Phantom Thread (2017)

*. A good movie. But did there need to be this much of it?
*. A couturier goes through women like the bolts of cloth he makes into high fashion. Obsessed with order, he is a control freak. One day, in-between lovers/muses/hired help, he finds a new girl who will, as the saying goes, do. She, however, turns out to be more than he bargained for, being every bit as much of a controlling personality. Though she upsets him at first, in the end he not only accepts her but learns to enjoy being dominated. No longer his muse or lover she has become his mother and he her hungry boy.
*. There’s something asexual about such relationships, and that’s lightly touched upon here. When asked why he isn’t married Reynolds replies only that “I make dresses.” This could mean that his profession/calling comes first, or it could be hinting at something else. Not so much that he’s possibly homosexual (there’s no evidence for this) but that he has no sexuality, or that he’s pre- or postsexual. It can only be deliberate that we never see him kiss Alma until the very end, when he has become a patient/child to be nursed, without any virility.
*. As a psychological portrait of a certain kind of relationship it’s entirely convincing. The bond that Reynolds and Alma share is one that’s far more common than perhaps many people allow. Alma is alert to Reynolds’s real needs: she learns on a first date of his mother fixation and can hardly miss the role played by Cyril, the live-in sister. He just has to be made to accept what he is and she’ll take care of him. I can say I’ve known many such couples, and Reynolds and Alma, if they were real, would be far from the most extreme example of the type I’ve seen.
*. It’s not surprising that the movies Phantom Thread most reminded me of were horror films or thrillers that took similar ideas of toxic codependency to their nightmarish conclusions. Think Fatal Attraction, or Misery, or Bitter Moon. They’ve really just taken a similar situation to those psychological thrillers and glamorized it.
*. Speaking of other movies that might have provided inspiration, am I wrong in seeing Women in Love lurking somewhere behind the alpine skiing holiday? I can’t think of any other reason why that brief scene would be in here. Surely the struggle for mastery between Reynolds and Alma draws something from that between Gerald and Gudrun in that film.
*. I think it’s a good script, introducing leitmotifs that stitch together the main themes. Hunger, for example. Or the question of sincerity, which everyone pays lip service to even as they admit they’re all playing games. That is, not quite behaving in a grown-up way.
*. On the negative side of the ledger, it does go on a bit long for what is a very simple tale. It’s nicely done, in a pretty way that I suspect was being arch some of the time. Even the designer’s name, Woodcock, seems to have been a joke. The triumvirate cast — Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, and Lesley Manville — are all very good at working with their eyes, since there’s always more going on than they are expressing verbally. I find Paul Thomas Anderson can be given to meticulous doodling and shapelessness, but here he seems mostly on point. I liked the film.
*. Do I want to see it again though? Not anytime soon. For all its evident craftsmanship I didn’t get the sense that there was anything deeper going on or more to uncover. It’s both subtle and superficial at the same time. Well done, but even though it cultivates restraint I felt it needed more bite to go with its evocation of haute perversity and emotional hunger.

Tragedy Girls (2017)

*. I get it. At least I think I do. It’s a satire on the blood and guts of high school, with a pair of teenage girls who are aspiring serial killers. The only new wrinkle to this old story being that we’re in the age of social media so they’re murdering people as a way to drive traffic to their blog.
*. Yes, blog. Remember those? Well, I’m still here anyway.
*. Right away Tragedy Girls runs into all kinds of problems. First: while satire isn’t always about knee-slapping laughs, it usually works on some level as comedy. This movie doesn’t. I want to say right away that I wasn’t offended by its nihilism or bleakness. That gets a pass from me. But it’s just nihilistic. It’s not shocking or insightful. And it’s never funny.
*. On the DVD commentary track director Tyler McIntyre and co-writer Chris Lee Hill mention how “super funny” and “hilarious” some scenes are, but I didn’t get a smile out of any of them. Apparently the biggest laugh line was the when the girls reunite at the end, saying “I missed you so much.” That’s a laugh line? I must be out of touch.
*. Second: there’s nothing new here. Like a lot of self-aware horror-comedies from this period it’s full of in-jokes that reference other horror movies. The business of naming characters after famous horror directors, for example, has by now almost become a cliché (on the commentary track it’s said that this began with Prom Night 2). But all the winks and nods (there’s even a preposterous reference to Cannibal Holocaust!) only underline how old it all is. And I’m not just talking about the horror stuff. The satire is old too. It’s Heathers and Mean Girls, and pretty much any essay by John Waters on our fascination with killers as celebrities (from Female Trouble to Serial Mom). The only thing somewhat new here is that the girls have cellphones.
*. Third: sticking with the social media angle, I don’t think any kind of point is being made about teens and how their use of the Internet is affecting them. The teacher here gives a brief lecture on the rise of narcissism and psychopathic behaviour and how it may be related to the selfie generation, but in the first place that’s not saying anything we don’t already know and in the second it doesn’t seem to apply to these particular girls. Are Sadie and McKayla just trying to get attention? It’s revealed at the end that they were both killers at a very young age, well before they would have had a blog or an Instagram account. The Internet didn’t make them murderers.

