Monthly Archives: May 2020

Shaft (1971)

*. OK, so even if you’ve never seen this movie, about this cat named Shaft, you’ve probably heard the Academy Award-winning theme music by Isaac Hayes. Can you dig it? Hell yeah!
*. Hayes had auditioned for the lead role. In a way he got it, since his song would go on to be an even bigger hit than the movie. It sets the tone (or vibe) for tongue-in-cheek blaxploitation perfectly. This was a genre that never took itself that seriously. “Who’s the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks?” Please.
*. Speaking of opening notes, I love how that overhead shot we start with takes us through progressively seedier cinema marquees until, rising up from the subway, we get . . . Shaft!
*. No movie could live up to such a theme song, and Shaft doesn’t. I liked it more on this most recent rewatch though then I did seeing it a few years ago. I don’t think there’s a whole lot to it, with the hopeful premise of a sort of Big Sleep in Harlem soon fizzling out pretty quickly. But there’s no part of it that’s not entertaining.
*. Released the same year (but a month earlier) as The Omega Man, which is sometimes heralded as portraying the first interracial kiss in a movie. I think The Omega Man‘s primacy has to be qualified anyway, as being the first such kiss in a major Hollywood movie. I also wonder if they reckon these things differently if it’s a black man and a white woman, or vice versa.
*. Shaft doesn’t really have a way with women beyond being able to pick them up and then have them take care of him. His main squeeze Ellie is the recipient of one of the drippiest and most perfunctory fucks in cinema history. Shaft actually seems to fall asleep on top of her at the end. His telephone conversation with her is famous: : “I love you.” “Yeah, I know. Take it easy.” Hangs up.
*. A later conquest complains about how “pretty shitty” he is with “what comes after.” Sad but true. Unfortunately, someone seems to have really liked the “shitty” part, as it gets picked up as a kind of refrain when the one-night stand tells him to close his apartment door himself on her way out. “Close it yourself, shitty!” is even made the last line of the film, where it really doesn’t make any sense. Why would the police lieutenant Vic tell him to close the case up?
*. Some critics found Shaft’s treatment of women to pander too much to black stereotypes. But after that theme song and its reference to the black dick attracting all the chicks I don’t know how po-faced we can be about this. It’s a blaxploitation movie. Of course it’s trafficking in stereotypes. I guess the question is how you think the movie wants us to take them.
*.  Here’s one of those little things that I like to notice: Look at how, when Shaft roughs up one of Bumpy’s goons, the goon turns and spits a mouthful of blood onto the wall behind him. That’s great, and it didn’t cost anything.
*. Check out those full bookshelves in Shaft’s apartment! Now there’s something I can really dig. You don’t see bookshelves like that in movies much any more (much less in the apartments of action heroes). Then again, you don’t see bookshelves in people’s homes a whole lot. Well, you do in my house!

*. Gordon Parks came from a background in photography. This makes it all the stranger to me that this movie, while well shot for its budget, is so without visual style. The only thing that stands out is the garish colouring of some of the interiors. What it does have is cool. In the “making of” featurette included with the DVD there’s an instructive bit of direction given by Parks to Richard Roundtree on how to act when he breaks the bottle over the Mafia guy’s head in the bar. “Make sure you retain the cool that Shaft should retain.”
*. It’s pretty easy to retain that cool when you have all those hip lines. “Don’t let your mouth get your ass in trouble.” “You are one wise Caucasian, Vic.” “You’re a cagey spook, Bumpy.” (Reply: “You ride a tall horse, Mr. Shaft.”) It also helps when you’ve got such a nice wardrobe. That leather jacket even earns a compliment from the gay bartender, and I assume it’s what Gene Siskel meant when he singled out Shaft’s “fancy leather outfits” as one of the only things he appreciated about the movie.
*. That sense of cool pervades everything about Roundtree’s performance. My favourite example is the scene where Shaft meets the Mafia guy in the fancy bar and he proceeds to drink his espresso at his own pace before leaving to be taken to Marcy. That scene is actually quite unnecessary, but it’s played out to its full just so we can see Shaft being cool drinking coffee from a tiny cup and not getting flustered when being called a nigger. Why the waitress is presented as being so spaced out is, however, something I’ve never been able to understand.
*. The trailer included with the DVD is an absolute must. Watch it after you see the movie because, like many trailers from this period, the entire plot and all the highlights are given away. The voiceover though is priceless. “Shaft’s his name. Shaft’s his game.” Huh? What does that mean? “The mob wanted Harlem back. They got Shaft up to here.” Here? Where? “Hotter than Bond, cooler than Bullitt.” “Rated R. If you want to see Shaft, ask your momma.” You’re damn right. Lay it on me.

