Monthly Archives: June 2017

Deadpool (2016)

*. I mentioned in my notes on Ant-Man that it could be seen as a trial run for Deadpool. Both films mark a definite turn in the Marvel Comic Universe toward comedy and self-referential knowingness. “This superhero stuff,” they’re saying, “it’s really all a joke.”
*. So we can have hipster heroes: scruffy, good-looking guys (Ryan Reynolds and Paul Rudd might be interchangeable in the two parts) with disconcertingly buff physiques and heads stuffed with defunct cultural touchstones that they adopt ironically.
*. Basically Deadpool just takes all of this much further and adds a lot of freestyle sex and what Colossus (he’s the big steel guy who speaks with a Russian accent) calls “language.” I think this is what’s considered making a comic-book movie adult. Or “adult.”
*. The knowingness of Ant-Man has metastasized, breaking the fourth wall into pieces. Indeed, there are even jokes about breaking the fourth wall to pieces. It’s very meta.

*. And yet for all this cleverness, is this a better superhero movie?
*. Ryan Reynolds has a lot of charm, but then so do most of the Marvel leading men. Paul Judd has charm. Chris Hemsworth. Robert Downey Jr. It’s a prerequisite. I wasn’t as blown away by Reynolds in this movie as much as a lot of people were, but he’s fun to watch.

*. The effects are well done, with painstaking attention to detail. You can even see the messy skid marks on the underwear of the mook Deadpool is giving a wedgie to in the opening credit sequence. And the idea of beginning the story in medias res helps get over the hump of the now exhausted origin-story arc.
*. As in Ant-Man, however, the villain (or “British villain,” as the ironic opening credits have it) is a bore. I couldn’t understand what the whole business of building superheroes in a kind of genetic chop-shop was about. The more I think about it, the less sense it makes. Then, once it gets going, the story is so predictable we need the in-jokes and other stuff to keep our minds off of just how routine it all is.

*. The unmasked Deadpool doesn’t look that bad, which is something I had a bit of a problem with. No doubt he’s a burn victim, but it seems mostly superficial. Not the kind of thing you’d gawk at in the street, as the people do here. It seems like the movie makes way too big a thing out of this.
*. It’s also bizarre that Deadpool thinks that Francis is going to be able to “cure” his skin problem. Surely he’s smart enough to realize that the only cure would be some kind of plastic surgery. Though I was left wondering why, if he can grown back entire appendages (like a hand) and heal holes blown in his body, he can’t just reform new skin with his mutant healing power.

*. Again we have this fascination with torture. Today’s movies, whether they be action films or horror flicks or even historical dramas, seem addicted to this kind of thing. I wonder what broader cultural forces are driving it. Guantanamo and the War on/of Terror is too easy an answer. I think it goes deeper than that, but I don’t know where it all comes out.
*. I liked Deadpool well enough, but I think a lot of the response went overboard. It’s clever, well turned out, and put together in an original (at least for a Marvel movie) kind of way. Aside from all the knowing looks and dirty talk though I didn’t think it was that special. It also seems to me that Marvel may be painting themselves into a corner with this sort of thing. But . . . probably not. It will take more than irony to kill this money machine. Nevertheless, surely some end — some real end, without a post-credit teaser — there must be.

Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982)

*. Not Pink Floyd’s The Wall. But Pink Floyd: The Wall. Or, as it appears splattered on the title screen, Pink Floyd The Wall. Because that’s what’s on the album cover.
*. I think to some extent you have to be English to get it. Sort of like you have to be English to get If …., a movie that gives you some idea of where the satire on the education system here is coming from. As a psychobiography of Pink (Roger Waters), it’s very much the story of post-War England, or the England that the Second World War made. I don’t think that’s something an American audience can fully understand.
*. Gerald Scarfe brings this up on the DVD commentary, saying “I always sort of wonder how well this translates into other countries, you know because for us, or for me in particular, growing up in this period of the war it’s all very very reminiscent.” Unfortunately, Waters doesn’t respond to this and the point is dropped. Waters does, however, remark later that the movie Pink is watching on TV, The Dam Busters, means nothing to Americans but was a really big deal for English audiences.
*. Well, I can say that the album was so popular when I was a kid that it basically entered into my bloodstream, if not my DNA. It was a double album (if you remember such things) and I think I knew all the words to all the songs. I saw the movie around the time it came out and the imagery then got fastened to the music in my head.