*. Does the movie fudge the romantic connection between Sadie and McKayla? Nothing of this nature is even suggested, but they are surely more than BFFs in their folie à deux. Boys are either dull or unnecessary, while they are, as they admit, meant for each other. But maybe they’re so into themselves that any deeper attachment is impossible. When they’re together it’s like looking in a mirror. You can’t even tell who is the instigator.
*. This is all too bad. Marvel teens Brianna Hildebrand and Alexandra Shipp are capable of more than they’re asked to do here. Audiences found their shallowness and cruelty to be off-putting, but as I’ve said I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with the film’s insouciant amorality. The problem isn’t that I find the girls appalling, it’s that the movie doesn’t give me any reason to care about them.
*. There are a couple of good, if brief, kills. But there’s nothing spooky or suspenseful going on. Which leaves us with a comedy that isn’t funny, a horror movie that isn’t scary, and a satire with no real target. In all honesty, I have a hard time understanding what it is they were aiming for here. But whatever it was, I’m pretty sure they missed.

Night of the Big Heat (1967)

*. The gang’s all here. Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing (the latter credited as only “guest starring,” whatever that means). Directed by Terence Fisher. With a story by the staggeringly prolific (and now largely forgotten) John Lymington about an alien life form that burns people to a crisp. Sure it was put out by a small studio (Planet Film Productions, who had just done the very similar Island of Terror the year previously), and obviously it had no budget to work with, but really: how bad could it be?
*. Night of the Big Heat answers that question.
*. Since they didn’t have any money to spend on the monsters they ditched the idea in the novel of fire spiders from Mars (or wherever) and went with a glowing blob that makes a high-pitched, cicada-like whine. This blob was, however, so disappointing that they decided to conceal the alien’s appearance until the very end. This has two unfortunate consequences: (1) for most of the movie we only see actors reacting to the monster by screaming at the camera and then flaring out in white light; (2) when the big reveal finally does come it’s an even bigger letdown.
*. It’s not just the monster. Night of the Big Heat can’t even sell its basic premise, which is that a small island off the English coast is experiencing an extreme heat wave in the middle of winter. Unfortunately, the only way they had to represent this was to douse the (male) cast with glycerin that is supposed to look like sweat. Except it doesn’t. The shirts are stained in ways that don’t follow any familiar sweat pattern. Meanwhile, Cushing never takes his jacket off (despite it appearing to be soaked as well) and Jane Merrow looks like she’s freezing in her bikini. Which she probably was. The film was shot in February and March! In England!
*. The script was apparently a work in progress that nobody was satisfied with. It’s a talky film and all of the talk is bad. I guess the sexual angle was thought to be a way of turning up the heat further, but it’s just dull. The explanation for the aliens is dumb even by 1967 standards. The characters behave like idiots. Right after warning Cushing not to go near the pit, in which he will be killed, Lee sees something glowing in the pit, complains about how hot it’s getting and decides . . . to go into the pit to check it out. Makes sense. I mean, he’s a scientist. As for Merrow’s character, she’s much too dumb to live but somehow does.
*. Relased in the U.S. as Island of the Burning Damned. I wonder which title is worse. I honestly feel like it’s a toss-up.
*. If you have a sweet tooth for this sort of fare then you’ll get a smile out of some of the terrible dialogue (“I wanted her! I wanted her body!”) and the general air of silliness. But in answer to the question of how bad it could be the only answer is Plenty.

