all realistic looking) roadkill scene and a vision of the forest beyond the barrier that makes it look like Skull Island. Such is the siren song of CGI: always luring filmmakers on to go big only to trip them up so that they fall on their face.
*. There’s an attempt made to flesh out the nature of the evil forces a bit more. To no good end. I liked the original better, where the dead come back just kind of ornery in a nasty animal sort of way. Here they have some kind of demonic intelligence and there are hints of their being in hell. They also seem to have special powers to affect the minds of others and super strength. I could have lived without this.
*. Overall I’d rate it as a middling effort. Some of it works. If I had to make a comparative judgment I’d rate the original better. Despite taking some chances along the way, this movie isn’t nearly as memorable. Put another way, I’m pretty sure I’ll be watching Pet Sematary again sometime, but it won’t be this version.

Alita: Battle Angel (2019)

*. Really not my thing, but here goes.
*. I’m not a big fan of manga or anime and Alita follows the Ghost in the Shell franchise in tracking a progression from manga (comic books) to anime (animated film) to live-action movie. If you can call movies with so much CGI “live action.” Rosa Salazar is Alita, but I’m not sure if she provides anything more than a voice. One side effect of this is that, as with many cartoon characters, her animated face has a disconcerting way of instantly jumping between emotional states. One moment she’s angry or concerned and the next she’s happy and playful. Along with the bodies that are so quickly dis- and reassembled one gets the feeling that nothing in this world matters very much.
*. Despite not being a fan of anime, I liked Ghost in the Shell well enough, and its “live-action” (again with the quotation marks) adaptation. Alita, however, strikes me as being quite inferior and I didn’t like it much at all.
*. It’s a nice movie to look at, as you would expect given the resources that were thrown at it, but the script is hum-drum in the extreme. Once again we have a future society split between an elite of sky-dwellers and the masses toiling in slums below. The other defining feature of this world is that most of the people we meet are cyborgs to some extent. Enter Alita, or at least her head, a cyborg discovered by Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz) on the scrap heap. Alita is obviously something special, but like Jason Bourne she can’t remember who or what she is.
*. Since the source material, a series of comic books by Yukito Kishiro, were published in the early 1990s not everything is derivative of more recent films. Though the sky city has been with us a long time, and Motorball is clearly just Rollerball with robots. None of this, I should say, makes Alita a bad movie, just uninteresting.

*. What I didn’t like was the weird YA vibe the movie gave off and the really pedestrian script. Despite the brutal violence (which includes multiple dismemberings and at least two decapitations) the plot is pure teen romance, with Alita falling head over heels for the first boy she meets. The scene where she offers Hugo her heart was cringeworthy, unless you’re twelve years old. I was honestly having flashbacks to Skaterdater. Meanwhile, the dialogue is all just comic book stuff mixed in with clumsy exposition (Matthew Rozsa: “clunky, shoehorned exposition that exists for no other purpose than to blatantly spell out the history and various rules of the Alita universe”). You start to wonder if it would be better with the sound turned off.
*. Well, it’s a comic book/superhero/video game movie. You know what they look like. If anything, it seems a little lighter and less original than most of its peers. I’d rate it below such similar fare (even down to the kick-ass female protagonists) as Valerian and Ghost in the Shell. What bothered me the most though was the awful “To be continued . . .” ending. There isn’t even the sense that a full story arc has been completed here, aside from getting rid of poor Hugo. Instead we’re left with Alita back in the Motorball arena, defiantly gesturing toward Zalem.
*. I don’t even know why Alita has gone back to playing Motorball. She knows that’s not the way to get to Zalem, so why bother? It seems like she’s put her plans for revenge on hold, figuring that in the meantime she might as well have some fun or stay in shape by being a running dog for the Motorball league. I don’t get it. She strikes a rebellious pose at the end (as an animated character she’s good at striking poses), but how is she fighting The Man by playing his game?

