Category Archives: 1990s

A Shock to the System (1990)

*. I really hated this one.
*. Why? It’s a little movie that few people noticed at the time and that has since dropped almost completely out of sight. The theme was neither new nor interesting in 1990 and today seems even less so. What’s there to be upset about?
*. On the face of it, it’s a simple satire of the cutthroat world of business, where the law of the jungle prevails and psychopaths rule. Middle-aged, middle-management Graham Marshall (Michael Caine) seems ready to ascend to the next rung on the corporate ladder, before the job is unexpectedly given to a younger man. Mild-mannered and hen-pecked, an incident on the subway awakens Graham to the fact that it’s easy to kill someone and get away with it. What’s more, murder also infuses him with mojo. He becomes the alpha male: a real killer in the boardroom and the bedroom.
*. The troubling, even noxious thing is: where’s the satire? In the fact that Graham gets away with it? Is that part of the black comedy, or is the moral of the story that this really is the way the world works? The age differential between the leads is standard Hollywood (Caine was 56 and Elizabeth McGovern 28), but even so the way McGovern submits to Graham’s newly-acquired dominance (“his powers had been turned on to the point where no woman could resist him”) is hard to take. What is the message here? That her surrender is somehow wrong? Or rather that it’s natural?
*. In their At the Movies review of A Shock to the System both Siskel and Ebert spent most of their time praising Caine’s performance. I like Michael Caine, and think he’s a wonderfully versatile actor, but he’s badly miscast here. As a British Mad Man in the Big Apple he is out of place. He should be more of an American Everyman. Even the violence comes across as too dignified when delivered with his accent. A year later Bret Easton Ellis would write American Psycho and show how, in the New World, more really means more. You have to push  material like this to extremes.
*. The script needs to be livelier as well. Everything here just goes along the way you expect it to go, and it’s in no great rush to get there. The ending comes not as an ironic twist but simply as a way of underlining the depressing message.
*. Maybe it’s better off forgotten. To me it’s a pedestrian treatment of a hackneyed theme, and one that doesn’t work as any kind of critique of its subject at all. That is, if a critique was even intended.


Ravenous (1999)

*. The West (and the Western) was de-mythologized a long time ago. I don’t think Ravenous takes this project any further, and I’m not sure that was its purpose. I think it’s more about de-mythologizing the horror genre.
*. How else can you describe the motives behind a movie about a Wendigo-inspired cannibal in which the hero is a wimpy coward with a death wish? Guy Pearce as Captain John Boyd is not the kind of guy who is going to man up, which is wonderful. This is what a real antihero should be: not a bad man, but a vulnerable one.
*. Moving beyond this, however, I still find Ravenous to be a hard movie to pin down. And I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that way. Things got off to a rocky start when the original director was let go after a couple of weeks due to creative differences. The next fellow up didn’t work out either so Antonia Bird was brought in (she’d been recommended by Robert Carlyle). I think Bird does a decent job, but I have to wonder how personally invested she felt in the project, being brought in at the last minute. Apparently she had her problems with the shoot and with what happened to the film in post production as well, though on her DVD commentary she seems pretty sanguine about the whole experience.
*. There are two aspects of the film in particular that sow confusion. The first has to do with the story, which has a bifurcated structure. That is, there’s a strong medial split in the plot as Colqhoun (not an easy name to type) turns into Colonel Ives. There’s nothing wrong with such a structure, and sometimes it works, but here it just left me a bit puzzled by how Colqhoun was getting away with it and what the first part of the movie really had to do with the second. There isn’t a real clear narrative thread tying it all together.
*. The second puzzling aspect of the film has to do with tone. There’s nothing wrong with horror-comedy, at least in theory. In order for it to be effective, however, I think the horror has to work on its own. I’ve always thought that the best horror-comedies exploit nervous laughter. Unfortunately, Ravenous just isn’t scary, and there are points in the film where the comic elements seem jarringly intrusive. I’m thinking especially of the score, which sometimes has playful hillbilly music running alongside what should be tense action sequences. I guess something similar was done in Bonnie and Clyde (that’s what I was thinking of anyway), but I don’t think it works as well here because it just makes the violence seem like a joke.
*. The weather also messed me up. I kept wondering why sometimes it was a winter wonderland and the next scene everything was green. Apparently this was a problem they were aware of during production. The exteriors were shot in Slovakia and it was supposed to be snowy but it just so happened that this was a winter without snow in that part of Slovakia.
*. The characters all sound very contemporary, which probably wasn’t an accident. I don’t think there’s any historical axe to grind. Instead, the various angles being suggested, on matters such as genre, vegetarianism, and even drug use (Bird says on the commentary that Colqhoun is the ultimate pusher and Boyd the ultimate junky) are all modern.
*. I guess the studio wasn’t sure what to do with it either. In addition to the creative differences that led to the switches in director there was the genre confusion and also the absence of any female lead or love interest. When it was all shot they then recut it in ways that didn’t please everyone. Meanwhile, they couldn’t even spell Nietzsche’s name right for the epigraph.
*. Not surprisingly, it bombed. Badly. I missed it when it came out entirely. Indeed, before now I had never even heard of it.
*. Given all of this I think it’s pretty impressive they ended up with a movie this good. I think it has some nice atmosphere and there’s no denying its many unique qualities. If it doesn’t quite come together, well, we can always blame the weather.