Island of Terror (1966)

*. I wonder how many actors there have been who had careers like that of Peter Cushing. He’s still very well known today, and I think widely admired, but he made a living out of appearing in scores of undistinguished and now quite obscure movies basically playing variations on the same character. Just look over his filmography. What stands out? Turns as Sherlock Holmes and Van Helsing. Of course Grand Moff Tarkin (though that was a bit part). Aside from that it’s mostly a blur. I was surprised to find that he doesn’t even have an entry in David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film.
*. Well, here he is again, performing above his pay grade in a cheap slice of Brit horror from the ’60s. As usual he is an eminent man of science fighting the forces of evil. Island of Terror wasn’t a Hammer production, but it might as well have been. Terence Fisher was behind the camera. The big house isn’t Oakley Court but St. Hubert’s. Cushing’s character exclaims that it looks like Wuthering Heights, but I don’t think Emily Brontë imagined anything half so grand.
*. I thought the plot felt very much like a Doctor Who episode, which seems fitting since Cushing played the Doctor this same year in the feature Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. To recap: A bunch of scientists have set up a research station on a remote island off the east coast of Ireland. While trying to discover a cure for cancer they accidentally create a species of fast-breeding creatures that sort of look like giant turtles with long, tentacle-like necks. Anyway, once one of these “silicates” grabs hold of you they dissolve every bone in your body and then start to duplicate. Given enough of a food supply they’ll soon take over the world.
*. The silicates do not impress. Since they move very slowly and the only way they can attack is by way of their single appendage (or, even more improbably, by falling on people from out of trees) they really aren’t all that threatening. At best they can be disgusting, as when they go through some kind of mitosis and spill out pools of greenish spaghetti. But give credit to the producers for going ahead and showing them in all their low-budget glory early on, in full view and good lighting. Laugh or shake your head if you want, but this is the best they could do and you’re welcome to it.
*. If the silicates underwhelm, they do at least provide the film with its one signature element. The rubberized corpses of the people they have de-boned are actually pretty creepy. I only wish we had seen more of them. But I don’t think Fisher’s heart was in it.
*. Carole Gray plays the scared, helpless, and stupid female who is even more scared, helpless, and stupid than usual. She needs to be held, a lot, and is so lacking in agency she’s nearly euthanized at the end.
*. The idea of injecting strontium-90 into a herd of dairy cattle that the silicates then eat and are poisoned by isn’t bad. But aside from being excessively nerdy it’s also a drawn-out and boring solution. While dynamite and “petrol bombs” (Molotov cocktails) are attempted but found wanting, I think we still want to see the silicates getting destroyed in some more spectacular way than just dying from food poisoning.
*. Well, don’t expect too much. Island of Terror is a bit of fun for fans of British horror from this period. There are a couple of decent jump scares, and some memorably odd shots of herds of silicates wandering through forests and fields. It’s certainly miles ahead of the next production to come from Planet Film Productions, Night of the Big Heat. Which only goes to show that things here could have been a lot worse, even without the contagion spreading to Japan.

Riddick (2013)

