Category Archives: 1990s

Naked (1993)

*. I saw Naked back when it came out, and to be honest it wasn’t a movie I was eager to return to. What memories I had of it weren’t fond. In fact, I seem to remember hating it. But I’m glad I did give it a rewind. I like it a lot more today.
*. I’m nervous that the reason I initially disliked it had to do with my not liking the character of Johnny (David Thewlis). It wasn’t so much that he was a heel, I could roll with that, as it was a response to his physical and moral collapse at the end. He is beaten in an alley and crawls back to his girlfriend(s), who are, in turn, being terrorized by their landlord. And what does he do? Lies on the floor crying gibberish. I really was expecting more out of him. Apparently Mike Leigh thought of having him do more, but found that all “uninteresting.” I think what he ended up with is the one really false note in the film.
*. Of course passing moral judgment on a fictional character is a terrible thing for any critic to do. Just because you don’t like a character doesn’t mean you can’t like the novel or film they appear in. And yet with Johnny the question of whether or not we can like him, or to what extent he has redeeming personal qualities, does seem to be a big part of what the movie is about.
*. On the commentary track both Leigh and Thewlis try their best to defend Johnny. Thewlis: “on the one hand he is very compassionate . . . obviously in relationships he’s not very compassionate but he cares a very great deal.” I don’t get this. Johnny hurts and uses everyone he can. Where does he show that he cares about anyone or anything? Sure he’s not as odious as Jeremy (Greg Cruttwell), but it’s hard to say much more than that for him.

*. As for why women like him, that seems more a sad commentary on the women in the movie than any indication that there’s something loveable in Johnny. Oh, but the women in Naked are a sad lot. Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge) seems nearly catatonic, having perfected the art of speaking without moving her lips. She also turns into a clinging harridan after a quickie. Meanwhile, the woman in the window and the waitress at the diner are both drunken zombies. And though we expect Sandra to introduce some kind of normalcy if not authority when she returns (she’s a nurse!), instead she turns out to be a comic figure who runs around waving her hands in the air, unable to cope. A strange look for a nurse. And why was she in a relationship with Jeremy anyway?
*. The one exception to these pathetic women is Louise (Lesley Sharpe), who is also the one who is most suspicious of Johnny. But even she gets taken in by him at the end. He fooled her twice.
*. So, no, I don’t think there’s any way of redeeming Johnny. He is what he is, and he isn’t much. He just possesses some superficial charm to go with his superficial learning and sheepdog good looks. But just because he’s a bad man doesn’t mean Naked is a bad movie. Nor does the fact that it details such a misogynistic world mean that it is misogynistic.
*. This latter is a point that has really, really exercised critics, to the point where everyone on the DVD commentary track has to directly respond to the charge. This I find they do in a very unpersuasive way.

*. But first let’s present the case. As I’ve said, the women in Naked, with one exception, are dopes. The men, meanwhile, are all verbally and physically abusive toward women. The movie begins with Johnny raping a woman. (As an example of the special pleading Johnny’s case attracts, here is Amy Taubin’s take: “Is this a rape? Not exactly — more like consensual rough sex gone wrong — although, pragmatically, if a woman believes she’s been raped, then she has.”) Jeremy meanwhile, is a sexual sadist, as well as the more general type of sadist as well. He seems to especially have it in for women though. Archie wants to find his Maggie just so he can kick her ass. Even lonely Brian is a creepy voyeur who is divorced from his “whore” of a wife.
*. Is it any wonder that Suzanne Moore had this to say: “What sort of realism is this? To show a misogynist and surround him with such walking doormats has the effect, intentional or not, of justifying this behaviour.”
*. Is the misogyny justified? I think the response to calling the film misogynistic would be to say that while it’s about women being abused that’s not the sort of thing it endorses or justifies. Its defenders, however, have an awkward time addressing this.
*. Leigh himself is dismissive of the charges. Here he is on the DVD commentary: “When critics and others say, as they did, things like that I’ve suddenly become misogynist or that I’ve suddenly done this that or the other I just think it’s very silly and very naive and on the whole I don’t trust it much. I think it’s just journalists being smart for the sake of it.”
*. Also on the commentary Cartlidge “completely disagrees” with those who found it a film about men hating women. Instead she figured it just reflected reality. Thewlis also sees such charges as missing the point somehow, since it was the women actors who created their characters (through Leigh’s program of rehearsed improvisation), basing them on women thy knew.
*. And here are some critical voices. Derek Malcolm: “Is the film misogynist? No, because it is as deeply critical of the men as it is of the women.” And, tying himself in knots, here’s Neil LaBute: “I think it would be very hard for someone to honestly say that he’s creating something that is, um, that is not true. Not true in the sense that it happens, that people, both men and women, are mistreated in relationships, um, not all women, not all men, um, that’s the beauty of fiction, it only has to be true for the little part of the world that you create. The women in this picture certainly give as well as they get.”
*. I don’t throw all this out here to make a case pro or con (and to be honest it’s not something that interests me that much) but only to demonstrate how hard a time people have talking about such matters. As I’ve said, there’s a pretty easy defence to the charges of misogyny, so why is it so hard to make? Why, instead, is such a dismissive attitude taken? Because there’s no denying that men abusing women is a big chunk of what Naked deals with.

