Category Archives: 2010s

Johnny English Strikes Again (2018)

*. The third (and hopefully final) part in what was a well-spaced out trilogy of Johnny English films, following up Johnny English (2003) and Johnny English Reborn (2011).
*. The dates help explain something interesting that I adverted to in my notes on the previous entry. When we first met Johnny he was a sort of Austin Powers clone, sending up the James Bond genre, albeit without all the references to the swinging ’60s. By the time we get to this film, however, a note of generational satire can be introduced. Johnny isn’t some revived refugee from the psychedelic age but a holdout from the analog ’80s. In other words, he’s a man of roughly my own age. It’s scary, but I found I could relate to him.
*. There seems to be a rule of thumb for how long things (including opinions, and people) that were once cool can be forgotten about before being laughed at. I think it usually runs about 25 years. So now (2018) someone who won’t use a cell phone or drive an electric car is a dinosaur and object of ridicule. The retro soundtrack is something that still has a bit of coolness attached to it, but Johnny’s mix-tape is actually a tape and as for Wham! they were always kind of silly anyway.
*. This analog vs. digital theme would work better, however, if we could ever believe that Johnny had been cool in the ’80s, and I can’t. He’s always been a spy nerd and can’t really be identified with the pop culture of that decade. So the satire doesn’t have anywhere to go, running out of gas as quickly as his Aston Martin.
*. As usual the plot is just kind of there to hang gags on. A character named Sebastian Lynch is introduced early and then simply dropped. I lost whatever connection he was supposed to have to the proceedings. The real villain then turns out to be yet another tech billionaire dreaming of a global takeover. When I bothered to think about it, his plot seemed redundant to me. Wouldn’t he become wealthier and more powerful just by letting the various states he’s dealing with do their own thing while he does his? Why bother making himself their visible overlord? He already runs the world so what more does he have to gain?
*. The gags themselves are crudely introduced (on the commentary director David Kerr says they’re announed with a klaxon) and play out in a way that leads to predictable chaos. The results are genial without being all that funny. Peter Bradshaw’s final verdict on it was “Pretty moderate stuff.” My own notes ended with the line “mildly amusing.” Even the generic title signals a sense of fatigue. After three of these movies, all of which I felt about the same toward, I probably shouldn’t have been expecting anything more, or less.

Johnny English Reborn (2011)

*. As you know from my notes on Johnny English, I wasn’t blown away by that film. One thing I really did like, however, and which I didn’t mention in those notes, was the theme song “Man for All Seasons” sung by Robbie Williams. I was really looking forward to something as good this time out, or at least a reprise, but instead we only get an instrumental piece to go with the credits that was meant to have a “classic Bond feel” (as explained by director Oliver Parker on the commentary).
*. Aside from this disappointment, I actually enjoyed this second outing quite a bit more than the first movie. The story is more Bondish but also more down-to-earth. It seems strange typing that, but the business of John Malkovich plotting to become King of England was too ridiculous for my taste. A mole (or vole) in MI7 plotting to kill the Chinese premier worked better for me. On the commentary track Parker discusses this a bit with screenwriter Hamish McColl and says you could well ask why you’d bother coming up with a plot that made sense in a movie like this, but that he thinks the effort was worth it. I agree.
*. The Bond stuff works pretty well too. I think the weapons lab can probably be retired now as a gag reel, but that chase across the rooftops of Hong Kong is a nice send-up of the parkour in Casino Royale (2006), and the golf scene, which is borrowed from Goldfinger, plays well with the coded dialogue. What I think helps here, in this scene and the film in general, is another point Parker and McColl make in the commentary: Johnny isn’t a total moron or fool here, as he was in the first movie. He has his moments, and not all of them by accident.
*. In all of this — the coherent plot, the closer adherence to the Bond paradigm, the fact that Johnny isn’t just an imbecile — I think there’s a point worth reflecting on. Parody and satire often work better the closer they stick to their target. If they go too far it doesn’t work.
*. It’s a great cast this time too. It’s always good to see Gillian Anderson, and Dominic West is a swell heel. Also Rosamund Pike before Gone Girl and Daniel Kaluuya before Get Out. Interesting to note that Pike’s first film was a Bond movie (Die Another Day), as was Rowan Atkinson’s (Never Say Never Again).
*. Johnny English came out in 2003 and eight years is a long wait for a sequel. What I find interesting is that so much has changed since Johnny went away (in order to find himself in a monastery). Indeed he is considered to be a dinosaur when he comes back. He isn’t Austin Powers, a refugee from the 1960s, but he’s a close analogue. He wasn’t seen as a dinosaur just eight years earlier, but now that technology has taken over (MI7 is in a corporate partnership with Toshiba) he’s a fish out of water.
*. So: a better production all around, and more fun than the first film. Not a knee-slapper, but a nice turn for everyone with a handful of very good bits. For whatever reason send-ups of this material seem to never run out of steam. But I guess as long as they’re still making new Bond movies there’s an audience for new Bond parodies. This wouldn’t be the last we’d see of Mr. English.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016)

