Monthly Archives: April 2019

The Lobster (2015)

*. The Lobster falls under the big umbrella-label of art film. One characteristic of such films is that they are hard to stick into genre pigeonholes, which is certainly the case with The Lobster. Another characteristic is the gap between critical and broader public audience response, which was also the case when this film came out.
*. People who dislike movies such as The Lobster usually do so because they find them pretentious and/or mystifying. This is unfortunate in the case of The Lobster because I don’t think it’s that obscure. I don’t much care for the vague ending, but up until then it seems straightforward enough.
*. Not, however, according to director Yorgos Lanthimos. He didn’t think the movie had a particular message, preferring to leave things open for interpretation. About all he would say of the film is that it was about love. This it is, but note that David (Colin Farrell) and the Short Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz) are the only people we see who we can credibly see as being in love. To my eye, The Lobster is a movie that inveighs against love. Or at least against love as a series of social conventions. Which, as I was taught in university, were just an invention of medieval culture anyway. All this may seem like an odd thing to say, but I’ll try to explain.

*. At first we’re presented with love as an enforced duty. You partner up or you get sent to the love hotel, where you’re given 45 days to find your soulmate or else be turned into an animal of your choice. In the meantime, people staying at the hotel amuse themselves by going on forest hunts where they shoot “loners”: singletons who live a life of communal isolation, rather like the book people at the end of Fahrenheit 451.
*. This much seems like a fairly obvious satire of couples culture and the way society pressures people to conform to its norms. Dating is so mechanically arranged everyone even wears the same clothes while staying at the hotel. It’s telling that David doesn’t have the option of declaring himself bisexual on his intake form (we may read his hesitancy as either genuine uncertainty or surprise at his own indifference). This is because bisexuality would be too complicated. The human animals in this meat market are to sort themselves out two-by-two.

*. Unfortunately, the loners in the woods aren’t presented as in any way superior to the lovers in the city. Indeed, they’re just as cruel and authoritarian in their strictures against any flirtation. These aren’t swinging singles practising free love but chronic masturbators who like to dance with themselves, indeed almost by themselves, while listening to iPods. They are the featherless biped equivalents to the camels and flamingos wandering around the forest (presumably hotel guests who have been transformed).

*. The forest-city split may be significant. Do the loners represent man in a state of nature? In other words, is civilization and cohabitation unnatural, a way of life in need of state power to sustain it? None of the couples seem very happy with each other.
*. One thing that may bear on your answer to that has to do with the matter of procreation. The sex people talk about is all non-procreative and porny. We do see David and the Heartless Woman going at it, but can we imagine her getting knocked up? Meanwhile, children are automatically provided to the couples who do pair off, saving them a lot of extra work, not to mention intercourse. So how “natural” is any of this?
*. The real evil, or false god, is love itself. The only way to make oneself compatible with one’s partner is through violence and self-mutilation. If Limping Man wants to pair off with Nosebleed Woman he’s going to have to bash his head against a wall to make his own nose bleed. If David wants to match Short Sighted Woman’s blindness he’s going to have to carve his eyes out with a steak knife. Or perhaps just lie and say he did. But then, lovers’ lies are always being discovered. In any event, love is a destroyer. It may provide some legal or social benefits (men won’t choke to death while eating alone, women won’t be raped), but that’s all the good that will come of it.
*. Can we imagine David and his blind lady being happy? Perhaps listening to guitar music together on the couch. But aside from that moment they don’t seem like happy people, and being together won’t likely change that.

*. That The Lobster is a movie about love is of course ironic because everyone we meet is a robot, pretending to have feelings only with difficulty (and not very convincingly). They are as mechanical in their lusts as in their cruelties, and indeed they seem to enjoy the latter more. The disability of the Heartless Woman doesn’t stand out among the other guests at the hotel.