*. Maybe it’s just defensiveness on the part of Leigh, wanting to take exception to anyone offering an interpretation of what the film is “about.” For some reason, to take another example, both Leigh and Thewlis on the commentary track stress that Johnny isn’t homeless. I think this is because some people saw it as a movie about homelessness. But their insistence that Johnny has a home in Manchester isn’t made out in the film. Is he leaving his home at the beginning, or just some place he’s flopped in? Is he going back to Manchester at the end? I doubt it. He seems more like Dupea in Five Easy Pieces, running away from the girl who loves him and going nowhere.

*. Five Easy Pieces is an interesting analog. Another is Richard Linklater’s Slacker, a movie that came out just a couple of years earlier. Johnny is in many regards a textbook slacker: a reader and a talker but not much of a doer. He has lots of ideas but they’re all half-baked. He can fall into bed easily enough but can’t handle relationships. He complains about how everyone around him is bored (“You have had the universe explained to you, and you’re bored with it”), but he, in turn, finds all of them boring. And of course he has no future. I mentioned in my notes on Slacker how this was the last gasp of an analog culture about to be swept away by the Internet. It’s hard to imagine someone like Johnny today. Instead of a bag of (stolen) books he’d just be walking around town hunched over his cellphone. So few young people read in our own time that Johnny must seem to them like the cultural equivalent of Piltdown Man.
*. This may be one of the reasons I like the movie more today. I still don’t like Johnny, but I have more sympathy for him. I also appreciate how well made a film it is. All the rehearsal time, and the endless takes, give it a paradoxically rough and polished texture. The colour feels drained of life, without having anything documentary about it. It always feels like a work of art, but genuinely grounded as well. Where it slips, only slightly, is when it seems to aim at comedy, in part because it makes us feel as though Leigh is making fun of these people, which is something some critics have suspected him of. I don’t think he is (he’s not as patronizing as the Coen Brothers, at least), but I do get that feeling in some scenes.
*. Overall, however, it’s a movie that’s grown on me. In fact, I’d call it a great movie. Parts of it are always going to be stuck in my head now, for better or worse.

Advertisements

Crash (1996)

*. I know I should like Crash a lot more.
*. I say that not so much because I like the fiction of J. G. Ballard and the films of David Cronenberg, though I do. Nor is it because the car chases and crashes we see take place on Toronto streets and expressways I’ve traveled many times myself. Instead, it’s because I think Crash is a lousy movie that I think I should like it more. That’s a paradox worth explaining.
*. I admire movies that split opinion sharply. Such polarity usually means people have strong feelings about the movie, either pro or con, which is some achievement in the present cultural environment. We’re all pretty jaded today, not unlike the autoerotic thrillseekers in this film, and it’s surprising to have a movie give rise to real disagreement, as Crash has since its release.
*. I think, however, that the critical divide is phoney. In the first place, simply being sensationalistic is a cheap way of creating a false dissensus. As Kenneth Turan advised in his review, we should “remember that for a canny marketing department ‘controversial’ is the last refuge of the tedious. Kicks may be getting harder to find, but Crash is not a great place to look for new ones.”
*. More than that, my real problem with Crash is not that it tries too hard to be on the edge but that it isn’t edgy enough. At Cannes Crash won a Special Jury Prize “for originality, daring and audacity.” Roger Ebert called it “challenging, courageous, and original.” I think you could apply all of these adjectives to Ballard’s novel. I don’t think any of them apply to Cronenberg’s film. Instead, the word I’d use is “trite.”
*. What is controversial, or edgy, or provocative, about cars=bodies=sex? Even Vaughn says that his line about the reshaping of the human body by modern technology is shallow. Or what is new in the observation that as industrial creatures ourselves we’ve become more mechanical and soulless in our passions and desires. If, as Anthony Lane observes, Crash “is primarily a metaphor, all about the human race sliding into the thrall of its own machinery, then it’s kind of obvious, and, anyway, Cronenberg has done it before. James Woods having a tape inserted into his abdomen in Videodrome is a better sick joke about biotechnology than James Spader fondling a steering column.”
*. About the only daring thing I can see in Crash is its daring us to like it. Ebert thought it a nearly great movie “although I cannot say I ‘liked’ it.” Mark Kermode called it “pretty much perfect” and “perhaps the Cronenberg film I admire the most,” but admitted it’s a “hard film to like.” There is something challenging, I guess, in what Lane refers to as Cronenberg’s “disdain for the customary satisfactions of cinema.” You’re going to have to like Crash despite its not caring if you do.
*. I’ve been quoting from these critical responses to Crash in part because of what I see as the film’s triteness. I don’t see where I have much to add to what is so easily and has so often been observed. That the sex is deliberately unerotic, despite being grounded in fetish obsessions. That the actors all seem narcotized, even when they’re killing each other. We see people being turned into machines after surgery, and surgery being done on machines to save people. OK, we get it. But so what?
*. I even felt cheated by the absence of Holly Hunter. Apparently she really wanted to be in a Cronenberg film so she got this role, which is not only minor but largely superfluous. I was actually surprised when she turned up again at the end for a kiss after having gone AWOL for most of the movie. I wonder what she felt when she read the script, or if she even understood what was going on.
*. Speaking of Holly’s kiss at the end, what are we supposed to make of the fact that the characters progress to homosexual acts? Is this supposed to indicate real homosexual desire? I doubt it, as none of the lovers seem that in to their partners. Though Vaughn may have a thing for Ballard. Or is this the idea that each man (or woman) kills the thing they love being put into action by (literally) driving one’s lover to death? Or, still spinning my own wheels here, is it mean to indicate a kind of descent into narcissism? Homosexuality does seem significant in some way, but I’m not sure how.
*. The sad thing is that I think Cronenberg cared about something here. He had something to say about art, and sex, and death. I’m just not sure what that something was beyond the obvious. And it is that obviousness that, even more than the presentation, makes it all so dull. I kept waiting to be surprised. And given all the high praise it has received over the years, it’s a movie that I’ve given a chance to grow on me. But I’m still waiting.