*. Damn. I was really getting into this. Then it tailed off. Not that the ending was terrible, but it just didn’t live up to all the promise of the set-up. It still ends up being a good little picture though.
*. I love the setting of the basement morgue, and the father-son mortician team. A limited set and a limited cast (we only leave the basement a couple of times, and only meet a handful of other characters, not counting Jane). It’s like an underground Lifeboat, a constrained premise engineered for its potential to produce taut suspense.
*. I also love the way the gradual unwrapping and digging into Jane Doe plays out like a detective story, taking a whole tradition of forensic cop shows going back to Quincy in an interesting new direction.
*. And finally I really like the cast. Emile Hirsch fits naturally into his part, projecting awkwardness, but does this movie work without Brian Cox? Not half as well. It really needs someone like him to pull off the Father Karras routine at the end, and throughout the rest of the film he lends a weight that steers the proceedings away from being just another teen horror flick.

*. When watching a tight little film like this you have to pay attention to all the little details and things in the script that happen early on because you know they’re coming back. Those convex mirrors (not as effectively used as in the elevator scene in Dressed to Kill, but OK), the bell on the toe of the corpse, the elevator, the girlfriend who says she’s coming back.
*. What happens to the girlfriend is surprising because it happens, not for how it happens. There’s a strand of contemporary horror (it comes out of horror fiction starting a while back) that plays around a lot with characters’ altered mental states. I have to say this doesn’t appeal to me at all. It seems a cop out and not terribly interesting when we discover that what someone is seeing isn’t really happening or isn’t really there. And if Jane Doe has this kind of power why does she even bother with anything else? She can just do the whole thing as a hallucination and then let her victims kill themselves.
*. I wonder what was going on with the subtitles on the DVD. As I’ve mentioned several times here, I like to watch movies with subtitles on because I have a hard time making out all the dialogue. For this one though there were a lot of places where the subtitles didn’t have any connection at all to what was being said. Somebody screwed up.
*. As I began by saying, it tails off from a promising start. I was expecting some twists or at least something really clever going on, but it turns out to be a pretty simple story, with all the usual scary situations people find themselves getting into in such movies. Director André Øvredal seems to know what he’s doing, but I didn’t see anything beyond competence with the material. It’s also pretty downbeat, but again that’s not surprising. Not surprising, but I was hoping for something more than that.

Pussy (2016)

*. What’s sauce for the gander is good for the goose. Or something like that. I have to switch the old saw around because a gander is a male goose, and the point of Renata Gasiorowska’s short film Pussy is that female sexuality operates in much the same way as that of the male.
*. Take the old expression that the penis (or cock, or dick) has a mind of its own. Well, here the protagonist’s vulva literally does its own thing as its owner suffers one too many interruptions in getting herself off.
*. Or take another stand-by that has the penis personified as a little man (sometimes one-eyed, sometimes wearing a helmet). In Pussy the pussy is a little . . . well, if not a little man in a boat, or even a man, then at least something. Maybe a giant, snarling vagina dentata. Maybe a cuddly little plush toy.
*. So hats, and pants, off to a bit of self-love. But this is a movie, so does self-love ever mean being alone? I’ve said before (see my notes on Mr. Adam Bitt at Convent and Night Trips) that porn isn’t about sex but about watching. So note here how we begin with a voyeur in an apartment across the street spying on the protagonist as she’s soaking in a tub. And how in the next scenario she gets ready to rub one out while sitting spread-legged before a mirror. She needs an audience.
*. The final stage in this process is that splintering of identity I’ve already talked about, as her pussy takes off and just does its own thing, looking to find its pleasures wherever it can. It’s a cute way of representing masturbation as part narcissism and part dissociation.
*. So much for intepretation and paraphrase. The execution? It’s nothing special. The plain line drawings, mostly using just a two-colour (red and blue) marker, are perhaps deliberately crude. The only thing I found disconcerting was the protagonist’s piggy, Dennis the Menace-style nose. Was that meant to be unattractive?
*. One thing the plain, primitive sketchiness of the drawing of the animation does is set up the orgasmic bliss of colour and loss of line at the end. Shades of the psychedelic money shots of Behind the Green Door, though without that jetting, directional quality. Instead the visuals have more of a lab-slide and sex-ed film feel to them, expressionistic renderings of combustible internal processes.
*. Is it all an ode to joy? I’m just a bit hesitant. The disembodied pussy is disconcerting, like something out of Gogol perhaps. And while there’s no harm in self-love, the proceedings here have the air not just of a quest but of a solipsistic nightmare. The big O is nice, but there’s also something grotesque going on here. She’s both going it alone and coming apart.