*. I can only assume Lanthimos instructed Farrell to deliver his lines in that unnatural, oddly punctuated way that mocks the normal rhythms of speech. To make him sound more robotic? I guess that fits with his character here, but he speaks the same way in The Killing of a Sacred Deer so I’m guessing it’s just something Lanthimos likes to do. Maybe he’s not that comfortable with English. I find it affected.
*. I’ve said I don’t care for the ending. It seems too intentionally mystifying, tacked on just to leave the audience with something to mull over. Personally I was reminded of the end of Five Easy Pieces, and kept expecting to see David outside the window pulling a runner. But maybe he’ll go through with his operation. What I find surprising is the number of reviewers who speak of this as a test of his love. This it may be, but then so much for love.
*. The title refers to David’s choice of being transformed into a lobster if things don’t go well for him at the hotel. He picks a lobster because lobsters have a lot of sex throughout a very long life. Which, oddly, doesn’t seem like a lot of fun, or very much like David. Then again, all the characters here, couples and loners, seem already partially transformed in the sense of missing something human.

*. Well, Lanthimos wanted to make a movie that would get people talking and he succeeded, at least in my case. And in fact The Lobster is a movie I really enjoyed and highly recommend, at times in spite of itself. There’s a real whiff of Godard about it, with the unnamed city, which is Dublin, standing in for the loveless Alphaville. But there’s more to chew on than you usually get with Godard, and the photography, which is terrific, looks more comforting and commercial in an ironic way.
*. The biggest irony, however, is that a movie about, or against, love is so drained of feeling, as though putting contemporary apathy to the test. I mentioned how the characters seem to have already been transformed into something less than human (not having names helps in this regard). But the whole landscape feels post-human, with individuals sliding back into that freely celibate state of nature. The countdown to transformation is always there in the background for the hotel residents, but it seems beside the point for us because we’re past all that now.

Alps (2011)

*. Alps can be thought of as a typical Yorgos Lanthimos movie, but it’s my least favourite entry in his oeuvre (as he is an art-house director I get to use that word). He’s very much doing his usual thing here, but I think with a lot less success.
*. What is the Lanthimos thing? Each of his films sets out to address some aspect of the human condition (common experiences or essential social relationships) that he then tears apart. Themes so treated include family (Dogtooth), love (The Lobster), justice (The Killing of a Sacred Deer), and power (The Favourite). By focusing on their conventional and ritualistic components these themes become abstract. There’s almost always a sterile sex scene included in one of his movies (as there is here) that gets presented as an exercise in failed hydraulics. His characters are de-humanized and mechanical. Family and love becoming equally formalized games to be played by what are usually a cruel set of rules. In fact, actually falling in love is breaking the rules.
*. Alps does much the same thing with loss. The idea here is that a small group of performers are hired to take on the identity of lost loved ones, acting as replacements during a period of mourning. It is, I think, a fascinating premise, and one that easily fits into the Lanthimos model. Grieving has become a job, a performance, which does not make it any the less real. I can understand what he’s getting at. Just as with the family in Dogtooth we recognize the reality that even the most personal aspects of our lives are in fact controlled by social norms. Grieving parents or spouses are, like children, supposed to behave in a certain way. Why not make it into a form of theatre, complete with lines to be memorized and costumes to be worn? Just make sure you play your part right or you’ll be punished.
*. So, yes, a great premise. This is an interesting and important way of understanding grief. But Alps doesn’t realize much of its potential.
*. In the first place, it’s just plain dull. What makes it so? To my surprise, especially given Lanthimos’s other work, it’s totally uninteresting visually. Maybe the funereal colour schemes were deliberate, but the darkness and drabness is without any spark of life.
*. The other thing that makes it dull is the lack of a story to engage with. In his other movies Lanthimos at least gives us narratives that we can follow. But what is going on in Alps? The nurse (Angeliki Papoulia) is the central character, but I wasn’t even sure if she was sane, or to what extent she was hallucinating events. Or if that even mattered. When you’re left this much up in the air it’s hard to stay interested in what’s going on.
*. Another problem I had was the sense Alps gives of Lanthimos just treading water, or recycling material. To be sure every director has his favourite motifs and ways of handling things, but here the trademark elements — blindness, crazy dancing, passionless sex — just seem trotted out for no reason.
*. In his other films Lanthimos has difficulty representing emotional states, preferring to indulge his propensity to have characters act and speak robotically. In this film, however, we seem to have come out the other side of the zombie apocalypse with nobody being any the wiser. Everyone we meet appears tranquilized.
*. The message is, as usual, glum. Most of Lanthimos’s movies seem to boil down to the message that one has to play one’s role in life and not mess up. If you do mess up you’ll get a whacking. Of course this means your life will be a lie, but welcome to the human race. No one gets a refund. Enjoy the show.

