Category Archives: 1990s

Man Bites Dog (1992)

*. Man Bites Dog (a not-very-literal translation of C’est arrivé près de chez vous) took me by surprise, and delighted me, when I first saw it sometime in the ’90s. So I was a little worried, returning to it, that it wouldn’t hold up.
*. I was happy to find that I liked it even more. The humour has aged well, even with the pervasiveness of the mockumentary form in twenty-first century comedy. There are laughs here that I either didn’t get the first time or had forgotten. This is still a very funny movie.
*. Curiously, the violence wasn’t as extreme as I remembered it. For some reason I had always conflated the eviscerated body of the woman who is gang-raped with the rape itself, so I thought that scene had played out as a necrophilic orgy. I don’t know why. The mind plays funny tricks of magnification and condensation with memory. I even had it in my head that there had been some cannibalism involved at the end of that scene but I was wrong there too. As I’ve had occasion to say before, the movies that play in our heads are unique creations. And they get stranger as we get older.

*. After such an auspicious debut none of the three filmmakers — Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde, who wrote, produced, directed, and starred — went on to do all that much. Belvaux committed suicide in 2006, but I don’t think did anything after this movie. I couldn’t find much information on Bonzel either. Poelvoorde has kept acting, at least in Europe. But I don’t think I’ve seen him in anything.
*. Is that strange? I don’t know. I guess this movie is kind of a one-off sort of thing. As both a succès de scandale and a gimmick picture there was really no obvious next step. What did Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez do after The Blair Witch Project? And that movie made a lot of money.

*. Ben is most often described as a serial killer but if so he’s certainly an odd variation. He doesn’t have any cooling-off period because he doesn’t seem driven by any kind of inner compulsion to kill. While on the job he often seems either indifferent or as though he’s just playing to the camera. Nor is he a hit-man since nobody is paying him. Is he still a professional criminal? It seems unlikely that he’s making enough money robbing people (even if they are old moneybags) to be able to support the kind of playboy lifestyle he affects. Or am I asking too much in expecting his character to add up?
*. Who he most reminds me of is Johnny, the character David Thewlis plays in Naked (which came out just the next year). He’s the guy, a monologue artist, who knows a little bit about a lot of things, which in turn makes him think he knows everything about anything. He’s as ready to hold forth on the mating habits of pigeons as he is on contemporary architecture and building practices, modern poetry, painting, or how to ballast a corpse. As far as world view goes, he is racist and sexist, but with a smile. He doesn’t seem to have any friends but only knows various people he drops in on. Spending a bit of time in his company (say 90 minutes) can be entertaining, but any longer and he’d only bore and annoy.

*. The point, as I take it, mainly has to do with the complicity of the film crew. They’re gradually drawn in, doing things like helping dispose of bodies, but then effectively becoming not just accomplices but underlings. They don’t go along with Ben so much as they’re bossed around by him. I think that’s an important message, as it tells us something about how the media in general operate. A charismatic or entertaining figure like Ben can leverage those qualities and turn the tables on those who thought to use him for their own purposes. Now consider what someone like Ben could do on the Internet with a YouTube channel. Why hasn’t that movie been made yet? Or would there not be any point?

Falling Down (1993)

*. We begin with a nod to 8 ½, except Michael Douglas’s character isn’t going to be able to float off into the clouds, or even rise above the smog of Los Angeles. This is the film’s original moment of breakdown and it resonates all the more for being set in L.A., so famous for its car culture. Director Joel Schumacher talks about getting things started this way on the DVD commentary track, and how essential a fantasy he thinks it is. We all want to just walk away. That we can’t is something that can lead us to rage at our condition, our feeling of being trapped.
*. This is what William Foster (or D-Fens, as he is credited), and Falling Down more generally, represents: a wish fulfillment fantasy. But as the contrast with 8 1/2 shows, it’s not an escapist fantasy. D-Fens can break the rules and thus gain the super power, as screenwriter Ebbe Roe Smith puts it, of being totally fearless. Or of having zero fucks to give, to be more precise. But he’s on a one-way trip. He can’t get back in his car and re-enter the rat race. Or the human race for that matter.
*. One not incidental side effect of his leaving his car is that Falling Down gives us a different vision of L.A. than we’re accustomed to. A pedestrian vision (it’s noteworthy that at one point D-Fens queues to get on a city bus but then gives up on the idea). On foot, he sees more, experiences more. He is a creature of the sidewalk, not the road.

*. D-Fens is under a lot of stress, having had his marriage break down and losing his job. But he is also, as Schumacher puts it, a dinosaur. His haircut and office attire tell you that (even though his is a look that has dated rather better than that of many of the more fashionable types we see in Falling Down). When he says he wants to roll prices back to 1965 he’s giving you the proper benchmark for the good ol’ days.
*. But while we can feel some sympathy for him (Roger Ebert found “the core of sadness in his soul” to be what made him fascinating), he really is a bad guy. Prendergast is no doubt correct in thinking that his wife’s, and maybe his daughter’s lives are in danger. This is the way such stories usually play out, and D-Fens has, after all, threatened as much.
*. Why do we want to be on Foster’s side so much then? Mainly because of the movie’s fantasy aspect. It is not an escape fantasy, but a revenge fantasy. Nearly everyone Foster meets has a snarling or sneering attitude that we want to join him in wiping from their faces. From low (the simpering manager of the burger joint, the lazy road worker) to high (the privileged old boys at the country club) they are all deserving of a few rounds being fired in their general direction. Is there any reason why the guy waiting for the phone booth has to be such a jerk? Blow it up and let him find another.