Demolition Man (1993)

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

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

Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996)

*. In my notes on Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth I mentioned the similiar look all these films have. What I mean is the way their sets look like film sets. Apartments don’t look like apartments, offices don’t look like offices, hospitals don’t look like hospitals, and illogical hallways are a major design feature of every building on earth, in hell, or even the heavens above. Every set seems like the same space with different furniture wheeled in and some obviously fake walls thrown up that look as if they’d fall over if you bumped into them.
*. This can be the result of bad production design or lack of any budget. I suspect a bit of both, but more of the latter. In any event, what I want to flag here is how strangely such an aesthetic fits with the oversized ambitions of these films.
*. After Hellraiser, which was mostly shot in one house, the series visited a Piranesian hell (Hellbound), battlefieds in Vietnam and the First World War (Hellraiser III), and, in this film, Revolutionary France and a 22nd-century space station. For a franchise that never had the resources to make any of these settings work this might seem like folly. And maybe it was. Nevertheless, I also have a kind of respect for it.
*. And so . . . Pinhead in space. Was he the first screen villain of his generation to go into orbit? The Leprechaun would head there a year later (Leprechaun 4: In Space), and Jason would make the trip in Jason X (2002). So I guess that deserves some credit too. Or blame, if you think it’s a stupid idea.

*. There are actually three stories at play in Bloodline, going from 1796 France, where Lemarchand’s box is first made for a dissoulte Marquis de Sade figure, through 1996 New York City, to 2127 and the stuff going on at the space station. Apparently Lemarchand and his descendants (all of whom are known as the “Toymaker”) are committed to finding a way to close the gate of hell they opened, only this time permanently. It takes several centuries but they get it done. This does not, however, shut down the possibility of further sequels, since Pinhead doesn’t die until 2127. Which was actually kind of clever. More clever than the alternate-universe stuff that Marvel pulls when their storylines become unworkable.
*. Having three linked stories makes Bloodline play a bit like an anthology horror film. What makes it curious in this regard is that neither of the first two stories (1796, 1996) give us much necessary information. Given how extensively the movie was rewritten and reworked, I suspect much was lost.
*. It seems as though the demon Angelique (who I don’t think is a Cenobite, at least initially) was going to have a more central role to play. Sort of like Julia in the first two films. But alas she was going up against Pinhead, who everyone knew was the star by now and the franchise’s only reason for being.
*. That’s too bad, as Angelique had some potential. Doug Bradley’s Pinhead, however, really seems played out by now. He’s still going on and on about pain and suffering and the flesh but none of it seems to carry any conviction. I also thought the chains with the hooks were starting to seem really old. Enough already.

*. They do try to add some new elements. Twin security guards are smushed together to make a new Cenobite. Pinhead has a dog. And Angelique gets some work done as well. But none of this is all that interesting. We’re four movies in now and we’ve seen this before.
*. Yes, it’s an Alan Smithee film. The studio wanted so many changes that Kevin Yagher took his name off it and it was completed by Joe Chappelle. Alan Smithee doesn’t always mean the film is a disaster, but it does indicate a troubled production. That seems to have been the case here.
*. One feels that Pinhead had by this time become both the series’ raison d’être and its baggage. As I’ve said, the character quickly played out, and by this point was incapable of sustaining much interest. But he was all they had.
*. He wasn’t meant to become the face of the franchise. He’s a minor supporting character in the novella The Hellbound Heart. Barker seems to have envisioned a more important role for Julia in the first two films, and in Hellbound he was determined to kill him off. In this movie Angelique, as I’ve said, may have been imagined in the Julia role, while Pinhead isn’t even a character in the first part (Captain Elliott Spencer not having been born yet). But the studio insisted he make an appearance earlier on board the space station to let audiences know that he was in the house.
*. Given all of this, the fact that the series kept limping along, and indeed had some creative life in it yet, is remarkable. In the next films they’d go in a different direction and Pinhead would be relegated to cameos. The road to hell was proving to be a long strange trip indeed.

Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (1992)

*. The third entry in a series that I don’t think was ever planned as a franchise. Things, however, were now out of control. Despite Clive Barker doing his best to kill him off in the previous movie (Barker had apparently wanted Julia to be the franchise villain, but Clare Higgins wanted out), Pinhead — officially his name now, not only in the credits but in the script — is back and in charge of the operation. The mythology, however, is coming undone.
*. Some things have changed and some have stayed the same. We’ve left dear old Blighty and are now in New York City. The title announce this as “Clive Barker Presents,” but I don’t think he had a lot of creative input. We hear Christopher Young’s score. We see a bunch of film sets that really look like film sets, which has become part of the low-cost charm of these movies. It also helps blur the line between reality and hell, since the film’s real world looks so much like hell in the first place. Not to mention Vietnam looking like upstate New York (it was actually shot in North Carolina).
*. Pinhead is back, and I should be happier about that but (1) the plot has him being split from his human personality, which I guess they had to do after the last movie but which is still hard to swallow, and (2) he talks far too much. I think I can recite all of Pinhead’s lines from Hellraiser because they really stood out. Less was more. Here they let Doug Bradley drone on about flesh and pain and whatnot and it just gets tiring.
*. I’m not knocking his acting chops, but without his makeup and Cenobite costume Doug Bradley doesn’t make much of an impression. I wish they could have left his back story out of it.

*. Another problem is that whatever rules there were for summoning the Cenobites have now been disposed of completely. In the first two movies you had to summon them, and only those who summoned them got to taste their pleasures. And in the second movie they still tried hard to rationalize how this worked. But in this movie they don’t even bother, and when Pinhead is unleashed it’s a wholesale Carrie-esque slaughter of the innocents. Or at least the partially innocent. He mostly takes out a nightclub filled with party boys and coked-up whores, but still. And what Joey’s photographer did to deserve his terrible fate is beyond me.
*. Pinhead’s original gang of fellow Cenobites (Butterball, the Female, the Chatterer) are gone, to be replaced by jokey Borg-like figures made over in ways that reference their previous lives. (This was, to be fair, suggested in Hellbound, when the brain surgeon Dr. Channard undergoes a kind of lobotomy and his tentacles have scalpels.) So the unfortunate photographer here becomes a demon with a telescoping lens for an eye. A DJ becomes a man who throws CDs (remember them?) like ninja stars. A bartender mixes up Molotov cocktails and breathes fire. The sleazy nightclub owner who started all this gets a sort of piston stuck in his head that is, he tells us, better than sex. In the first movie Barker was afraid that people would find Pinhead silly and laugh at him. In this movie they’ve embraced that fate. I mean, the new gang even make stupid wisecracks as they go about killing people.
*. Another connection with the other movies that’s easy to miss is the fact that the Other Side has the power to communicate with ours not just through dreams but by way of our television sets. This is used here when Captain Elliot Spencer contacts Joey through her TV, but you may recall that the Cenobites announce themselves by way of the TV in Kirsty’s hospital room in the first film, and videotapes will also play key plot functions in Hellraiser: Inferno, Hellraiser: Hellseeker, and Hellraiser: Deader.
*. I didn’t get the mocking of religion, with Pinhead doing a parody of communion in the church. Why bother with this? I’m not offended, but it seems as though they’re going out of their way to make not much of a point. When Andrew Robinson said “Jesus wept” at the end of the first film it was an ad lib. It didn’t mean anything. But at least this much is consistent with Barker’s vision. Remember the baptism scene in Rawhead Rex?
*. In most respects Hell on Earth feels like a more timely, commercial film than the previous two. The first movie had a classic, timeless quality to it that lets it still play well today. This one is very much a product of the early ’90s, or even earlier. To be honest, it feels more like a Cannon production than something from Miramax. The shoot-’em-up in the street could have come out of a Chuck Norris flick.
*. Is it a terrible movie? No, but it’s another step down for the franchise, which was by now badly wounded and becoming mired in inconsistencies. Still, there’s a lot of ruin in a franchise and this one had a way to run yet.