Dogtooth (2009)

*. Yorgos Lanthimos is a crossover art-film director, making movies that, while weird or surreal or abstract or in some other way experimental, are also tethered to reality and have stories you can follow. The lonelyhearts hotel in The Lobster, for example, is a strange place, but we can recognize the types who find themselves there and we root for the love story between David and the Short Sighted Woman.
*. In a similar way, Dogtooth is a story that not only seems torn from the headlines but it’s one that has gone on to be featured in a number of mainstream thrillers. I call these the bunker horrors, and they include movies like Room, 10 Cloverfield Lane, It Comes by Night, and A Quiet Place. The inspiration for this slew of films may have been the Josef Fritzl case, but despite the clear similarities Dogtooth was already in rehearsal before that story broke and Lanthimos says he was unaware of it. Still, the point remains that, while it’s a strange premise, it’s not that far removed from reality. And of course one can think of other movie analogs in play from The Collector to The Village.

*. I’ve remarked in my notes on other bunker horror movies that they feed into an anxiety over how to protect one’s family when the whole world has gone to hell. Dogtooth is a little different, or more in line with Room, in making the bunker a prison kept by an insanely isolationist warden. But his motivation, however twisted, is much the same. My point is just that this isn’t a totally off-the-wall exercise in surrealism. In so far as Dogtooth had a real-life inspiration it was in Lanthimos’s observation on the weirdness of family life in general.
*. Indeed, families aren’t just weird. They constitute their own separate reality. This is true even for those that don’t live in a bunker. Dogtooth underlines this by having the children here being taught a different language and having to follow a bunch of other bizarre customs. It’s all undeniably weird, but I think we’ve all visited homes where the families seem to partially speak a language unique to themselves, and that operate by a set of personal rules that make no sense to outsiders.

*. That much of Dogtooth I can appreciate. And I also like its visual inventiveness and pacing, punctuated as it is with shocking moments. Not all of this, however, do I understand. Take, for example, Lanthimos’s habit of cutting off people’s heads. I don’t mean literally but in terms of his compositions. In an interview he refers to the “really strict framing” he used in shooting the film, but why should that so strictly cut actors off at their shoulders? I can’t think of any good reason. I’m inclined to think it’s connected to his being against actors acting, and his depersonalization of character (which we see expressed in the robotic way he insists lines be delivered, and his use of clothes as uniforms). Then again maybe it has something to do with the blindness motif. I don’t know.
*. There’s a coldness in all this, but then the art house is a cold environment. Also typical of that environment is the fact that Dogtooth lets you read a lot into it. Lanthimos does enjoy his ambiguous open endings, but I wonder how much of that is for a purpose and how much because he just can’t figure out where he wants to go next. The basic point here that the father can only keep a lid on burgeoning teenage sexuality so long before it erupts in violence seems pretty simple to me. Will the younger daughter escape? Or does escape in this context only mean trading in one prison for another that may be even worse (the trunk of the car, or that penitentiary-like work place the father is employed at)? I’ll admit I’m not optimistic.