*. The revenge fantasy isn’t limited to D-Fens either. Robert Duvall’s Prendergast travels the same arc and experiences the same explosive breakdown: finally getting to tell his nagging wife to shut up, belting his jerky co-worker, and telling his asshole of a boss to fuck off on live TV. He also gets to kill someone, which is something D-Fens only does in a moment of extreme duress.
*. Such a fantasy is a kind of American revolution. D-Fens is big on talking about his rights. It’s the lesson he tries to teach the neo-Nazi. Smashing up the convenience store is just “standing up for his rights as a consumer.” At the fast-food joint he tries to explain how the customer is always right, and feels (justifiably) cheated by his Whammy Burger not looking at all as advertised. He has the feeling that he’s the victim of a giant bait-and-switch. As an American he was promised a dream, but was sold a bill of goods. It’s one thing to rage against immigrants and diversification and political correctness (and 1993 was around the peak of the first wave of political correctness), but it’s something even worse to feel ripped off.

*. It’s an idea with traction, and I think it deserved a better script. Are we meant to feel some solidarity with Prendergast? As I’ve said, he’s bullied as much as Foster is, but he just seems too bland and underwritten to me. Meanwhile, the rest of the people we meet are annoying caricatures. The homophobic Nazi who is a sadistic closet case was a cliché long before this film, or American Beauty. Prendergast’s wife (Tuesday Weld) is excruciating. None of these people are believable. But then, as we’ve established, it’s a fantasy.
*. I had to raise an eyebrow at Lois Smith playing Foster’s mom. She was only 14 years older than Douglas, and doesn’t look it.
*. Script as band-aid: When Prendergast returns to the house and finds Torres only now being taken away on a stretcher after being shot he asks “Still here?” The movie has to throw in that line to acknowledge that the idea that she would still be there is ridiculous.
*. It’s a movie that divided critics at the time, and I think still does. Is it sending up the whole Angry White Man Fights Back trope, or is it indulging it? Richard Schickel: “It’s hard to know how to respond to Falling Down: deplore its crudeness or admire its shrewdness.”
*. David Ansen is one reviewer who wasn’t buying the film’s message. “Falling Down rants with forked tongue. While solemnly condemning racism and violence, it doesn’t miss an opportunity to play on the audience’s most paranoid instincts. It would be easy enough to dismiss this as simply a dumb (though expertly photographed) junk movie. But its pretensions render it pernicious. Pandering to the Zeitgeist, it becomes part of the problem it pretends to address.”
*. I don’t know if there’s any way out of this bind. Just look at the film’s poster, with Foster striking a pose like a new Statue of Liberty, representing a different set of values. Irony? Well, yes. But enough?
*. Here’s Roger Ebert providing an example of the kind of knots critics found themselves in: “Because the character is white, and many of his targets are not, the movie could be read as racist. I prefer to think of it as a reflection of the real feelings of a lot of people who, lacking the insight to see how political and economic philosophies have affected them, fall back on easy scapegoating.” Easy scapegoating? Isn’t that at least one definition of a racist?

*. My own feeling is that it’s a movie that was trying to have some kind of a political message about hard times in America but that it fails to get that message across. Economic distress, for example, is addressed in a strangely disconnected scene involving some guy protesting at a bank for not being able to get a loan because he was deemed “not economically viable.” What has this to do with the rest of the picture? It seems out of place, since Foster, despite having just lost his job, is not on the street. Meanwhile, the domestic breakdown never really achieves the kind of emotional traction it needs either.
*. The result is that we get to enjoy D-Fens as nerdish vigilante, but don’t relate to him beyond sharing his violent cathartic outbursts at the anger, fear, and contempt he provokes. It’s a movie that seems to want to be about something more but ends up just pushing our buttons.
*. If the political message is mixed the film’s tone is no less fuzzy. At times it plays as a comedy and at others it wants us to take it seriously. Foster’s predicaments can be both silly and threatening, he can be both hero and anti-hero. That makes him dangerous, then and now.

The Player (1992)