*. All things considered, I liked Riddick better than the first two films in this series. Which feels like a strange thing to say, given that (1) I don’t think it’s a good movie, and (2) things aren’t usually better the third time around. But all such judgments are relative. Pitch Black was just OK and The Chronicles of Riddick was garbage, so the bar wasn’t set that high. And since Riddick is basically a remake of Pitch Black with better production values they weren’t going to go far wrong.
*. It’s actually quite remarkable how similar the plot here is to Pitch Black: a bunch of people stranded on a desert planet inhabited by ferocious monsters (this time they look like giant scorpions) have to recover some fuel cells in order to power up their space ship and escape.
*. You may be wondering how Riddick found himself in this situation after being made king of the Necromongers at the end of the previous movie. Well, long story short, they turfed him out and marooned him on this planet, leaving him for dead. So much for all that time spent building up the Riddick mythology. Not only is this movie a retread of Pitch Black, it’s almost as though The Chronicles of Riddick never happened.
*. There are other similarities as well. For some reason Riddick is always being tied up with his arms spread out wide behind him. I can only assume this is done to show off Vin Diesel’s musculature. Also par for the course is the unimpressive CGI. The scorpion creatures don’t look too bad, but Riddick also has a pet hyena-thing that doesn’t look remotely real.
*. It’s weird how inconsistently these films deal with Riddick’s eyes. These were surgically augmented (or “shined”) while in prison, allowing him to see in the dark but requiring him to wear dark goggles during the day. Or at least some of the time. And then some of the time he wears dark goggles at night. Despite his eyes being his most distinguishing feature, his night vision only plays an incidental part on a couple of occasions in these movies. And when we’re shown what he sees with his RiddickVision it just looks blurry. As super powers go it isn’t very super and serves no purpose.
*. The film has an awkward sort of feel to it, breaking into different narrative chunks. There’s Riddick and his dog alone on the planet. There’s the arrival of a couple of very different gangs of mercenaries (a word that means “bounty hunter” in this universe). Then there’s Riddick vs. the mercs, and Riddick and the mercs vs. the scorpions.
*. The Riddick vs. the mercs section is typical of that awkwardness I mentioned. It takes the standard SF-horror idea of visitors to a planet being hunted by a monster, only the monster (Riddick in this part of the movie) is the hero and the people being hunted are the bad guys. It’s like you’re cheering for the Predator, even as you know he’s going to win.
*. Despite all the potential such a plot has for thrilling action, it doesn’t deliver much. As noted, the dog looks silly. The first group of mercs are played as comic baddies, despite including Dave Bautista in the mix. The next bunch of mercs have a shoehorned connection to Riddick in that their leader (Matt Nable) is actually the father of the merc who got killed in Pitch Black. Most of the tension between Riddick and the mercs is created through various cool-contest stare-offs, complete with lots of eye-rolling tough-guy dialogue. Some of this hints at self-awareness, but nothing is particularly funny. Meanwhile, Riddick’s preternatural ability to call in advance exactly what’s going to happen next defeats any sense of suspense (not to mention being pretty silly too).
*. So, no, it’s not an SF adventure classic. But I would rate it the best Riddick movie (yet), and much better than the previous entry in the series. Riddick himself, however, still seems underdeveloped and underplayed, as though no one is really interested in where he came from or how his eyes are supposed to work. Instead he’s just a superhero who goes around flexing his muscles and kicking ass in various fantasy settings. Nothing we haven’t seen hundreds of time before. This is too bad, as the concept would seem to have lots of room for development. After three movies, I’m pretty confident that the combination of Vin Diesel and David Twohy aren’t the guys to make it happen though.

The Chronicles of Riddick (2004)

*. I praised Pitch Black (retitled The Chronicles of Riddick: Pitch Black when it came out on DVD) for its simple story and how it made do with a relatively small budget. The Chronicles of Riddick quintupled that budget in telling a story so complicated I was lost halfway through the introductory voiceover. I did not like it at all.
*. I often wonder, when I don’t have anything else to wonder about, how movies with so much action can be so boring. When the Necromongers attack the planet Helion Prime it just seems to drag on forever, with the bright flashing lights only there to induce seizures. And none of this has any point. We know what’s going to happen at this point in the story and I just wanted them to get on with it.
*. The plot here is both bog simple and bewildering. The Blue Meanies (or Necromongers) are taking over the universe. These guys are the usual medieval warriors who have somehow found themselves aboard starships. They wield giant battle axes and dress in armour. As it turns out, there has been a prophecy that our man Richard (Don’t call him Dick) Riddick is the chosen one, meaning the only guy who will be able to stop them.
*. So much, so familiar. But layered on to this is a game of power politics being played among the Necromonger elite and Riddick’s journey to a prison planet to save the now grown-up girl he rescued in the previous movie.
*. I should say that the version of this film I saw was the director’s cut, which included some 15 minutes of material that hadn’t been part of the theatrical release. I don’t see where this could have helped. If ever there were a case of too much and not enough, this film is it.

*. Dame Judi Dench as Aereon, which sounds like a piece of exercise equipment. Actually she’s an air elemental. I was kind of surprised to see her showing up on Helion Prime, but I guess Sir Alec Guinness lived for a while on Tatooine. These distinguished names fit well with the whole Masterpiece Theatre brand of SF, where fantasy elements play such a big role (Dench is basically a fairy queen here, and in Star Wars Guinness was a knight). There’s a long history of this in SF, going back to Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels and Frank Herbert’s Dune books.
*. For a “triple-max” prison, the penal pits on the planet Crematoria are rather slackly guarded aren’t they? They have what? Five guards keeping watch over a giant hole in the ground?
*. No point saying anything more. This is generic, confusing, overproduced, and overwritten. The fight scenes are so fiercely edited it’s hard to make out what is happening. The design elements are kitsch fantasy and seem reliant on plastic forms. Colm Feore is a talented actor but hopeless in a role that demands something less.
*. I could barely finish watching it, especially at the inflated running time. Vin Diesel again seems intent on underplaying the role of Riddick to the point of near invisibility, aside from flexing his giant arms. When you think about it, the Riddick movies are a bit of an oddity as a franchise. They didn’t do great box office (making most of their money on DVD sales) and weren’t well received critically. And yet the series continued. Some things are hard to explain.