*. I don’t think I’ve listened to it much since I was a teenager, or seen the movie again. Which is just to say that the story of a middle-aged man looking back on his life and trying to understand what went wrong is something I experience myself watching it for the first time in some twenty or thirty years. It’s not the story of my childhood or life, but it’s the story of the soundtrack to my childhood.
*. When I say I stopped listening to The Wall it’s not because I felt that I’d outgrown it or didn’t still like it, so much as I probably felt it didn’t have anything to say to me any more. Maybe I was wrong. It seems self-absorbed and a bit woolly today, but it still offers up its own magical “spots of time” (Wordsworth’s words for the kind of moments described in “Comfortably Numb”).
*. In short, while I was never a rock star trashing hotel rooms in the ’80s, I feel like I can relate to something here. Come to think of it, Roger Waters never trashed a hotel room either. So there, we do have something in common.

*. It’s an odd film in the sense of being a collaboration between three men — Waters, Scarfe, and director Alan Parker — who made roughly equal contributions. They did not get along well at all. Or at least Parker didn’t get along well with Waters. That seems to have been the main conflict.
*. Such conflict shouldn’t have come as a surprise. It’s hard to get three headstrong creative types all on the same page for a project like this. The surprising thing is that it came together at all.

*. It’s a movie I have a hard time judging today. So much of it seems a part of the past: both my own and a past world.
*. Perhaps the best example is the centrality of the different shots of Pink sitting like a zombie in front of the tube. Forget about relating to post-War England, I wonder if young people today can understand how much life revolved around television in the 1980s. We’re more accustomed to other screens and slightly different forms of autistic behaviour. I know of very few people, young or old, who do this kind of thing.

*. One thing a lot of (young) people were watching in the ’80s was MTV (launched just the year before this movie was released). You could think of The Wall as an extended music video and that wouldn’t be far from the mark. Also, as with some music videos, the images are now wedded to many of the songs. Before I saw the movie I’m sure I never associated “Comfortably Numb” with a kid throwing a dead rat into a canal, but now they can’t be pulled apart.
*. As a visual feast, it’s hard to fault the film’s design and the vitality and strength of its imagery. Scarfe’s animation in particular has really held up well. Even after so many of its types and referents have disappeared his images still have bite.

*. The Wall was a concept album, and I think the movie’s biggest failing is that the concept doesn’t come through all that well. Originally the wall just symbolized the barrier between a performer and his audience. It was a kind of mask, there to protect an artist’s vulnerabilities, but grew to encompass any sort of alienation (the television screen as a wall, isolating us in a cathode-ray cocoon) and finally even political borders.
*. I don’t feel that much of this comes through in the movie, which strikes me as being a thematic muddle. I think there must be a connection between Pink’s loss of his father and his subsequent morphing into an adult Nazi, but I’m not sure what it is. I don’t know why the post-War English should feel that the Nazis actually won in the end, somehow.

*. I also don’t understand Pink’s obsession with his mother. The album makes her out to be a smothering figure, a sort of fleshy wall of her own, but in the film she seems quite remote. You can’t help feeling that something isn’t coming through.
*. The result of much of this is to make Pink, played by Bob Geldof, appear more than a bit precious. Waters complains that the movie is “deeply flawed” because “it doesn’t have any laughs.” I think he may be on to something. A movie like this needed a bit of knowingness, an ability to laugh at itself, to show us that Pink understands how ridiculous, as well as tragic, he has become.

*. If I had to summarize here I’d say I still think it’s a great album, but not one I go back to much, and the movie is a great interpretation of the album but ditto. To borrow the image of the wall again, it seems like a hermetically sealed part of my own past and my memories of the ’80s. Or at least what I didn’t like about myself and didn’t like about the world in the ’80s. Which makes it a real achievement on one level, but it’s a past I don’t want to be reminded of now.
*. Does that mean I’m still building my own wall? Sure. I mean, whatever happened to alienation? It didn’t go away. In fact, I’d say there’s more of it than ever. We’re certainly more absorbed in our screens. But we don’t talk about alienation much any more. Narcissism is the new mantra. Either way, it’s an escape from looking at the real world that’s now taken for granted if not encouraged. Art, in turn, has become even further removed from the human, moving toward greater artificiality, superficiality, and convention. At least that’s my reading of the writing on the wall.