*. Hollywood is a cynical place, which is a quality that makes it ripe for satire. And The Player stands in a long tradition of such satires, presenting Hollywood as a ruthless business that crushes dreams while not caring a whit about art.
*. I would have thought that an obvious enough reading of the movie, but listening to the commentary track on the Criterion DVD with director Robert Altman and screenwriter Michael Tolkin (who also wrote the source novel) I don’t recall hearing them use the word satire once. Instead, they seem to have had something different in mind.
*. To get at what that something different might be I’d like to quote from a couple of critics. Here is David Thomson: “As written by Michael Tolkin, and adapted from his novel, The Player is shrewd, general satire — shrewd because it picks on no real villains or no one really responsible. And if no one is hurt or offended, then the satirist can hope to stay in work. Nevertheless . . . this is a very good, tart portrait of Hollywood attitudes to others and the self. Indirectly, therefore, it is a lucid explanation as to why the films coming out of the system are so compromised, and negligible.” Then: “In the end, despite its wit and smarts, The Player is similarly neutralized.”
*. I want to flag a couple of points. First: this is a movie with “no real villains.” Second, it is only a “general satire,” tart without being offensive and so neutered and compromised.
*. Now here is Sam Wasson in his Criterion essay, saying much the same thing but even more approvingly: “That right there is the secret to this movie: Robert Altman got a kick out of Hollywood. Far from making the trenchant, bitter satire so many critics would describe even after they saw the movie, Altman bypassed The Day of the Locust for Our Town and actually made a charmed, even gleeful movie about his so-called nemesis. That’s why so many people in Hollywood love The Player. Rather than insulting the native hedonisms with the tired, myopic clichés actual outsiders (i.e., New Yorkers) have been leveling against Hollywood since its inception, Altman caresses them, guilt-free.”
*. This is not the way I viewed The Player the first time I saw it, and it’s not the way I see it today. My difference of opinion with its creators can be focused on the presentation of Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins). For Altman it would have been too simplistic and uninteresting to just present Mill as a villain. He wanted the film’s message to be more ambiguous. He isn’t a bad man but the product of a corrupting system. Tolkin is even more defensive of his (anti?)hero, declaring flat out at one point “I like him.” “He is us,” according to his creator, someone who embodies our human flaws.
*. Here is something else from Tolkin: “if the book and the movie are about anything it’s about a person who becomes a better man for having killed.” This struck me as such a bizarre claim I had to really think about it. What does Tolkin mean by “better”? Better off? Well, certainly. Whatever else you want to say about Mill, he’s no Silas Lapham.
*. I don’t understand where this determined inoffensiveness is coming from. My own interpretation of the film is that Mill is, in fact, a villain. I don’t think it’s enough to call him a heel for things like his ruthless brand of office politics and the way he treats his girlfriend Bonnie. A young man, I don’t think he’s been corrupted by Hollywood. Like most people who come to Hollywood I assume he knew what he was getting into and wanted to swim with the sharks. I also fail to see any redeeming qualities in him. He is dishonest, self-righteous, cynical, and he uses everyone.
*. It’s also true that he’s a murderer. Altman seems to suggest that it’s more of an accident, but I don’t see where that’s coming from. Apparently because Kahane dies by drowning then Mill is only indirectly responsible? I’m having trouble seeing that. I’m also wondering why I should even want to excuse such an act of savagery.
*. In short, I don’t like him. I don’t see myself in him. I prefer Roger Ebert’s take, where he says The Player is “about an industry that is run like an exclusive rich boy’s school, where all the kids are spoiled and most of them have ended up here because nobody else could stand them.”
*. The flipside to excusing Mill is the damnation of Bonnie (Cynthia Stevenson). On the one hand she is clearly “the film’s conscience” (Tolkin) and “the one person we care about” (Altman). But then (I’m still quoting from the commentary here), she is “of course doomed” (Tolkin) and “a buffoon” (Altman). Why should her good qualities, or just her innocence and naivete, make her a buffoon? And why is she so obviously doomed? Well, because of the evil of the system I suppose. But if the system is evil, and the one good person has to be, or even deserves to be destroyed, then doesn’t that say something more about Mill? Surely to triumph so spectacularly in an evil system one must be evil oneself.
*. Put another way, the adage has it that we’re not to hate the player but the game. I’ve never understood this. Can’t we, indeed shouldn’t we, hate both? Griffin Mill isn’t a product of the system but someone working within it.

*. I don’t usually go in for this sort of moral analysis but in the case of The Player I think it’s invited. At the beginning of his commentary Altman refers to it as an “essay,” which suggests something to be argued over. He also repeatedly refers to it as not being realistic, or having “movie reality.” This strikes me as right. The cameos are the most authentic thing about it. The plot, and many of the characters we meet, are pure fantasy. Richard E. Grant’s screenwriter, for example, is pure caricature. And then there’s poor Greta Scacchi.
*. David Thomson thought Scacchi wasted here. Which seems to have been the plan. Altman wanted her to play June as Mill’s ideal woman, a figure who doesn’t exist except in his (Mill’s) imagination. This sort of limits her performance, as she can’t give June any depth. Altman could present real women in his movies, but here he falls back on stereotypes, with Bonnie as the victim of abuse (something he had a real fascination with) and June as the dream girl of the fairy-tale happy ending.
*. Altman had come to the project as a hired gun. The movie he really wanted to do was Short Cuts. That said, he made the material his own. The layering, not so much this time with the sound but with the scrolling through foreground to background and back again is nicely handled. This is an acutely visual movie, asking us to pick up on cues we are quietly directed to from the mise en scène more than from cluttered voices. In such a film the casting of Lyle Lovett was a masterstroke. He doesn’t need to open his mouth.
*. Wasson calls it a film “absolutely of its time”: “After the savings and loan scandals, after Michael Milkin, after junk bonds and stolen pension funds, here is a movie that uses Hollywood as a metaphor for the avarice of the 1980s. It is the movie The Bonfire of the Vanities wanted to be.”
*. This may be right, and Altman did intend the movie to be a metaphor for a system gone mad with greed. But in being a movie “of its time” I wonder how much of it still applies. Is Hollywood the same place it was thirty years ago? I’m sure the cynicism and greed is the same, but I think the nature of the business has changed, and that, remarkably, for the worse. I can’t imagine a film like The Player being made today, or one as genial in its satire registering. Though perhaps there are nicer people working in Hollywood today. Nicer, wealthier, more damaging, and less offensive.

