Monthly Archives: June 2016

Videodrome (1983)

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*. The most common accolade you’ll hear directed at Videodrome is that it was ahead of its time: a prophecy of reality TV, Internet porn, jihadi execution videos, virtual reality, and all the other horrors that play, endlessly, on the screens of our lives.
*. But we might want to reconsider some of this. The idea that television could be addictive wasn’t new in 1983, nor was concern over the effect of too much sex and violence. Meanwhile, Professor O’Blivion (Cronenberg’s names always seem drawn from Pynchon) is a very familiar character in at least two ways. First of all he’s the typical Cronenberg man of science: responsible for unleashing inner demons and becoming Videodrome’s first victim in the process. Second, he was based on the media-studies guru Marshall McLuhan, who had been a cultural icon in the 1970s.
*. The ideas O’Blivion expresses are no more than the usual Cronenberg pseudo-scientific claptrap. Cronenberg has always grounded his nightmares more in the subconscious than in plausibility. The technospeak is just window dressing. And so you get bland, McLuhanesque aphorisms from the professor like “The television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye” and “Television is reality, and reality is less than television.” If talk like this means anything it certainly doesn’t mean anything more than what Howard Beale was ranting on about in Network.
*. In fact, Videodrome may be Cronenberg’s dreamiest movie. Once it gets going it’s entirely impossible to understand what is “really” supposed to be happening. In part this is the result of cuts that were made. In part it’s attributable to a script that was still a work in progress while the film was being shot. But mainly it’s because we’re not sure what side of the screen we’re on. I don’t just mean things like whether or not Max kills Masha but the whole texture of the last part of the film. We’re supposed to believe a madman is walking around Toronto shooting people and the police aren’t even out looking for him? Surely that derelict ship at the end can’t be a “real” location. You can ask whether or not Max kills himself but the question I had was what that television set would be doing in there anyway and what power source it would be plugged into. Because if there’s no explanation for that then we can’t buy any part of the ending.
*. Tech dates badly. We can shake our heads at the Betamax tapes, the Cathode Ray Mission, and that solid TeleRANGER television set (more a piece of furniture than anything else, and a bitch to move I can assure you). Then there are those Atari joysticks we see sitting on top of the TV when it starts to come to life, but they disappear between cuts in what I guess is a continuity error. But nostalgia aside, the core message is still relevant, arguably more relevant than ever. The thing is, it’s not a very profound or original message.

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*. I’m still not sure of the motivations behind Spectacular Optical. They want to introduce this psychovirus into the media bloodstream because people have gotten soft? Harlan’s speech is worth quoting in full: “North America’s getting soft, patrón, and the rest of the world is getting tough. Very, very tough. We’re entering savage new times, and we’re going to have to be pure and direct and strong, if we’re going to survive them. Now, you and this cesspool you call a television station and your people who wallow around in it, your viewers who watch you do it, they’re rotting us away from the inside. We intend to stop that rot.”
*. So the answer to this softening (which is something that Max too deplores, albeit in the context of tepid softcore pornography), is to turn the entire population of North American into programmable assassins? Or infect them all with cancer?
*. It seems to me that the key to what the film is saying, or might be saying, is in Masha’s understanding that what makes Videodrome dangerous is that it has a philosophy. Or as Professor O’Blivion recognizes, it is a faith. Max has no ideals and so he really can’t compete with Spectacular Optical. He is a hollow man, a vessel to be filled by whatever signal is downloaded into his consciousness. Outside of a cathode ray tube, technology abhors a vacuum. Something is going to fill the empty space in Max’s cynical soul.
*. We may see a contemporary connection here in the eerie similarity between that orange Videodrome studio and its hooded functionaries and the various videos that have been broadcast by terrorist groups torturing and executing their victims. The terrorists have a faith (political or religious), and they use the Internet or whatever media outlet is available as a propaganda tool to spread that faith like a virus. Losers around the world can watch these videos and be infected with their message, leading them to join the cause. Like Max they become sleeper cells, programmed killers.