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965)

*. It’s hard to take some movies out of their place in our memories of them. I first saw Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! at a repertory cinema when I was at university. Today it’s hard work even finding repertory cinemas, and the ones there are don’t often show movies like this. But this is what a cult movie was, back in the day.
*. I remember being mightily impressed by it thirty years ago, and while I still think it’s a lot of fun it hasn’t grown on me the way a favourite movie does, and doesn’t reveal any new levels of meaning on repeated viewings. It’s interesting in a lot of different ways, but not complicated.
*. As with all such movies there has been so much written about it now and so many different interpretations of its meaning that I’m pretty sure I can’t add anything original. For what it’s worth, on this latest viewing it put me in mind of two other movies.

*. First, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. This came out only a year later and I find a number of correspondences. Not because I think Faster, Pussycat is a Western, spaghetti or otherwise, but because of the archetypal force its central characters have, the conflict they endure, and the mythic structure of their quest.
*. Like Blondie, Tuco, and Angel Eyes, Varla, Rosie, and Billie are after a fortune in gold (or, as it turns out, some really fake-looking “long green”), but the main thing I’m getting at here is how the central figures in the drama are so much larger than life, representing heroic or anti-heroic essences just as the Good, Bad, and Ugly do. It’s no mistake that there are few other players on screen: the audience at the go-go bar, the gas station attendant, and that hapless loser Tommy. They don’t belong with our triumvirate of Amazons, the Old Man, and the mighty Vegetable. The main players are forces of nature that will in the end cancel one another out, leaving only the all-too-human Linda and Kirk as inheritors of the blasted landscape.
*. It’s hard to speak of Blondie or Angel Eyes, or Varla and her gang, as characters. They are types. Varla is sex-as-death, someone who would just as soon kill you as fuck you. And indeed I’m not sure she’s all that interested in the latter. She is also wedded to her sports car as a cowboy to his horse, a mechanical satyr whose confrontation with the beefcake Veg has an orgasmic intensity. John Henry taking on the steam drill had nothing on this, and it’s just the sort of showdown such figures deserve. I think you could watch it with Morricone’s Ecstasy of Gold playing and enjoy it even more.

*. The other movie I was reminded of was The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). The Old Man, the Hitchhiker, and Leatherface have their analogs in the three men living alone on the ranch: the Old Man, Kirk (the only one who can pass for normal), and the Vegetable.
*. I don’t know how much has been said about Faster, Pussycat as an early example of this kind of horror film, but the classic set-up is already here: a group of young people wind up off the beaten track (the farmhouse doesn’t even have a phone!) where they meet a family of weirdos who seem to have designs on them. Nothing explicit is said, but it seems as though part of the Old Man’s revenge on women is to at least rape and perhaps kill any strays he can collect. The flies have fallen into the spider’s web, with the twist being that the tables have been turned.
*. That strained family dinner is another element found in a lot of the generation of horror that Texas Chain Saw Massacre introduced. A good meal is so often used as foreshadowing. For sex, or death. And in this movie you get both.

*. If you want to make big claims for Faster, Pussycat it may be in the way it preceded these films, each a landmark in its own way. Just as its presentation of buxom, dominating women preceded the fetish artwork of Eric Stanton, who was obviously a soulmate of Meyer. When drawing connections like these a lot of credit goes to the person who did it first, and in this case that palm goes to Meyer.
*. Does that mean we have to take Russ Meyer seriously? I’m not so sure. This is really the only movie of his I’ve seen that I can return to. And to be honest, most of the other movies of his I’ve seen I’ve been bored by. But for whatever reason everything came together for Faster, Pussycat! The title, tossed off almost as a joke, has stuck in the collective consciousness. The dialogue is campy and quotable, the action works, and the whole thing moves along so quickly you don’t have time to mind all the really dull bits. Bestriding all of this like a colossus is Tura Satana, whose performance is lightning in a bottle. In short, I think this was a one-off for everyone involved. But that’s the way it sometimes works.