Psycho (1998)

*. Gus Van Sant’s Psycho was almost universally vilified when it came out and, on balance, I think properly. But I liked parts of it and I accept Van Sant’s rationale for doing it. It was an interesting experiment, in theory. The results, however, are even more disappointing than I think many critics of the project would have imagined.
*. It’s important to get one thing out of the way at the start. This is usually described as a “shot-by-shot” remake of Hitchcock’s film. It is not. That’s obvious right from the close-up of the fly sitting on Marion’s sandwich in the hotel room. Van Sant takes some striking liberties with the original throughout. This is fine, but for the fact that it takes the nature of the experiment and basically tosses it out the window. What we have here is just another remake, albeit one more faithful than most, and has to be judged as such.
*. The question to then ask is if the changes Van Sant makes are improvements on the original, or what they might tell us about what he was up to. I’ll divide the changes into two categories: general and specific.

*. Among the general changes I’ll start with the fact that this movie is in colour. (I’ll note in passing that Steven Soderbergh did a mash-up of the two versions, called Psychos, where he presented the 1998 elements in black-and-white. But that’s another experiment I won’t say anything more about here.)
*. Hitchcock filmed Psycho in black-and-white in part because it was cheap but also because it looked cheap and he was going for a low-budget, exploitation aesthetic. It seems to me that by analogy the colour in this version should look trashy, and it does. It also, however, looks disturbingly unreal. Along with the bizarre fashions (the simple black and white lingerie Janet Leigh wore turning into the tropical neons of Heche’s underwear) it also seems alien to 1998. Quentin Tarantino has said that he actually prefers this version to the original because it’s more realistic. I think this tells us a lot about what Tarantino sees as being reality.
*. Along with this over-the-top and alienating use of colour I’ll throw in the lighting in the bathroom as well. In the original the bathroom was brightly lit, but here’s it’s absolutely blinding. Look at the scene where Sam and Lila inspect it. They’re dissolving in light. This isn’t realistic but surrealistic. Or perhaps meant as parody.

*. The other general change has to do with the cast and how they interpreted their roles. The question here was what approach to take: performance or impersonation? Was Vince Vaughn going to play Norman Bates (Joseph Stefano’s Norman, Hollywood still wasn’t going anywhere near Robert Bloch’s original), or was he going to play Anthony Perkins?
*. Vaughn mainly decided to go his own way, which I think he had to given that it’s a role that Perkins basically defined and that he could never compete with. But again, the question is whether he improved in any way on that performance. I don’t think so. The stutter is replaced by a giggle, and I don’t buy the giggle. I also thought it came up at the wrong time, like when Norman is watching Marion’s car sink into the swamp. Why grin at that? This is a scene that’s supposed to build sympathy for Norman.

*. Sexuality is another matter. In the “making of” documentary included with the DVD Bruce LaBruce asks Van Sant: “So is Vince playing it fruity?” Van Sant replies: “No.” Though Vaughn does try to act a little fruity with Arbogast. But Perkins didn’t act fruity, he just was. And who else but Perkins could have brought off that scene in the parlour? Vaughn, a big guy, is just too threatening, and not the androgynous nice boy Perkins was.
*. Anne Heche is good, but again the comparison all goes one way. Heche always looks a bit nervous and the thing about Leigh’s Marion is that she isn’t a nervous woman but a woman made nervous because of the situation she’s in.
*. Poor Julianne Moore with those headphones. I had a pair like that. They already seem so dated now. According to Heche, Moore was playing a lesbian. I just thought she was kind of sexy. Even with the headphones and the keys. But I still like Vera Miles better.
*. Ths supporting cast are all excellent, but again don’t measure up the originals. William H. Macy is too nerdy as Arbogast. Viggo Mortensen too much of a himbo.

*. Let’s turn now to look at some specific changes. These involve more creative changes directed by Van Sant (the casting and the decision to shoot in colour were more givens) so I think we can be stricter in our accounting. Here’s a list.
*. (1) When Norman looks through the spyhole at Marion getting undressed he is shown masturbating. Is this realistic? Some would say it is at least making explicit what was only implicit in the original, but I think even that is going too far. I don’t think Norman was masturbating in Hitchcock’s movie (or in Bloch’s novel). Just as I’m not entirely sure that the book Lila finds in his room was pornography (David Thomson: “As if Mother would have ever let that in the house”).
*. (2) The house is no longer the Addams Family mansion, or something borrowed from a Hopper painting. Not “California Gothic,” in other words, but something more generic. But still huge and unconvincing. Seen close up I found it unbelievable, with a façade that didn’t correspond to anything I was familiar with. I don’t know what the idea was. Or with that gigantic neon sign above the Motel. Gack.
*. (3) Marion’s trip to the used-car dealership is truncated in several remarkable ways. There is only one very quick cutaway to the cop watching from across the road, which pretty much negates most of the scene’s suspense. It also ends with the excellent shot of the three men in echelon almost totally elided. If you were doing a shot-for-shot remake, why wouldn’t you want to keep the best shots?
*. (4) We can see Norman’s eyes clearly in the shower scene. Why? Doesn’t Van Sant realize less is more? Hitchcock’s shower scene was a test case in establishing that.
*. (5) During the shower scene there’s also a bizarre cutaway to some storm clouds. I don’t think these are meant to be real clouds over the Bates Motel, because it’s the middle of the night. Instead they represent . . . the storm of Norman’s psychopathic rage breaking loose? Did we need that big a nudge breaking up such a scene?