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*. McLuhan’s most famous aphorism was that the medium is the message. The point I’m seeing here, however, is that the message counts. We can become dependent upon the medium, or particularly susceptible to its signal, but it only carries the virus (the message, Masha’s “philosophy”) within it. I think of today’s Internet and all the people addicted to social media. It’s all made out to be so liberating and individual-oriented, but behind social media, operating the platforms, are business interests who are controlling and marketing the product (that is, the users). The medium is not neutral; it is programmed and has an agenda.
*. I love James Woods and, especially, Debbie (or Deborah) Harry. Woods is typecast as sleazy and manic, while I wonder if Cronenberg told Harry to play her part down. She says she’s in “a highly excited state of overstimulation” but you’d never guess it from the expression on her face. But this is the kind of person Nicki Brand is. She’s another hollowed-out case, looking for a stronger fix. Even pins and cigarette burns fail to get a rise out of her. She is another vessel for the message of the media, or perhaps the cable equivalent of a proto-bot.
*. Audiences at the time didn’t get Videodrome. It was a box office turkey, not even coming close to making back its minimal budget. I believe the studio bungled its release after brutal test screenings, and even gave it a bizarre animated music-video trailer that was apparently created on a Commodore 64 computer. It has a cult following today but it’s not my favourite Cronenberg film. In brief, I think it’s a fascinating mess that Cronenberg really needed to spend more time on to get right. Nevertheless, it remains one of the most iconic statements made on film of the sinister truism that when you look into the screen, the screen is looking into you.

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The People Under the Stairs (1991)

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*. Movies and memory. It’s not just that we remember movies we never saw, replaying scenes and lines that are wholly imagined in the cinema of our mind, but that we imagine them in entirely different personal and cultural contexts.
*. I remember The People Under the Stairs. And I remember when it came out. But I didn’t put the two together. I had my landmarks all messed up.
*. First example: When we see a television playing a news broadcast of the first Gulf War I was stunned. How could that be? Didn’t this movie come out long before that? Was the Gulf War twenty-five years ago now? It was.
*. Second example: Ving Rhames before he was Ving Rhames. Meaning before Pulp Fiction, which was 1994. And yet I was sure Pulp Fiction had come out before this movie. Wasn’t that where the gimp costume came from? Where had we seen one of those before?
*. Perhaps what confused me was my feeling that this movie was a product of the ’80s and not the early ’90s. The decades make a difference. 1991 was a transitional moment between the classic horror flicks of the ’80s and the self-reflexive horror-comedies of the ’90s — a transition that Craven would play a major role in (I talk more about this historical scheme, as it relates to the slasher genre, in my notes on Urban Legend).
*. In any event, The People Under the Stairs is a messy movie. It’s the sort of flick usually described as “uneven” or as having a mix of tones, in this case ranging from slapstick comedy to weird horror. Or you might just call it “interesting.” It is that.
*. It is, at least, a lot more interesting than most of the generic horror fare that was cluttering the big screen at the time. But I don’t find it funny or suspenseful. Everett McGill and Wendy Robie are borrowed from Twin Peaks, and perhaps that show embodied the disturbing note Craven was going for. But I don’t think he got it.
*. The political message, of the rich white family exploiting (literally feeding on) the poor black folk of the ghetto, seems crude to me, but again you have to give Craven points for being original. Another date check: Candyman (dealing with a similar theme) came out the next year.
*. Perhaps Craven just wasn’t interested in this angle very much. He seems drawn back to the ur-myth of his earliest movies, like The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, where a decent, “normal” family (in this film Fool, his sister, and his ill mother) are in a battle for survival with a demonic parody of a family that has gone deranged and feral, associated with incest and cannibalism.
*. It was inspired by a true story about some burglars who broke into a house where the children had been kept prisoner. And again Craven seems to have had the uncanny ability to be ahead of the curve as this was a story that would become even more resonant after the horrific cases of Wolfgang Přiklopil and Josef Fritzl came to light. Then, in 2016, we’d go down into the same basement in Don’t Breathe, one of that year’s biggest box office hits.
*. It’s a simple film. The set-up has it play like a haunted-house ride at a fairground, with all the running through narrow spaces, hanging skeletons, sliding stairways, and security mechanisms operated by a central control panel. That the main characters are children adds to this same sense of dark carnival.
*. Something more interesting might have been done with Mommy and Daddy, the degenerate terminus of a family that has seen “every generation more insane than the one before it.” But instead they are left as grotesques who only run around screaming about killing and burning in hell.
*. This is actually pretty typical for Craven, who likes to paint in broad strokes. He had interesting ideas, but seemed indifferent to the actual business of writing. He partnered well with Kevin Williamson.
*. Before Craven’s death there was a lot of talk about remaking this one, as has happened to so many of the classic horror films of the ’80s. I hope they leave it alone. Based on the history of twenty-first century horror remakes (or franchise “resets”) they would probably try for a darker, more realistic treatment of the material, replacing the satire with depressing cruelty and general vileness. I don’t need that.