The Trial (1993)

*. One of the maddening things about the achievement of Orson Welles — and I think it’s much the same with any great artist — is that you have to compare everything that came after him with what he did. So when you watch this adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial the first thing you’re likely going to think of isn’t Kafka but Welles’s 1962 film.
*. Welles’s The Trial was a freewheeling interpretation, full of visual exuberance and taking some real liberties with the text. This didn’t bother Welles a bit. He felt that books and movies were totally different media and that every film adaptation was by necessity an original creation. A director wasn’t just permitted but obliged to do something different.

*. I think director David Jones felt differently. This is a very respectful and literal adaptation of Kafka, with a screenplay by Harold Pinter. Pinter’s drama is often informed by the Kafkaesque, and in writing the screenplay I don’t think he was interested in taking things in any new directions. In general I’d just observe that it’s even darker. There’s little sign of humour and the people we meet seem angrier and more dangerous. If Pinter’s theatre was one of comic menace the emphasis here is mostly on the menace.
*. As far as the look of the film goes, it’s far less stylized and experimental than in Welles. The setting is Prague, and the costumes and conveyances suggest that every attempt was made to get not just the location but the date right. Instead of a timeless setting we feel like we’re in a period drama. Does that confine Kafka? I want to say yes, but then wonder if I’d say the same about a modern-dress staging of Shakespeare.

*. Because it’s such a faithful adaptation, all of the problems with the novel remain. Primarily what I’m referring to here is the episodic nature of the story, which strings together a bunch of only slightly related incidents and encounters in a random order (in fact, we don’t even know what order Kafka intended the chapters to be put in). Welles was able to knit the different episodes together remarkably well, but little effort is made to do the same here. The separate scenes in Huld’s house (a sadly underutilized Jason Robards), the painter’s garret, and the church (where the parable of the law is recited by Anthony Hopkins) all seem unconnected and disposable.

*. I think Kyle MacLachlan might have been good if he’d been let loose, but here he seems too constrained. I never had the sense of his Joseph K. having a distinct personality, like Anthony Perkins’s climbing neurotic. And this K.’s relationships with women, so essential to the book and to Welles’s version, are left completely mystifying.
*. I could go on making comments like this but I think you get the picture. This is a well-handled production, faithful to a fault to the novel, but it’s not a work of genius. One might recommend it to students too lazy to read the book but I think film lovers will want to stick with Welles.

The Enforcer (1995)

*. I wonder if Jet Li is more of an acquired taste, or if he loses something in the horrific dubbing of his films. He’s always been a huge star in China, and is the real deal as a champion martial artist, but in all the movies I’ve seen him in he tends to fade into the background. He’s good looking, but doesn’t have star presence. In the Expendables franchise he almost disappears, and even in this movie he’s upstaged by Anita Mui and child star Mo Tse (credited as Xia Miao).
*. Maybe he’s just too low key. In The Enforcer Rongguang Yu is a lot more fun as the bad guy Po Kwong. I don’t think he takes his white gloves and sunglasses off once, and his playing against the transgender villain Miss Li was a zany highlight.

