Category Archives: 1990s

Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II (1993)

*. For people who care about these things, the Godzilla canon is often divided up into different periods. Things kicked off with the Showa Era, which ran from Gojira (1954) to The Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975). After this the franchise was mothballed for nearly a decade, being revived in the Heisei Era (1984 – 1995).
*. The Showa and Heisei Eras would be followed by the Shinsei (or Millennium) and Reiwa Eras in Japan, and the Legendary MonsterVerse franchise that kicked off with 2014’s Godzilla. The names are taken from Japanese emperors. I’ve posted notes on many of the Showa films but I won’t be talking as much about the Heisei Era. They are not as well liked by most people, myself included.
*. To give the Heisei films credit, the effects, as you would expect, are markedly better. These are better looking productions all around, and even the dubbing is superior. They also eschew a lot of the craziness and juvenility of the Showa productions. However, as summarized by William Tsutsui in his companion book Godzilla On My Mind, “despite all their bells and whistles, the Heisei films did lack that most important of elements, heart.”
*. Heart is a good word for what’s missing. In my initial notes I had scribbled that this movie was no fun, which comes to nearly the same thing.
*. Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II (which, despite the numbering, is not a sequel to any of the previous Mechagodzilla appearances) was originally intended to be the last Godzilla movie because Toho didn’t want to have to compete with the American Godzilla directed by Roland Emmerich that was coming down the pipe. As things turned out, they had nothing to fear. But that’s another story. So in fact the Heisei Era would continue on for a few more years.
*. We get off to a shaky start as the opening voiceover tells us that “The year is 1992 AD” Wow. That anno domini really helps clear things up. Then the English titles tell us that this is actually Godzilla® vs. Mechagodzilla® II. Two registered copyrights in one title! That wouldn’t be topped until 2001’s Godzilla®, Mothra® and King Ghidorah™: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack.

*. The rest of the movie feels like a recycling operation. Mechagodzilla is back, this time being operated by the military’s G-Force instead of aliens from the Third Planet of the Black Hole. Which made me wonder just how advanced those aliens were since this is a more powerful Mechagodzilla in pretty much every way. Rodan is back too, this time being pronounced (apparently correctly) Radon. And finally there is Baby Godzilla, who looks slightly better than Minilla from All Monsters Attack but that’s about the best I can say for him.
*. There are a number of pointless fights. It has been discovered that Godzilla actually has a second brain in his ass, so the “G-Crusher” strategy is developed to target this sensitive spot. This works well until it doesn’t. I’m not sure what the relation was between Godzilla, Rodan, and Baby Godzilla but they end up on the same side. Mechagodzilla bites the dust again, though Godzilla doesn’t tear his head off. So back to the old drawing board. They can always rebuild him.
*. There is one nice moment where the romantic leads take a short flight on an air scooter over Baby Godzilla’s pen. I thought that was the best part of the movie. The rest of it isn’t bad though. There are some good monster fights, if that’s what you came for, though these are less fanciful than the Showa entries and I just hate seeing a machine beating up on monsters. The whole thing seems to be missing something though, whether you want to call it heart or fun or whatever. It also feels caught between two worlds: the earlier campy suitmation and the CGI extravaganzas to come. It was 1992 AD.

Godzilla (1998)

*. It’s not that bad.
*. When this Godzilla came out, the first to be produced solely by a Hollywood studio, it was thoroughly trashed by critics and Godzilla fans alike (William Tsutsui even calls it “beyond Reptilicus bad,” which is surely going too far). Indeed, many of the people behind the film, cast and crew, later said how much they disliked it and apologized for how they screwed things up.
*. So it’s not good. But I wouldn’t call it terrible either. I don’t much care for it, but I do find it watchable. In fact I’ve watched it a few times now. And while I don’t like it any better today, I don’t hate it any more.
*. An initial question to ask: Is it really a Godzilla movie? Fans had their doubts, and took to calling it GINO, or Godzilla In Name Only. Director Roland Emmerich hadn’t been interested in the Toho monster and took the job only on the condition of being able to do his own thing. In this case his own thing meant replacing the roly-poly figure of a man in a lizard suit with a CGI dinosaur escaped from Jurassic Park.
*. I don’t mind the creature’s design, but the head is too big and it doesn’t have any expressiveness or character (in the twenty-first century the head would shrink, almost to the point of appearing deformed). As for the CGI, at the time I seem to remember thinking it was pretty good, though Roger Ebert’s contemporary review called it shoddy. Today, however, it definitely looks subpar. As I’ve had occasion to remark many times before, that’s the double edge of cutting-edge technology. You live by it, you die by it.
*. Another thing that bothered me about the monster (in both its adult and hatchling form) is that in all the chase scenes it moves so much faster than whoever its pursuing, but is never able to catch up. Of course this is something that happens in a lot of movies — it’s a way of dragging out chase scenes — but here it happens so often and it’s so obvious that it really got to be a distraction.