*. (6) Not content to only wreck that scene with such an interjection, Van Sant doubles down with two strange images stuck into Arbogast’s murder: a woman wearing an eye mask and a calf standing in the middle of a road. I have no idea what this was supposed to mean. Maybe the calf was Arbogast getting run over by Norman? Are these images running through Norman’s brain, or just things Van Sant is throwing in for the hell of it? There’s no mention of them on the DVD commentary track with Van Sant so I have nothing.
*. (7) The ending is such a giant train wreck you just have to gape at it. The musty, damp basement has turned into Norman’s taxidermy studio and is filled with bird cages. The corpse of Norma Bates has a spider crawling over its face. I guess because Van Sant wanted to make it look spookier and that’s the best he could come up with. But the worst change is the way the climax plays out. In the original it’s a model of economy: just shock, scream, turn and scream again, then Sam wrestling Norman to the ground. Here it’s a whole knock down fight between Sam and Norman, with Lila coming in to deliver a coup de grâce kick. Which is just as stupid and clichéd as the spider.
*. (8) The final shot is also dragged out. Instead of going from Norman’s face, morphing through the skull to the car being pulled from the much, the credits now play over a whole extended crane shot of the police dredging the swamp. Why stretch things out like this? Hitch knew when his movie was over.

*. I could go on but the pattern is clear. All of these changes were deliberate decisions and none is an improvement. I also think that in most cases they tend to be distracting, clichéd, and/or simpleminded. Take that fly on the sandwich I mentioned. Is it meant to prepare us for the fly Norma/Norman refrains from killing at the end? That’s the impression I get, but if so it’s kind of crude, in a way that Hitchcock didn’t have to be.
*. Roger Ebert: “The movie is an invaluable experiment in the theory of cinema, because it demonstrates that a shot-by-shot remake is pointless; genius apparently resides between or beneath the shots, or in chemistry that cannot be timed or counted.” I don’t really agree with this because as I began by saying this isn’t a shot-by-shot remake. It takes plenty of liberties. But I think Ebert is right in his conclusion that Van Sant is only parroting the words here without the music. Which brings us back to the question of what the point of this experiment was.

*. I honestly don’t know. It has the feel of a film school exercise about it, and I think that if you look at it from that angle it is not without interest. It is, however, an exercise in failure. Or a successful demonstration that what was being attempted was impossible. What’s more, I think all of the blame has to be laid at Van Sant’s feet. Despite some miscasting, I think the actors perform well. Bernard Herrmann’s score, re-recorded by Danny Elfman, still works. The production design and costuming isn’t to my taste, but at least has its own surreal flare and integrity. And yet despite all this, it’s a bad movie.
*. Put another way: if there were no original Psycho, and this movie were to be judged solely on its own merits, would anyone think it any good? I don’t think so. I think it would probably just be seen as a weird mess. But that’s not the way we see it, nor the way it was meant to be seen. It’s not so much a remake (shot-by-shot or otherwise) as a kind of academic commentary on what Hitchcock did and why it can’t be done again.

Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990)

*. While not great movies, Psycho II and Psycho III were at least competently made, not without interest, and in general did nothing to shame the Psycho legacy. They were better than the usual slasher fare at the time and weren’t obvious cash grabs. Faint praise? Maybe. But still praise.
*. Psycho IV: The Beginning keeps this flickering flame alive. It’s not a movie I’d recommend to anyone, but it’s reasonably well done, and offers up something a little different not just from the usual slasher fare I mentioned, but from the previous two sequels as well.
*. That break within the franchise was intentional. It’s signalled in the opening credits  by the return of Bernard Herrmann’s score, which wasn’t used in Psycho II or III. Then you see Joseph Stefano’s name come up as the writer. He hadn’t been involved in the previous two films and chose to ignore them and all the stuff about Norman’s “real” mother. So basically this is a direct sequel to Psycho. I mean, at the end of Psycho III Norman is sent packing to the asylum and told he’s never getting out again, but here he’s adjusting quite nicely to a life of freedom. He even has a wife and a baby on the way. That affair with the ex-nun must have just been a dream.
*. The script emphasizes the horror of Norman being abused by his mother over more traditional movieland scares. That may be why Stephen King, who loves this kind of domestic terror, rated this his favourite Psycho sequel. Stefano really throws a witches’ brew of bad-mother psychology at us. It’s like he took to heart the criticism of the psychiatric evaluation at the end of Psycho and decided to double down on it. And since the bar had been raised so high for this kind of stuff after Sybil (1976) he had to go all out.

*. Of course Stefano can’t help but borrow some lines from thirty years earlier. “A boy’s best friend is his mother.” “Mother! Oh God, mother! Blood! Blood!” But there are also some real curveballs thrown into the mix. For example, when making out with an older woman, she comes up for air and tells Norman “You got a tongue like an elephant’s memory.” I think this just means that his tongue is long (as elephants never forget). But it took me a moment to figure it out. Then at the end Norman, upset that Connie doesn’t trust him, chides her by saying “All that faith and no potatoes.” This totally went over my head.
*. Did you ever wonder what happened to Henry Thomas after E.T.? Well, he’s kept working. A lot. But this may be the second-best known thing he’s done.