*. I’ve already mentioned the horrific dubbing. It’s par for the course here, with the voices not matching up with the actors and several scenes where the characters clearly aren’t speaking but you can still hear them nattering on. What I was most curious about, however, was Blackie Ko’s street name, which is rendered as G-Dawg (or, alternatively, “Darkie”). I wonder why they decided on G-Dawg. To replace a potentially racist nickname with one even more inappropriate?
*. What can you say about a genre movie where the most memorable bit is also the worst or most ridiculous thing in it? Like the sleeping bag scene in Prophecy, for example. On the plus side, you have to admit that such a movie does at least have one scene or sequence that stands out from all its more conventional peers. On the other hand, that one thing . . .
*. If you’ve seen The Enforcer you’ve likely forgotten all about it except for the fight scene at the end where Kung Wei uses his son as a human yo-yo, tying a rope around him and flinging him toward bad guys that he (the kid) punches out before being yanked back. It’s physically impossible, and not even convincingly rendered as a stunt, but once seen it can’t be forgotten.
*. Aside from this, the fight scenes are nothing special. Li does a great turn with the tonfas, but that only lasts a couple of minutes. Most of the rest of the fighting relies on interesting settings (the catwalk over a huge auditorium, a specially-built glass cube of a restaurant with an indoor waterfall), assisted by some pretty obvious cable work. I mean, people can’t really jump that high, or that slowly.

*. Bey Logan, who seems to know every single thing there is to know about martial arts movies, has a good DVD commentary where he talks about the stylized, over-the-top quality of Hong Kong action films as opposed to what you get from Hollywood. Is that still true? I wonder how much the superhero franchises of the twenty-first century borrowed from the former in fashioning what has become the new house style for action flicks.
*. Logan suggests the freeway under construction might have been borrowed from Lethal Weapon 3. It also made me think of the (much) earlier Don Siegel vehicle The Lineup. There was probably just some construction going on that they decided to get production value out of. That was that happened in the Siegel film.
*. I couldn’t credit the story for a second. I didn’t understand Anita Mui tracking Li all the way back to Beijing, and immediately not only injecting herself into his family but actively supplanting the dying mother. She even starts wearing the mother’s dresses the very next day! At the end, “the newly put together family unit” (Logan) struck me as having been established in unseemly haste. Did Li even get a chance to mourn his wife?
*. So one good fight, a whole lot of silliness, good performances all around, and some nice photography and direction by Corey Yuen. Aside from the human yo-yo scene, however, it still doesn’t add up to much. A week after watching it the only part I could still remember was the kid on a rope.

Cube (1997)

*. Yes, this is the movie that Saw (2004) supposedly ripped off. The group of strangers who wake up in a deathtrap, with no idea how they got there or what is going on. Diabolical puzzles to be solved. The urgent questioning of the value and meaning of their lives. What I’ve called the Game of Death genre basically gets started with Cube.
*. In this initial offering the philosophizing is both more explicit and abstract. Later films in the series (the worthless Cube 2: Hypercube and Cube Zero) would fill in the background, but here we’re really on our own, facing the most basic existential dilemmas. It’s Sartre in a box, though according to director Vincenzo Natali the inspiration was a Twilight Zone episode, “Five Characters in Search of an Exit.”
*. I’ve seen that episode and while there are resemblances (a group of people waking up in a trap with no memory of how they got there or even who they are) I don’t think it’s a story in the same genre as Cube and Saw and all their many imitators. Instead it’s a fantasy, with the most important difference being the ending, where we learn that the five characters aren’t even real but just have the potential to play people in someone else’s imagination.
*. Another influence was Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, with its conceit of a small group trapped in a single small space. The characters in Cube are supposed to be moving from room to room but in reality there was only one set. This saved on costs, but was a real challenge for a first feature. Give Natali, whose first short film, Elevated, was set in an elevator, a lot of credit for pulling it off. (A subsequent Game of Death film, Phone Booth, would play with similar constraints, while a lot of Saw would be set in a single room.)
*. Cube got a lot of bad reviews when it came out, I think because of how overdrawn it all seems. It has a real Little Theatre feel to it, and indeed Natali was afraid it would look like it was being shot on a stage. Adding to this is the fact that a lot of the dialogue comes across as artificially forced and dramatic. It’s a talky movie and not all of the talk is good. Some of the speeches are cringe-inducing, perhaps the worst being Quentin hitting on Leaven: “We are the purpose. The cube is us. We fit, like numbers. A man and a woman, two halves of the equation.” Natali says on the commentary track that this was totally co-writer Graeme Manson’s dialogue but that it was meant to be fun, showing that Quentin had lost it. I guess that’s some excuse.