*. Complaining about believability, however, is kind of pointless in this movie. How Godzilla is moving around through the subway tunnels is a mystery that’s not even worth thinking about. And other points have become part of the franchise. Like, for example, the military thinking that some guys with machine guns might be able to take Godzilla down. They don’t even have the tanks and rocket launchers that the Japanese army regularly brought out (to no avail). Or we may think of the way Godzilla magically disappears from the middle of a major city, a vanishing act which goes back to The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms as well as previous Godzilla films. At least here this is recognized as ridiculous. “How could something so big just disappear?” one character asks. You tell me.
*. The script, I think, is very bad, punctuated with a litany of predictable lines that are played for smiles or applause. But they’re either so obvious or telegraphed so far in advance that they can’t be enjoyed. The pilot of the helicopter gunship who blazes away at nothing and exclaims “I think we got him!” Everybody in the audience knows you didn’t get him. Just like everyone in the audience knows Broderick is going to end up telling us that Godzilla is pregnant but we have to wait forever for him to say the words. Meanwhile, the long-running gag of Mayor Ebert bickering with his sidekick Gene is so laboured as to fail at its introduction.
*. Sure all mass entertainment is manipulative in this way, but it shouldn’t be so blatant in its pandering. Like at the end where we’re clearly supposed to cheer along with all the cheering people watching the same show we are on TV. Another example of the same manipulative effect is when Broderick stops to watch the baby dinosaurs slipping on the jawbreakers and basketballs. It makes no sense for him to do this, but it’s a shot that’s meant to signal to us that we’re supposed to be enjoying this as well.
*. So it’s stupid. And it’s not really a Godzilla movie. And it’s much too long. But Matthew Broderick and Jean Reno do their best and the movie doesn’t stint on what you came in for. I was actually surprised at how early Godzilla is introduced. I doubt I’ll ever end up watching it again, but I think I’ll probably always remember it better than Legendary’s reboot of the franchise in 2014, which I saw once and then forgot entirely a few weeks later. Which may just mean that in a contest between the bad and the bland, don’t bet against failure, however epic.

The X-Files: Fight the Future (1998)

*. I’ve been re-watching The X-Files, intermittently, for the past little while and had just started on season six when I realized that I’d missed something. That something was this movie, which I’d seen but mostly forgotten. Which led me to track it down for another look.
*. That way of coming to Fight the Future tells you something about its odd status. It’s not a standalone story but more an episode in a serial. In particular it takes the main X-Files “mythology” or narrative spine and runs with it. In producer Cris Carter’s words, it’s basically a “big mythology episode.” When season six kicked off it didn’t miss a beat, as the first episode has someone getting infected with the alien virus and then giving birth Alien-style to an alien, as is done here. Indeed, they probably wanted an episode going over this same material just to keep the television audience up to speed.
*. But that’s not to say that you’d be totally lost if you hadn’t been watching the show. The thing is, the X-Files mythology is so complicated and semi-opaque there’s no way to make sense of it all. As Strughold says, with regard to Mulder, “Of the whole he has seen but pieces.” And this is after he’s seen the alien ship taking off!
*. What’s more to the point, Mulder never will see the whole. To arrive at any final revelation wouldn’t just bring the series to a crashing halt, it would go against its entire premise, not to mention the way it works. The truth has to remain “out there.” Somewhere.
*. I think Roger Ebert’s review makes this point: “As a story, it needs a sequel, a prequel, and Cliff Notes. I’m not sure even the filmmakers can explain exactly what happens in the movie, and why. It doesn’t make much difference if you’ve seen every episode of the TV series, or none: The film is essentially self-contained, and that includes its enigmas. X-philes will probably be as puzzled at the end as an infrequent viewer like myself.”
*. That sense of always running in place and getting nowhere is baked into the cake. When Mulder says at the end “How many times have we been here before, Scully, right here so close to the truth?” we have to accept it as a given. In that regard it’s much like Scully and Mulder’s own romantic yearnings for each other. They can never be consummated, even with a kiss. Because that would, like the revelation of the Truth, shut everything down, and also because it would be a betrayal of the rules of the game.
*. A key part of Scully and Mulder’s always-interrupted courtship is Scully’s steadfast refusal to commit. Yet another way we see their relationship inverting gender stereotypes. She is the scientific mind and he operates just as much by intuition. By this point in the series Scully’s continued resistance to believing what is going on had become a bit of a joke, which would continue into the next season of the show as she refuses to back Mulder up at yet another closed-door hearing. Because she didn’t actually see the alien ship! Just like she never sees the monsters or the aliens in the show. And without further evidence . . . you know.