Southbound (2015)

*. I wasn’t expecting much. Southbound is another anthology horror from a bunch of the same people that brought us the underwhelming V/H/S, so my expectations were low. Very low. But Southbound is pretty good.
*. As with any anthology horror there are some weak links. And the framing narrative, which is actually part of the story and encircles the action like a stuffed-crust pizza shell, is problematic. But overall I really enjoyed what was on tap. Here’s a quick breakdown of the line-up.
*. “The Way Out”: a couple of guys are fleeing a bunch of floating lich-like entities that were apparently patterened after the Grim Reaper and which will reappear throughout the film, hovering in the background. I quite liked this episode, as the Reapers are interesting to look at and there’s a frantic sense of discombobulation to the action. The pair seem trapped in a twilight zone where the categories of time and space have become flexible and evil is always on the hoof.

*. “Siren”: a girl band gets picked up by a couple of devil worshippers. This all played out as pretty obvious to my eyes, though there’s a bit of humour mixed in. That humour, however, is also obvious, riffing on the perfect 1950s domestic Eden that is actually hell just under the surface. They even replay that old stand-by of the family meal that is disturbing in both its formal hospitality and suspicious main course.
*. “The Accident”: perhaps the best episode. A man named Lucas hits a girl with his car on the highway and has to perform surgery on her himself while being talked through the operation by a trio of demonic voices on his cellphone. Original, and creepy.

*. “Jailbreak”: a man named Danny tries to rescue his sister from hell but she doesn’t want to be saved. Simple but too enigmatic for its own good.
*. “The Way In”: home invasion horror as a bunch of masked men slaughter a family. Most of it plays a bit like The Strangers (which they apparently had in mind), and it’s not that interesting until it becomes weird, though I wouldn’t want to conflate being weird with being interesting. It turns out (spoiler alert) that two of the masked men are the two guys from the first episode, and their killing of the family is what unleashed the Reapers.
*. So, as I said, the frame wraps us in a circle. Except it doesn’t make sense. It’s not really a loop but a Möbius strip. This is a point that’s foreshadowed in a scene in the first episode where the two guys drive away from a gas station and then keep coming back to it. Things don’t make sense along this stretch of road.
*. They don’t make sense and they’re not going to be explained. This may be the aspect of Southbound that got the most attention. There’s a lack of information as to what is going on in the various (semi-linked) stories, with the creators wanting to find a balance between letting the audience know too much and leaving things open to their imagination. So we never find out what happened to Alex, for example, or to Kathryn.
*. I’m not against them going in this direction and I’ll admit the mystery does have a certain appeal. Perhaps it’s better to have no explanation than a really stupid explanation for what’s going on. What I don’t like about it is that it’s too easy. Instead of having to work things out it’s just a bunch of weird stuff happening and random Easter egg-style correspondences that suggest some greater coherence without having to actually create that coherence in the script.
*. Thematically what unifies most of the stories is payback for some unexpiated sense of guilt. Atonement. Redemption maybe. The two guys at the beginning are killers who were in turn avenging whatever was done to Kathryn. Sadie is guilty for what she did to Alex. Lucas, I guess, has to pay for killing Sadie. The fact that he gets away at the end, however, suggests that he may have just been an instrument of fate. The man rescuing his sister is mistaken in doing so because his sister has committed a crime and thus must do her time.
*. So we may not be in hell but, and this is how the creators describe it, purgatory. Except it really doesn’t seem like purgatory at all. I don’t think there’s any way you can square what’s happening with a theology, so that seems to be another angle that’s just being vaguely suggested. I mean Jem dies but is presumably innocent of whatever crimes her parents were involved in. Sadie’s bandmates seem in the same boat. Danny is punished just for messing with forces he doesn’t understand. I guess.
*. The genre of anthology horror is not a particularly distinguished one. Recently it has become home to a lot of cheap, experimental, loosely-assembled collections of quickies (think of the P.O.E. or ABCs of Death series). Southbound is quite a bit better than this. The frame business strikes me as a little too cute in its suggestiveness, extending to the mysterious DJ who provides a kind of moralistic commentary. They’ve set themselves up well for a sequel, but I actually hope they let it go and stick to their guns about not giving us any more in the way of explanation as to what’s going on. I think they’ve painted themselves into a bit of a corner in that regard and in any event it works well enough as a one off.