*. A good example of the forced nature of the drama comes with the introduction of Kazan. I mean, the argument for leaving him behind seems to me to be irrefutable, despite its fascist overtones (Quentin’s line that “It’s the law of the jungle. He’s endangering the pack,” leads to Holloway calling him a Nazi). Facing the deathtrap where everyone has to be absolutely silent I would have ditched him. As it is he almost gets Quentin killed. But alas his presence means we have to listen to the speech about how “we’re all still human beings,” etc.
*. “We have to ask the big questions!” Quentin says, and so they do. What’s the purpose of their existence? Is there a God and is this hell? Did they do anything to deserve this punishment, or is the whole point that there is no point? At least Worth thinks that might be it.
*. Not knowing what is going on highlights the absurdity of the group’s predicament: like us, they don’t know what’s going on and they never will know. They just have to find whatever meaning they can out of the ultimately meaningless challenge of existence.
*. For what it’s worth, Natali saw the Cube itself as being like the monolith in 2001: “I wanted it to be this ominous, ambiguous, enigmatic presence, that therefore feels alien and it’s all the more terrifying because it’s something you can’t comprehend and can’t be explained.” Which is fine, on one level. But the monolith in 2001 does have a meaning, even if it remains merely suggestive. You can’t just accept the Cube with a shrug. It demands we make some attempt at interpretation.
*. It was a bold decision to open with the movie’s best effect, and the Cube’s best kill. But it pays off in setting a tone. Sure this is a low-budget indie (shot in twenty days for a few hundred thousand dollars), but don’t think that it’s going to be easy on you! Anything can still happen.
*. Another bold decision was to have the one black guy (played by Maurice Dean Wint) be the villain. And not just a villain but a horny, physically overbearing figure who comes on to the women in the group and who has a history of domestic abuse. They’d probably get into trouble for such a presentation today. But Natali wanted a movie that ignored gender and race. Speaking of which, I love the fact that the women are wearing the same boxers as the guys.
*. Natali thought of the panel designs as expressionistic, like those in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Which they are, in a way. But German expressionist sets played wonky tricks with perspective and presented a distorted sense of space. Here the confined space is more abstract, less human, with the odd patterning looking a bit like a computer chip. Expressionism was an irrational space, whereas here it seems excessively formal, for all its indecipherability.

*. Another thing that interested me while listening to the commentary was Natali’s insistence that the movie ends on an optimistic note, with the message being that the “key to survival lies within you” and that we can control our fate. How so?
*. The only person to survive is the person who is so damaged he doesn’t even seem to know where he is. Natali suggests that Worth is the hero and is redeemed somewhat, but it’s hard to see what he’s atoning for since we don’t know much about who he was before he was placed in the Cube. Designing the Cube seems to have just been contract work about which he knew nothing. Is he redeemed from his cynicism and nihilism? How can that be when he chooses to effectively commit suicide because the only thing waiting for him in the outside world is “boundless human stupidity”? How is that optimistic?
*. I began by pointing out how later Game of Death films would offer some explanation of what the game was all about. Like a sadistic test set by a serial killer, as in the Saw movies, or a game show, or entertainment for the idle rich. Off the top of my head about the only other film in this genre that remains similarly obscure is Circle, though even there we’re still taken outside the game at the end. Perhaps because it was the first Game of Death movie Cube has more of an original purity to it, the ur-Game that could (and did) open up onto a host of further possibilities.
*. The essential sense of this being a game, however, still  remains. I found it interesting that Natali thought he was writing a video game at one point, and continued to see the story as structured very much like a video game. The point seems to be that life is too safe and routine in the twenty-first century, and that we want to feel tested in some extreme and unforgiving way, to discover or create some purpose in our lives. Like it or not, this is what the idea of hell has become in the popular imagination. You can go to hell and win.