Holiday (2018)

*. Holiday is a fascinating but not every enjoyable little movie. I don’t say that because of the fairly graphic rape scene near the middle. That is handled in a non-sensationalistic even dispassionate way, indebted to the rape in Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible (2002), and I didn’t find it offensive or even bothering. That distance, however, is part of the problem.
*. Director Isabella Eklöf makes a fetish of distance in Holiday. There are few close-ups, to actor’s faces or objects. In part this is dictated by her preference for long takes and a stationary camera position, but it also reflects an emotional distance. Think also of the number of times we stay behind characters, not seeing their faces at all, or only in profile. Then there’s also the absence of a score, at least that I can remember.

*. What is gained by such detachment? A sense of objectivity? And if so, why would you want that in a movie dealing with such matters? To show how little the sex and violence really means to people like Sascha (Victoria Carmen Sonne) and Michael?
*. I’ve actually heard the rape scene described as a “consensual rape,” which is an oxymoron but one which gets some purchase. Her Stockholm Syndrome, if that’s what it is, mirrors that of Musse’s, who gets the crap beaten out of him but then returns to lick the hand that feeds. Sascha’s story is rape-revenge with a venomous twist.
*. Even before her turn at the end, if it is a turn, how much sympathy do we have for Sascha? Surely this is someone who knows she’s running with a very bad crowd but is going along with it for the expensive vacations, the clothes, and the bling. I’d keep my distance from such a woman too. Pay close attention to the conversation among the men at the police station, which is also one of the few moments when Sascha isn’t on screen. Are they just being sexist, or do they represent a realistic and fair point of view?
*. There’s a scene in Holiday where Sascha sort of dances with herself in front of a mirror that I think is making some kind of a point about narcissism. It reminded me of a similar scene in The Neon Demon (2016), which was a more direct attack on the narcissism, and violence, of beauty. I think Holiday is a much better movie, but it made me wonder if we’re going to keep seeing more of this kind of thing in the throes of what’s been dubbed a narcissism epidemic.

*. I’m not one to complain about a character’s likeability, but that lack of sympathy I’ve mentioned with regard to Sascha really mixes the message here. As was then current for 2018, many reviewers invoked the idea of masculinity and/or femininity that had gone “toxic” when talking about Holiday. Toxicity just meaning that the gender roles we play have become damaging to ourselves and others, I think. But is that really the problem here?
*. Eklöf seems really conflicted. At times she paints Sascha as a victim, maybe even a good kid looking to go straight but too weak and (more likely) too stupid to get out from under the thumb of the brutal men she’s surrounded by. Seen this way the question becomes whether she actually cares about Thomas at any point or if she’s just playing with him in a horribly irresponsible way. On the pro side there is her trip to the police station, but that may just be shock. Then, looking at her as a darker figure, there is the way she flirts with Thomas’s buddy later, and that enigmatic final smile.
*. This ambiguity does not make Sascha more interesting, at least for me. She isn’t someone like Carmela Soprano or Skyler White, who have to keep their families together while dealing with moral conflicts. Sascha just surrenders to the dark side entirely for the sake of some baubles and a good time. She’s less a scheming villain at the end than a brat. Did Thomas mean that little to her? Or did that swimsuit and those earrings mean that much? This is the real question that I think we have to ask.
*. It’s certainly not a movie that I would describe as having any sort of conventional feminist message. That would be to say that either (1) Sascha was made to behave in the way she does, or (2) her behaviour shows that women can be just as wicked and bad as men so your sympathy is only condescending. Neither of these statements strike me as true. Sascha isn’t a victim or a winner but a narcissistic psychopath who probably will, as Thomas predicts, be dead or in jail in another five years. Can we say she’s come a long way?

The Bay (2012)

*. Another found-footage horror film. Yes, but with a few new wrinkles.
*. In the first place, it’s directed by Barry Levinson. Not a name you’d normally associate with low-budget, gonzo, indie horror. He confesses on the DVD commentary that he was working far outside the sort of filmmaking parameters he was familiar with. How he got here is instructive though.
*. He started out wanting to make a documentary on pollution in Chesapeake Bay but decided a dramatic film would have a more visceral impact. This is probably right, but it also explains why The Bay is less visceral and more documentary-like than the usual found-footage offerings.
*. That documentary feel is the second difference I’d mention. You don’t get the sense that The Bay is trying very hard to scare you. I think there were only a few jump scares, which shaky-cam movies are usually full of. Instead, it feels almost informational in places.
*. A final slight difference is that The Bay presents itself as being cobbled together from various different sources. This is unlike movies like The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, Rec, or Cloverfield, where there may be at most a couple of cameras. Instead, this is more like what Levinson calls “an archaeological dig” through different forms of communication and eight or nine different stories.
*. These are all interesting variations on the found-footage theme, but while they make The Bay different I don’t think they make it better. Take the point about the fragmentation of the story into separate storylines. This can be effective, but the problem with it here is that the movie lacks a center we care about. Since she’s providing the narration years later we know Donna (Kether Donohue) survives so we’re not worried about her. Aside from her, we’re also told that the heroic doctor won’t make it. There’s a teenage girl using her cell phone that is somewhat sympathetic but we don’t see as much of her. And finally there’s a yuppie couple it’s hard to care much about. He’s a dentist. She’s a high-powered lawyer. Meh. Kill them both and throw their bodies in the bay.