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

*. If you just look up “Ghost in the Shell” on Wikipedia you’ll see it described as a “Japanese media franchise.” It began as a manga (comic book) that debuted in 1989 and was turned into an anime film in 1995. It has since expanded into other feature films, a couple of TV series, and more comic books. Not to mention this “live action” film.
*. It’s important to know this history because if you don’t and you just come to Ghost in the Shell cold I think the first thing you’ll be struck by is that it’s an old story, just another cyberpunk thriller riffing on virtual reality and questions of what it means to be posthuman. Well, it is an old story. Kitted out with lots of expensive effects, but the themes it deals with, the story itself, and the whole look of the film, was nothing new in 2017. In fact, it was getting very tired.
*. You’ll have noticed I put “live action” in quotation marks. With the amount of CGI work and other effects in SF movies these days, I think they should be considered hybrids at best. It’s like the “live action” Jungle Book and Lion King Those aren’t real animals, it’s just Disney switching to a different style of animation.
*. So Ghost in the Shell has the look of Blade Runner, especially in its evocation of the city of the future. And when I say Blade Runner I mean not the original Blade Runner but the tinselly Blade Runner 2049. It has bits of Robocop. Some of The Matrix. But there’s nothing at all here that struck me as new or particularly impressive. Mira has a human mind in a manufactured body and says she is the first of her kind. Not if you’ve read any science fiction from the last century.
*. Critics were underwhelmed and even antagonistic.
*. What mostly got their backs up was the “whitewashing” of the character of Mira/Motoko: having an originally Asian character played by a white actress. This didn’t bother me nearly as much as the fact that they made Mira into such a babe. This is typical of manga/anime/comic books in general, and was certainly on full display in the original film, but as with everything else here it feels old. As soon as Mira takes off her cape in that opening reveal and shows her form in her camouflage bodysuit you go “Va-va-voom!” And then you wonder why they would give a cyborg warrior such an hourglass figure. I mean, why have boobs at all? Shouldn’t they have just given her more chest armour?
*. Actually, Scarlett Johansson was a natural choice for the part. She’s become the go-to actress for portraying the posthuman. Think Under the Skin, Lucy, and Her. Anthony Lane: “Such is the zone that Johansson patrols.” Or, as Mira puts it at the end, she’s the first of her kind but she won’t be the last. That seem excessively optimistic to me, but it does put a new spin on the concept of the It girl.
*. The other thing that reviewers didn’t like, especially those familiar with the source material, was the watering down of the philosophical questioning. They may have a point. We certainly don’t get much of that here. Mira is just on a quest to discover who she is, only to find out that it’s not her memories but what she does that defines her. Ho-hum.
*. I’m afraid these notes may be making me sound kind of jaded. But there really isn’t anything here we haven’t seen or heard before. The evil corporation. The heroic hackers. The superhuman hero. The slow-motion martial arts and gun fights. The technology that is all so seamless and works like magic. Thirty years ago I might have found this interesting.
*. The ending is particularly lame. We’re supposed to believe Kuze is some kind of incredibly powerful enhanced networked mind and then he gets taken out by something as crude as a remote-controlled spider tank? Shouldn’t he have seen that coming? (Note that in the 1995 film he planned to die and merge his consciousness with Motoko Kusanagi, but that is rejected here.) And why can’t he just upload his consciousness to the cloud instead of dying in that wrecked robotic chassis? Come to think of it, why is everyone still hooked up to wires and skull jacks? Doesn’t this future have wireless?
*. There you have it. Bright and shiny but dull and instantly forgettable. Obviously they were hoping for some kind of franchise but the box office was disappointing. It might have worked a little better if they’d spent more time introducing us to the rest of the Section 9 team, but I’m not sure they had any more personality than Mira. They really shouldn’t have bothered at all.

Ghost in the Shell (1995)

*. We begin by seeing things from Motoko Kusanagi’s point of view, with her tactical vision and voices being listened to over various frequencies. We are immersed in a mechanical world, just like Kusanagi inside her shell. It’s the perfect opening note to strike.
*. Anime is a special taste. It’s never been a particular favourite genre of mine, but when it’s done well, as it is here, I do think it has a kind of poetry to it. I still don’t care for the saucer-eyes of the characters, but the way the murky images appear to move slowly as though underwater, and the way a single bit of graceful motion within a static frame draws the eye and is made expressive are things I can appreciate. How much of that is due to Mamoru Oshii’s direction and how much to the nature of the medium itself is another question.
*. At the time it was a very expensive production, and the animation — a combination of traditional cel animation and CGI — was a painstaking process. The results, however, were worth it. The look of the film fits the theme, with that blending of the digital with old school atmosphere.
*. The story feels a bit trite, but has to be judged in context. The movie is based on a manga comic book that started publication in 1989. Cyberpunk was something new. William Gibson’s Neuromancer had only been a few years earlier. The idea of cyberspace and human-computer hybrids was something relatively new. When the Puppet Master describes itself as “a living, thinking entity who was created in the sea of information” that must have seemed kind of deep at the time.