Pitch Black (2000)

*. It seems strange to me that people want to do effects-driven SF-action movies on a low budget. If there’s any genre that needs to have some money thrown at it to work, this is it.
*. All the more credit then to Pitch Black, a low-budget SF film that still manages to (mostly) work. Though even the label of “low-budget” has to be considered as relative to the genre. $23 million was still a good chunk of change in 2000.
*. Most of the money doesn’t show up on screen. The aliens don’t look good, neither all that original nor very convincing. They look like CGI. Their RaptorVision, and Riddick’s night vision, are both surprisingly vague. How can they see anything in all that blur?
*. But mostly the limitations of the budget are concealed (if that’s the right word) by director David Twohy jerking the camera around and doing lots of rapid cutting. Which makes you sort of give up on what’s going on after a while.
*. The plot, as simple and formulaic as it is, works pretty well. A spaceship of pilgrims (and one convict who is being transported) crash lands on a remote planet. The only remaining life on this desert world are giant carnivorous raptors that only come out at night. As bad luck would have it, the planet is about to go into eclipse. And on a dark planet the man with specially augmented eyeballs — that would be the convict Riddick — is king.
*. Like I say, it’s simple enough. The crash survivors have to work together to repair a spaceship they find at an abandoned mining colony before the bat creatures kill them all. Despite its premise there isn’t a lot of suspense, but there’s enough action to keep things moving along. And there’s even a twist at the end that honestly surprised me.
*. You could think of it as the film that launched Vin Diesel to stardom. Or that might have been The Fast and the Furious (out the next year). As with most action icons, he really can’t act. At all. But he has that quality that makes him the center of attention, whatever else might be going on. Despite his build he also has a peaceful demeanour that’s an odd fit for this character. I mean, we know Riddick is actually a good guy, but he just doesn’t seem that dangerous.
*. Well, better to have audiences find you inherently likeable than mean. It’s a quality that would serve Diesel in good stead in the coming years, as he would effectively become a man of two franchises. Even if he was to be eventually buried by both under an avalanche of bigger budgets, more effects, and brighter star power. As the next film up in the series would prove, this was not progress.

Laura (1944)

*. The mystery of Laura Hunt. I like that family name, both mundane and thematically suggestive of what’s to come. But her name’s not the point. When I say mystery I’m referring to the popularly held notion of the character being an unattainable woman of mystery and glamour.
*. This was not the original of Laura, meaning the character created by Vera Caspary in her 1943 novel (which was, in turn, adapted from a play she’d written). Caspary’s Laura was a “bachelor girl” and career woman — someone not unlike Caspary herself. Working for a New York ad agency, she’s Peggy Olson twenty years before that character took on Madison Ave. Certainly ahead of her time, but mysterious?
*. No. In the book she’s a kind person (the word most often used to describe her is “generous”), and despite being a professional she has a romantic streak that gets her into what she later realizes is trouble. Caspary would later describe her, I think critically, as an “independent girl who earned her living and pampered her lovers.”
*. But like any good proto-Cosmo girl Laura sees someone like Waldo Lydecker, who she has some genuine affection for, mainly as a resource to be mined. Not quite a sugar daddy maybe, but pretty close to it. Though they also work well as a team. In one analysis she’s his beard, while he runs interference for her, protecting her from worthless suitors. But it was a good decision to cut the scene (included with the DVD) where Waldo talks about how he made her. That doesn’t ring quite true. I don’t think Lydecker actually understands her at all.
*. For Danny Peary, Laura and Waldo make “the best couple imaginable” in the film, meaning not so much that they’re made for each other as that the alternatives (for her) are so much worse. I think Molly Haskell means something similar when she called them “a dazzling team.”
*. I have to confess I don’t understand what Laura sees in Shelby at all. Neither did Daryl Zanuck, who had a lot of problems with the film at pretty much every stage of its production. Shelby’s just not in Laura’s league. But I don’t think McPherson offers much better. Surely she’ll grow tired of him in a couple of weeks.