Dolores Claiborne (1995)

*. There’s a word you’ll often hear applied to Dolores Claiborne that I want to start with: melodrama. What this usually refers to is exaggerated or heightened emotionality in a domestic setting, with clear heroes and villains. I think Dolores Claiborne is ripe melodrama, and one of the things that struck me watching it was just how slight a nudge it would take to push it into parody. It’s almost there. But then, that’s the case with most melodrama. It likes to walk the line.
*. For some reviewers it went too far. Owen Gleiberman, for example, writing in Entertainment Weekly: “Based on Stephen King’s 1992 novel, this solemnly ludicrous ‘psychological’ thriller is like one of Hollywood’s old-hag gothics turned into a therapeutic grouse-a-thon — it’s Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte for the Age of Oprah. ”
*. This is harsh, too harsh in my opinion. I don’t see much of the hagsploitation genre in it, aside from incidentals. But the nod to Oprah does seem right. This is the sort of hard-luck story with a triumphal conclusion that we expect from daytime TV. In soaps. In melodrama.
*. The story is based on a Stephen King novel, and it’s true to that story while presenting it in a radically different way, making Selena into a character equal to her mother. This has the sometimes irritating effect of turning the movie into a complicated web of flashbacks but it also gives Kathy Bates someone to play against in Jennifer Jason Leigh.
*. Director Taylor Hackford calls the leads his “two racehorses” on the DVD commentary and they’re usually given a lot of credit. Personally, I find Bates just barely credible. Leigh, however, is an actor I’ve always been fond of and she is terrific, convincingly and sympathetically giving us a woman who is burned out before she’s even turned 30. I think Leigh was one of the great underused talents of her generation. How I wish she had been in some better movies in her career. Still, there’s hope yet.

*. I’d like to say that the melodramatic (artificial, exaggerated) parts are where the film falls down, but that would be both too easy and wrong. No, I don’t buy the repressed memory business (though the presentation of Selena as a victim of incest is psychologically astute otherwise). I also don’t buy the funny accents, which may be realistic but sound put on. And the inquest finale, with Selena defending her mom as though in court (she’s covered enough trials, apparently, to know how they work) strikes me as ridiculous.

*. But in other places it’s the heightening of the drama in strange ways that leads to the most effective moments.
*. Chief among these is the long eclipse scene. Throughout the movie different film stocks are used to present past and present. The present scenes were shot on Kodak, which has a reputation for looking cool. This was helped along by saturating the colour scheme with blues. The past was shot with Fuji film for more of a warm look. The eclipse/murder scene is in the past, but it has an added, surreal quality to it for being shot on what was then the largest blue screen stage in the world. The harbour in the background looks like some kind of diorama borrowed from Gone with the Wind. It doesn’t look at all realistic, and yet we’ve been so grounded in the reality of this location that it seems like reality has been magically transformed, or is being redrawn before our eyes.
*. Well, we might say, it is an eclipse, which is a magical sort of event where the light does take on a special quality. And it is the climax of the film, where the big secret of what happened to the no-good husband is revealed. It’s a testament to how great I think this scene is that it stands out for me as a favourite movie moment despite the fact that I don’t really love Dolores Claiborne as a whole.

*. The other stand-out moment of surreality is Selena seeing the back of her own head in the mirror on the ferry, an homage to a painting by Magritte (“La reproduction interdite”). Dolores Claiborne is not a tale of supernatural horror, but it does a great job building up to and fashioning a moment of psychological terror and alienation like this.
*. The movie is uneven. It’s too long. There are big chunks of it that I didn’t think worked well at all (Christopher Plummer’s role as the local Javert is awful, and frankly Judy Parfitt’s turn as the lady of the big house isn’t much better). The build up to a pair of secrets I was never that interested in, mainly through the overuse of flashbacks, was obvious and tired. And yet, as so often with King, something in the basic idea, and its rendering here, has a strength and staying power that’s hard to deny. King has been such a representative popular artist for so long I have to wonder if he’ll endure or if stories like these will come to seem to be only of their time. Which is my time too, so I can feel it passing.

Election (1999)

*. Election is based on a short novel by Tom Perrotta, who also wrote the novel Little Children. It’s interesting that both film adaptations, while very good, change their sources in similar ways. What I mean is that they keep most of the story elements but reimagine the theme and change the endings. Put another way, they have the same words but different music.
*. Perrotta’s theme in Election is that of people looking for a new start or second chance. Not just the male teachers who want to dump their wives for someone new but Tammy Warren getting to start over at a Catholic school and Tracy Flick escaping the New Jersey ‘burbs (the movie whisks the school off to Omaha, Nebraska). But in the book these are exposed as pipe dreams. Just because we’re in a new relationship, or have a new job, or go to a new school, doesn’t mean that we have changed. Which means that nothing changes. In Perrotta’s novel, for example, Tammy is just as unhappy at her new school, while Mr. M. gets back together with his wife and goes to work at a local car dealership. Even Tracy is left just running in place. It’s this same realization of their being stuck in their lives that all of the characters carry with them.

*. That’s not the message in Alexander Payne’s movie, though Payne and co-screenwriter Jim Taylor seem to have thought otherwise. They thought the message that nothing changes was maintained but I’m not so sure. Tammy is lovin’ it at Immaculate Heart, Mr. M. is divorced but starting a new life in New York City, and Tracy’s next stop is the White House. The movie’s point seems to have more to do with the dangerousness of people like Tracy who see themselves as driven by destiny and whose lives are meant to follow straight paths to whatever they envision success to be. That Tracy’s ambition is directed toward politics is obviously a mark against her, but I think it’s her sense of mission that really makes us distrust her. After all, Mr. M. always wanted to be a teacher. But what kind of a person wants to be a politician?
*. I should note that Payne did originally end the movie with a coda that more closely followed Perrotta’s book, but he scrapped it when test audiences disapproved. All for nought at the box office, as audiences still stayed away. But it’s significant that they had to change the ending because it was seen as being “tonally out-of-synch with the rest of the movie.” Indeed it was, because the tone of the rest of the movie had changed from the book.