The Predator (2018)

*. It was with feelings of shame and even horror that I realized, not far into The Predator, that I was this film’s target audience. I’d been to see the original Predator (twice!) in the theatres when it came out, and the reason finding myself targeted for this reboot/sequel was so bothering is that I don’t think the producers here were aiming so much at nostalgia as they were counting on the original audience (that is: me) not having grown up, at all, in the last thirty years.
*. I start off mentioning this because The Predator is a conscious throwback, even getting the iconic author (I’ll hold off on auteur) of ’80s action flicks Shane Black to direct as well as do the script this time. But was Shane Black ever any good? That’s a question this movie made me ponder.
*. Thirty years later, I have to say that almost none of it works. Is it too easy to say Black is still stuck in the ’80s? Yes, but I’m not sure that’s the problem. It’s just not a good screenplay.
*. There are a lot of jokes attempted but none of them are funny. There’s a shaky, rambling structure to the story, which may have come about due to the extensive recutting that was much reported on. Whatever the cause, whole characters (like the hero McKenna’s wife) are just left in the air. And finally the central premise, which has the Predators stealing human DNA in order to speed and direct their own evolution, is just plain stupid.
*. Here I have to make an angry digression. Specifically, it’s DNA with a predisposition for autism that the Predator wants to borrow. Now here’s something I said in my notes on The Darkness: “Hollywood needs to let autism go.” More precisely, Hollywood needs to stop presenting people with autism as superheroes, as they’ve taken to doing a lot lately (see, for example, what I had to say about The Accountant).
*. McKenna’s son Rory, you see, is somewhere on the autism spectrum. Not so much that you’d think there’s anything actually wrong with him, but just enough to make him the Smartest Human Being on the Planet, capable of understanding alien technology just by looking at it. In other words, he has Hollywood autism. This makes him a real prize in the DNA lottery. As the one scientist explains: “You know, a lot of experts say that being on the spectrum isn’t really a disorder, it’s actually the next step on the evolutionary chain.”
*. This is, as near as I have been able to figure out, total bullshit. About the best that can be said about it is that it’s so stupid it actually sparked a public backlash. Could it be that the end is in sight for this particular bit of stereotyping? Fingers crossed.
*. Apparently the new and improved Predator, in addition to being even bigger than previous iterations, has an armoured exoskeleton underneath his skin. Which explain why bullets have no effect on him whatsoever. So what exactly is the plan at the end? Are they just going for head shots? Why then do they have such trouble hitting him in the head? Or is it just that only some head shots get through?
*. For the most part The Predator received very negative reviews. It is not, however, without some redeeming moments. There’s a really interesting bit at the end involving the force field on the Predator’s spaceship. But aside from this and maybe a couple of other scenes I found it incoherent and tired. At every step you can see what it’s trying to do and how it’s just not working. It’s like watching somebody try to throw a piece of garbage into a garbage can over and over and missing every time. You keep hoping it will eventually go in so that he’ll stop. But the closest he comes is a couple of bounces off the rim. It’s not exactly boring, but at the same time you don’t really care either way. That’s how I felt.