*. But in the movie much of the information we need to judge these matters is lost or transformed. Part of the problem is that the book had a sort of collage narrative switching from different points of view (the model was The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins). In the movie we only hear Lydecker’s voice as narrative, though the second half of the movie is usually seen as being “told” from McPherson’s point of view (and for which he was originally meant to provide voiceover). Laura herself becomes a kind of blank, not unlike her famous portrait. A portrait you can fall in love with, though without knowing what you’re falling for.
*. Another change from the book is the character of Lydecker. In the novel he’s “a big hunk of blubber” whose “fat flesh shook like cafeteria jello.” He also wears glasses all the time. This reminded me of the character of Norman Bates in Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho, who is also a fat, bespectacled man-boy. Certainly not Anthony Perkins any more than Caspary’s Lydecker is Clifton Webb. Hollywood really doesn’t know what to do with fat people other than use them as comic figures.
*. As a side note, Laird Cregar was considered for the part. He’d actually played a similar obsessive in I Wake Up Screaming and I think he would have been great here. But apparently Preminger thought it was too much typecasting after Cregar’s turn in The Lodger, and that his appearance would tip the audience off right away as to Lydecker being the villain.
*. Making Lydecker trim (Webb thought he looked like Gandhi when sitting in the tub), doesn’t help much in understanding his attraction to Laura. Roger Ebert describes Waldo as “a man insanely jealous of a woman even though he never for a moment seems heterosexual.” I’m not so sure of that. Though Webb was in fact gay I don’t find his performance here as camp as many people do. Instead he just seems like an intellectual shit. The character he most reminds me of is Addison DeWitt in All About Eve. Meanwhile, Caspary imagined him as impotent, a point symbolized by his gun being improbably concealed in his cane.
*. Building on this latter point, Haskell took Waldo as the “perfect example” of the figure of the “sexually unthreatening male.” Yes and no. If anything, I’d say Vincent Price’s Shelby Carpenter seems the gay, unthreatening one. Apparently, however, he is just meant to be dissolute. But in neither case does sexuality seem to be in play. Lydecker wants to possess Laura sort of like an art object (much as the next character Webb would play, Cathcart in The Dark Corner, would collect his wife Mira). Carpenter only wants her money, and is perfectly content to drop her for a sugar mommy of his own at the end (Judith Anderson).

*. This leaves us with McPherson as the last man standing, and if you’re picking up some romantic vibes coming off of Dana Andrews here then you’re more sensitive to these things than I am. He seems one of the least engaged (emotionally or intellectually) lovers I’ve ever seen. And is Laura really that interested in him? It’s hard to tell, though whether this is more the fault of the script or the performances is hard to say. Manny Farber described Laura as being “acted by Gene Tierney with no other qualities than there are in a fashion mannequin,” and dismissed Andrews’ McPherson as merely “wooden.” Ebert thought the two leads “cardboard”: Tierney “never seems emotionally involved” and Andrews is a portrait in indifference.
*. Yes, on the surface. And perhaps the surface is all we’re supposed to care about. But I think maybe they’re both playing the angles. I don’t agree with David Thomson’s thought that the film presents “a profound, nearly surreal romance in which desire is seen as more potent than any realization.” Unless. that is, you go on to explain desire for what?
*. It’s a movie that’s much loved (Pauline Kael: “Everybody’s favorite chic murder mystery”), probably more for its oddness than for any feeling we have for the characters. The median split, with McPherson falling asleep beneath Laura’s portrait is sometimes seen as opening the door for interpreting the rest of the film by way of dream analysis, which isn’t strictly justified but does go some way to explain the film’s swerve into ever greater weirdness. And if you consider the absurdity of the initial premise (because the victim was wearing Laura’s clothes and her face has been shot off she is misidentified as Laura?), that’s pretty weird.
*. To take just one example, McPherson doesn’t seem like much of a cop, does he? As Ebert observes, he never even goes to the station (though that depends on where you think he interrogates Laura). To which we might add he never seems to work much with other cops, preferring to let Lydecker follow him around. Is he already playing Lydecker, suspecting something is up? Is there any attraction between them? Critics have looked at that opening bathtub scene and raised their eyebrows. Is a game of seduction going on? And why does he leave the murder weapon at Laura’s place, saying he’ll pick it up in the morning? He can’t be using it as bait to catch Lydecker because Waldo has already stolen a march on him.