*. And he isn’t bad. But does he resemble Anthony Perkins much? Not physically, and I don’t think he really gets any of the budding mannerisms either. He also seems a bit big to be getting slapped around by his mom so completely. I think for that part of the story to be convincing the abuse would have had to begin much earlier.
*. So all this time Norma Bates was Olivia Hussey. I always thought she was Betsy Palmer. This Norma certainly doesn’t seem repressed so much as sexually bipolar.
*. An interesting move to make Mother a sexy young thing. Hussey even puts on a bit of Blanche DuBois. You almost expect to see her soaking in a hot tub. And with Chet she’s finally found her Stanley.
*. Director Mick Garris is a noted horror aficionado, which made him a good choice to helm this one. It’s more an appendix to Psycho than a movie that tries to scare you on its own. The murder scenes are all perfunctory. Think Herrmann’s strings and a bloody upraised knife. Because the whole story is told in flashback there’s no suspense. You know Norman is going to poison his mother and her toy-boy, a scene that when it finally arrives is dragged out interminably. But the story still holds a special fascination, as though it’s telling us something important.

*. The frame of the story strikes me as a gimmick, and not a very convincing one. Norman phones in to a radio talk show about sons who kill their mothers, hosted by CCH Pounder. Then, on air, he tells the history of what drove him to matricide. A superfluous psychiatrist in the studio walks out in a huff. Despite being bad radio, program chief John Landis encourages Pounder to keep Norman on air, telling his story. This becomes important because Norman reveals he wants to kill his wife because she is pregnant and, having seen The Bad Seed, he doesn’t want there to be any Son of Psycho sequels. All of this leads, with mounting improbability, to a climax in the now ramshackle Bates mansion.
*. Though very different from the previous sequels I don’t think Psycho IV is any better or much worse. But it’s ultimately more a curiosity than a horror movie, and too outlandish in content and structure to provide much in the way of compelling drama.

Batman & Robin (1997)

*. And so, at last, the initial tetralogy of Batman films (Batman, Batman Returns, Batman Forever, Batman & Robin) comes to an ignominious end. I think the near universal critical consensus is that the series went downhill all the way, winding up with one of the worst movies ever made. Personally, I don’t rate Batman very highly, think Batman Returns is probably the best of the bunch, and find this entry maybe slightly more enjoyable (or less annoying) than Batman Forever. But, taking a step back, there’s little to choose between them. They’re all pretty bad, with the last two being terrible.
*. The opening close-up shots of bums and codpieces in rubber set the tone. Batman is out of the closet and the camp is being played up almost to 1966 levels. Apparently Joel Schumacher had told George Clooney to play Batman as gay and he went along with it. Which may in turn explain the otherwise mystifying presence of Elle Macpherson here as Bruce Wayne’s love interest. He’s only interested in her as a beard, get it?
*. Then we get the opening fight scene. This is introduced by Robin calling out “Cowabunga!”, which is the rallying cry of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. That’s how far Batman has fallen. Then Mr. Freeze’s gang come out to do battle dressed up as hockey goons. Just how low can we go?
*. Very low indeed. And the sad thing is that there was some potential here. I actually think George Clooney might have made a good Batman, in a good Batman movie. I’ve always thought Alicia Silverstone an underrated actress. Arnold Schwarzenegger is no worse as a hammy villain than Tommy Lee Jones or Jim Carrey. At least he seems to be having fun. They had some of the elements in place. Unfortunately they don’t even succeed at making a good bad movie.

*. The script is garbage. Most of the dialogue just takes the form of quips or filler. None of it is any good. Mr. Freeze says things like “Everybody chill!” and “Let’s kick some ice!” Uma Thurman can’t even do a decent Mae West imitation and Poison Ivy is a bore. You could call her an eco-warrior before such figures became mainstream in the twenty-first century. Her attraction to Mr. Freeze is inexplicable, as is her partnership with him. How will turning Earth into a ball of ice be good for the environment? I get killing off all the people, but the plants will all die too. Shouldn’t this bother her?
*. Pity poor Bane. In the comic books (beginning with the Knightfall saga) he’s an evil genius with an eidetic memory and the ability to speak in over a dozen different languages. Here he’s an inarticulate gorilla. Why even bother?
*. So instead of being campy fun most of it is just dull. It cost a lot of money to make but still looks cheap. There’s the usual bickering between Batman and Robin about them having to learn to trust one another. There are seemingly endless shots of people crashing through windows and walls. I’m not sure if anyone enters or exits a scene by a door. There’s a downer of a subplot involving Alfred. It would have been better if it had been 30 minutes shorter, but it still wouldn’t have been any good.
*. On the plus side, when you hit rock bottom there’s nothing left but to hit the reset button. It was time for Batman to begin, again.

Batman Forever (1995)

*. Batman Forever occupies a special place for me, at least when it comes to my relationship with movies. Not a good place, but a special place.
*. It was while sitting in the theatre watching Batman Forever that I first felt that I never wanted to go out to see another movie again.
*. It wasn’t just a bad movie. It wasn’t just confusing, and noisy, and annoying, and a lot of other things that made me feel old. It was also the overwhelming sense I had of waste.
*. It cost $100 million to make, which was still a lot of money in 1995. It had a good cast. And what did all this money and effort and talent come up with? Garbage. I remember sitting in my seat wondering what the world, or at least what the movies, had come to.
*. So much for my initial reaction. Have I softened much twenty-five years later?
*. Not at all. I still think this is a brainless and completely unenjoyable explosion of flashing lights and general incoherence. I know they had to move on from the gloomy sets of Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns, but all the Gotham scenes in this movie seem to be set in a disco, which makes no sense at all. Even the title is stupid. Tim Burton thought it sounded “like a tattoo that somebody would get when they’re on drugs or something. Or something some kid would write in the yearbook.”
*. It’s often said that this is a campier version of Batman after the “darker” Burton films. I’m not so sure. Burton’s Batman movies had their own camp quotient. What Joel Schumacher did was mainly just make everything a lot sillier. Jack Nicholson and Danny DeVito hammed their roles up, but they were sedate compared to what Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey do here. Meanwhile, as the love interest Nicole Kidman is breathy and on the verge of orgasm right from her first sight of the caped crusader, and stays that way till the end. But she has nothing else to do but get hot.
*. And there’s Robin (Chris O’Donnell) too. The first two films avoided him because he didn’t fit with their vision of Batman as a brooding loner. He doesn’t fit very well here either, and O’Donnell seems way too old to be the Boy Wonder. There’s also an uncomfortable gay-icon vibe given his boy character, which may be part of the whole camp sensibility but which feels sort of pervy.