Rawhead Rex (1986)

*. “Cheesy” is a word that gets used a lot when people talk about bad movies. And more so with movies than when discussing books or other works of art. But what does it mean?
*. The Oxford English Dictionary labels it slang and offers as a definition “inferior, second-rate, cheap and nasty.” To this I think I’d want to add that, like cheese, people like it. Even though you know it’s crap that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it. Also like cheese, it ages well. For some reason, cheese made in the 1980s seems to taste better today than it did thirty years ago.
*. Rawhead Rex is a cheesy horror flick. It’s very bad. Some people consider it one of the worst horror films of the 1980s, which is high praise indeed (and it’s usually meant as praise). It is also a lot of fun.
*. The keynote is the monster Rawhead. The movie opts to show him to us in all his glory as soon as he’s raised from his burial pit at the beginning, not bothering with the suspense of a slow reveal. And he is laughable: a big guy with a stupid, immobile rubber orc mask that has hypnotic red Christmas-tree lights in its eyes. He is, in other words, a total block of cheese.
*. The rest of the movie is just as terrible. Incompetence is demonstrated in every department of the film’s making: wrong-footed editing, terrible sound, stiff acting, and a ludicrous script. And then there are moments of sheer bad-movie hilarity, like the “baptism” in the graveyard (I won’t give this away) and pretty much the entire last ten minutes, which is capped with a predictably nutty final shot.
*. It’s loosely based on a Clive Barker short story and he also wrote the script. Perhaps the one good thing that can be said for Rawhead Rex then is that Barker hated it so much he insisted on making Hellraiser himself.
*. So definitely inferior, second-rate, cheap, and nasty. But also fun. Not a movie you’ll want to watch more than once, but well worth checking out sometime if you get the chance.

Quiz the seventy-first: Where in the world? (Part one)

In previous quizzes I’ve given you the when, and sometimes the when and the where. This week, however, all you have to go on is your knowledge of film geography. So get out your movie GPS and see if you can track down the following, not always precise, locations.

See also: Quiz the one hundred-and-twenty-eighth: Where in the world? (Part two).

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His Kind of Woman (1951)