Village of the Damned (1995)

*. Apparently John Carpenter remarked in an interview somewhere that he didn’t particularly want to do a remake of the classic 1960 film Village of the Damned. He wasn’t personally invested in the project at all, and only agreed to do it because he was under contract.
*. That would normally send off some alarm signals, but (1) contract work can still be highly professional and of good quality, and (2) aside from The Thing, I’m not sure how many movies Carpenter ever made that gave me the sense that he cared very much about them. I think he’s always been pretty up front about directing being just another job.
*. Still, this version of Village of the Damned seems particularly uninspired and unnecessary. Unlike The Thing, which largely skipped over the Howard Hawks film to return to the original story, Carpenter’s Village of the Damned sticks very close to the 1960 film and doesn’t reach back to John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos much at all. In fact, if you told me that Carpenter hadn’t read The Midwich Cuckoos I wouldn’t be surprised.
*. To take just the most obvious example, Wyndham’s novel has nothing in it about the children being able to read minds. This was new to the film, and Carpenter adopts all of it here, down to the imagining of a mental wall to hide thoughts behind and the satchel at the end with a bomb in it.
*. A brief history of taboo words. In the 1960 original they actually make it through the entire first part of the film without ever saying the word “pregnant.” In this movie Kirstie Alley, in her public address to the villagers, says that “the choice is yours” as to whether they want to terminate their pregnancy, and that the government will even perform the procedure for them. That’s actually pretty bold, but you never hear her say the word “abortion.”
*. Reading a few of the contemporary reviews, it seems people were expecting Carpenter to come at them with more blood and guts. I’m surprised how tame it is. The camera shies away from the gore for the most part. Unfortunately, there’s only the one decent kill and that’s the man who accidentally falls on top of the BBQ when he passes out. I thought that was clever.
*. The glowing eye effects were overdone, and I got tired of them quickly. They also don’t make much sense. But again, this is a borrowing from the 1960 film.
*. Hello Michael Paré! And . . . good-bye Michael Paré! For getting near top billing he doesn’t hang around very long does he? With Eddie and the Cruisers (1983) he seemed like he was on his way to becoming a huge star. Goodness knows he’s stayed busy over the years — no small achievement in the movie business — but stardom never really happened.
*. And, tragically, goodbye Christopher Reeve, at least as a leading man. This was the last film he shot before the riding accident that left him paralyzed. At the time he was a guy who pretty much embodied the traditional figure of the handsome leading man.
*. It’s too bad that none of these movies really dig into the basic premise of the novel about the incompatibility of the two species, and how there can be no peaceful coexistence between them. I mean, this is a point that’s always mentioned in passing, but it seems important enough, at least to me, that I wanted them to argue about it more. Why would Reeve want to help the kids if he knows what’s really at stake, for example? And how much empathy should we humans really feel for them?
*. Perhaps the biggest change they made to the story was in having one of the kids develop a bit of empathy, then saving him from destruction. Unfortunately, I didn’t care for this character much (he’s so cute he even speaks with a slight lisp) and sort of wished he’d died with the others. As it was, I expected a final twist where we’d see his eyes glow, sort of like the rash breaking out on the little girl’s skin at the end of The Brood. But I guess we’re supposed to end up feeling that everything is going to be OK, at least until David hits puberty and starts taking girls out. Then I’m afraid it’s all over for us.

2 Days in the Valley (1996)

*. It may be hard to remember now, or even outside of some readers’ memories, but Pulp Fiction was quickly followed by a lot of clones. They’ve been mostly forgotten, or will be soon.
*. 2 Days in the Valley was one such clone. There’s a fractured narrative following the incidentally connected lives of a bunch of Angelenos hailing from high life and low. There are some violent hoods included in the mix. One of them has a favourite routine he likes to go through before killing someone. There’s a cool retro soundtrack. The action is laced with knowing humour. You know the script.
*. None of it works this time. The different narrative threads are awkwardly stitched together. The jokes are laboured (for example, Hopper telling Dosmo that he takes him seriously as a professional when Dosmo’s pants are down around his ankles). Dosmo is afraid of dogs. That’s a joke. Teddy Peppers made a bad TV-movie with an elephant in it. That’s a joke.
*. Charlize Theron wasn’t supposed to be here, but she was available so this became her first leading role. She was only twenty. There’s one reason to watch this movie. She’s it.
*. There’s nothing else to say. The dialogue isn’t very fast or very clever, and it needs to be both. Most such movies are a slow build to a clever conclusion, but while Roger Ebert found the ending here “neat and ingenious” I thought it was predictable. I guess they didn’t know what to do with Alvin (Jeff Daniels). Or with the massage parlour subplot. And I guess Teddy is going to marry the nurse. In a final in-joke Dosmo (Danny Aiello) says he’s going to Brooklyn to open a pizzeria. But that was years ago.
*. I’ll leave you with something nice. Here’s a pic of Charlize Theron.