Taken 3 (2014)

*. “It ends here.” Promises, promises.
*. Actually, and you won’t hear many people say this, I thought this was the best of the Taken movies. This does not mean I thought it was very good. I just thought it was the best of the Taken movies.
*. Why? Well, the race between Bryan Mills and the police to find his wife’s killer was kind of interesting in the usual Fugitive sort of way. The gang of ex-CIA operatives Bryan hangs out with actually get to do something. The bad guys have a bit more personality. A couple of the action scenes are pretty good.
*. To be sure, there are all the usual action clichés. If someone drives at high speed the highway is miraculously clear of traffic. A car goes flipping in the air multiple times. Another car falls off a cliff and then inexplicably bursts into several huge fireballs when it comes to rest. Bad guys fire away at our hero with machine guns at close range without even winging him. Russian gangsters spend their downtime soaking in Jacuzzis that are crammed with whores and drinking champagne.
*. But there are a few interesting touches. A container gets some good air during a highway pile-up. One of the chief bad guys goes full Scarface at the end and fights Bryan dressed in nothing but a bathrobe and his tighty-whiteys. A private jet loses a duel with a Porsche on a runway. None of this is ground-breaking stuff, but it’s not bad, and better than anything I can remember from the first two movies.
*. Poor Stuart St. John. In the first movie he seemed a genial if slightly corrupt Mr. Monopoly. Here he’s played by a different, younger actor and is way slimier.
*. It’s a strange ending. Of course Bryan’s going to kill Stuart, he’s given Stuart his word on it and we know what that’s worth. But we’re not going to actually see him get his revenge. This certainly frustrates expectations, but not in any way that seems meaningful to me. Bryan’s justice hasn’t been superseded by the legal system. He’s only willing to defer to that system just enough to avoid running afoul of it himself.
*. That’s kind of cynical, but then all three of the films take a pretty cynical view of law enforcement, with the police presented as at best obstacles and at worse on the take and in league with the bad guys.
*. It ends here. Sort of. After the three Neeson movies they turned the franchise into a TV series based on Bryan’s early spy career. But that’s a story for another day (and another website). So good-bye Liam, and your particular set of skills. Good-bye Lenny and Kim, two of the most maddening female parts in recent memory. So long, CIA bros (you have a tee time waiting). I can’t say any of you will be missed.

Taken 2 (2012)

*. Just when you thought it was safe to go back to Europe. Or maybe not quite Europe. Those dark lands on its borders. In Taken we had Albanians and Arabs. Now we’re off to Istanbul. The dark edges of Europe then.
*. Ah, Istanbul. It doesn’t look like it’s changed a bit since From Russia with Love (1963) or Topkapi (1964). The police even seem to be stuck driving the same cars, and the women are wearing burqas (which, I am told, is not the custom in Istanbul). But aside from some nice shots of the skyline, I wonder why they even bothered. We don’t even get to go inside Hagia Sophia, much less the Basilica Cistern. How disappointing.
*. Neeson wasn’t sure if he wanted to come back, but with the crazy success of Taken his return was basically inevitable. That said, I was puzzled by the success of the first movie and I’ll confess I’m even more so by the success of Taken 2.
*. I mean, this time out they didn’t even try. There are all of the problems that Taken had with no new redeeming features. The plot is a ridiculous contrivance to just set up the various action scenes. Plus Lenny (Famke Janssen) is newly available after separating from her jerk of a billionaire husband so it looks like the whole family thing is on track again. Instead of Kim becoming a pop star, dad now has to worry about her passing her driver’s exam. This is all just crap that they throw at us to make us think that maybe somebody, somewhere, saw a few pages of script.
*. The only way the plot works, in so far as we can say that it works, is because it’s partially set in a parallel universe where everything can be arranged with a phone call. Did you just shoot your way through most of Istanbul’s historic quarter? Just call one of your retired CIA buddies, they’ll fix everything, no problem.
*. Doesn’t your heart sink when you see that the DVD comes with an “alternate ending”? As I’ve said before, if you have an alternate ending that probably means you didn’t have an ending. And this is no slight alteration. The whole final third of the film is quite a bit different in the alternate version, with Bryan rescuing both Kim and Lenny and escaping via taxi. However, it was felt that this didn’t make Bryan’s motivation for returning to kill off the rest of the gang clear enough, so they changed it around so he had to go back and rescue Lenny.
*. Once again the bad guys aren’t very interesting. Once again editing does all the work in the action scenes. I’ve heard Neeson actually learned some martial arts to play the role, but I don’t see what the point was. If the fights are going to be cut so that you don’t have any shots that last more than two seconds, it’s not like you’re going to see any technique on display. You can make anyone look like a black belt with that kind of shake-and-bake choreography.
*. I knew Olivier “Megaton” couldn’t be the director’s real name. It isn’t. He was born Olivier Fontana.
*. Is Maggie Grace that bad an actress, or is it just a really awful part? After two movies I still can’t make up my mind. I think maybe it’s a lot of both.
*. This one was pretty much savaged by the critics, and justifiably so, but it still did great box office. Personally, I don’t think it’s any worse than the first film, which is saying nothing. Both movies suffer from worthless scripts, boring bad guys, throwaway plots, and an attempt to have frantic editing make up for a total lack of originality in the action scenes. But that didn’t seem to bother anyone, so . . .

