Monthly Archives: June 2019

Barbie Blues (2011)

*. It’s the basic porn set-up. A hot girl (Mika) lounges by the pool in a bikini. She sees a dead bird floating in the water. For some reason she feels inadequate to the task of scooping it out with the skimmer so she calls on her new neighbour to come help.
*. The neighbour (Gershon) isn’t the classic pool boy. He’s older, overweight, wears glasses, is bald. But he gets the bird out of the pool and Mika proceeds to flirt with him. She tosses him in the pool. She asks him to inspect her pedicure. She gets him to rub lotion on her back. Just looking at the script you’d know where this was going. Are Mika and Gershon familiar with the script as well? How could they not be? They grew up with the Internet.
*. We can feel the tension rising. From the looks Gershon gives Mika we know she’s playing with fire. The industry definition of a happy ending is inevitable. This upsets Mika, naturally, but she seems to get over it quickly. After all, things might have been worse.
*. I don’t think there’s a whole lot going on here aside from the obvious question of how we apportion blame. This is a slippery point. There is a sexual assault and we don’t want to say Mika was asking for it. We are made to wonder, however, just what it was she was thinking. The signals being sent in such a situation are notoriously hard to interpret, but she’s clearly being provocative in a way that goes beyond merely being friendly. The escalation is on her. Is she without any responsibility for what happens?
*. Looking at things from Gershon’s point of view, is this a case of an assault being more about dominance than sex? That is, to the extent the two can be separated. Note that he doesn’t call Mika a slut or a whore. He calls her a spoiled brat.
*. It’s not obvious how we should judge Mika and Gershon, but then being obvious would kill a short film like this. The dead falcon suggests something destructive in the natural order of things, the chlorinated pool as a form of honey trap. Mika’s going back to just doing what she was doing before this all got started might mean what? Resignation? Indifference? What does the title refer to? The signals are hard to read.

Demolition Man (1993)

*. I think the last time I saw Demolition Man was back when it was released, and to be honest I wasn’t expecting much seeing it again. But I was pleasantly surprised to see that it’s held up reasonably well. It was never a great movie, but it was entertaining enough in 1993 and I think it still is.
*. It was a time when action films were entering a stage of self awareness. Schwarzenegger’s Last Action Hero came out the same year, sending up genre conventions in a tongue-in-cheek way. Demolition Man was a similar comic turn for Stallone, poking fun at the cartoonish violence of his previous roles by projecting his character (John Spartan, no less) into an irenic future society where a man with his particular set of skills is soon in demand.
*. So the premise is clever enough (though I should note that a Hungarian author, István Nemere, claimed it plagiarized his work). And producer Joel Silver was sticking pretty close to his bread and butter (note the poster for Lethal Weapon 3 in Huxley’s office). I know it’s a cliché to speak of how much the steroid-age biceps-and-bullets heroes looked like toy figures, but Stallone really does look like he’s made out of plastic here. Sandra Bullock is cute as a fangirl of vintage action movies. Denis Leary is pitifully underused, never even getting a chance to be funny. There’s a theme song at the end with lyrics like “Don’t mess around with the Demolition Man.” Oh, those theme songs. Can’t say I miss them a bit.
*. Director Marco Brambilla, helming his first film, doesn’t seem that into it. He didn’t go on to do much in Hollywood. I think he was more into art projects. It’s interesting to hear him talk on the commentary about what his visual references were. The look of the city, for example, was inspired by Tati’s Playtime. I hadn’t thought of that, but I guess it’s there in some of the colour schemes. I also hadn’t thought of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus for the scene where Stallone is revived. And even after being told that was the reference I still don’t see it.