Captive State (2019)

*. The aliens, who at least in their most common form are giant bipeds covered in spiky quills, have taken over. And it seems as though we have welcomed our new porcupine overlords. They keep the lights on and in return we apparently do some physical labour for them.
*. At least I think that’s the arrangement. To be honest, I wasn’t sure why they were keeping us around. They need us to dig up our natural resources for them? They don’t have machines to do that? Because we have machines to do that. In any event, I guess things are working out, at least for some people. Employment is high, crime is low, the trains and buses are running on time. They’ve taken away our Wi-Fi but that might be a net plus. There is also an increasing gap between rich and poor, but again I’m not sure why. Since the aliens are the government and the army, why do they need a human class system?
*. Obviously the aliens are just stripping Earth of mineral assets, and even though we’re not told what they’re endgame is it’s hard to feel optimistic about our eventual fate. The majority of people, however, are happy to go along with things. Meanwhile, a handful of rebels plot an uprising.
*. This may sound kind of vague, but Captive State seems to want to make a political point and I can’t figure out what it is. The set-up is very similar to a TV series that was just winding up at the same time called Colony. In the case of that show the alien government was meant to represent the Nazi occupation of France, and on the commentary track here writer-director Rupert Wyatt mentions this as well. But what’s the connection? Who are our Nazis? Who are our collaborators? The Deep State?
*. Then there’s this: If the aliens are Nazis why aren’t they more evil? Are people being worked to death in slave pits? Are humans being raised for food? What happens to prisoners sent “off planet”? We don’t know any of this. It’s possible — unlikely, but possible — that the “roaches” are wholly benevolent. So how can we get on board with heroes who are suicide-bombing terrorists? Whose motto (repeated in the movie) is “light a match, ignite a war”? If you want audiences to relate to these freedom fighters some idea has to be given as to what’s at stake, of why we should be on their side.
*. Put another way, an ostensibly political movie like this needs to be angrier. But I never got a sense of anger from Captive State. Perhaps because we don’t get to meet any true believers either. There’s the crowd of sheeple at Soldier Field singing a bastardized version of “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” but we don’t know these people. Are they all suffering from Stockholm Syndrome? Do they just prefer order to chaos? Or here’s another question: Are elections still being held? The only real political authority belongs to the alien Legislators. The human leadership makes the claim that they stand for democracy vs. anarchy, but how is this a democracy?
*. Even when the Legislators call in Predator-like Hunters to take out the terrorist cell it’s only in response to a flagrant attack, and we don’t see any massive reprisals. Instead it’s the Stasi human police force who are the villains: brutal thugs wearing ski-masks and wielding batons on the ground and operating a vast surveillance state behind the scenes. Shouldn’t these be the guys Phoenix is targeting?
*. I can’t praise much about the film except its look. The burnt-out Chicago has a 1984ish rawness to it that works well with its low-budget vision of a low-tech future. Without digital communication people have apparently gone back to reading books and newspapers! (You see what I mean about a net plus?) The use of carrier pigeons is admittedly a bit extreme, but what really tipped me off the most about how changed a world this is (aside from the wall of bookshelves in Vera Farminga’s apartment) were all of the wristwatches. Remember them? I still wear one.
*. The confusion as to what is at stake, however, makes the movie feel slack. A. A. Dowd: “it’s not unreasonable to expect something like excitement out of a story about freedom fighters plotting to take back the planet. Captive State does not clear that fairly low bar.” In other words, it’s dull.
*. Dull and depressing. Again, we don’t know what Rafe’s fate will be when we see him along with a long line of others being sent off-planet but I figure it must be terrible. Perhaps worse than death. And while some scattered shots of an Earth Spring uprising playing over the end credits may be meant to give us some hope that a match has been lit, how can we believe humanity has a chance against a powerful force that is now so firmly entrenched? Nothing we’ve seen in the course of the movie gives us any grounds for feeling hopeful. I’m not making an appeal for a happy ending here, but again just wondering what the point of all this was.

Ma (2019)