Taken (2008)

*. This one was a real head-scratcher. It was a huge box office success, turning a $22 million budget into over $220 million while making an action hero out of Liam Neeson overnight. Neeson thought it was going to be a direct-to-video release. Instead it turned into a franchise.
*. But why? It’s not very good. I mean, it’s really, really not very good.
*. The story is, if not as old as the hills, at least as old as Commando. You took my little girl. Now I’m going to hunt you down and kill you. Game on.
*. In addition to being old, it’s also very stupid. I get that Bryan is short on time, but why not just follow Peter around instead of jumping him in broad daylight and trying to beat the shit out of him in the back of a cab? Then chase him to his death? What use was that?
*. The script is pretty much worthless. The bad guys remain almost totally anonymous, and have to be introduced serially because none of them are very interesting. And the dialogue even includes lines like “it was all business, nothing personal.” Come on. In 2008?
*. So it’s just a brainless action flick. But the action isn’t any good either. All of the stunts and fight choreography are done in the editing room. Because if your longest shot is only lasting a couple of seconds, you don’t really have to do much in the way of stunts do you? There’s nothing inherently wrong about this — action films have been doing it for a while now — but at the same time, it’s not that impressive either.
*. Some people were offended by it, finding it racist. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but Bryan does seem a little disinterested in the plight of the other kidnapped girls. Hey, he’s just here for his daughter.
*. There is a larger point, however, that I think is lying behind these critiques. Bryan’s daughter, Kim, is presented in a totally unsympathetic way. In brief, she’s a shallow, spoiled, manipulative brat. I mean, the movie really doesn’t give us any reason at all to like her. She even turns on her bff Amanda when she finds out Amanda has lied to her about there being other people staying in the Paris apartment. As if that even comes close to the whoppers Kim has told to get her dad to sign off on the trip!
*. So why present Kim to us in this way? Why not just make her a normal kid instead of such a trophy daughter whose mother thinks she’s going to see the world as it really is by jetting around Europe staying in “the best hotels” and trying to be a U2 groupie?
*. Because she’s not really a person, she’s an asset. What she represents is capital, which is also the point of her virginity being auctioned off at the end. What Bryan is defending is not honour or humanity (qualities shared by the other poor girls he finds), but something that’s worth even more. Kim is a high-value property, they aren’t. So Bryan isn’t defending America’s outraged innocence, but the status of the American dollar as the world’s default currency. Intact, Kim remains undepreciated (not a typo for underappreciated).
*. So what in all of this made it such a hit?
*. Well, in the first place Neeson really worked. He wasn’t the first choice for the part, but the producers just got lucky. The most particular of his set of skills is maintaining such a disciplined front. I guess the first lesson in action-film school is how to project cool. No problems on that front here. Billy’s going to kick ass without breaking a smile or a sweat, or even cracking a wry one-liner.
*. Second, it was an action film that had an extra little bit of nasty. It’s our hero this time out who is doing the torturing, not the poor guy strapped to the chair. And when he zaps the information he needs out of him, he just leaves him to fry. Nasty. Also nasty is shooting his (former) friend’s innocent wife in the arm. I didn’t see that coming, and it woke me up for a second.
*. And . . . I guess that was enough. All around, this was a totally uninteresting little action flick that just merrily punches all the buttons (or pulls all the triggers) it can. So Bryan’s wife left him to marry a billionaire did she? Well, just look at how the bitch comes crawling back to him in tears when she needs a real man to do the dirty work of getting their daughter back! How crude can you get?
*. Crude, but I guess for a lot of people it was effective. They were ready to be taken, and would be again.