*. A lot of movies have complicated back stories. Some are as interesting as the films themselves. But while of interest to film historians and other odd sorts, the story behind the making of a particular movie isn’t always that significant when relating it to the movie itself. Does it matter who directed The Thing from Another World? Or Gone with the Wind?
*. His Kind of Woman is a movie with just such a muddled biography, and I think its origins are relevant to any discussion of it. The credited director is John Farrow (Mia’s father) but Richard Fleischer was called in to shoot a lot of new material, including the entire final third of the picture. The reason this is important is because it’s clear from a first viewing that His Kind of Woman is two movies. Or really, as Vivian Sobchack puts it on the DVD commentary, it’s a “very strange blend of a number of things.”
*. It was a strange mix not just because of the two directors, but also because of the assistance/meddling of producer Howard Hughes. Hughes was the one calling the shots on the reshoot, and rewriting parts of the script. He also called for the recasting of the Nick Ferraro character, replacing Lee Van Cleef with Raymond Burr even after Fleischer had finished filming.
*. As you might expect given such a production the script comes apart at the seams. There’s some great dialogue — snappy lines and sultry double entendres — but it’s a hopeless mess of a story. At two hours it’s a very long noir, and it is so because it’s got a lot of stuff thrown in that’s kind of pointless. Sobchack mentions the plane landing in the storm as not advancing the plot and being “a somewhat extraneous” element. But Hughes liked planes, so.
*. There are also too many characters introduced, not all of them important. Jim Backus is always fun to watch, but Winton isn’t connected to anything here. Nor are the newlyweds, though they all get together in a fun card game where Milner plays the hero.
*. Perhaps chief among these superfluous, however, is Jane Russell’s Lenore. What is she doing here? She isn’t a femme fatale (Sobchack only refers to her as “a femme fatale, but hardly”). She has no relation to the Ferrrao plot. I wasn’t even entirely sure what she was doing at the lodge in the first place. Seducing the married Cardigan seems like a long shot, and when she gets to the lodge she doesn’t seem interested in him at all (or he in her). It’s shameful the way she’s tossed in a closet for the entire final act of the picture (“This is man’s work! Women are for weeping!”), but even worse is the fact that I didn’t miss her.
*. As for Russell herself, it’s hard not to seem reductive. David Thomson thought her “no actress . . . but dryly skeptical and physically glorious.” By dryly skeptical he may be referring to the fact that she rarely smiles, preferring to curl her lip back in what looks like a sneer, even at the most inappropriate moments (look at her after her first kiss with Mitchum, or upon discovering Lusk’s body). As for “physically glorious,” that can only refer to her décolleté. I guess ever since The Outlaw, which is to say the beginning, this is what she was known for. And it’s certainly what gets put on display here.

*. When Vincent Price shoves Russell in the closet you know he’s taken over the film. Is that a bad thing? He’s a lot of fun and gets to do the sort of Shakespearean camp that he’d still be reciting over twenty years later in Theater of Blood. He also relives the Ernest Hemingway story “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” while quoting from it. He’s a literate ham.
*. The difficulty with all the Price stuff is that it’s slapstick farce, and farce is an odd combination, especially when it’s directly intercut, with brutal violence. A very strange blend indeed, and I can’t say it works that well. The stuff with Mitchum being beaten and threatened with the needle is dragged out to a ridiculous length just to give Price more gags to play with, like the sinking of his boat (an expensive folly that Hughes insisted on).
*. According to Sobchack one of the scenes that Hughes took a personal interest in rewriting was the business with the doctor and his needle. I wonder why, since none of it struck me as being very scientific. In fact, I’m not sure how the identity switch was supposed to work. It sounds almost as though what is being proposed is a sort of face transplant, not just plastic surgery to make Burr look more like Mitchum. Why else keep Mitchum alive? But since the whole idea is nuts to begin with — wouldn’t it be easier just to set Ferraro up with some fake ID? — there may be no point in pursuing this.
*. With a little bit of everything and not too much of anything this is a movie that’s easy to like but hard to rate critically. Leonard Maltin saw it as a precursor to Beat the Devil for its send-up of masculinity, but that seems to me to only be part of it. Perhaps the biggest difference is that John Huston seems to have thought of his film as a joke right from the start and His Kind of Woman didn’t at least start out that way. Beat the Devil was deliberate chaos. His Kind of Woman is more of an accident. Or a train wreck. Either way it’s fun to rubberneck.

Swordfish (2001)