*. Of course it’s Wesley Snipes who really stands out, playing the manic punk terrorist Simon Phoenix. I thought he was doing a Dennis Rodman, but on the commentary it’s said that Rodman actually borrowed Snipes’s look. I don’t remember now who came first.
*. It looks a lot like Total Recall or Judge Dredd. The plot, however, is even more slapdash. Whatever happens to Jesse Ventura and the other reawakened convicts? Apparently it was explained in the novelization, but isn’t here.
*. It’s a movie of its time to be sure, but it’s interesting how that time has come around again. The early ’90s were the crest of what I call the first wave of political correctness, which was definitely one of Demolition Man‘s targets. After that things cooled down for a couple of decades, but thirty year later PC came back in a big way for its second wave. I say that not to take a side in the culture wars, but only to point to how these things tend to go in cycles. Demolition Man has dated in a lot of ways, but its tweaking of PC culture hasn’t. Is it time then for a remake? Would a new John Spartan be a hero or a comic dinosaur? Probably, as here, a bit of both. I’d like to see what they’d come up with.

The Meg (2018)

*. 1989 was the big year for underwater thrillers, with the release of DeepStar Six, The Abyss, and Leviathan. In hindsight that year really stands out because there aren’t many such movies. This is mainly because they are much more expensive to make than horror movies set in a cabin in the woods. In the wake of its huge success it was easy to forget that even Jaws had gone disastrously over budget.
*. CGI, however, made it safe to go back in the water. Even if you didn’t have any money, you could conjure up a cheap ocean monster and go for the cheese. This was the approach taken in a number of low-budget Syfy horror films with titles like Sharknado and Dinoshark vs. Crocosaurus. I actually don’t know if those are real titles. But they’re probably close.
*. The Meg basically takes the Dinoshark idea of having a prehistoric giant shark brought back to life. A megalodon, to be exact, hence the title of the movie. This ancient monster then proceeds to cause all kinds of destruction. The main difference between The Meg and Dinoshark is that Dinoshark coast around $2 million to make and The Meg $150 million.
*. So The Meg is bigger in every way than a Syfy cheeseburger. But it needed to be even cheesier. Or have more violence (instead of going for a PG-13 rating). Or more something.
*. It is certainly stupid. Nearly every five minutes I was shaking my head at some utter impossibility in the plot. But this wasn’t a fun kind of stupid. Also, there are no great action sequences. I’m inclined to say that the trailer is just as entertaining as the movie, and a lot shorter.
*. The story is unnecessarily complicated with stuff nobody cares about. Why spend so much time introducing the character of Jonas’s ex-wife Lori when she has no function? Instead there’s some romance hinted at between Jason Staham and Li Bingbing that goes nowhere. The film was a Chinese-American co-production and their awkwardness together made me feel like there may have been too many cooks in the kitchen.
*. I’m not even sure the giant shark looks that much better than his cable cousins. He seemed kind of fat to me. Which is weird because I don’t know what a predator that size would be eating in the abyss.
*. There’s no point dwelling on points like this though. Bottom line: this is a big stupid summer movie that should have been a lot more fun than it is. And yet, talk of a sequel immediately began. Or a crossover perhaps? The Meg vs. Crocoshark? How bad could that be?

Panicky Picnic (1909)

*. An idyllic picnic in the woods turns into an episode of Fear Factor as directed by Lucio Fulci. Bugs come spilling out of the sausage, eggs hatch into mice, and the cake is filled with worms. Then, when a storm chases the group to an inn, things start to get really weird.
*. This, however, is seeing the movie in hindsight. At the time the model for upsetting such a bourgeois picnic was Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, a painting that shocked contemporaries. I think this is the tradition director Segundo de Chomón is working in, inspired by the revolution in painting that led up to surrealism, which was in turn a movement that had a natural affinity for film.
*. It’s said Segundo de Chomón should be better known, and this is true, as his work stacks up well alongside that of his peers. He’s quite inventive, and while most of his films are mere trickery you could say the same for Méliès et al. What’s more, I think there’s a point behind all the tricks, in that they’re used to evoke that world of dreams and nightmares that surrealism took as its native ground.
*. What I find interesting is the connection to later developments in the horror genre that I began by referencing. While the surrealists understood that the sleep of reason could bring forth monsters, we don’t often think of surrealism as horror. A razor blade cutting through an eyeball is shocking gore, even by today’s standards, but Un Chien Andalou isn’t a movie that fits into any subsequent horror conventions.
*. Panicky Picnic (or, more midly, Une Excursion Incohérente) presents itself as a lark, but we can clearly see the outlines of where horror movies would be going. The picnic brings to mind all kinds of rotten feasts. The inn might be our cabin in the woods. The spirits raised in the kitchen recall the labs of various shady wizards, going all the way back to the original film Frankenstein rising from an alchemist’s vat. The shadow play in the bedroom might lead us to think of Suspiria, to take just one later example.
*. That none of it is “real” is where the surrealism comes in. The main animation sequence plays out on a blanket that forms a screen between a sleeping couple. Is this the sleep of reason? And then the whole thing winds up falling into a well, that longstanding symbol of the unconscious. Perhaps there was something in that bad food they brought to the picnic that gave rise to these hallucinations. But I prefer to think that if you go down in these woods today you’re sure of a big surprise.