*. I like Election. It’s a very carefully made movie with good performances by all the players. But Perrotta’s book has a few moments of real insight and indirect profundity and I don’t think Payne captures any of them, going instead for something lighter and more broadly satirical.
*. What we get here is very close to cartoonish caricature. Paul is the dumb jock and Tracy is Katy Keen, her flagpole of an arm indicating her career trajectory. Her begging to be allowed to answer the teacher’s questions reminded me of Lisa Simpson’s classroom behaviour, which made me reflect on whether, at the end of the day, the satire here was that far advanced from an episode of The Simpsons.
*. That may seem a bit strong, but I like The Simpsons, and do we ever get much of a sense of what’s driving Tracy? Does her character have any depth? She is a power player and, like most politicians I suspect, a natural performer. Perhaps there is nothing behind her phony smile, and there are no real political goals she wants to achieve beyond acquiring power. In fact, I think we can probably take that much for granted. Is she then a pure politician?

*. I’ve said it’s carefully made, but there are a few missteps. I didn’t like including Mr. M.’s epiphany while watching the porn movie. That was unnecessary (it’s not in the book) and the film doesn’t look remotely like any porn flick from the era. There’s a class angle that doesn’t go anywhere, in large part because the privileged Paul turns out to be such a decent guy. I also thought the three student prayers were overdone. I wish Payne had had the confidence to stay subtle. I guess the movie gains something for being so cartoonish — Tracy Flick has gone on to become an iconic figure, a new type we would come to know well that David Thomson christened the “toxic nerd” — but I think a lot is lost as well.
*. Critics have been quick to read later events into it. In her Criterion essay Dana Stevens mentions the ballot recount of Bush v. Gore and Tracy Flick as Hillary Clinton. I don’t see where such comparisons take us, in part because I’m not sure where Payne wants to go with the satire. Having lost Perrotta’s theme of second chances, what does Mr. M.’s story have to do with politics? Or really with anything? It’s not like he was an innocent destroyed by Tracy’s Machiavellian machinations. Instead he was crushed by her manifest destiny. But if destiny really is the operative force here, then there’s not much anyone can do but get out of the way.

*. The upshot of all this, at least for me, is that while I enjoyed Election I liked the book better and came away from the movie thinking that there was less going on than there seems. I appreciate its craftsmanship and the effective use of leitmotifs (like garbage bags and apples), but as Tammy points out, none of the political stuff matters anyway. Certainly not in high school, and perhaps nowhere else.
*. That would be a cynical note to end on though, and I don’t think Election is a cynical movie. Maybe it’s just the presence of Matthew Broderick. We can’t believe he’s a bad man, can we? Just temporarily blinded by love, and a bee sting. Alas, while not a bad man, he is a loser. Which is, as a future president would assert, the very worst thing to be in America.

The Mummy (1999)

*. I really like The Mummy. I liked it when it came out and I still enjoyed it on my most recent re-watch.
*. It may be my favourite mummy movie. That’s an opinion I don’t think many people would share but the thing is, I don’t think there have been many good mummy movies. In large part this has been due to low budgets and substandard talent. Was this the first mummy movie that a studio actually spent some money on? It’s certainly the first that looked this good.
*. In 1999 audiences were blown away by the opening shots of ancient Egypt. We weren’t bored by CGI yet and I remember everyone in the theatre (including myself) going “ooh!” and “ahh!” And truth be told, I think the effects work has held up pretty well. Imhotep, in all of his various forms, looks swell. The plagues are adequate. The mummy soldiers actually have a bit of a Ray Harryhausen look to them, which was intentional. I’m not as thrilled by the scarabs as I was at the time, but you can’t have everything.
*. The mummy himself has always been, in the words of Kim Newman, “the poorest of poor relations among classic monsters.” He doesn’t talk, staggers around like a zombie (which is, in a sense, what he is), behaves in a mostly preprogrammed way (wreaking vengeance on those who have desecrated his tomb), and then crumbles to dust.

*. The mummy we get here, however, is a lot more fun. The first thing he does when he’s brought back to life is he grabs himself a tongue to stick in his unhinged jaw. Now he can speak (at least in subtitles). Also, he doesn’t just shuffle around strangling people but exercises all sorts of super powers.
*. I think it was also a great idea to show Imhotep slowly reconstituting himself, sort of like the thing in the attic in Hellraiser. (Side note: Clive Barker had been attached to this project at one point but his vision had been too dark.) When he’s fully back in human form, Arnold Vosloo has a great presence, communicating someone both cunning and damned in a way that recalls Christopher Lee’s performance in the 1959 Hammer film.