The Copper Beeches (1912)

*. This is a curiosity. It’s one of eight Sherlock Holmes films made “under the personal supervision” of Arthur Conan Doyle, and apparently the only one of the eight that survives.
*. The reason this is interesting is because it is a very different story from what Doyle wrote. So the next time you get upset at directors messing around with the Holmesian canon, keep this film in mind and realize that Doyle was totally on board with allowing whatever changes were necessary to make a story more filmable (if not always better) entertainment.
*. For a short, silent film like this even a very short story has to be cut quite a bit. You just don’t have enough time for complexity. So, no Watson. Nobody else in the manor except mean old Mr. Ruccastle. No mastiff hound patrolling the grounds. Just a simple trap that is frustrated by the ingenuity of Holmes.
*. Aside from its special status as having been supervised by Doyle, there’s nothing very interesting going on here. It’s one of the Holmes movies made by the French studio Éclair starring Georges Tréville as Holmes. I’ve made notes on one of these, Le Trésor des Musgraves, which apparently did not have the imprimatur of Doyle (though I don’t know why it wouldn’t, since it was made by the same people at around the same time as this film).
*. I mentioned the fact that there’s no Watson here, as there wasn’t in Le Trésor des Musgraves. Instead, the story begins with the situation at the manor and Miss Hunter only comes to seek out Holmes about halfway into the movie. This makes me wonder what Doyle really thought of Watson. Of course he’s a figure much beloved by Holmes aficionados, but was he ever much more than a literary device? In a short film like this, where he wasn’t needed, he was easily disposed of.
*. I find The Copper Beeches to be slightly less interesting than Le Trésor des Musgraves, mainly for being more conventional. The acting is even stagier, with lots of arms being thrown out wide and heads tilted back. Shots tend to follow a basic formula. If you see Miss Hunter leaving the manor by the white gate and then riding down the country lane you have to see her returning with Holmes riding down the same country lane in the other direction, and then entering the same white gate. It all makes for a much tidier film than the Musgrave one, but less interesting. Still, for Holmes fans it’s worth checking out.

Point Break (2015)

*. Shouldn’t this movie have been a lot more fun?
*. The suits at the FBI express some bafflement at the motives of Team Extreme, but Utah thinks he has them pegged as hipsters seeking Nirvana. Hey, with a gang leader named Bodhi and a groupie chick named Samsara, what else? Bodhi, however, says they’re not seeking personal spiritual enlightenment so much as attempting to raise global consciousness about the fate of the planet while looking to honour Mother Earth at the same time. Or something like that.
*. But that’s all just a bunch of New Age blather. What the gang are really driven toward is death. A beautiful death, and a nice send-off too, with a promise to reunite in the afterlife. And, especially seeing as how young they all are, isn’t that a depressing philosophy? They appear, at least to me, to have sort of given up on life. This struck me as a very different note than was struck in the 1991 original, where Bodhi (Patrick Swayze) wants to affirm the value of life and the human spirit.
*. What would have happened if they’d completed the Ozaki 8 anyway? Would they have retired? Gone back to the top of the list? And since the Ozaki 8 seem to be subjectively determined and contingent on various factors, what kind of an achievement is it? It’s not like climbing the highest peaks on all seven continents or anything.
*. My goodness this script is bad. I mean, you knew going in that it would just be a line to hang the epic stunt sequences on, but it’s much worse than that. I was especially confused as to why the gang was “giving back” to the poor while being financed by such an obvious douche-bag (and probably criminal) 1-percenter like Al Fariq. How did they square that?
*. As we get the usual montage of Johnny piecing together where the gang is going to strike next I was wondering what he was going to come up with and how he was going to get there. Well, you see, the first six items on the list “all traveled in one direction: down,” so the next ordeal should involve fighting against gravity. That means going up. That can only mean . . . free solo rock climbing. And that means . . . Angel Falls, Venezuela. Damn, the kid’s good!
*. Then there is the dialogue. “We can only be responsible for own path, brother.” “Ideas can be powerful.” “That’s the difference between us. All you see is lines. We see the truth.” And etc. A little of this might have gone a long way, but there is a lot of it so it seems to stretch to the ends of the earth.
*. The only moment I really enjoyed was their cutting open the bales of cash mid-air and seeing the greenbacks explode all over creation. Something symbolic there. Almost meta, brother.
*. I’ll admit, I was laughing out loud at (not with) a lot of it. Starting with the opening scene and Jeff falling to his death, which I don’t think was supposed to be funny. Ditto for those colourful flying-squirrel suits. None of it made any sense, or really worked as any kind of update on the original. Instead of surfer dudes we now have tattooed Extreme Sports Poly-Athletes and eco-warriors undermining capitalism via heavily-sponsored stunts set in the world’s most gorgeous locations. Despite the ad campaign touting how real these stunts were, it all has the feel of something as phoney as that giant wave at the end, which comes as the ironic revenge of Mother Earth upon her staunchest defender, reuniting him at last with the Many and the One. It’s a beautiful line, man. The dude abides.