Belle de Jour (1967)

*. I first saw Belle de Jour at a rep cinema in the early ’90s. It was a full house, but as Catherine Deneuve’s Séverine got taken from the landau for her thrashing (this is the opening scene) a young woman sitting at the front quite conspicuously got up and stalked out of the theatre. I had to laugh. I mean, she knew what was coming and she obviously wanted to make some kind of statement by sitting up front and then heading for the exit in the first few minutes. It was that silly.
*. I don’t think anyone in the theatre that day found that scene, which is the riskiest in the film, shocking or offensive. By the 1990s we’d all grown used to much stronger stuff. Which is maybe why I was quite underwhelmed by the movie. I remember coming out of the theatre and wondering what the fuss was all about.
*. I like it more now, though I still don’t find it transgressive or disturbing and I don’t think I’ll every be fully on board with calling it a great movie. It is, however, a lot of fun to talk about.
*. A lot of this arises from the blankness of Catherine Deneuve’s Séverine. Like any good prostitue (I imagine) she is something that the client (or audience) projects on to. She’s like the Japanese man’s box in that regard. What’s inside? Whatever you want. A fetish is nothing to anyone but the person possessed of it.

*. Séverine, however, is even blanker than most sexual or fetish objects. Called upon to role play she can’t even manage the very minimal requirements demanded for the part. For the necrophiliac duke she is at her most convincing as a corpse. In her own fantasies she is something to be bound and gagged.

*. In an interview included with the Criterion DVD it is suggested that Deneuve is “asexual,” and it is a judgment that Buñuel immediately agrees with. To make use of a distinction that I remember Paris Hilton making once (and that I’ve adverted to before) she is sexy without being sexual. This is, I think, what Roger Ebert is getting at when he talks about the narcissism of Séverine: “For a woman like Séverine, walking into a room to have sex, the erotic charge comes not from who is waiting in the room, but from the fact that she is walking into it. Sex is about herself. Love of course is another matter.”

*. Part of this blankness is a certain generic quality that Séverine has as sexual object. Like most sexual fantasies, she easily fits into various stereotypical roles. When, at the end, Hussot sees her as a schoolgirl it’s just another conventional porn role she’s being seen in. Just as her own fantasies are drawn from Sade, or in one case from a Millet painting. I believe this is what Michael Wood means in his DVD commentary when he says of the dueling dream: “”there’s something horribly predictable about all of this and something horribly borrowed, it’s again as if Séverine has fantasies but she doesn’t quite have first-rate fantasies.”

*. The movie raises a lot of questions. Some of these aren’t meant to be answered, like the matter of what’s in the box. Or rather, their meaning is in the fact that there is no objective answer. Other questions, however, continue to bedevil critics.
*. I suppose the biggest of these has to do with what parts of the film are supposed to be “really” happening. The most notorious example here is the visit to the duke’s mansion to play a corpse. Personally, I feel convinced this is Séverine’s fantasy, but Buñuel was categorical about its reality: “the episode of the necrophiliac really happens; it’s neither a dream nor a daydream.”
*. Perhaps part of the difficulty arises from that same conventionality of fantasy life I mentioned. People’s lives are conventional too. Stereotypes are real. Could anything be sillier in a generic way than the whole gangster subplot? It seems to me that all of that stuff should be one of Séverine’s daydreams, but I guess it isn’t.