*. Blade Runner, which informs a lot of the look of New Port City, as it would the look of so many cities of the future, came out in 1982. So while this movie is ground-breaking there’s also a lot that was becoming standard grammar. I’d also mention the highly sexualized presentation of the heroine, who rises like Aphrodite through the opening credit sequence and is basically nude a lot of the time (that is, in skin-tight outfits with her nipples jutting out). Now sure, most superheroines are exaggeratedly sexy, but then there’s Kusanagi turned into a schoolgirl at the end. How perfectly manga. At least we’re spared the tentacles.
*. Is it more than just a great-looking anime? Here I’m not sure. The story is pretty basic and moves at an awkward pace. Why is there so much expository dialogue? Plus the fact is I just wasn’t as interested in Kusanagi as I thought I should have been. I think some of the blame for this falls on the choice of having Mimi Woods do her voice in the English version. That didn’t work at all for me.
*. I’ve seen this referred to as one of the greatest if not the greatest anime ever made. I can’t judge that, but it is a movie I not only enjoy but admire in a lot of ways. It’s also grown on me over several viewings. I don’t think it transcends its genre, but twenty-five years later it’s earned its status as a classic.

All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006)

*. Hm. I’m not sure what to make of this one. The way the title appears on the screen along with a scream and then a splatter of blood makes me think we’re in horror-comedy territory. An impression reinforced by the vision of Mandy Lane (Amber Heard) progressing through high school halls, her bust the cynosure of admiring and envious eyes.
*. It seems Mandy Lane has blossomed over the summer into a goddess. But, like any goddess, she is untouchable. As one boy informs us while we watch her bounce around the track: “There she is boys, Mandy Lane. Untouched, pure. Since the dawn of junior year men have tried to possess her, and to date all have failed. Some have even died in their reckless pursuit of this angel.” The dying part will continue.
*. A gang of students — three girls, three boys — then head out to a cabin in the woods, or really a luxurious remote farmhouse, to drink, take drugs, and have sex. If this sounds like the set-up to an ’80s slasher flick you won’t be surprised by anything that follows. Point-of-view shots peering in windows alert us to the presence of a killer. There is a stop at the last gas station for a 150 miles on the way to the farm. There is a direct identification of sex with death in a couple of the kills. There’s no cell phone service out on the farm and the landline has been cut. The power goes off. The characters split up so they can be picked off one by one. A girl runs around in her sexy night attire. Bodies are discovered to the accompaniment of screams. There’s a last girl who won’t put out.
*. In all of this you may wonder what the point is in invoking so many obvious clichés. Homage? Satire? Laziness? Feminist reimagining? All of these at the same time? Kim Newman says it’s a film that “deconstructs the slasher,” and your guess is as good as mine what that means. I never understood deconstruction.
*. Oddly enough, I found most of the nods to the slasher tradition to just be irrelevant. All the Boys Love Mandy Lane feels like a slasher movie that wants to be something other than a slasher movie, but it doesn’t quite know what that something is. On the DVD commentary director Jonathan Levine calls it “a high school film in the Trojan horse of a slasher movie.” But then is it really a high school movie? There’s a body-shaming leitmotif that might have fit the bill but this mainly made me wonder why these kids were hanging out with each other in the first place. I know teens can be mean, but aren’t these guys supposed to be friends?
*. Is the movie all that interested in the soon-to-be-dead teenagers? Kim Newman apparently thought so, saying “Levine’s Texas kids are a world away from on-hiatus TV stars swapping pop-culture epigrams and owe more to the zit-popping realism of Richard Linklater or Larry Clark.” I think this is being charitable. The cast seem to only be slasher-film stereotypes: the stoner, the token black guy, the obnoxious heel, the princess/slut, the virginal last girl. None of them seemed particularly real to me.
*. Well, here I will insert a spoiler alert. The only part of All the Boys Love Mandy Lane that I found interesting is the way the last girl, who may very well be a virgin, turns out to be, if not the main killer, at least the psychopathic mastermind behind the killings. The only problem with this is that no explanation whatsoever is even attempted for Mandy’s delinquency. It’s just a twist that comes out of nowhere. Levine calls attention to the single brief scene of Mandy’s home life as giving some insight into her character, but when I re-watched it looking for such clues I didn’t come up with anything. Is there some foreshadowing I’m missing?
*. I’ve read in several places that Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre was an inspiration, but on the DVD commentary Levine specifically refers, twice, to the 2003 remake as being what they were influenced by. Now that’s scary.
*. It’s a movie with a curious history, beginning life as a student project at the American Film Institute, premiering on the midnight movie circuit at the Toronto Film Festival in 2006, and then having to wait until 2013 (!) for an American release. You’ll have to read the details elsewhere. My understanding is that the rights were bought and sold a few times as distributors came and went.
*. The delay allowed it to gain a sort of underground cult status, but also put it behind the times. As Christy Lemire remarked, “Its attempts at examining and subverting the well-worn conventions of the genre in the script from Jacob Forman might have seemed more novel seven years ago. But by now we’ve seen this approach executed much more effectively—and thrillingly—in films like The Cabin in the Woods.” To which one should say, in this movie’s defence, that The Cabin in the Woods cost a hell of a lot more to make.
*. More to the point, the “examining and subverting,” or, if you must, deconstruction, of genre conventions wasn’t that new in 2006 either. All of which brings me back to my unsureness about this movie. It’s not scary — the kills cheat on the gore right from the opening dive (for obvious budget reasons) and there’s little attempt to build suspense. It doesn’t seem particularly invested in the genre, at whatever level. The characters aren’t realistic, but are every bit as annoying as the victims in any slasher flick. The twist at the end feels tossed in, and even though I like the way the final act plays out (the slaughter pit leftover from Hud was particularly nice), I can’t say it landed with any sort of impact.
*. The way it’s put together, with different styles of photography and editing, is inoffensive, though it does have the flavour of student work, meaning experimenting with a lot of different ways of doing things without worrying too much about how appropriate or effective they may be. Montage? Why not? At times I even thought the DVD I was watching was damaged, and to be honest I’m not sure it wasn’t. Were those skips and freeze frames deliberate? If so, what was their point?
*. I think Amber Heard is pretty good in her first leading role. She’d go on to do worse. As a genre piece I don’t think it’s a movie that amounts to much, but it’s not bad at all for early work done on a low budget and it made for a pretty good calling card.