*. Then there is the documentary approach. Again, this might have been effective. The nasty little critters here, called isopods, are real. And when we see actual footage of them they are creepy. There’s something unnerving about things so small getting inside you. When we see the larger, CGI versions, however, they aren’t as scary. In fact, the CGI isn’t very well done at all, and the gore effects are also below average. The outbreaks of bloody boils don’t impress.
*. Another way the realism seems to work against things is in the anticlimactic ending. On the one hand it’s a nice twist that the mayor is disposed of almost as an afterthought. Originally he was shown dying from an isopod infection but Levinson decided that was too obvious. True, but on the other hand, the whole film sort of leaves us hanging. What happened to the woman and her child? And are we really supposed to believe that the FBI managed to cover up a story this big so completely?
*. Then, just to bring things full circle, there’s Levinson. I appreciate that he was genuinely interested in this as a new form of storytelling, and that he was up to the challenge. It’s also clear that he thought the movie had a serious message. But I just don’t think he has a feel for horror. Roger Ebert thought he seemed “more interested in spreading a green message than terrifying viewers” but I don’t think that’s quite fair. I think he probably did want to terrify viewers but he just wasn’t sure how to do it.
*. Maybe they needed a fresher story. Eco-horror is another genre with a long history and there’s little new to it here. The slimy mayor who doesn’t want to upset holiday-goers with a scare story about what’s in the water is also old. We’ve seen him or someone like him in Jaws, Piranha, and even a relatively obscure film called The Curse that The Bay reminded me of quite a bit.
*. So, on the plus side The Bay is something a bit different. But it doesn’t leverage these differences in any ways that make it a better horror movie. I liked it well enough as a low-budget creepshow, but it didn’t fulfil all of its potential.

The Time Machine (2002)

*. In my notes on George Pal’s The Time Machine (1960) I mentioned how the novel by H. G. Wells introduced two longstanding subgenres into SF’s bloodstream: time travel and socio-economic dystopia. Pal’s film really wasn’t much interested in either, preferring to amuse itself with nifty effects (though an enjoyable enough movie for all that). This version, directed by H. G. Wells’ great-grandson Simon Wells, engages a bit with the first but makes an even bigger hash of the second.
*. When I say “time travel” here what I’m referring to isn’t the science of time travel but the way time-travel stories draw attention to the operations of narrative. They involve, indeed highlight, twists and conundrums and paradoxes that challenge the linear way we usually experience a story. This Time Machine does a lot more of this than Pals’ or Wells’ version, making the need to change the past and/or the future a part of the plot. Not that it makes a lot of sense, or is even comprehensible in this regard, but that’s the kind of movie it is.
*. Unfortunately, the business about the split between the Eloi and Morlocks makes even less sense, and completely jettisons any sort of political reading. From the 1960 film the idea is taken that a disaster (or quirk of fate) has led to the great divergence (a nuclear war in the first film, an explosion on the moon here). There is no sense of a division of labour that has become so rigid that the Upperworld and Underworld begin to follow different evolutionary tracks.
*. In fact, these Morlocks are perfectly comfortable in the upper world, not the usual troglodyte albinos afraid of sunlight and fire. They’re also not more advanced than their Eloi cousins. The Eloi are far more intelligent and resourceful than in previous versions of the story, while the Morlocks here only growl and even run on all fours, sort of like the gorillas in Planet of the Apes (2001). It’s hard to believe they still understand metallurgy or engineering.
*. And I’m not sure they do. Apparently they are all being mind-controlled by Jeremy Irons, who seems to be a third kind of creature known as an Über-Morlock. These Über-Morlocks have both psychokinetic and telepathic abilities, and maybe Jeremy Irons is the only one who knows how to keep the machines running.
*. But why keep the machines running? And why eat the Eloi? Whatever devastation the exploding moon wrought, the Earth seems plenty habitable now. The Eloi are feeding themselves. And raising humans as cattle makes zero sense from whatever way you look at it. But perhaps this is being too reasonable.
*. I mentioned how the revolutionary angle in the George Pal film was less British than American. Here the film is actually set in New York, and once again the Eloi are getting lectures on the need to fight back. Needless to say, this is a message the Time Traveler in Wells’ story doesn’t bother with.
*. Guy Pearce is OK as the Time Traveler (who goes by the name of Alexander Hartdegen this time out). At least he looks somewhat different from the usual action star, and like someone who might actually be a scientist. Orlando Jones provides necessary exposition in an amusing way as a holographic librarian. Aside from that I don’t have much nice to say. One big problem is that all the extra plot in both this film and the 1960 version (and the earlier screenplay is actually given a credit here) doesn’t fit that well with the Eloi-Morlock storyline. Here we have the extra detours Alexander makes on his way into the deep future as well as a new back story involving the death of his fiance, which sort of gets the plot up and running but is then dropped rather quickly.
*. It’s hard not to feel, despite all its nods to Wells and Pal, that this is a movie that really didn’t want much to do with either the 1895 or 1960 Time Machine. Instead it plays out like a bunch of bits and pieces taken from various other SF-fantasy films of the period that don’t really go together. The Morlocks haven’t just regressed in evolutionary terms, they’ve turned into orcs. This isn’t the past or the future, but Hollywood Now.