Point Break (1991)

*. I remember seeing this one with a group of friends when it first came out and I think we all were left wondering what to make of it. Sure it was a cops-n-robbers action film with car chases and gun fights, and the usual bullshit about the unorthodox and mismatched buddy cops with the hard-ass jerk of a boss, but, at least at times, it did seem like something different.
*. Maybe it was just trying a bit harder. I like how the footrace plays out with a number of interesting elements. It starts off with Johnny fighting the man in the Reagan mask while that man is on fire. That was kind of interesting. Then you have little things like the way the perp closes and locks the glass door behind him when he cuts through the house, and then throws the dog at Johnny. These aren’t things that make you go “Wow!” but they help to perk up what is an otherwise conventional chase sequence.
*. Then there are the sympathetic villains. It’s established early on that they don’t kill people when they rob banks, and the ex-presidents theme shows wit. They are “adrenaline junkies” looking for a way to finance their “ultimate rush”-seeking lifestyle, because, let’s face it, working sucks. I think we can all relate.
*. This relatability is an important point that I felt the 2015 remake flubbed badly. In that movie the gang struck me as depressingly downbeat. They wanted to die, but die beautifully. At one point in this film Johnny accuses Bodhi of having a death wish, but that’s not right. As he makes clear in his big campfire speech, what Bodhi wants to do is show that the human spirit is still alive. The gang accept death, but they’re not really directed toward it. You could argue that Bodhi is suicidal at the end, but at that point all his options have been removed.
*. Kathryn Bigelow also nicely captures the romance of the gang’s lifestyle. The surfing and skydiving are a kind of ballet. And Patrick Swayze just has too much energy and charm to be a real villain, or to lead us to think that he wants to die.
*. If there’s a big problem with the movie (I’m ignoring all the little problems) it’s in how quickly Bodhi turns from someone who is essentially non-violent to being almost indifferent to killing. His whoops and cheers after landing in the desert next to the body of his dead friend struck me as particularly jarring.
*. Then again, Johnny doesn’t do much to revenge Gary Busey’s Pappas does he? I guess he never bonded with his partner as much as he did with Bodhi.
*. Keanu Reeves. Pretty awful, as usual. But Bigelow knew him and could use him for what he was: a beautiful man who looks great in a wet t-shirt. Put a couple of more animated figures on either side of him (Swayze and Busey) and he seems almost normal.
*. Roger Ebert: “The plot of Point Blank, summarized, invites parody (rookie agent goes undercover as surfer to catch bank robbers). The result is surprisingly effective.” It’s interesting how often this happens. It doesn’t matter that a plot is ridiculous or “invites ridicule” so long as it works dramatically.
*. Some of the dialogue is very bad, and Reeves’s delivery just takes it up (or down) another level. His final words to Bohdi on the beach are hard not to smile at. But it’s a script that’s also knowing enough to undercut its own badness in this department. Example: Reeves bellowing at Tyler “My name’s Johnny Utah!” and having her call back “Who cares?” Or Reeves (again bellowing) to Bohdi “This is your fucking wake-up call! I am an FBI agent!” and having Bohdi reply “Yeah, I know. Ain’t it wild?”
*. It’s sometimes labeled a cult film today, but I don’t know if it quite makes that cut. I think it’s well made, and Swayze is terrific. Some of it is very conventional, and some of it very stupid, but it seems at least aware of these shortcomings. It’s not a movie I return to, because at the end of the day I don’t think there’s much to it, but it’s weird enough to have lasted this long and it may be around for a while yet.

Freaks (1932)