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Inherent Vice (2014)

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*. I wonder why Paul Thomas Anderson made this movie.
*. Specifically, I wonder why he wanted to make a movie out of Thomas Pynchon’s novel. To be sure Pynchon’s is a name to conjure with, especially among a certain demographic, but I don’t think a lot of people read him much any more. If they did they would have been less surprised by the emptiness of this film.
*. Here’s why I’m asking. Pynchon elegizes the historical moment: the sex, the drugs, and the music that made up doper culture at a time when shoeless hippiedom passed its watershed moment (cue the references to the Manson cult) and was about to be swept away by the forces of “fear and greed.” Musicians would sell out, drugs would get harder and more dangerous, and even sex would become a power game. The men wearing suits and ties and sporting precision haircuts would inherit the Earth.
*. Anderson seems aware of this theme, but either unable or uninterested in developing it. What he offers instead is an ironic rather than elegiac look back to 1970. And when I say “ironic” I mean groovy. I mean right on. I mean That ’70s Show. I mean we’ve stepped inside the time machine and moved laterally to hipster heaven.

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*. Inherent Vice, the novel, was a muddle but still had a moral and political point buried away in it somewhere. Inherent Vice, the film, settles for being a stoner comedy. Joaquin Phoenix, complete with magnificent mutton chops, is the (mostly) straight private investigator Larry “Doc” Sportello, an island of semi-normalcy surrounded by the usual bunch of cameo zanies, sporting the usual ridiculous Pynchon names, who may or may or may not be associated with the usual Pynchon conspiracies. Doc’s world has gone mad, but in a funny way, and while it doesn’t make sense we know there will be a happy ending.
*. Anderson attempted to stay as close to the novel as possible, and did a sterling job in this regard. The dialogue, however, is often muttered and inaudible, while the plot is (as it always is in Pynchon) just one damn thing after another. This might be an attempt to say something about the paranoid style or it may be laziness. I’ve always leaned toward the latter.

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*. The oral sex leitmotif seems strained to me, and I didn’t think much of the subplot involving Owen Wilson. But if there are missteps here they can be ignored. Because, in the end, what’s important anyway? If you’re not sure what the point is, how can you say what’s a significant flaw or what is only a distraction from the larger theme?

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*. The cast is terrific. Phoenix is a bit hard to see as a P.I., but he does a blank, stunned look well, even to the point where we can believe that he’s actually considering which side of the Zig-Zag paper is sticky. Josh Brolin, Eric Roberts, and Martin Short all seem to have grown into parts that they are now being typecast in. Serena Scott Thomas is great in a mourning swimsuit and veil. But best of all is Katherine Waterston, who just crushes a scene (one of several impressive long takes) where she describes the sleepy surfer girl Shasta’s descent into submission. It’s one of the more erotic and sinister scenes I’ve ever seen, but ultimately I feel like it’s wasted here because Anderson isn’t sure what to make of it.

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*. It’s a polished film that finally doesn’t go anywhere. We are back in neo-noir territory, which has been a fruitful mythic landscape from Altman to the Coens but also a kind of critical quicksand or auteur comfort zone. It’s very much genre filmmaking and sticks to the conventions.
*. I enjoyed it and found it frustrating and disappointing at the same time. We’ve been here before, and not just in the pages of Pynchon. But “here” isn’t a real place, it’s a cartoon meta-verse of comic-book characters and clichés. That’s Pynchon’s world, but Pynchon also had a belief in the redemptive meaning of the ’70s that’s missing from this film. If I had to guess I’d say that maybe you had to be there.

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Requiem for a Vampire (1971)

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*. Getting right to the point: most of the original audience for this movie were interested, primarily, in seeing breasts and bush (the latter still a long way from extinction in 1971). In the case of Requiem for a Vampire you even got some light S&M thrown in as part of the general debauchery.
*. But no, this is not meant as exploitation but is instead an art film. Kind of. Which means the kinky stuff had to be put in there just to get the film made. Or at least that’s what Jean Rollin (who Kim Newman evasively describes as “actually a sort of artist”) said. Apparently Rollin only included the red dungeon scene at the insistence of his funders. So now highbrow cineastes can go back and overlook the tits and bums and concentrate on Rollin as auteur.
*. Except . . . exactly what is there in Requiem for a Vampire, often regarded as one of Rollin’s better films, for us to admire?
*. I can make a long list of what’s not to like. For starters it was shot on a micro-budget and looks it. The production values are very poor. I can understand the two girls not knowing how to torch a car, but it seems Rollin was clueless as well. There’s a rotting corpse hanging in the crypt that would have embarrassed the effects crew on a third-rate Italian splatter pic. The editing and sound are both atrocious. There’s little in the way of a script, with almost no dialogue or even plot beyond the basic (and somewhat trite) scenario. Instead we have a bunch of semi-professional actors running around a French chateau, having kinky sex and wearing very silly-looking fake vampire teeth.
*. What fans of the movie usually point to is its sense of style. I think this is overrated. The most striking thing about it is the use of colour, which is indeed both brilliant and effective. It’s not just the crazy clown costumes but the green of the woods and fields and the Bava-like blocks of colour that light the chateau. Aside from this, however, I didn’t think the locations were very well used and there’s nothing notable about the photography, which most of the time is just as crude as every other part of the film.