Time After Time (1979)

*. So here’s the thing: You’re going to make a movie about how the author H. G. Wells, author of The Time Machine, made a real time machine, which was then used by Jack the Ripper to escape Scotland Yard by zooming off to present-day San Francisco. Who will you get to play Wells? He’s a bit nerdy, bespectacled, and a poor physical specimen generally, but a genuine liberal intellectual. What say you?
*. It’s an impossible thought experiment forty years later, but I’d wager that if you could enter into the spirit of the thing Malcolm McDowell would not appear on your short list of possible candidates. Writer-director Nicholas Meyer had thought of Derek Jacobi at first, being a big fan of I, Claudius. Meanwhile McDowell was, as he admits on the DVD commentary, best known for the heavy parts he’d been doing (and which he’s still most closely identified with). Indeed, he had just finished playing Caligula, quite a different sort of Roman emperor than Claudius. So then . . . H. G. Wells. Why not?
*. I think it’s crazy, but it works. McDowell has played more memorable roles, but I like him more in this movie than in anything else I’ve seen him in. Restraining his slightly wild intelligence in Victorian dress and manners makes for a great bit of countercasting. He also goes well with Mary Steenburgen (who he would go on to marry), playing manic against her sleepy cool. Their chemistry is real, and remains one of the things audiences like the most about the film. It was also essential, since the liberated Amy falls in love with Herbert and hops into bed with him basically at first sight, which is otherwise hard to credit.

*. The quality of Amy’s feminism, seen in our rearview mirror, is kind of sad. When Herbert tries to get her to return with him to his life she responds that “I’m a twentieth century woman. I have a career and a mind of my own. Be reasonable. How am I gonna make it in 1893?” All to the good. But then Herbert counters with “Is your work so important? It’s your life we’re talking about.” This draws forth her declaration “My work is my life! As much as yours or any other man’s.” Her work is her life. As a bank clerk. Not to knock being a bank clerk, but it’s hard to imagine any man or woman today seeing such a claim as “My work is my life!” as liberating.
*. David Warner plays well off of McDowell as well. To return to the point I began with about McDowell’s being cast against type, couldn’t you just as easily see him as Jack the Ripper? But instead it’s the stolid Warner, who never appears to be losing it. Even his final destruction is accomplished with a look more of resignation than horror. Meyer had told him to play it as an exhausted man. Is this the end? So be it.
*. As an aside, Meyer says on the commentary that Warner’s little nod is “stolen from The Third Man.” I have a hard time making that connection.

*. Warner’s Ripper also gets the movie’s most thoughtful lines, when he explains to Herbert how the world has not progressed, at least morally, and that as a homicidal psychopath he belongs, “completely and utterly,” in the twentieth century, Which is a lot more than can be said for the Victorian Wells, despite all of his (formerly) progressive views. Warner even looks at home in a disco. I can’t imagine McDowell, with or without the glasses and moustache, at one of those.
*. I think Pauline Kael sort of missed the boat on these performances. She complains that “McDowell’s shy, flustered Wells doesn’t fit the Wells of our recollections,” but I don’t know whose recollections those would be, or what they would be based on. Presumably more myth than reality. Then she finds Warner “too frighteningly sociopathic to fit into the film’s romantic framework.” If anything, his sociopathy is remarkably genteel. I do, however, get a chuckle out of Kael’s description of Steenburgen’s Amy as “a stoned cupcake.”
*. The design of the machine itself was apparently inspired by the Nautilus in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954). Not George Pal’s The Time Machine, which one would have thought the obvious source to go to. More curiously, Meyer only mentions Pal’s movie once on the commentary track, in the final five minutes, despite the fact that there are clear nods to it throughout. The shot up through the skylight, for example (which is odd given that we’re in the basement), is a direct reference to the earlier movie, and was something also used in the 2002 Time Machine. (McDowell, by the way, mentions on the same commentary track that he’s never seen Pal’s movie.)