Under Siege 2: Dark Territory (1995)

*. Under Siege made a lot of money. It was jokingly referred to as “Die Hard on a battleship.” So what next? Die Hard on a train! Make it happen!
*. The French titles make the formula even more obvious. Cuirassé en Péril. Express en Péril.
*. There’s not much to care about here. The fights and stunts are better than in the first film. There are more explosions. The plot, however, is identical. A pair of bad guys hijack a train, taking control of a powerful James Bond-style weapon in the process that they plan to auction to the highest bidder. Only one man stands in their way . . .
*. There is a climactic explosion. There is a final fight between our hero and the villain that they insist on performing mano a mano. The evil plot is foiled. Everybody cheers.
*. Today a movie like this is just barely watchable. A little more so though than Under Siege. Surprisingly, Everett McGill and Eric Bogosian stand up pretty well alongside Gary Busey and Tommy Lee Jones. Katherine Heigl doesn’t jump naked out of a cake, but she’s cute as a button and her role as Ryback’s niece is a little meatier than Erika Eleniak’s stripper. Comic relief is provided by a black porter. It was 1995 and we were just starting to get offended by things like that.

*. The only thing I found interesting this time around was the nice sexual tension between McGill’s Penn and Heigl’s Sarah. Heigl was 17 at the time and McGill 50, but it’s clear he’s attracted to her in a way beyond his appreciation of her training. It made me think of the similar taboo heat between Robert De Niro and Juliette Lewis in Cape Fear (1993). And I don’t think this is just because I have a dirty mind.
*. I wonder when the first portrayal of the villainous nerd/hacker was. Bogosian is good in the part here, though perhaps a little too goofy. He really needs McGill to back him up. And of course that CD-ROM of Death is funny now. There are young people today who don’t even know what CD-ROMs were.
*. I watched a lot of movies like this in the ’80s and ’90s. I don’t remember many of them now. This one I had almost completely forgotten except for the little bit with the pepper spray. In any event, after peaking with these two films it was all downhill for Seagal. You wouldn’t have thought he had a long way to fall, but in that you would have been mistaken.

Under Siege (1992)

*. There was a time when Steven Seagal wasn’t a joke. His career got off to a good start, and he seemed like something a bit different from the usual run of ’80s action stars. Maybe it was because he was a big guy but not totally buff like Stallone or Van Damme. Maybe it was the quiet voice. In any event, he was fun to watch.
*. Under Siege would prove to be his biggest hit, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s actually a pretty good action flick. Formulaic as all hell, but not too badly done.
*. Did I say formula? As soon as it came out it was labeled, not without reason, “Die Hard on a battleship.” And indeed its release actually threw a monkey wrench into the Die Hard franchise because the next Die Hard movie was going to be set on a cruise ship so they had to change the script.
*. The characters are familiar. Gary Busey had the part of obnoxious heel down pat, after having just played similar parts in Lethal Weapon and Predator 2. Tommy Lee Jones was in a groove as the threatening and not quite balanced villain. Erika Eleniak, the real-life Playboy Playmate for July 1989, was typecast.
*. Of course Eleniak is best known for her turn bursting out of the birthday cake. You couldn’t rent this movie on VHS in the ’90s without the tape being damaged at this point from the number of times people had been trying to freeze it and advance it frame by frame. I mean, everybody did this.
*. Aside from this star turn, her part is terribly written, even for comic relief. The way she has to behave and the lines she has to deliver are cringe inducing. In fact, her character had not been included in the original screenplay and Seagal says that he made the suggestion to add her only because he thought he needed a sidekick.
*. The politics are the usual boo-yah stuff. Notice how the one bad guy dresses up like a rocker and the other like a woman. The heroes, meanwhile, are squares. Seagal’s Casey Ryback even had to lose his ponytail. Men are soldiers and women are strippers and villains are psycho punks. That’s all you need to know.
*. I sure as hell wouldn’t call this one of the best action films of the period. Jones is dispatched far too quickly at the end, and when you get down to it there really aren’t any good fights at all. The idea that Ryback is communicating with the Dr. Strangelove gathering of the joint chiefs of staff via satellite uplink the whole time is awkward to say the least. I don’t think the plot throws us a single surprise or moment of originality. But it moves along at a snappy pace and I was impressed at how well it’s managed to hold up lo these many years later.
*. For Seagal, however, it was all downhill from this modest elevation. All aboard for Under Siege 2: Dark Territory!