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*. Another point that’s often made in its defence is its “surrealism.” Again, I don’t see much of this. I guess it refers to those fake-looking hands sticking out of the walls. There is an explanation for the girls being dressed up as clowns (they’re coming from a New Year’s party). Otherwise, it all seems pretty conventional, if sleazy. When weird things happen I just assumed it was on the grounds of expedience, like the gravediggers filling in half a grave and then deciding they’ll come back tomorrow and fill in the rest. This makes no sense, but I reckoned they had to do it that way so that the girl could crawl out from under a manageable layer of dirt.
*. That said, it’s obvious that this is a movie that’s meant to be looked at and not thought about too much. In this way it is typical of most porn. I can’t figure out any kind of message about innocence being lost. The party girls, despite being a pair of wild things, are remarkably still virgins. They are not, however, babes in the woods. I suppose it can be taken as an allegory of girls coming of age, with Marie finding herself a boy while Michelle wants to stay girlfriends just a bit longer. The vampires are their parents: Marie breaks free of their authority by eloping with Frédéric while Michelle elects to stay at home, which is embracing the cold sterility of the grave.
*. This may be a stretch, but even if it’s a correct reading I don’t think it’s a very profound or original theme. This is a fun little movie that has some quirky charm, but that’s as far as it goes. If you really want to watch a great erotic thriller from 1971 featuring lesbian vampires I’d direct you to Daughters of Darkness.

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Edge of Darkness (2010)

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*. This is a remake of a landmark — though I think a bit overrated — BBC miniseries that first aired back in 1985. It was a good show, if a little talky and somewhat vague around the edges. The film is also talky, and downright opaque at points, but love him or hate him you have to give Mel Gibson credit for churning out decent if unexceptional mainstream entertainment.
*. So, twenty years from now which version do you think is most likely to last?
*. Cutting down a five-hour-plus miniseries to a two-hour feature should mean you lose a lot. I think they could have lost a lot more. A surprising number of characters and scenes are introduced that seem to have no purpose at all.
*. Three examples: (1) Why does Craven chase after Bennett, pull him over, beat up his driver, and pull a gun on him? Just to warn him that he’s after him? This is the point as it’s explained in an alternate version of the scene included with the DVD (where Gibson says “All you need to know is, I’m going to get you”), but I still don’t understand why he would bother running such a risk when he’s not telling Bennett anything Bennett doesn’t already know.
*. (2) Craven is stunned with a Taser and taken away to the Northmoor facility, from which he escapes. The point being? I suppose they were going to poison him there, not knowing that he’d already poisoned himself. But it’s a scene that has no purpose whatsoever in the story. It’s a complete throwaway that doesn’t advance the plot at all or provide us with any information. When I first saw Mel handcuffed to the table I was sure we were going to at least see him being tortured for a bit, because let’s face it, Mel always has to take a beating (or, in the Christian analogy he makes here, take a hanging before he starts the banging). But even that’s missing.
*. (3) Was Craven even trying to get information out of Robinson, or was he just punching him out? Unless you’re really paying attention you can easily miss who Robinson even is, not that it’s in any way important.
*. You could say much the same about some of the major characters. What purpose does Emma’s boyfriend serve? In the miniseries he’s with the anti-nuclear group and is involved with the police as well, but here he just seems to be a grease monkey.
*. Come to think of it, what does Darius Jedburgh do in this film? In the miniseries he’s played by Joe Don Baker as a Texan CIA operative (the film reverses the nationalities of Craven and Jedburgh), and he has an important role in the plot. Here he doesn’t do much of anything, and Ray Winstone seems more bored than laid back. Incredibly, he even stays up to date on what’s happening with the case by watching the local news.
*. Robert De Niro was originally signed for the part of Jedburgh, but left citing creative differences. I think he just realized that there was nothing for him in the part.
*. Roger Ebert wondered in his review about why Northmoor looks so much like the hideout of a James Bond villain. Director Martin Campbell had previously rebooted the James Bond franchise with Casino Royale so maybe there’s a connection there. It does seem a little ostentatious.
*. As for what Northmoor is up to, I confess I’m confused. Making dirty nuclear bombs to be used in American secret operations that will make it look like they’re the work of jihadi terrorists? So as a way of fighting terrorists the U.S. is going to do the worst thing they can imagine terrorists doing just so they can say the terrorists did it? Isn’t that taking false flag operations a bit far?
*. What happens at the end? When in doubt, or when incapable of coming up with a decent resolution, just kill everyone on screen. Let God sort it out.
*. OK, so we’re told on a couple of occasions that Bennett is just a psycho. But he can’t even pass for normal? Most psychos can handle that part. Why on earth would he ask Craven how it feels to have lost his daughter? What’s that about? Is he mocking him?
*. Mel Gibson is not a tall man, but playing against some men of above-average height here he looks very small.
*. I have no idea how tall he is in real life. You can go on to Hollywood insider websites that will supposedly tell you, but I don’t trust them. From the few acquaintances I’ve had with people who have been close to celebrities I think you can take it as a rule of thumb that most stars are a minimum of two and sometimes as much as four inches shorter than they are reported.
*. This is pretty standard fare for a Mel Gibson movie. His daughter is killed and he is on a mission of revenge. Family is worth that sacrifice. Then, together, the martyrs will walk toward the light.