*. One reference that wasn’t intended was the scene set in Muir Woods. Apparently Meyer wasn’t thinking of Vertigo. And on the commentary he doesn’t mention La Jetée (1962) either, another famous time-travel romance that involves a trip to the woods and which references the same scene.

*. The special effects are, as Meyer admits, poor. Very poor, even for the time. But Meyer adds that he doesn’t think many people care, which I also think is right. This is more of a romantic comedy (the thriller part is really dialed down), and the SF angle is only, in Meyer’s view, a MacGuffin. The time machine is just the plot device that McDowell and Warner are after, but which the audience doesn’t care about
*. It’s not a great but a very good little movie (Meyer: “a good story, well enough told”), and one whose oddities and quirkiness have allowed it to stand time’s buffetings. Nothing about it really jumps out at you, but that’s its style. It works by restraint. I love how the journey Herbert takes Amy on to prove he’s telling the truth about time travel is so anticlimactically brief. If you blink you miss it. Or Warner’s aforementioned look of weariness as he gets sent off to infinity. No howls of rage or screams of pain. So often it’s the quiet moments in movies that last.

The Time Machine (1960)

*. You can argue over who “invented” science fiction, whether it was Jules Verne, Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Shelley, or some even earlier nominee, but there’s no doubt in my mind that H. G. Wells was the real father of the genre. He established the archetypal forms of what would become the staples of science fiction up to the present day. Alien invasion (The War of the Worlds). Mad scientist (The Island of Dr. Moreau). And of course time travel (The Time Machine).
*. In fact, in his 1895 novel Wells gave us what would become two genre staples: the time machine itself and the vision of a dystopic future where social inequality has progressed to a point where Upperworld and Underworld are now two distinct species. This is a vision of society that has gone on to have a long life, perhaps not surprisingly given our current era of growing inequality. From the residents in High-Rise dividing along socioeconomic lines to the front vs. the back of the train in Snowpiercer it’s still everywhere in today’s SF. Though it’s notable that Wells presented things in a more complicated manner.
*. I mention all this back story because George Pal’s The Time Machine diverges from Wells’ story in some important ways. In the first place, it’s not interested at all in the paradoxes thrown up by any time travel narrative. There’s not a lot of that in Wells either, but at least there’s a bit. But here there’s just the machine itself — a whimsical piece of Victoriana that’s more sled than bicycle — which toboggans back and forth without causing any timequakes or temporal disruptions.
*. Then there is the matter of politics. It’s not that this movie isn’t political as that it has different politics than the novel. To simplify, the movie is more American. For Wells, the division between Upperworld and Underworld was the natural extension of an upstairs-downstairs class system. In the film, however, the division between Eloi and Morlock is only the result of a “quirk of fate” that had different sides choosing where to live after an exterminationist war.
*. What’s more, the Time Traveler (who is “H. G. Wells” or “George” in the movie) is an American revolutionary. Not leading a red brigade to take over the means of production but a freedom fighter overthrowing a tyrranical form of government. It all felt a little bit like Kevin Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, with Rod Taylor leading a proto-War of Independence against slave-driving masters (who are drawn more from The Mole People than anything in Wells’s story).
*. I think it’s fair to say that the two aspects of the novel that did so much to shape the future of the genre (the complexities of time travel with regard to how it plays out in narrative form and the politics of the future), were of little interest to George Pal. I don’t mean this as a criticism, but he seems to have been more interested in effects, like the destruction of London by some kind of nuclear attack. There is nothing at all like that in the book and it’s an episode that’s wholly made up just to show off.
*. Other changes are more Hollywood. In the book the Eloi are around four feet tall and don’t speak English. So obviously there wasn’t going to be any love interest for Mr. Taylor. In fact, in the novel Weena is presumably killed in a forest fire the Traveler accidentally starts.
*. At the time, Rod Taylor was considered to be quite the stud. At least he keeps his shirt on here, even if it does get torn up a bit. He was only 30 but he looks like he’s at least 50, as was the custom at that time. Yvette Mimieux, in the meantime, wasn’t 18 yet.
*. The horrors are also played down. In the book the Traveler sees tables of some unspecified meat, but here we only see Eloi skeletons that have been picked clean. I’ve always wondered how fair the charge of cannibalism is against the Morlocks though. Surely by this point in time their diverging evolutionary lines have made the Eloi and Morlocks into two distinct species so it wouldn’t be right to call them cannibals.
*. The upshot of all this is to make The Time Machine a less adult entertainment and more just good silly fun. I think most people today of a certain age have fond memories of seeing it on TV when they were kids. Such was my experience, anyway. I’d forgotten just how long the movie takes to get us to the year 802701, and all of the intervening “world at war” stuff. The Morlocks with their Christmas-tree lights for eyes and mangy albino-gorilla make-up have always stuck in my head though. And of course the time machine itself, a contraption that I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything like, before or since. Unless you count the pimped out version that appears in the 2002 remake. But that’s another story.