*. Not everybody likes it. Manny Farber concluded his contemporary review saying “it is hard to find anything good in Laura, or simply anything.” What he mainly objected to, I think, is the film’s emphasis on superficiality at the expense of moral significance. Even the film’s champions will go along with some of this. Laura is a clever and stylish picture certainly, but it’s also kind of silly and has a maddening (or mysterious) vagueness about it. The question I keep coming back to is whether that’s the point: that this is all there is to Laura and Mark.
*. It’s a movie full of memorable bits. From the opening line “I shall never forget the weekend Laura died,” through David Raksin’s Laura theme, the iconic portrait (actually a photograph of Tierney that was painted over), the opening scene with Lydecker in the tub and McPherson taking his measure, the unobtrusive way the clock keeps working its way into the frame, the justly celebrated turn in the middle of the picture with McPherson creepily going through Laura’s personal items before falling asleep beneath her portrait, and finally Lydecker’s hunting of Laura while his own voice, pre-recorded to play on a radio show, talks about love in the background. There aren’t a lot of movies that give you as many moments as this.
*. As observers have often pointed out, it’s a mystery without a mystery (since we don’t really care about poor Diane Redfern). It’s also a romance without any romance, for reasons I’ve already mentioned. It’s usually classified as a film noir, but the connection seems shaky there too. In the BFI 100 Film Noirs volume, for example, Jim Hillier admits it is “not a particularly typical film noir” (but then, what is?). In terms of its narrative it seems almost like a fragment: a story that the audiences comes in late for, and which ends before everything is wrapped up. That’s not a fault, but just another point that adds to its obscurity and appeal.

Gringo (2018)

*. I began my notes on 2 Days in the Valley (1996) by talking about the immediate impact Pulp Fiction had and the clones it gave rise to.
*. 2 Days in the Valley also featured the debut of Charlize Theron in a leading role. What’s remarkable is that over twenty years later she’d be back in a movie demonstrating just how long the reach of Tarantino’s masterpiece has been.
*. I don’t want to lean on this too heavily, but you feel Tarantino’s continuing influence throughout Gringo. For example, with the gangster story whose several different threads dissolve into a violent comedy of errors, and the passages of inane argument that come out of nowhere (like what the best Beatles album was, or whether Peter was really a better man than Judas). I see the script anyway as being very much in the early Tarantino vein.
*. I did not, however, care for the script very much. Most of the characters are stupid and they do stupid things. Other characters are introduced who have no role to serve. Did it matter that Harold was married and his wife was cheating on him with his boss? Did we need the drug mule sub-plot at all? I didn’t see the point in any of this.
*. The direction is also flat. It’s the first film by Nash Edgerton, brother of Joel, who plays one of the leads. The best I can say for it is that it’s competent.
*. This is all too bad, as there’s a good performance by David Oyelowo wasted here. Meanwhile, Theron’s role is frankly embarassing. I can only hope she got paid a lot.
*. With movies like this they’re basically just hoping that your desire to see how all the complications in the plot are resolved will be enough to keep a pilot light of interest on. For me it didn’t. I had the sense the story was going nowhere. That said, the ending did surprise me. Just not in a good way.
*. We wind up with a montage showing us what’s happened to all the characters. But the point of the film, or at least its theme, seems to have been that while terrible things happen to good people, in the end everything works out. But then we do not see just desserts being served. For example, why is Sharlto Copley’s ex-spec ops humanitarian one of the only characters to get killed? (I won’t bother asking how he survives being hit by a car in the first place only to be shot later.)
*. I suppose we can write that one off to irony, but then why does Elaine (Theron) get away with everything? She’s just as big a corporate crook as her partner Richard, and just as heartless. Is it because she’s a woman and has to put up with a lot of guys hitting on her? But this makes no sense because she uses sex, very crudely, to get ahead. It seems an odd political and moral message.
*. This may be irony as well, deliberately reversing our expectations, but things get even stranger. I have to admit, I was expecting Harry to disappear off to Haiti so he could continue Copley’s work there. If I understand what’s going on, it’s Copley’s money he’s taking. But instead we see he’s become just another rich guy running a touristy bar down in Mexico. Does he still believe in God? Or Mammon?