Motel Hell (1980)

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*. What a disgusting mess.
*. Originally it was not conceived as a comedy. It stagnated in development for several years and was then made over as a satire, most obviously of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
*. The problem is that nobody involved had any feel for comedy, and the results aren’t funny at all. This is, of course, a personal opinion. I remember, when this movie came out, people laughing so hard talking about it they were almost crying. And even today it has a following. But I can’t see it.
*. I suppose it’s just compounding things to say that the humour is in bad taste, but that is the rub. The “secret garden” is just too repulsive and cruel a concept to be funny. Meanwhile, the more direct appeals for laughs all fall flat. The swinger couple aren’t funny. Wolfman Jack as a televangelist might have been funny, but isn’t. Indeed I wondered why he was even in the movie as he had no connection to the plot at all.
*. Do we see it through a different lens today? The crimes of Robert Pickton, the pig farmer turned serial killer who murdered nearly fifty women and rendered parts of them, apparently, into meat, may be one development that checks our amusement.
*. The other change in perspective has been the one brought about by the growing prominence of healthy eating. This was a thing in 1980, but it’s much bigger today and the “meat is murder” angle here plays well. Farmer Vincent is also a good locavore (he only sells his meat within 100 miles of his farm), doesn’t use chemicals on his livestock (he is embarassed that he even uses preservatives), and believes in treating his “animals” humanely (the way he kills them is perhaps the most bizarre part of the movie).
*. Farmer Vincent also makes the argument of Swift’s modest proposer: that there are too many people in this world and not enough food so he’s solving both problems at once. But that is far less convincing, especially given his battle cry that “meat is meat, and man’s gotta eat!”
*. There are a lot of weird moments, though I doubt they were entirely intentional. The aforementioned harvesting scene is one. Whatever the idea for it was, it doesn’t work and just seems strange. Then there’s Terry’s odd fixation on (much) older men. Nina Axelrod was 33 years younger than Rory Calhoun, and 22 years younger than Everett Creach. There’s no explanation for this, and I wonder if they were fully aware of it when they cast the film. Then there’s the totally hamfisted way the story is set up, with Vincent burying Bo as per the “custom of the county” under “extenuating circumstances,” and Terry just deciding she’s not only OK with that, but wants to stay on the farm.
*. Does it not work because it’s too unpleasant? Or because it isn’t very funny? Some of both. If it matters. I understand there are people who like this movie, and I can even sort of see why. I’m just not one of them.

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Z (1969)

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*. Now this is editing. Françoise Bonnot received an Academy Award for her work on it, and it was well deserved.
*. Bonnot, who worked closely with director Costa-Gavras, believed in the natural, fluid, psychological rhythm of montage. You can’t call it a stream of consciousness style, but it combines narrative with our apprehension of reality, and moves at a pace not of thought but understanding. Shots lead us from proposition to proposition as much as from place to place and time to time.
*. The camera is often moving, but there is also a movement to the cuts, a flow that carries us along in sometimes unexpected directions. As an example, there’s one jump in time that is almost perfectly invisible: when we cut immediately from a side shot of Nick sitting up in bed to a head-on shot of him in the same position (with the same bag on his head), but now the chief of the military police has left and he’s being interrogated by the magistrate. It’s an incredible bit of visual sleight of hand (we’re sure the chief of police will still be there when the camera pans back), and it helps create that sense, so important to this movie, of the non-linearity of narrative time. We move freely among different temporal locations and points of view.
*. The editing derives from the New Wave, but is less flashy and self-regarding. The same can be said for the photography by Raoul Coutard, one of the foremost cinematographers of the nouvelle vague. How did Coutard manage to get so many shots look both so formally composed and so from-the-hip? It’s as though he was finding poetry on the street (or in an office building) every time he turned his camera on. It moves so fast it’s easy not to notice (like the editing), but this is a beautiful film.