Slaughterhouse Rulez (2018)

*. Awful!
*. How could it be so bad? Simon Pegg and Nick Frost doing horror comedy. Michael Sheen and Margot Robbie sticking their faces in. An interesting enough premise, with a fracking company opening a gateway to hell on the grounds of a British public (private) school, releasing a bunch of carnivorous monsters. When I saw a copy of the DVD at the library I was surprised I’d never heard of it.
*. I shouldn’t have been surprised. The title should have been a giveaway. Is that “z” supposed to be funny? Whatever you want to call it, Slaughterhouse Rulez disappeared almost immediately upon its release. And for good reason. Despite the comic talent involved there isn’t a single smile to be found in the script. Nor is there anything scary, or funny, about the monsters, who seem to have been borrowed from Ghostbusters. Bridges between action sequences are covered by musical cues. It’s easy to stay at least half an hour ahead of the plot all the way through. There are some really heavy-handed political messages about class and homophobia. Upper class twats looking down on the plebs! Repressed homosexuals bullying queers! I hope the monsters have the good sense to kill all the right people! (They do.)
*. I just can’t think of anything good to say about this one. You see all the jokes coming and you just watch them fall flat again and again. A complete waste of a talented cast and a mid-size budget. Not even as good as Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse. Not even as good as The Dead Don’t Die (my “worst movie” pick for 2019)! I guess writer-director Crispian Mills deserves most of the blame, but Pegg and Frost (whose production company was behind this) should have known better and helped out more. Instead they’re only passengers on this train wreck.

Paris, Texas (1984)

*. It is, of course, pointless to ask where Travis Henderson (Harry Dean Stanton) has been for the past four years. Was he wandering the desert all that time? This isn’t a question we can gain anything by speculating on. But I think it is a relevant question to ask where he’s going.
*. The reason I think this is a question worth asking is because Paris, Texas is often described as a movie informed by a “mythic” vision of the American West, particularly as filtered through movies like The Searchers. I can see some of this, from Travis’s initial appearance walking out of a landscape reminiscent of Monument Valley, and his later adoption of a 1958 Ford Ranchero as his steed. But I wouldn’t want to go very far in this direction.
*. For all his bow-legs, Travis is not a cowboy. What’s more, and this gets me back to the question I started with, I don’t think he begins the movie anyway as a man on any kind of mission. I say this despite the comment Wim Wenders makes on the commentary track where he describes Travis as on a “mission to find his family and put it back together again.” But Travis is not Ethan Edwards.
*. When Travis comes out of the desert he is not looking to reunite with his family. In fact, he clearly wants nothing at all to do with them, even his well-meaning brother (Dean Stockwell). It’s only later that he begins to bond with his son Hunter (Hunter Carson). And even then he doesn’t seem to have any plans on finding his wife Jane (Nastassja Kinski) until his sister-in-law puts the idea in his head (which I take it is part of a plan on her part to get him out of her house). Then, at the end, he rides off into the sunset, which is hardly putting his family “back together again.”