The Truman Show (1998)

*. In hindsight we might call 1998 the Year of the Simulacrum. The two big films that are most often paired are Dark City and The Matrix, but The Truman Show is very much a work in the same vein, playing especially close to Dark City. When Truman punches a hole in the horizon, with only a mysterious void beyond, it’s a near equivalent moment to John Hurt’s breach of the wall at the end of Alex Proyas’s film.
*. It might have been even closer in spirit to Dark City if the original concept had been filmed, which was more of a suspense thriller set in an ersatz Manhattan. But things went in a slightly different direction, leading to a (somewhat) sunnier vision of a man trapped in a fake reality.
*. Of course Seahaven is a much sunnier place than the dark city of Dark City (though they both seem to represent a strange amalgam of 1940s America). It never rains in Seahaven (except for very local cloudbursts) just as the sun never rises on the dark city. But The Truman Show is a sunnier film in other ways as well. The ending, with the viewers cheering (ourselves included, since the viewers on screen are just there to play a laugh track-like role), appears to have only a minor irony attached to it, as the television audience realize the show is finally over and they can change the channel. Truman has demonstrated the triumph of the human spirit. Now on to the next station.
*. The sunshine also means that it has to hold back from killing Truman at the end. Christof seems willing, but the executives all around him plead for Truman’s life. “We can’t let him die in front of a live audience,” they insist. Compare the studio suits in Network, who have no hesitation in killing Howard Beale for ratings, or Robert De Niro’s Conrad Brean (a showrunner not unlike Christof) who can casually order the execution of Stanley Motss. Wag the Dog being another simulacrum movie that came out just the year before. This sort of thing was all the rage in the late ’90s.

*. Is Christof an artist? He does wear a beret. Or is he just interested in ratings and keeping the cash cow that is Truman going? He also has wire-rimmed glasses. Apparently Ed Harris was given a lot of back story to help him understand the character better, but he remains a mystery to me. Perhaps he’s less the creator of Truman’s world than someone who has been swallowed up by it himself. When he insists that its ideal environment is in fact normal we sense that something is very wrong.
*. The idea that this is really The Christof Show also fits with the way it is presented as a narcissistic fantasy. The whole world really does revolve around Truman, even if he doesn’t know it. Within such an environment he can remain a man child forever. Indeed if he were to grow up or show signs of maturity he would have to leave Neverland.
*. Was it a film ahead of its time? Anthony Lane was one critic who couldn’t understand why billions of people would watch Truman, but hasn’t that question been answered now? Millions of us watch people online play video games and open boxes of toys, so.
*. Whatever happened to Jim Carrey? At the time of this movie he was one of the biggest stars in the world, but for the last fifteen years he seems to have done nothing but crap. Talk about a disappearing act.

*. Carrey was widely praised, but I felt the role could have been so much more. There’s really only the one scene where he has much of a chance to show anything, and it’s the wonderful one where he finally confronts his wife as she tries to jam in some more product placement. I wish there were more scenes like that. But even at the end he seems to have retreated behind the plastic smile again. Which may be meaningful and sad — that part of Truman Burbank, even if he knows it’s fake, is all he knows — but it’s frustrating as well.
*. I still like The Truman Show and I think it’s aged reasonably well, if not as well as the other Simulacrum movies I’ve mentioned in these notes. Perhaps it just needed more cynicism or irony. There were a number of interesting directions it could have gone in — like, for example, a reflection on Plato’s parable of the cave. Might Truman have been happier staying in Seahaven, even knowing the truth? Wouldn’t the audience turn against him for breaking the fourth wall? Instead there’s little development of any of the issues raised, like authenticity vs. reality, or public vs. private life. These are points that the film raises, but, at least to my eyes, fails to address.
*. Instead I remember it mainly for its imagery and few effective moments. The idyllic town. The warnings that seem torn from The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The extras as automated as the robots in Westworld. The ship’s bow puncturing the skyline like a Guy Billout cartoon. Of course it all looks terribly fake, and maybe that was a missed call. When fakery finally took over it wasn’t so obvious.