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*. The story is based on the novel by Vassilis Vassilikos that was in turn based, quite faithfully, on the political murder of the Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis in 1963. Note the year.
*. Yes, the Lambrakis assassination was Europe’s JFK moment. What made it different was that the Greek conspiracy was real.
*. The paradox is that it feels less real. Instead of being set in Greece the film was shot in Algeria with a French cast, with the name of the location, as well as the names of most of the characters, deliberately withheld. Where are we? Unmoored in space as well as time.
*. One possible answer to the question of where we are is Ruritania on the Mediterranean. Dig those uniforms and medals.

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*. It’s a conspiracy movie about very serious real events, and yet it is played almost as comic opera. The thugs are named Vago and Yago. Georges Géret as Nick the coffin maker has a clownish water bag on his head throughout his hospital scene. We see Vago running away from the journalist with his leg in a fake cast, then jumping into bed only for the camera to reveal a doctor and nurses in the room staring at him. At the end, as the beribboned gang of stuffed military shirts are rounded up and make their clumsy exits, the music gets jaunty as they play out a running gag of trying to exit the supposedly “press-free” door, which is locked. We are almost in the realm of slapstick.
*. The business with the door gag is followed by a coda that again reminds us of JFK mythology. Recall the ending of Executive Action with its voiceover of spurious statistics documenting the suspicious demise of “eighteen material witnesses” (including one by “karate chop”).

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*. To what extent is a “political” movie always a “conspiracy” movie? Apparently one of the films that influenced Costa-Gavras was Frankenheimer’s Seven Days in May. And continuing the line of descent, the fingerprints of this movie are all over Stone’s JFK. Of course, after Watergate and All the President’s Men, we assumed that the political realm was all a vast conspiracy.
*. Unlike more recent conspiracy films, however, Z is less nihilistic. Yes, the ending is downbeat as the forces of authority re-take control and re-write history. But we have seen the truth, and it doesn’t remain floating “out there” in some X-Files ether. In the 1960s and ’70s there was still a sense that people could speak truth to power and hold it to account. We are far more cynical about such things today, when we love Big Brother (the Internet) but don’t have the first idea who he is.

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*. I’m not sure what the lesson is. A very serious political story (Lambrakis) is played, partially, for laughs while a paranoid fantasy (Kennedy) is treated like a tense legal docudrama in films like Executive Action and JFK. Of course movies can make anything seem real. But they’re not so good at making the real seem real. David Thomson: “It is very difficult for the movies to do such cases as this and not leave the viewer uncertain about their veracity. . . . One plain conclusion is that movie is not always a very helpful medium journalistically.”
*. Perhaps because I’m reading subtitles (which I often do, even for English films, because my hearing isn’t what it used to be), I was struck by how much talking there is. I wonder if there’s ever been an action film with this much chatter.
*. Part of the reason is that so much of the movie is a verbal reconstruction of reality. People tell us what they saw as much as we see what they saw. We learn to listen carefully, trying to pick up nuance. Did the magistrate just say this was “murder” and not an “incident”? Words mean something.

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*. I don’t think the chatter ever stops, unless Irene Papas is on screen, as outside of her one big scene she is a helmet-haired sphinx. She was the only Greek actor in the cast and Costa-Gavras wanted her to be “a symbol of Greek suffering.” Aside from the parts with her in them, there are very few other scenes, even among the action/suspense sequences, that play without dialogue (the fight on the back of the three-wheeler “kamikaze” stands out as an exception). It’s a strong film visually, but the script does a lot of work.
*. The politics of the 1960s haven’t worn that well. We’re not as worried by long-haired atheists, junkies, and rock ‘n’ roll (presumably what is meant by the latter is the pop music that makes the proscription scroll at the end). But is it just that the enemies of the dominant culture have been defined in different ways?
*. This is a very effective movie. A machine, really. It also set the standard for political (conspiracy) thrillers for years to come. And yet despite its depressing coda it seems a product of a more optimistic time.