Serial Mom (1994)

*. John Waters is one of the very rare low-budget, exploitation auteurs to make a successful jump to the (more-or-less) mainstream. He was able to do this because he has some talent. A lot of marginal directors fall on their face when given greater resources because guerilla filmmaking, a specific talent, is really all they can do. Waters, however, has a broader competence.
*. Serial Mom is one of his better known mainstream films, and despite its reputation (oversold, I think, as a cult film) it strikes me as only gently subversive. Once more conventional morality is shown to be hypocrisy, with the placid exterior of American suburban life concealing a host of evils. This was not a new theme for Waters, or really for anyone in 1994. Serial Mom is basically a genteel version of Female Trouble (1974), befitting a more genteel time.
*. Despite not having much in the way of shock value, however, I think Serial Mom is well made. It also has a rock solid central performance by Kathleen Turner as Beverly Sutphin, the titular mom. But in the end it’s not much of a movie.
*. The big problem, which I’ve already flagged, is that it’s just not tough enough to be satire. The send-up of celebrity culture is always timely, and this movie came out just as the O.J. Simpson insanity broke, but it’s nothing new. And the trashing of the Leave It to Beaver caricature of the American family (with the Cleavers being specifically invoked at one point) is even older. We didn’t need John Waters to give us this.
*. But was satire even the intention? I’m not so sure. In his review Roger Ebert thought the film undone by Waters’s “essential niceness” and the tenderness he expresses for Beverly Sutphin. I think this is missing something. Though I don’t know Waters, I have read some of his books as well as seen many of his movies and I have to say I doubt he is a nice man. I think that’s an act. And I don’t think he expresses tenderness so much for Beverly as he identifies with her.
*. The thing is, Water is himself a collector of murder memorabilia and has a fan’s obsession for serial killers, so he can’t really be sending these things up. I think that this part of the movie isn’t meant as satire. Instead, I think he’s just saying that this is the natural state of the American id. Everything else is a lie. The kitsch you order from the Franklin Mint, singing along with the musical Annie . . . all of that trash. But no man is a liar in his vices, so the porn videos, the Chicks With Dicks magazine, and the serial killer scrapbook are real, or at least realer.
*. Beverly embodies this split in her multiple personality disorder. Half of her is perfect: ornithology, cooking, and generally keeping up appearances. But the other half, the real half, is the serial killer. And, crucially, it is this darker aspect that we are meant to approve of.
*. Like I say, however, none of this is new. Nor is it controversial or shocking or funny. And in the second half of the film you really have the sense that things are getting out of hand. The whole concert sequence should have been cut.
*. Worst of all, a fine performance by Kathleen Turner is wasted. Beverly is obviously the only character Waters is even slightly interested in, but he doesn’t get much out of her. She could have been so much more interesting. While going mainstream, Waters seems to have trouble going big screen. Serial Mom only feels like a rental. On VHS.