*. Val Kilmer is one of those actors labeled as “difficult,” and for all I know there’s some truth to that. I actually prefer him to Michael Keaton, but he’s stuck playing the part of Batman as a wooden dummy. Every actor who has taken on the part has suffered the same fate. Adam West could make fun of it, and that was twenty years before this particular franchise got started. When the Marvel superhero movies gave us wisecracking heroes it seemed like such a breath of fresh air in large part because Batman was what we thought a superhero was supposed to be like.
*. I couldn’t understand the plot at all. What was Two-Face up to? Just raising hell I guess. Jones seems to have understood the role to consist of nothing more than dancing demented jigs and laughing like a maniac, so that’s what he does. The Riddler, meanwhile, has developed a kind of brain-sucking box that manages to be both completely ridiculous and unpleasant at the same time. “Soon,” he crows “my little box will be on countless TVs around the world, feeding me credit card numbers, bank codes, sexual fantasies, and little white lies. Into my head they’ll go. Victory is inevitable.” So, basically he’s Google. A villain ahead of his time.
*. Actually, I thought something interesting might have been made out of how all of the people fighting Batman, going back to the Joker, are envious of him in some way. His good press, or his good looks, or just his reputation for being an all-around good guy. But there are no, I repeat absolutely no interesting ideas being developed in this movie. It’s just a giant arcade game.
*. Basically Batman goes around stupidly falling into one impossibly elaborate trap after another and then escaping, which is what it almost seems the bad guys want him to do. Weird coloured lights keep flashing all over the place. Things explode and people fall through space. I had completely forgotten U2’s “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” played over the end credits. Maybe the first time I saw the movie I was already out of the theatre before it came on. Too bad if that’s what I did. I missed the best part.

Batman Returns (1992)

*. Tim Burton didn’t want to come back for a sequel. So this wasn’t considered a sequel. Whatever. If it waddles like a penguin . . .
*. It’s definitely more of the same of what we got in Batman. It still has that studio look, though they moved from Pinewood to the back lot at Warners. There’s still the same silliness carried over from the TV series, to the point where Penguin’s gang are, literally, a bunch of clowns and he cruises around in a giant rubber ducky. It has the same dull palette, making one wonder why anyone would want to make a colour noir. Once again the villains upstage Batman, with Michael Keaton underplaying the part into the ground while the bad guys ham it up.
*. Still, I enjoy this one a little more than Batman. Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Christopher Walken are all having fun and in good form. They also get some decent lines, as there’s actually some wit in the dialogue. Not a lot, but more than in the first movie. Vicki Vale has disappeared, and good riddance, as I’ll take Michelle Pfeiffer any day. Though Bruce Wayne still seems a bit repressed when it comes to the ladies.
*. The script went through a lot of changes and rewrites, with Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams), for example, becoming Max Shreck (Walken). I think this may be what led to the clunky construction. I mean, does Oswald Cobblepot actually want to become mayor of Gotham? If his campaign hadn’t been derailed, would he still have gone ahead with his Herodian plan to kill all of the city’s first-born males? That whole scheme seems like an afterthought.

*. But then how many superhero movies have villainous plots that are in the least bit interesting? I can’t think of any off the top of my head. It’s usually just some scheme for world domination, or a local power grab. Who cares? So while I liked the introduction of the trio of bad guys (the law of villain inflation in superhero franchises was at work again), I was disappointed so little was done with them. Walken’s Shreck (whose own plan for taking over Gotham’s power supply made no sense at all) just disappears, while Catwoman only slinks around in her vacuum-tight suit delivering catty lines, her ambiguity never given any depth and no explanation given for how she became such a master of the martial arts (and the whip) just after getting a bump on the head.
*. Most of the design elements are excellent, but I really didn’t get how the dapper Penguin got turned into Humpty Dumpty, with DeVito wearing a ridiculous fat suit under his nineteenth-century long underwear. He seems like just another circus clown with pillows stuffed into his costume.
*. It’s amazing given how much bleaker Batman was going to get with Christopher Nolan’s movies and Joaquim Phoenix’s Joker that there was so much backlash when Batman Returns came out over its darkness and violence. It only took a dozen years to be left in the dust.
*. More immediately, however, things were going to get a lot sillier. I can understand wanting to change things up because Burton’s game, never very deep to start with, was clearly played out. Unfortunately, change would not lead to a turn for the better. Not by a long shot.