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John Wick (2014)

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*. This movie surprised me. Not in a good way, of course. I mean that I was expecting it to be bad, despite being well received by critics, but I didn’t expect it to be this bad.
*. How many times can they make this movie? It’s the same gangster-going-rogue-and-taking-on-the-syndicate storyline that we know so well from all the Parker films and their progeny (Point Blank, Get Carter, Payback, etc.). Those films, however, had more going for them: a powerful sense of style, for example, or a commanding lead performance. This movie has nothing but clichés.
*. Nothing at all. Absolutely nothing. It is simply one action-film cliché after another. John Wick is a superhero tough guy carrying the cross of some tragic loss. He drives a cool vintage muscle car. He hits everyone he shoots at while no one can even wing him (unless he’s wearing a bulletproof vest). He does a cool-guy walk through a disco. He throws away his gun at the end to take on the chief bad guy mano a mano (“no more guns, no more bullets, just you and me John”).
*. Even the supporting cast are clichés. Michael Nyqvist is the foreign heavy. Willem Dafoe is the tough ally. And Ian McShane is still playing Teddy Bass from Sexy Beast.
*. It could have been meant as a parody. And it could have been really funny, what with Keanu Reeves in the title role displaying his usual unemotive grace. But aside from a couple of slightly silly scenes I don’t think they were trying for parody. They just ended up with silly lines like: “When Helen died, I lost everything. Until that dog arrived on my doorstep. A final gift from my wife. That moment I received some semblance of hope, an opportunity to grieve unalone. Your son took that from me, stole that from me, killed that from me!” Unalone? Killed that from me? Well, I guess his Russian is better than mine.
*. Who read this script and thought it was a project worth putting money into? I was thinking it must have been based on a graphic novel that would, in turn, have ultimately derived from Sin City. But apparently it wasn’t based on anything except every other rogue gangster movie ever made.
*. Having some interesting villains would have helped. Does anyone care when the cringing Iosef is finally put out of his misery? Dean Winters is wasted in a nothing part. Ms. Perkins is just a generic bad girl. And I was never sure how I was supposed to take Michael Nyqvist’s Viggo. He seemed so reluctant to be involved in any of this.
*. If it had been a great, or in any way original, straight-up action film it might still have been salvageable. But the action/fight scenes have nothing exceptional about them. Reeves is not a great screen fighter, and the gun play just looks like a first-person shooter video game. I remember thinking this before we get to the scene where one of the gang members is actually playing a first-person shooter video game. There is no sense of disjunction. I mean, the camera angles are all the same and the CGI head shots are identical. Witness:

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*. So John loses an adorable beagle puppy and picks up a pit bull at the end. Why? So he can have a real bad-ass partner for the sequel, I guess. How much better it would have been if he’d gotten another beagle. That would have been a sequel to look forward to.

Wolfen (1981)

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*. Sometimes films do improve with age.
*. I remember seeing Wolfen when it first came out on VHS and being underwhelmed. Nothing much stuck with me except the bit that sticks with everyone: the weird point-of-view shots suggesting a kind of thermography. Audiences at the time didn’t buy it and critics weren’t won over either.
*. This is a judgment that hasn’t changed much. It’s a movie that has been eclipsed by its ’80s werewolf brethren (The Howling, An American Werewolf in London), and doesn’t have much if any following today.
*. Returning to it some thirty years later, I came away rather more impressed. This is a good flick, and I hope it doesn’t get forgotten.
*. The main knock against Wolfen, then and now, is that it’s preachy. Kim Newman, for example, calls it out for being “top-heavy with issue-consciousness.” I disagree. Yes, it has a political angle, but I don’t think it’s overdone. The Wolfen aren’t terrorists, or even identified with the Native Americans we see. They are a separate species, and they’re simply defending their hunting grounds. Most of the political stuff in the movie is either a red herring or just stage dressing.
*. Another criticism made by Newman is that the Wolfen themselves “are disappointingly ordinary when they finally make their appearance. They look like the cuddly, real-life animals of Never Cry Wolf who wouldn’t dream of ripping anybody’s head off.” I think this is overstated as well. It was an obvious, and I think correct, decision to use real wolves and not made-up werewolf creatures, and I thought they worked well.
*. It’s not terribly scary, but then director Michael Wadleigh didn’t think he was making a horror movie. This may have led to some of the problems he had later.
*. You have to like how, in the police office, there are boards up with information on the two Van der Veers killed by the Wolfen, but nothing about the (black) chauffeur who was killed alongside them. I guess he didn’t count.