*. Given how much of the movie is a tease, never giving us the whole picture, questions about the plot are easily foiled. How did Mulder get all the way to Antarctica and drive that tractor right up the base without anyone knowing? Well, maybe they did know and they wanted him to come to them. But why? These questions are like a dog chasing its tail.
*. One thing that did bother me was the introduction of Scully and Mulder by way of the explosion in the office building. This was apparently orchestrated in order to destroy the cadavers of the firemen and child who fell into the cave at the beginning. But couldn’t they have figured out an easier, and far less conspicuous, way of doing this? Especially considering the fact that the explosion does not destroy the bodies! And why does Michaud have to sacrifice himself? Given the bomb was about to go off anyway, why didn’t he just evacuate the building with the others?
*. Judging the movie on its own is difficult. Basically what worked on the small screen works just as well on the big. David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson have the same good chemistry, and share the same low-key delivery that plays well against the insanity of the plot. Fan favourites like The Lone Gunmen put in an appearance, even though they have little to do. The Cigarette-Smoking Man (William B. Davis), known as Cancer Man by fans and referred to as CSM on the commentary track, looks grim and sinister. There are black helicopters, and even a black train. The show’s signature atmosphere of layers of conspiracy shrouding everything is well evoked.
*. In fact, one of the things I enjoyed the most are all the old boys showing up and doing their thing. Davis. Martin Landau as a slightly buggy deserter from the cause. John Neville as the Well-Manicured Man. Armin Mueller-Stahl giving the Organization a suitably Nazi accent.
*. Any final judgment on such a movie is impossible. The X-Files was a good TV show, and so if the movie is basically just a more expensively tricked-out version of that, then that’s OK. But I don’t think it stands up that well on its own. I can only speculate about this, since I do know the show, but I think anyone coming to it cold will likely feel as though they’ve been left out of the loop. Since, moving forward, fewer and fewer people will be familiar with the show I suspect this movie will soon be forgotten, or only remembered as just one chapter in a saga accessible only to fans.

Omen IV: The Awakening (1991)

*. By way of its title this is the fourth entry in the Omen franchise, though the title is almost the only connection it has to the preceding trilogy, which had wrapped up ten years previously. Instead, The Awakening is just the story of an adopted baby who turns out to be not a child of the devil but of Damien Thorn, a cursory tie-in to the previous films that is only revealed in the final ten minutes, and which has no role to play in the plot.
*. The only slight twist is that it’s an evil little girl we’re talking about here, named Delia. Technically I guess she’s Satan’s granddaughter, if that means anything. She’s also, by way of some gynecological legerdemain, the mother of Satan’s great-grandson. I think. It’s really not worth working out. I mean, there’s a point at the beginning of the movie, when Delia is born, when a “spontaneous eclipse” is reported. “How many spontaneous eclipses have you seen in your life?” one of the nuns asks. Given all that has to go into making an eclipse, I’m guessing the answer to that is none.
*. More of this and The Awakening might have been a bit of fun. There’s another part that plays with the fact that Delia’s nanny is into New Age spiritualism, which turns out to be more finely tuned to the presence of the Antichrist than traditional religion. It seems that Delia has “the aura of a Borgia, not a little girl.” Great line. The movie needed more like it.
*. Alas, the movie is pretty much straight garbage. It’s a Canadian made-for-TV effort, which pretty much tells you all you need to know about how far the franchise had fallen. A couple of the kills are decently imagined but incompetently executed. One homage to the decapitation scene in The Omen only proves that you shouldn’t attempt an homage if you can’t add something to the original. It’s even worse than the bird attack in Omen II, which was meant to recall The Birds, only done with a single crow.
*. I don’t even know who was in charge. Two directors are credited because one of them apparently quit part of the way through the production. Something that also happened in Omen II, though in that case Mike Hodges had been fired. I also read that producer Harvey Bernhard, the second unit director, did the action scenes here.
*. Well, there’s nothing else to say. I think the plan was to use this to launch more TV movies, or maybe a series, but the negative critical reaction and poor box office scotched that idea. It’s a cheap production without any sense of style or originality. I think you’d have to be a real connoisseur of crap to see anything in it. I tried but didn’t come up with much.

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.