Conspiracy Theory (1997)

*. I think I first saw Conspiracy Theory as an in-flight movie around the time it came out. I can’t be entirely sure of this, because if I had seen it then I’d almost completely forgotten it by the time of this re-watch.
*. Completely forgetting Conspiracy Theory is a possibility because the plot itself is so uninteresting. This is a bit surprising given that it has all kinds of potential. But at the end of the day it’s a movie that really doesn’t have much to say, and which only uses its premise (the paranoid kook who is on to something) as a hook to hang a simple action-flick storyline from. I mean, we don’t even know what sort of organization Jonas is working for, who is behind it, or what it does. Jerry tells his handlers at the end that he’ll tell them all about it but then the credits roll.
*. I think this is what’s behind the majority of mainstream critical reviews being disappointed that it wasn’t something more. They saw the potential being frittered away in a conventional and unbelievable star vehicle that drags on for far too long.
*. The direction of Richard Donner and the appearance of Stephen Kahan as Alice’s boss at the Justice Department are enough to make you think this is going to be another Lethal Weapon movie, with Riggs trading in Danny Glover for Julia Roberts. Not to mention Mel Gibson once again being roughed up. Has any actor been tortured as often on screen?
*. But this isn’t a Lethal Weapon movie. For one thing, there aren’t any memorable/special/good action scenes. Indeed there’s not so much as a car chase. No problem-solving either. Alice is directed to where Jerry is being held at the end by a big picture of the building stuck to the collage on his apartment wall with a giant arrow pointing to it. Then when she gets in the building she hears his voice singing through an air vent. Yes, it’s that feeble. This is just going through the motions.
*. There’s also no humour, though I don’t think that was for lack of trying. It’s just that Jerry and Alice have no chemistry. Mel and Julia work hard, but they feel miscast and can’t sell the romance, which struck me as being more stupid than sweet. Really, Jerry comes across as a very disturbed individual and not at all charming.
*. I think it could have been funny, and indeed plays at times as though it wants to turn into a rom-com (something that I find the score also encourages). But Gibson’s manic antics seem out of place here and the comedy is as absent as the action. There is no attempt at satire and the only chuckles I got were from the absurdities in the plot. The legendary black helicopters dropping agents down in crowded city streets? The Organization (whoever they are) keeping Jerry tied up in the abandoned wing of a mental hospital? Didn’t they have a safe house or someplace else to keep him? He needed the entire wing of that enormous building all to himself?
*. I tried to write these notes down as soon after watching Conspiracy Theory as I could because I could already feel myself starting to forget what I’d just seen. By the time I get around to posting this it will all have disappeared again I’m sure.

Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993)

*. Fun fact: Jason Goes to Hell was the only instalment in the Friday the 13th franchise released in the 1990s. Now is that just trivia, or does it mean something?
*. Well, the ’90s were the decade of Scream (1996) and the whole turn toward a more self-reflexive or postmodern take on the genre. Could they do that with Jason? They certainly tried their best with this movie.
*. What they got was a film that divided audiences (critics were pretty much bound to hate it at this point). For the most part, however, fans hated it too because it wasn’t really a Jason movie. In fact, it wasn’t even have Friday the 13th in the title (because New Line Cinema didn’t have rights to the name).
*. What I mean by it not being a Jason movie is that Jason, or “Jason,” is killed at the beginning and spends the rest of the movie jumping from body to body by way of mouth-to-mouth transfer. It’s sort of like the way the bug body hops around in The Hidden, though director Adam Marcus says he hadn’t seen that movie.
*. In addition to this change-up there is a whole new mythology and back story (including a sister) introduced for Jason. The upshot is that he’s now a truly demonic figure (“hell’s assassin” in Marcus’s phrase) and not just some deformed kid with super strength pursuing his revenge on horny teens. To be fair, this is a direction the franchise had been heading in for a while, but in Jason Goes to Hell they really dive off the deep end.

*. It’s a huge mess, in part because the original script (described as “ten kinds of awful” and “impossible to understand”) was a disaster. Then there were cuts that made things even harder to follow, and just a whole attitude of goofiness that doesn’t help at all.
*. The goofiness may have had some relation to Erin Gray’s impression that the entire cast and crew were under the age of 25. This was Marcus’s first feature and he seems to have been feeling the spirit of experimentation that comes with early work. He really wanted to do something new with the franchise. Sean Cunningham knew that wouldn’t work. You just had to look at what had happened with Halloween III: Season of the Witch ten years earlier, a cardinal lesson in not messing with a commercial formula.
*. Well, despite this being Cunningham County, Marcus was given enough rope and ended up with this monstrosity. Now some of it, I have to say, I found to be fun. The gore, including a total body meltdown, is imaginative. Steven Williams is great as the celebrity bounty hunter, and I thought the body-hopping business made things fresh. It’s scenes like the murder of the campers, added later to make it more of a Jason movie, that drag the most.
*. I also didn’t mind all the in-jokes. There’s the Neconomicon from Evil Dead. A crate borrowed from Creepshow. Something that looks like the Alien critter. And of course a nonsensical appearance by Freddy Krueger, hinting at the battle of the horror icons that the studios were trying so hard to make happen but which was still ten years away.
*. I can’t say it’s a good movie, but given how bad the Friday the 13th movies are in general, and how formulaic they had become, I can’t say I disliked it. Put another way, I can see why fans would hate it, but since I’m not a fan I didn’t share their sense of betrayal. Indeed my feelings were more akin to relief. Perhaps it’s not a real Jason movie, but I don’t think we needed another one of those. I’m not sure we needed this either, but I’d rather have it than a Part IX.