*. This sense of Travis not being a coherent character — I don’t mean someone who travels a rocky character arc but someone who just doesn’t seem to always be the same person — may have been a product of the fragmented script. I guess Shephard wrote most of the beginning and the end and Wenders and L. M. Kit Carson sort of tried to stick things together as they went along, while also allowing for some improvisation. The results have a kind of patched-together quality, with some scenes, like the ranter on the bridge, not really having any place or purpose at all.
*. Kinski is very good. Her voice coach deserves a lot of praise, as she comes across as perfectly natural, with an accent not unlike Clarice Starling’s. I also like how she plays her one big scene. But is the relationship between Kinski and Stanton credible? Jane looks stunning and Travis, even after he gets cleaned up, looks like “forty miles of rough road.” Not to mention the thirty-year age gap.
*. As David Thomson notes, “I can believe the teenage Kinski could have fallen for [Sam Shephard, the co-screenwriter and someone Wenders originally wanted to play the part] and driven him crazy. But I’m not sure that she would have noticed Harry Dean Stanton.” I share that uncertainty. And I’m even more doubtful that she would still be pining for him, after having escaped being trapped in an abusive relationship with him years earlier. I’d have a hard time believing she’d forgiven him. This is clearly a woman with issues.
*. I suppose one response is just to say this is a male fantasy and the woman here is never really understood. But Jane is given a chance to explain herself and . . . it just doesn’t ring true. I’d almost be willing to believe that Travis was imagining the whole conversation, but I don’t think that’s a real possibility.
*. Watching that scene makes me wonder exactly when it is that Jane realizes Travis is the guy in the booth. Wenders says it only slowly dawns on her, which seems to be how Kinski plays it, but does that make sense? Wouldn’t there be a moment when she knows? Especially as she claims that since she left “every man has [his] voice.” That should make it more recognizable.
*. Do they still have those peep-show booths? The nature of the adult economy has changed so much. 1984 (the year, not the dystopia) seems like another world. Nowadays I guess Jane would have a camshow. But still not be making a lot of money.
*. But then so much has changed. Nick Roddick: “if Paris, Texas is a love letter to America and American cinema, it now also has something of the feel of a farewell. The world to which Wenders pays homage is vanishing fast: not the desert, which is close to eternal, but the pay phones and diners and motels that used to line the approach to every small U.S. town, now replaced by cell phones and McDonald’s and multistory Doubletree Hotels and Quality Inns. All offer a sterile, branded comfort—and all deny the lure of the road, the impulse to keep moving, by affirming that, nowadays, however far you go, it’s still going to look just like home.”

*. The peep-show booth scene is the big set piece. The actors wanted to keep every word of Shephard’s script and Wenders wanted to shoot it “very much as a stage play,” which is how it sounds. So apparently there were several cameras all filming the scene as one long take. It’s perfectly arranged though, even to the point of appearing somewhat schematic, with the sides of the mirror reflecting each other, and with Travis and Jane doing most of their talking while facing away from it. Given the constraints I think it’s a beautiful bit of filmmaking.

*. It’s the look of the movie that stands out. From the green wash of the urban lights to the found poetry of the land and cityscapes everything about it is beautifully rendered.
*. The performance are also all very good, and they stand out the more for this being such a strangely depopulated movie. Houston is as barren as the desert, with everyone locked away in their cars (even when doing their banking) or hotel rooms. I can’t think of another movie that so clearly underlies the growing atomization of society. People in this movie just don’t interact that well, if at all. Communication is done through telephone, walkie-talkie, intercom, or taped messages. Watching Paris, Texas one can understand how the Internet came to dominate social networks so completely, and so quickly. It was another stage of remove, or social isolation, that we were waiting for.
*. I’ll confess I’m less impressed by the story. Even Stanton’s subtle, “tender” voice (in Wenders’ precise judgment) can’t sell me on Travis, who seems a bit too much like the Man Who Fell to Earth. As I’ve already said, I also don’t buy the relationship between Travis and Jane, which is kind of important. I keep finding myself thinking that the whole thing is a dream, or that at least at some point it goes through the looking-glass into a world of fantasy. That story Travis tells sounds made-up, so maybe it never happened. Or maybe he never left L.A. with Hunter. Or maybe he died out in the desert somewhere, and these were his last thoughts.

Await Further Instructions (2018)