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*. Now here are some reasons why I like it.
*. In the first place there are a lot of really interesting sets and locations. Starting with the creepy old windmill in the opening sequence, which looks like a laundry tree but gets put to good use, we then move on to the desolate Bronx neighbourhood and its ruined church (a set that was built specially for the film), and the top of the Brooklyn and (I believe) the Manhattan Bridges. We’re in the heart of New York City but it feels like we’re in a fantasy landscape, an impression aided by the Wolfen-vision effect and the strangely depopulated streets.
*. Another big plus is the cast. Now I’ll admit that Albert Finney as the lead is the one choice I would question. But Wadleigh really wanted to work with him (turning down Dustin Hoffman for the part), and Finney does have his moments underneath what looks like a ridiculous wig. But the supporting cast of relative newbies are all fun to watch, with Diane Venora as Neff, Gregory Hines as the hip coroner, and Edward James Olmos showing off some surprising full-frontal male nudity. These are all actors with great faces that you can’t help but find interesting.
*. Most of all, however, I just like the strange wedding of a bizarre B-film premise with such seriousness. It could have been a heavy-handed film with a weighty political message, or it could have been a silly gorefest, but instead it plays like a well-paced X-Files episode. It’s creepy and weird and not at all as stodgy as it sounds.
*. This was Michael Wadleigh’s only dramatic feature, and really the only movie he did other than Woodstock. Which is kind of weird. But people often drop out of the industry for different reasons.
*. Perhaps it wasn’t that odd that he disappeared. Wolfen wasn’t a box office success. Apparently United Artists, the releasing studio, wanted a cheesy exploitation pic and didn’t like what they got, so they didn’t bother with much publicity (I’m getting this from Roger Ebert’s review). Also a lot of time had to be spent in post-production re-cutting it and doing other work (Wadleigh’s final cut is reported to have been over four hours long). If there were big creative disagreements, and the studio ended up losing money, then I can see why Wadleigh might have found himself on a blacklist.
*. That’s a shame. There’s a real vision here of a different kind of horror movie, literate and ahead of its time. Parts would be scavenged and stuck into other, more commercial films, most notably the POV technique being adopted in Predator. But its most distinctive qualities were to remain a road not taken.

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Battle Royale II: Requiem (2003)

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*. This movie is usually considered to be one of the worst sequels of all time, and not without reason. It’s dreadful. I don’t want to waste much time on it here, as I think I’ve already wasted enough having watched it twice.
*. What was an interesting concept in Battle Royale is made into something jaw-droppingly stupid and incoherent. Apparently the best way to deal with a cadre of dangerous terrorists is to shanghai a “specially selected bunch of losers” out of high school into attacking them as part of a television game show.
*. The terrorist/rebel gang is, handily, based on a deserted island. So the government presumably could have just dropped a bomb on them and been done with it right at the start, despite what seem to be some minor issues of extraterritoriality. But then there wouldn’t have been a movie.
*. I know I said in my notes on Battle Royale that you have to suspend a lot of disbelief because basically what’s being presented is a kind of dream narrative or fantasy. That’s true as well here, but the dream angle is less developed and the things I have trouble with are too fundamental. I mean, what is the point of the new and improved Battle Royale program? Are they trying to kill the kids off or are they trying to take out the terrorists? I don’t think they can be realistically trying to do both.
*. I suppose the action sequences are well done. The beach landing is often likened to Saving Private Ryan. But the exploding collars that turn necks into clouds of red CGI mist only add to the sense that we’re watching a bunch of kids running around a paintball course.
*. Why is “Sensei” wearing a collar? Did I miss something important? I’ll admit, after a while I wasn’t paying close attention.
*. Much of the movie is unintentionally funny, the sort of thing you often get in a film that takes itself far too seriously. But Sensei’s spectacular rugby dive/head explosion at the end is truly in a class by itself. If there’s any reason for sitting through this whole movie, then that’s it.
*. Did this movie set a record for the number of death scenes with characters weeping or screaming next to their expiring loved ones? All, of course, as the music soars.
*. While the first movie presented the kids in a sympathetic light, here we have full-scale pandering to the teen audience, making the Wild Seven into heroic freedom fighters willing to make the supreme sacrifice for love or at least some cause greater than themselves. They all look fetching in their rebel couture, with Shuya in particular presented as a kind of emo guru given to pronouncements like “Truly living life is a hundred times harder than dying.”
*. I’ve nothing against the political message (that the terrorists might really be the good guys, fighting American imperialist oppression), and even found it a bit brave. But when delivered in such a ridiculous vehicle it’s made to seem equally ridiculous. A children’s crusade against imperialism?
*. My guess is that this has something more to say to young people in Japan than those in the West. Japanese culture is very hierarchical and authoritarian, or so I’m told, and the bursting of its economic bubble and subsequent lost decade-plus was followed by a certain amount of resentment toward the people in charge. Hence the struggle against adults here: that generation of authority figures who fucked everything up royally. The youngsters aren’t fighting corporate power or a totalitarian political regime, as is most often the case in these dystopic tales, but instead declaring war against grown-ups in general. Those damn boomers have a lot to answer for.