*. Then there is the justly famous ending, with its melding of dream and reality. How are we to read it? In the video essay Criterion includes, Susie Bright says that Séverine gets away with her affair unpunished. Does she? Or does the ending smack of Ethan Frome? The thing is, Séverine seems quite happy even before Pierre comes back to life. David Thomson goes as far as to suggest that the crippling of Pierre is what she wanted, perhaps a route to her expiation. Martyrdom is another form of fantasy, and we’ve clearly seen Séverine’s thoughts tending in that direction.
*. I’ve said I don’t think Belle de Jour is a great movie. Like a lot of Luis Buñuel’s stuff, I find most of it overly analytical. There’s something artificial about it, from the sets to the clothes to the fantasies themselves. It’s a passionless tale of passion. I find it fascinating on several levels, but never terribly involving. Then again, maybe Séverine just isn’t my type.

The Equalizer 2 (2018)

*. It was worth a shot. I didn’t really care for The Equalizer, but then I didn’t like John Wick and I thought John Wick: Chapter 2 was a lot of fun. And since Robert McCall is John Wick in almost all but name, why not?
*. Well, it didn’t work out. The Equalizer 2 isn’t just garbage, it’s one of the dullest action movies I’ve seen in years.
*. Here’s the set-up: Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) is the semi-retired black-ops specialist who is now a Lyft driver in Boston but who also goes around helping people in need. Sort of like a one-man A-Team. He helps a woman whose thuggish husband has kidnapped her daughter. He helps a girl who has been drugged and raped by a bunch of spoiled bros at a party. He helps an old Jewish man (camp survivor, naturally) who wants to reunite with his long-lost sister. He helps a troubled black teen who is in danger of being sucked into the gangster life. McCall is the embodiment of perfect justice: someone you can count on to be there to make things right.
*. That’s not much of a movie, however. We need more. And so his former boss Susan, who still works for the Agency, drops in to tell McCall that she’s the only friend he’s got. We sit back and say, “Marked for death.”
*. Susan is murdered and McCall now has to avenge her murder. That’s the plot. Here are a couple of things, just off the top, that are wrong with it. (1) McCall finds out about Susan’s death 45 minutes into the movie. That’s when things get started! Please. (2) We never really find out why Susan gets killed or who is behind it. There are a bunch of killers in the Agency who have gone over to the dark side and it may be that Susan was going to blow their cover in some way, but it’s never explained exactly what it is they’re up to or who they work for. They’re just introduced into the plot to kill Susan so that Robert can then kill them.
*. You would think given how slow the movie develops that there’d be a little more in the way of plot going on, but it really is that simple. Take the scene where McCall confronts his old friend Dave, who works for the Agency but who is now the leader of the bad guys (a “twist” we see coming as soon as this character is introduced). We’ve heard all of this before, about these specialists who have been trained to kill but then disposed of when America no longer had any enemies (I’m not sure when exactly that was). Dave, and people like him, go from being an asset to an afterthought. Like I say, we’ve heard all of this many, many times before, but never at such length. The scene between McCall and Dave plays out for what feels like forever, and it doesn’t provide any essential information. We never find out anything about Dave and his operation. He’s just an asset who has gone rogue and who is now doing rogue things.
*. What follows are action sequences which are nothing special. Definitely sub-John Wick. The final battle also doesn’t make much sense. The team of specialists go into a deserted town where they proceed to show no grasp of basic tactics whatsoever. Dave, as the leader, climbs up a tower where he is of no use at all seeing anything as there is a hurricane blowing and this is, you know, a town, and most of the time people are in or behind buildings. As his team gets picked off one by one they keep screaming “Eyes! I need eyes!” But what assistance can Dave provide them? He doesn’t have x-ray vision.
*. By the way, you know you’re in trouble when you have to add a hurricane to the mix to make the final shootout come to life. Because otherwise this would just be a very slow and uninteresting version of the end of High Plains Drifter. This way it’s a slow and uninteresting version of High Plains Drifter with wind and rain and crashing waves.
*. Guess what? McCall kills all the bad guys and the black kid goes off to art school and the old Jewish guy is reunited with his sister. This crap drags on for two full hours. I can’t be sure if they were even trying to make a good movie, or if they just wanted to make a movie they could stick the franchise label on. Either way, let’s hope it ends here.