*. The easy and obvious place to start is to say that this movie is itself a freak, an oddity, sui generis, “one of the strangest movies ever made by an American studio” (David Skal). Though perhaps this is only being lazy and clever. As the initial review in the New York Times put it: “Freaks is no normal program film, but whether it deserves the title of abnormal is a matter of personal opinion.”
*. Well, let’s start with things that I think we can say about Freaks. In the first place, it was a commercial failure. MGM wanted to get into the horror business after seeing Universal’s success, but they didn’t like what they got with Freaks and it did poorly at the box office. Critics were largely (though not exclusively) against it, it was banned in the UK, and then all but disappeared for a number of years. Tood Browning’s career was basically over. Skal says Freaks “was the beginning of the end of Todd Browning’s previously charmed career at MGM,” though he did go on to make a couple of other interesting but minor films in the 1930s (including Mark of the Vampire and The Devil-Doll).
*. In the second place, Freaks is a semi-lost film. Apparently it was cut by about a third and the stuff that was cut is gone forever. In this (one) respect it’s like The Magnificent Ambersons (or Metropolis, before that semi-lost film was found): a landmark film but also a ruined monument to what might have been.
*. As a result of having lost so much and then having extra material added in post production at the studio’s insistence (including a new opening and a dreadful epilogue), the result is a mess. There are even lines that are left not making any sense. For example, when Hercules belts Joseph(ine) he says he’ll fix her eye, which just sounds bizarre because they cut the line before it which had him saying “You’re fixing your nose are you?”
*. A final word I’d add to this short list of failure and loss is shock. There are very few horror movies that retain their power to shock, and for Freaks to be able to do so after nearly a hundred years is amazing. And yet who can forget Cleopatra’s final appearance as the Duck Lady? This is body horror long before there was a name for it, and it still packs a wallop.
*. I love the hand tearing through the title screen, and the barker’s spiel immediately grounds our sympathy. “They didn’t ask to be brought into this world.” Echoes of Frankenstein, which are perhaps not by coincidence. Early monsters tended to be more sympathetic. Contemporary horror is more about psychopaths and other killing machines.
*. There’s also a prologue scroll that played before the film that I should mention. “Never again will such a story be filmed, as modern science and teratology is rapidly eliminating such blunders of nature from the world.” I had never heard the word “teratology” before. It means the study of abnormalities of physiological development. You learn something every day, and from the unlikeliest sources.

*. Danny Peary: “I can think of no film from the period that is filled with more sexual innuendo.” It really is remarkable, both for how much of it there is and for how frankly it’s presented. Some of it was cut (Skal mentions a scene where the trained seal amorously pursues the Turtle Girl), but plenty remains. Perhaps the most daring is Cleopatra’s line when she displays her bosom to Hercules and asks “What do you think of these?” But there’s also the scene where Cleopatra drops her cape for Hans while he ogles her, or when Phroso seems to notice Venus’s “shape” for the first time. Then there’s Roscoe stripping down to his (ladies’) underwear, or Frieda hanging her lingerie on the clothesline. Or think of the way Cleopatra goes into orgasm mode while Hans massages her (“It’s so good to be rubbed!”), or the similar expressions of passion by the Siamese twin who is not being kissed.

*. Why so much sexy stuff? Usually sex in horror is meant either as a distraction or as a way of suggesting some thematic or psychological link between sex and violence. Here, however, it seems like just another way to introduce a note of normality. Of course these are sexual beings. They are, as they insist, still men (and women).
*. With his background in the circus and predilection for such creepy stories (he’d already done The Unholy Three and The Unknown), I guess this was the movie Browning was destined to make. David Thomson thought Thalberg was also a key personality, but I think this may be overplayed. Thalberg initially supported the film (or at least supported Browning), before later despairing of it.
*. Thomson: “Nothing is exaggerated; nothing is set up in a world of shadow or dementia.” Because it didn’t need to go the route of expressionistic nightmare, though Browning was more than capable of this. But I think the main point is that Browning didn’t want the freaks to seem like monsters, at least initially. He wanted them to appear normal before they turn into something dangerous.

*. Perhaps because of all the cuts it seems to me to be a movie of moments. The wedding banquet is justifiably famous, remembered in films like Altman’s The Player and Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. “Gooble-gobble” has entered the vernacular. The sense of a net closing around Cleopatra and Hercules in the final act is well handled, and the climactic chase in the storm, with the freaks sliding through the mud in pursuit, is great, if abbreviated. Finally, the shot of Cleopatra as the Duck Woman is unforgettable, and really should have been the final shot of the film. The only other ending I can compare it to for sheer shock value is the “Help me! Help meeeeee!” at the end of The Fly (1958).
*. The sideshow performers do their thing, but the acting by the “normal” figures isn’t very good. Some of them seem as uncomfortable with the dialogue as Browning was with sound generally. Originally Myrna Loy was set to play Cleopatra and Jean Harlow Venus, but they understandably bailed. The project itself was originally the idea of Harry Earles (Hans), who wanted to make a film of the Tod Robbins story “Spurs.” Actually, as the credits read, the final script was only “suggested” by “Spurs.” They are very different stories. For example, the midget’s revenge on his gold-digging bride is only to beat her (putting the titular “spurs” to her while he rides on her shoulders), not to turn her into a freak herself.

*. I began by mentioning the conventional line about how this movie is a sort of sideshow attraction of its own. That has to be qualified, as it does tell what is in many ways a conventional story, but I think it’s as a freak  show that I still look at it.
*. What I mean is that I don’t really enjoy watching it, and don’t come back to it very often, but that it does exert that horrible fascination that we associate with freak shows, or car accidents. I think parts of it are very well done, and even in its present mutilated form it may be Browning’s best work (I’m not a big fan of Dracula). Maybe it’s the lack of any characters I really care about that leaves me feeling a bit cold toward it.