*. Swordfish is a stupid movie about (supposedly) smart people.
*. John Travolta plays Gabriel, a criminal mastermind. He employs genius hackers like Hugh Jackman’s Stanley (who boasts of a preternatural ability “to see the code in my head, I can’t explain it”). You’d think that with conspirators like these there would be something very clever afoot, but as far as I can tell the only thing going on is a plot to break into a bank’s computer and transfer $9.5 billion into a secret account in Monte Carlo. That’s it. I don’t understand how they were going to get away with it aside from the fact that it all had to do with computers and you can (or at least could in 2001) do anything with computers.
*. Or take the scene where a pair of Gabriel’s henchmen simply walk into the police station and kill the Finnish computer hacker and his lawyer in the interrogation room. On the DVD commentary director Dominic Sena says that he thought that having the thugs just barging into the police station and shooting the two men “wasn’t smart enough.” So he added something “you weren’t expecting,” which is that they get Cheadle’s character out of the interrogation room by way of a prank call and then shoot their victims through the one-way mirror. This made them seem smarter? Really? Does such a laughably improbable hit qualify as smart?
*. So, no, this is not a smart movie. This is a movie where the women are all crazy sexy and cars crash into things and blow up. I mean, a lot of cars blow up. And Halle Berry is served up like a piece of meat. Berry is a very sexy woman, and I have nothing against a bit of cheesecake, but she’s also a good actor and she’s just put on display here for no other reason except to be ogled. She deserved better treatment. It was reported, however, that she was paid $500,000 just to take her top off for her sunbathing scene.
*. Why even bother introducing the character of the senator (Sam Shepard)? I wasn’t sure what his role was in all of this. Sena: “something covert is going on and we just leave it at that.” In the end Travolta has to kill him and all of his henchmen off in the middle act just to get rid of them.
*. Originally Agent Roberts (Don Cheadle) was going to be killed halfway through the movie too. Sena had to argue to keep him in, though to no good purpose. He’s just there to run along behind the action, showing up a bit too late to all the parties.

*. Why is Ginger wearing a wire anyway? I think the point was that it was all a deliberate misdirection of Stanley. But this is another part of the script that really doesn’t stand much looking into. Like how she gets roped into the game of fooling Stanley at the end with her mock-hanging and fake death. How did they know in advance to have that whole bit of theatre ready to go?
*. There were several different or alternate endings included with the DVD. This is usually a bad sign, suggesting an awareness on someone’s part that what they had just wasn’t working. I can see why. I understand they didn’t want the sort of conventional happy ending that Gabriel mocks at the beginning of the film. Plus Sena wanted to show how smart Gabriel is by getting away with it. But the moral calculus is never made clear.
*. I want to be careful what I’m saying here. I have nothing against a heist movie where the bad guys get away. What I object to is a movie where the motivations and morality of the characters remain so opaque.
*. Sena remarks on the commentary that “Travolta is one of the few actors I think who can actually play this sort of disgusting, reprehensible, evil, villainous character and you still like him.” But should we? I mean, he does kill innocent people. A lot of them. But Sera wanted the ending to make it clear that Gabriel truly is a patriot because there isn’t “a glimmer” of this in the rest of the movie. It seems to me that this is leaving things till rather late in the day.
*. Roger Ebert, who is usually a pretty good stand-in for the opinions of the common man (albeit one with a solid understanding of the art and the industry), began his review noting this confusion: “Swordfish looks like the result of a nasty explosion down at the Plot Works. It’s skillfully mounted and fitfully intriguing, but weaves such a tangled web that at the end I defy anyone in the audience to explain the exact loyalties and motives of the leading characters. There is one person in the movie who is definitely intended to be a hero, but are the villains really villains? Are they even themselves?”
*. Personally, I felt confused by all of the endings. I didn’t really know what Gabriel was up to (was he still working for the government or was he a freelancer?) or why. He just seemed to me like a cocky jerk. Not smart, just arrogant and unaccountably rich. Again: I don’t mind that a heel gets away with it at the end, I’m just unsure of whether or not he was supposed to be a heel. It seems a stretch for me to see him as a hero, even if he is a patriot (which also seems dubious).
*. The car crashes and explosions are really good. It’s about the only positive note I made while I was watching the movie. Apparently I was not alone in being impressed by the fireworks. Producer Joel Silver told Sena that the car blowing up in the parking garage was the best explosion he’d ever seen (and he’d seen a lot). So give credit where it’s due. And the bus flying above the streets of L.A. was spectacular. Aside from that it’s all pretty dumb, and not quite as much fun as it should be.