*. Things start on a high note and the pace never lets up. The clear model was Raiders of the Lost Ark, right down to the period dressing. This undercuts its status as a horror film somewhat, but there’s no need for criticism to be that rigid about respecting genre rules. Neither writer-director Stephen Sommers or the studio wanted a horror film. This is a movie that was meant to be fun and it is. Rachel Weisz didn’t even consider it to be horror but pure “hokum” and a “comic book.”
*. The Raiders and Harryhausen connections are obvious. Less obvious is Sommers’s love of Michael Curtiz’s Captain Blood, which he mentions on the DVD commentary track as having been a model for the love story. I hadn’t thought of that, but it’s a nice influence to have in mind.
*. The cowardly character is a stock type but Kevin J. O’Connor’s Beni I find to be both original and very funny. He’s such a sleazy worm, and I like that he can even be sadistic at times. He’s the kind of heel you genuinely love to hate.

*. In some previous mummy movies the princess and her modern day incarnation were played by the same actress. Here Imhotep immediately takes Rachel Weisz for Patricia Velasquez, who she doesn’t remotely resemble. The character Evelyn Carnahan doesn’t even have Egyptian ancestry (originally she was to be the daughter of the guy who discovered Tutankhamen’s tomb, something that is only hinted at in the film).
*. So it’s a loveable movie. Surprisingly, critics weren’t all that kind. Roger Ebert said “There is hardly a thing I can say in its favor, except that I was cheered by nearly every minute of it. I cannot argue for the script, the direction, the acting or even the mummy, but I can say that I was not bored and sometimes I was unreasonably pleased.” This seems like backhanded praise to me. Why not praise the direction, the writing, the acting, or the mummy? They all seem fine to me.
*. Ebert adds “Look, art this isn’t. Great trash, it isn’t. Good trash, it is. It’s not quite up there with Anaconda, but it’s as much fun as Congo and The Relic, and it’s better than Species.” I would rate it well above all of these other pictures (and I’m not sure what made him think of Species). I wonder why Ebert was so reluctant to say something good about it.

*. Kim Newman is more negative in Nightmare Movies. In large part this is because he thinks the story strays too far from its roots, but as I’ve said I don’t think that’s a strike against it. Here’s his summary: “The Mummy is an entertaining series of theme park rides, but sorely misses magic, with cardboard villains, fundamentally unlikable heroes, non-stop pig-ignorant blunders and endlessly irritating comic bits. It also offers offensive Egyptian stereotypes — smelly, corrupt, venal, lecherous, whining, cowardly, boil-ridden, murderous, sadistic, ugly – unacceptable in the dignified 1932 movie.”
*. Some of this comes down to taste, but I’m surprised he got so upset at the portrayal of Egyptians. Actually, there are a number of heroic local figures, headlines by Oded Fehr’s Ardeth Bey, who turned out to be such a likeable hero Sommers had to change the ending to let him live. Otherwise, most of the negative descriptors Newman gives apply only to Beni, who is not Egyptian. I believe he’s supposed to be Hungarian (the character’s full name is Beni Gabor).
*. So maybe it’s not a great mummy movie but it’s still one of the better entertainments of its period with quite a lot to be said in its favour and not much to be said against it except frustrated expectations. I wasn’t that picky twenty years ago and I’m glad I’m still relaxed enough to enjoy it.

Bram Stoker’s Legend of the Mummy (1998)

*. Sheesh. They give Stoker credit (presumably trying to make a connection in people’s minds with Bram Stoker’s Dracula) but that’s not even his title. The movie is based on Stoker’s novel The Jewel of Seven Stars. Now I can see how that wouldn’t fly with studios since nobody would know what it meant. And to be fair The Jewel of Seven Stars has been filmed several times, but never under that title. I mean, if you’re going to make a mummy movie you’d better put “mummy” in there somewhere.
*. It’s also the case that Stoker’s novel is unfilmable. I talked about this in my notes on Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb so I won’t go over it again here. Suffice it to say that this is another very loose adaptation.
*. What’s funny — and this is a very funny movie — is that instead of streamlining the novel’s obscure plot they’ve gone and made it even more confusing. I’ve read The Jewel of Seven Stars and still had no idea what was going on here. There’s the same basic idea of the archaelogist having a daughter who shares a “double existence” with ancient Queen Tera, but from there I got lost in a hurry.
*. If you’re a mummy fan, however, you do get to see a real mummy stumbling around, not doing much. I guess that’s a plus, though I was wondering what his connection to everything was.
*. I called this a very funny movie and it is. It represents one of those rare instances where you can enjoy a movie’s badness. What it made me think of was some VHS porn tape from the 1980s where the “actors” have to stumble around a house trying to suggest a smattering of plot until they can get their clothes off. Everything about the production here is on that same level, but what really makes it fun are all “Huh? What?” moments.
*. Examples include a maid who has a vision of a couple making out in a tub. I don’t know what that was supposed to represent. Then there’s an introductory scene where Robert suggests they move Margaret’s comatose father to a hospital and she tersely responds “No, my father hates hospitals.” So there! Then, even after they receive the father’s strict instructions that two people remain in his room watching over him at all times we see various characters get up and leave, even just to get a breath of fresh air. Then in a later scene we will see Margaret leave Robert because she needs some fresh air, despite the fact that they are both sitting outside!
*. Also a lot of fun is Richard Karn providing the comic relief (as though any were necessary) and Louis Gossett Jr., sounding as though he’s been dubbed, playing an archaeologist who is so crazy he’s had himself committed. What his plan here is a little hard to figure out — it has something to do with becoming a new pharaoh I think — but then he’s crazy anyway.
*. Another curious thing about the film is that, despite being a very free adaptation of Stoker, it keeps a lot of the late-Victorian feel of the novel. The action has been transplanted to San Francisco but we may as well be in London circa. 1900. The setting is a big house with lots of servants, a personal doctor (played by Aubrey Morris, who also played the doctor in Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb), and a detetcive (actually the head of security) who apparently hails from “the Yard” and has the accent to go with it.
*. As I’ve said before, most mummy movies aren’t very good. This one is so bad it’s a bit better than the average. Impossible to sit through twice though.