*. This is, however, also one of the more remarkable things about how Freaks works. For most of the movie the freaks are presented sympathetically: loyal to each other and generally good natured. But at the end this image is reversed: we go from their idyllic first appearance playing in the sunny woods to the last shots we have of them, covered in mud and crawling through a stormy forest at night, very much objects of terror. In other words, we’ve been fooled by a bait-and-switch. Not that the freaks really are evil monsters, but that the story is told in such way that we’ve been lulled into thinking they’re harmless and nice only to have our expectations suddenly reversed.
*. We may think we’re living in a world with certain moral rules, but in the end that’s not the way Browning wants to play it. Because let’s face it, the epilogue’s attempt to whitewash Hans’s complicity in what happened to Cleopatra isn’t just unconvincing but disgusting. We know he is an embittered and nasty man.
*. Skal calls Browning a “profoundly cynical artist.” He’s our contemporary. This is a bleak film and it belongs on a double-bill with such an example of twenty-first century cynicism and body horror as The Human Centipede. Such an outlook is more at home in our own time. Gooble-gobble. One of us.

From Beyond (1986)

*. Why did this team — director Stuart Gordon, producer Brian Yuzna, actors Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton — give or take individual members, keep returning to the works of H. P. Lovecraft? After all, they changed the actual stories so much as to make them virtually unrecognizable. Indeed, in some cases they seem to have only kept the characters’ names.
*. Roger Corman had taken the same liberties with the works of Poe in his Poe cycle, and apparently Gordon had the idea of doing the same with Lovecraft. This doesn’t, however, explain the particular attraction Lovecraft had.
*. I think the main draw was that it was material that was in the public domain that had name recognition. The titles were even sometimes presented as H. P. Lovecraft’s From Beyond, H. P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, etc. At the same time, however, the stories were not sources that people were too familiar with or particularly wed to.
*. As an added bonus, with Lovecraft you got tentacles. Lovecraft is all about ropey, grasping tentacles. For some reason these movies really like tentacles too. They almost make a fetish of them. So there was something that was simpatico there.
*. There is one consistent, and glaring, digression from Lovecraft they make (I’m still talking about the Gordon-Yuzna Lovecraft films in general here). That has to do with sex. Most of these films have an enlarged and explicit sexual component, but sex was never big for Lovecraft. Or at least, it wasn’t big on the surface. Biographers and literary critics like to speculate on the meaning all those tentacles might have had in the mind of someone so repressed.
*. Of course there’s nothing new about erotic horror. Dracula was a sexy guy. The Wolf Man was the awakened id. Around this time, however, horror was getting downright kinky. A year after this movie was released Hellraiser came out, which played up the S&M angle even further. In fact, they’re very similar films in many ways, with horny devils from another dimension and women who get turned on by all that nasty stuff. For Dr. McMichaels the “resonator” is clearly some kind of proto-orgasmatron.

*. As with the famous scene of “the head giving head” in Re-Animator, the envelope here is pushed pretty hard. I mean, Katherine giving Crawford a handjob and then licking her fingers is pretty darn explicit.
*. Aside from the sexual angle though there’s nothing much of interest here. Lovecraft’s story is done before the credits start to roll. The plot basically just exists to show off a bunch of gruesome effects involving people’s bodies melting in grotesque ways. And pineal glands that sprout like erections from foreheads. And tentacles.

*. At the beginning of the movie (right after the credits) Dr. Bloch leaves her keys in the door to Tillinghast’s cell when she leaves. I thought they were going to make something out of that, but I guess it was just a slip.
*. It’s not a scary movie but it does have some fun moments. Bubba (Ken Foree, who was Peter in Dawn of the Dead) fighting the monster in his red Speedo-underwear. Crawford sucking out eyeballs. Just hearing the name Dr. Pretorius (in the story Tillinghast is the mad doctor while the Jeffrey Combs character is unnamed).
*. But basically it’s an effects film. Given the date and how cheaply the film was made (in Italy, where the producers could really stretch a buck), we shouldn’t expect too much from those effects today. Some of them, especially the floating fluorescent eels, look pretty bad. There’s also none of the sense of transgressive danger that would energize Hellraiser and make that movie such a game-changer. From Beyond doesn’t ask us to take it seriously, because that’s not how it takes itself.