*. Not bad. Mostly it’s a movie that swings and misses, but not by a lot.
*. We begin with an aerial shot of a car as it drives along. This is such a horror staple I have to wonder when it began. The Shining?
*. The set-up is the basic Game of Death situation. (There’s an index of my notes on these movies in my jottings on Escape Room.) A family has gotten together for the holidays. When they get up Christmas morning their suburban house has been totally sheathed in some strange kind of black metal. There’s no way out. They still have power, however, and their television set gives them prompts that they feel compelled to obey. These commands become more sinister as time goes on and the family, a dysfunctional unit to begin with, falls apart in a spectacular way. Who will survive?
*. There are moments when it seems as though the whole thing is going to play as comedy. The holiday-horror with family in-fighting among stereotypes (the authoritarian father, the downtrodden mom trying to keep things together, the bigoted grandpa, the dumb jock and his airhead pregnant wife) reminded me of Krampus.
*. And this is in fact how part of it plays. They do mine these characters, and the situation, for broad laughs at times, but I can’t say it ever feels like a comedy, no matter how black. Writer Gavin Williams was concerned that the humour wouldn’t come across. It does, or at least the effort does, but that doesn’t help. It’s a satire, but in an obvious way. And obvious satire always seems unnecessary.
*. There is also a fairly obvious analogy to various social psychology experiments about deference to authority. These come into play regularly in this subgenre. I’ve written about this before, and I had made a note about how this all seemed like one of Stanley Milgram’s experiments even before the mother announces that the family’s name is in fact Milgram and they live on Stanford Street.
*. But such a reference also dates the movie somewhat, as does the presentation of the television as the ultimate source of authority, the God of the new world order. Surely in a wireless age a feature-length PSA about the importance of cutting the cord is a bit behind the times. This would have been a more relevant message twenty (or should that be thirty?) years ago.
*. The thing about a lot of the Game of Death movies is that the explanation for what’s going on is often either left vague or isn’t very convincing. Here it’s a bit of both. I guess the force behind what’s happening is something alien. Why it would be going about its business in such a complicated way is beyond me though. What were their plans for those backward parts of the world without cable? And why do they treat people like contestants in a reality TV show? Perhaps they’ve been drawn to Earth from watching our programming and so discovered our weakness for such fare.
*. Nor do I understand their endgame. To show Teletubbies to infants? If the alien is parasitical, what exactly does it need humans for? Simply to watch and to adore?
*. Perhaps it’s just that the television gods move in strange and mysterious ways. I mean, why kill Grandpa first? He seems to be the one old-school couch potato in the whole family. If anyone was going to welcome our new cable overlords, he’d be the guy.
*. This mystery isn’t all that interesting, and as it develops I just didn’t think the movie was going anywhere. The characters all act in over-the-top, hard-to-fathom ways. When things get really odd they fall apart entirely. The message is, as I’ve said, both obvious and dated: resist, or at least learn to question, authority. Meanwhile the special effects and gore, mostly practical, are nothing special. In fact the cable creature is kind of silly.
*. It’s not a bad movie, but we’ve been here before. A small group locked up together and coming undone under pressure. It’s Big Brother, Game of Death, or whatever other cultural analog you want to plug in.  Await Further Instructions doesn’t add anything to the mix aside from its nostalgic anxiety over the influence of the tube (and we’ve had scary TVs in movies before as well, at least since the 1980s). Finally I just got a general feel of unpleasantness from the proceedings that didn’t help. This is a family I really didn’t want to be locked up with for 90 minutes. As downbeat as the ending was, I still felt relief when it was over.

The Cabinet of Caligari (1962)

*. Hm. Odd title. We still have a cabinet mentioned, even though there isn’t one in the movie, and Caligari has lost his title of doctor, even though he is.
*. Not that this has anything much, or really anything at all, to do with Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Instead it’s just another riff on the old question of how you can tell who’s mad in a madhouse. That’s something the original Caligari played with, but it has a long history in film leading from Caligari through Spellbound up to Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane (and, by now I’m sure, well beyond).
*. The thing is, it’s such a familiar premise, going back at least as far as Poe, that once you’re alert to it any sense of suspense is swiftly defeated without some really clever twists thrown in. And this Cabinet has no twists. If you haven’t twigged to what’s going on in the first ten minutes, especially given the big wink in the title, then I really don’t know what to say.
*. I’ll allow that it is amusing, in the manner of one of the contemporary Hammer psychodramas or a schlocky Three Faces of Eve. The combination of dramatic earnestness and prestige-picture aspirations with B-movie gimmickry and sleaze makes for an odd fit.
*. The script reflect these pulls in different directions. Apparently director Roger Kay and screenwriter Robert Bloch had a falling out and there was a fight over who was to finally get the credit (or take the blame). Kay also railed against the final cut, saying that Fox had tried to turn the film into something he hadn’t intended.
*. The upshot of all of this is that nobody was very happy with the result, and for good reason. It’s a silly, overwrought and overwritten script with various elements that don’t add up. What, for example, is the significance of seeing Jane as a child? Did something happen to her in childhood? What was the nature of the adult Jane’s insanity? Was she a nymphomaniac? Are we really to believe that her sudden “breakthrough” has cured her so completely? I think that may have been a stretch even in 1962.

*. It’s interesting that the doctor refers to Jane’s treatment as including “chemotherapy,” meaning the use of tranquilizers and narcotics. Today I think chemotherapy is only used in reference to cancer treatments, but I guess the word itself is elastic enough to be used to refer to any drug regimen, which is how it might have been used in the ’60s.
*. Glynis Johns, hopelessly miscast, is an actor cut adrift in an absurd role. Dan O’Herlihy seems a little more at home with the ludicrous material (he’d later play the mad toymaker in Halloween 3: Season of the Witch).
*. Of course what the original Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is remembered for today are its strange sets and bizarre visual style. Here there’s only a nod toward this at the end with Jane’s therapeutic breakdown. Even the peculiar double doorway into Caligari’s office (a normal door immediately opening onto a revolving glass door) is underused as a symbol of her mental state.
*. It is, in short, a mess. More charitably a joke. For whatever personal or production reasons the different parts didn’t come together. What remains is hysterical trash, but it’s not without the interest of a car accident. Being such a minor production it doesn’t rise to the level of a train wreck, but it punches above its weight as a good bad movie.