The Equalizer (2014)

*. I’ve talked before about how a successful movie is usually a genre effort that gives the audience exactly what it expects, with just a bit of a twist.
*. Without the twist, what you get is The Equalizer.
*. The premise was taken from a TV show that ran in the 1980s starring Edward Woodward as a one-man A-Team. It’s a show that I must have seen (I watched a lot of TV at the time) but which I have absolutely no memory of. More proximately, however, the model was clearly Taken: a star vehicle meant to rebrand a middle-aged actor as an action hero. It’s a sub-category of a genre that has its own label now: geri-action. In Liam Neeson’s case it worked, at least for a while. With Denzel Washington (originally it was going to be Russell Crowe) the jury is still out, though he was very good in The Book of Eli and The Equalizer did well enough for a sequel to be duly ordered up.
*. In Taken Neeson played a retired CIA black-ops agent who had a particular set of skills that came in handy when his wife and child were threatened. In The Equalizer Denzel Washington plays a retired CIA black-ops agent with a particular set of skills . . . you get the picture. His wife and child are missing in action but he stands as a surrogate father figure over most of his working-class Boston neighbourhood, defending the poor and the weak from various bad guys. In this case that mainly means the Russian mob. They’re so bad they’re not even American. Where are the boyos from The Boondock Saints when you need them?
*. Though the Saints aren’t in much need here. Robert McCall (if that is his real name) is up to not only taking on the Russian mob, but indeed all of Russia itself. He’s a superhero who doesn’t feel the need to use a gun, preferring (and it is a deliberate choice) to dispatch bad guys with lethal ninja skills performed at Matrix-style speed, or with whatever goods and appliances he can grab off the shelf of the local Home Mart hardware store he works at. He’s also mastered the essential art of every Hollywood action hero of being able to walk cool in slow motion. David Edelstein: “when was the last time you saw a lone hero stride toward the climactic killing ground in slow motion? Yesterday? An hour ago?”
*. Don’t be thinking this is just another brainless, soulless action film though. It has a message. You can become anything you want to be in this world if you just believe in yourself, work hard, and stay in school. Reading books is recommended too. It’s all about self-improvement.
*. Chloë Grace Moretz plays the young prostitute rescued from the clutches of the mob. What a clichéd role. I’ve heard that real prostitutes actually resent people thinking of them in this way. Blame Hollywood. I mean, wasn’t Taxi Driver sticking this whole convention on its head forty years ago?
*. At least Marton Csokas as the Chief Bad Guy looks like he had some fun getting dressed up and covered in tats for the role. It’s a worthless part, again nothing more than a walking cliché, but you get the sense he’s feeling it.
*. Isn’t carbon monoxide poisoning a gentle form of torture? Especially if the torturee thinks he’s going to be killed anyway. Being gassed might seem a pleasant exit option. But then the whole scene here where this is played out is pretty silly.
*. As noted, the setting is Boston. We know this because one of the homes has a Boston Red Sox flag in it and there are lots of aerial shots of various landmarks, especially that fancy new bridge (officially, the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge, which opened in 2003). But aside from that, this doesn’t feel at all like it is set anywhere in particular. I think they were just trying to give a bit of local flavour to the generic material.
*. How the hell did they let such a plain story drag on for 2 hours and 12 minutes? There is literally nothing here. Reuniting Washington with Antoine Fuqua, the director of Training Day, audiences had every reason to expect something more. They sure didn’t get it. And yet they seemed content. So I guess they got what they paid for.

Quiz the seventy-ninth: Pass me the binoculars (Part two)

In my previous binocular quiz I gave you the not very helpful clue that none of the pics showed someone using binoculars to look at birds. In this week’s quiz I can’t be as confident about that. Good luck!

See also: Quiz the thirty-sixth: Pass me the binoculars (Part one), Quiz the one hundred-and-eighteenth: Pass me the binoculars (Part three), Quiz the one hundred-and-sixty-seventh: Pass me the binoculars (Part four).

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