Audition (1999)

*. I started off my notes on Visitor Q by saying that Takashi Miike deserves some consideration as one of the top directors of the twenty-first century. Certainly right at the turn of the millennium he was churning out brilliant, ground-breaking work at speed. Titles like Visitor Q, Gozu, Ichi the Killer, and Audition.
*. Miike’s stories, when his films have a story, aren’t that important. What stands out is his ability to conjure a weird and grotesquely violent parallel reality that’s located just next door. He does this mainly through his photography. Miike’s world is very much our own — domestic, urban, blighted and dirty — but it’s made to seem infused with a spirit of art. It is our world transformed through the way a shot is framed and composed, and through correspondences that we might not notice.
*. I’ve talked about Miike’s eye before, most extensively in my notes on Ichi the Killer. The only thing I want to add here is how it is used in a way that isn’t obvious but which nevertheless works to reinforce other aspects of the film.
*. I’ll give just a couple of examples. In the first place we have Asami’s audition. We build up to this slowly through a checklist of candidates being crossed off. We haven’t met Asami yet, so we’re curious. And yet what happens? We don’t get a long zoom into where she’s sitting placed in front of us, but instead the camera turns around. We don’t see Asami at all but the camera slowly pulls in toward Aoyama. He is the one who is auditioning for her, the one being seduced. That’s the real action that’s happening in the scene.
*. Another example: In the scene before he takes her to bed for the first time, Aoyama looks at Asami standing by the bedpost. The bedpost is a weird corkscrew design, and it’s set quite deliberately against Asami, who is a narrow column, with her long straight black hair accentuating her smooth verticals. I think the way this shot is set up is clearly made to suggest how twisted Asami really is, how far from the plumb-line true of her profile.
*. These are both little things but Audition is full of such details and they combine to make the story, which is really just the usual psycho-woman Fatal Attraction set-up, work as well as it does.
*. On the Criterion DVD for Crazed Fruit there’s a moment when Donald Richie expresses confusion as to where the extreme anti-social violence of directors like Miike came from. It can’t be that surprising though. One of the things Audition presents itself as is a “state of Japan” film. It’s a nation full of lonely people, with the widower Aoyama looking for the stereotypical object to fit his home and lifestyle: a (much) younger woman who is “beautiful, classy, and obedient.” Well, to hell with that.
*. Given that anyone watching even for the first time would know where all this was going, Audition nevertheless sets its hooks and drags you along, making it impossible to look away even during the quieter moments.
*. I like how the score changes from the lounge-style pianos to edgy strings for the climax. That’s something else that sets the mood that you don’t necessarily recognize at the time. But then what’s with the pop song that plays over the end credits? It seems quite out of keeping with what we’ve just experienced. I know Miike likes to throw these curve balls into the mix, but still.
*. The only problem I have is with the dream sequence that occurs when Aoyama goes unconscious. This is a very important part of the film as it provides a deeper look into Aoyama’s feelings and gives us as a lot of information explaining items that had until now been left mysterious. Most obviously, it shows us what’s in Asami’s bag.
*. But can we credit it? It seems clearly meant to be an exploration of Aoyama’s subconscious, as it contains characters Asami hasn’t met (like the co-worker and Shigehiko’s girlfriend) and doesn’t proceed logically. On the other hand, Aoyama hasn’t seen the bag, so it makes no sense that he would know what’s really inside it. But we know there is a bag because we’ve seen it. Is there any way of resolving this?
*. I wonder if they should have bothered with the story of Asami’s childhood abuse. Usually in such stories they don’t, because in the end it’s only going to be a throwaway bit of amateur psychology. I would have been fine if they’d just left her back story a mystery.
*. As it is, Asami’s psychology doesn’t do much for me. She fears betrayal so she wants to make men totally dependent on her, like pets. Her amputation of their feet obviously recalls the hobbling of James Caan in Misery. She also fetishizes pain because it’s more real, which should make her into a cutter but the only scars we see are the old burns on her legs. If the experience of pain is so enjoyable, why isn’t she trying it?
*. This one isn’t as weird as some of the other movies Miike was making at the time. In some of the ways I’ve mentioned, it’s very much in a Hollywood tradition. For years there has been talk of making an American version, but that seems pointless to me as that film has already been made many times, both before and since. Furthermore, I don’t think a remake would work. This is an old story, but it’s presented in a way that’s so polished, accomplished, and sure of itself that I don’t think it can be improved upon. We should let a sleeping Asami lie.