Dick Tracy (1990)

*. Given the current hegemony of superhero movies at the box office it would be easy to see Dick Tracy as a forerunner, a taste of things to come. But it wasn’t. Instead, it was more like the last gasp of the old guard.
*. There had been comic book movies before Dick Tracy. The Christopher Reeve Superman movies, most notably. And Batman (which provided the publicity and merchandising template) had just come out the year before. But there was a big difference between these movies and what we’d get in the twenty-first century, bigger even than the difference between DC and Marvel superheroes. The real gamechanger was CGI.
*. It was CGI that gave filmmakers the ability to create comic book worlds that were real. Before that, blue screen made it hard to believe that someone could fly. With the aid of computer graphics anything was possible.
*. With its studio-bound and consciously artificial look, built out of powerful blocks of primary colours, Dick Tracy is the opposite of a machine-made movie. It’s the product of a style of craftmanship that would soon be obsolete. It still looks beautiful today, but in a way that’s become very much the look of the past. A past, I might add, that we’re unlikely to ever see again.
*. It’s lucky it does look so good, because Dick Tracy‘s appearance is pretty much all it has going for it. There’s an impressive collection of talent both in front of and behind the camera (with a lot of the all-star cast unrecognizable in make-up), but the story is thin and uninvolving. We never really feel as though anything is at stake and the one twist is easily deduced just through a simple process of elimination.
*. But I’m not sure they could have done much more. When you get right down to it, Dick Tracy isn’t that interesting a character is he? How would you give him depth? He’s a square guy and that’s about it. A sequel was originally being considered but there were squabbles over rights and it never got off the ground. This was probably for the best, as I just don’t see where they could have gone with such a franchise. Superman was square too, but at least in his case something could be made out of his not being of this world, a stranger in a strange land. Tracy is a dead end, with no past and no possibility of development.

*. It’s a truth universally acknowledged that rock stars don’t make great actors. Madonna comes off better than most here, perhaps as the role of the night-club vamp was pretty close to her persona at the time anyway. The rest of the cast, including Beatty, seem to be having fun playing caricatures of roles they were familiar with. But I also got the sense that they were having more fun than I was. Pacino in particular doesn’t strike me as all that funny despite going way over the top.
*. Roger Ebert: “The Tracy stories didn’t depend really on plot – they were too spun-out for that — and of course they didn’t depend on suspense — Tracy always won. What they were about was the interaction of these grotesque people, doomed by nature to wear their souls on their faces.” This sounds so good I wish it were true. I don’t think it is. The prosthetic faces just seem like a line-up of grotesques. Few of the baddies have any lines, much less a soul we can peer into.
*. The music. I like Stephen Sondheim’s show tunes. “Sooner or Later” won an Academy Award and has managed to stick in my head just a bit. Danny Elfman’s score, on the other hand, sounds a lot like his Batman score. Maybe that’s what Beatty wanted.
*. In 2010 Keith Phipps wrote a retrospective piece for Slate that asked “”Where did it go? It’s not that the movie has been unavailable; those so inclined can easily pick up the feature-free DVD released without fanfare in 2002. But who thinks about Dick Tracy today?” Five years later, writing in Vanity Fair, Kate Erbland had a piece titled “Dick Tracy Turns 25: Why Has Everyone Forgotten the Original Prestige Comic Book Movie?”
*. So, where did it go? Why has it been forgotten? I think for much the same reason that all the early superhero, comic book movies have been largely forgotten. They were washed away by the Marvel tsunami. Also: they really weren’t that good in the first place. I think those of us who saw them when they first came out will always have some fond memories of them, but they’ve become a bit embarrassing. As far as Dick Tracy goes, I still love the look of it and think it deserves to be seen on a big screen. Aside from the visuals and the one song, however, the rest of it is very forgettable.