*. Oh, darn. This could have been good. The cast is more than capable, and not just Octavia Spencer (who actually plays a bit off, in my opinion). Diana Silvers as the heroine and Juliette Lewis as her mom are both excellent. The story is classic ’80s horror, the killer taking revenge for a slight that goes back to high school, but the set-up also reminded me a lot of Don’t Breathe, which was a recent movie I rather liked.
*. But the film doesn’t go there. Or anywhere. Spencer never gets to gear up to full crazy, which is what I was most looking forward to. I’m bewildered by the number of reviewers who praised her performance for being camp or over-the-top. She seems subdued to me.
*. The violence at the end is more stupid than shocking. There’s nothing like that turkey baster in Don’t Breathe, and certainly nothing like the sinister nurse figures who deal out the pain in Misery and Audition. Drawing a comparison to those two movies may seem unfair, but if you’re going to invoke the classics, and I think Ma does, then you have to be able to take it.
*. The background story for Spencer’s Sue Ann is perfunctory, and was indeed slapped onto a script that originally provided no explanation for why she was so disturbed. But I don’t think we needed any back story. To go back to the movies I just mentioned, the motivations of Annie and Asami are both left deliberately vague. Are we supposed to feel sympathy for Sue Ann? And what are we to make of her love for Ben? I don’t think any of this helps. This is a movie where it’s very clear right from the start where it’s going and then it takes too long to get there. Director Tate Taylor doesn’t have any feel for horror so there’s no suspense, or jump scares, and all that part of the movie falls flat. Say what you will about the formulaic filmmaking of James Wan and his ilk, but at least it delivers the creeps.
*. Sue Ann was not originally written as a black character either, and so the movie makes almost no reference to race (except for a weird bit at the end that just made me shake my head). In fact, and unlike a lot of contemporary horror, there’s really no social commentary here at all. There was certainly a place for it — teens drinking too much, adults as enablers, the pitfalls of social media — but nothing is made of any of this. Writing in the New Yorker, Doreen St. Félix thought the film “signals allegorical importance,” but I don’t see where it even makes a gesture toward such meaning.
*. I don’t understand critics. I’ve mentioned how I don’t see anything in Spencer’s performance that connects to how a lot of reviewers described it. I don’t see what St. Félix is talking about. Rex Reed has some reputation for saying bitchy things about movies he seems not to have watched (see my notes on V/H/S/2), but his review of Ma is ridiculous: “In a violent, stupid and nauseating creature feature called Ma, she [Spencer] plays a cruel, bloodthirsty monster who tortures and kills off half of a suburban town for fun.” Kills off half a town? I believe the body count is two.
*. Well, I enjoyed watching Spencer and Silver and Lewis. But it all has an empty feel to it and there’s no payoff at the end (and lest you get your hopes up, the alternate ending included with the DVD is even worse). The whole thing seems underwritten, leaving a host of interesting angles unexplored. Just the parallel between then and now should have been a lot more fun — with the old songs getting contemporary makeovers being a perfect entry point. But again nothing much is done with this, and the cast, along with the rest of the film, is left high and dry.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)

*. In 2019 Hollywood marked the 50th anniversary of the Manson slayings with two movies partially based on those events: The Haunting of Sharon Tate and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The first was widely panned, and considered by some to be the worst movie of the year. The second received critical accolades and made most major-media, year-end top-10 lists.
*. That Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was so well received is due largely to it being a Quentin Tarantino film. Tarantino has had a remarkable career. After bursting on the scene with Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown he became arguably the most influential filmmaker of his generation. But why should the release of a new Tarantino movie be the cause of any attention at all in 2019? His last two pictures, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight, were overblown and hugely disappointing. He has often spoken of retiring, claiming that directors don’t get better as they get older. Clearly he wasn’t. So how much of a pass is he still allowed, based on work he did more than twenty years ago?
*. I wasn’t impressed by Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but not for the reasons most often given in its few negative reviews. These were mainly of the school of “woke” criticism, and took the writer-director to task for his racism and misogyny. Writing in the New Yorker Richard Brody even slammed the film as “ridiculously white,” whatever that means. Critics wondered what Bruce Lee was doing in here, a question I have no answer for (he is present in what is either a flashback or a daydream, take your pick). And what was with the slurs against Mexicans? Presumably they’re to make up for the fact that there are no blacks in sight. And why didn’t Margot Robbie have more lines? And why do we have to see Charlie’s girls getting busted up so spectacularly at the end?
*. These things didn’t bother me at all. The ’60s were not a politically correct time and Sharon Tate (Robbie) is not an important character in the story. In fact, I think she’s just offered up as a red herring. Instead of these woke touchstones, what I disliked was the bloated running time (161 minutes), much of which seemed wasted watching people drive around or watch TV. Only half an hour into it I started playing the deadly game of thinking which scenes I would have cut from the final print. I soon had a long list. In addition, the characters are all stoners and/or meatheads, so while they may be sympathetic at times they have nothing interesting to say. What is a Tarantino movie with no interesting talk?

*. A deeper comparison with The Haunting of Sharon Tate is worth pursuing. Both movies conclude in the same way, with the historical murders being foiled and the Manson gang being killed instead. In the case of The Haunting of Sharon Tate the point seems to be that Sharon (Hilary Duff) has tapped into some kind of cultural subconscious that allows her, at least in one parallel or alternate reality, to flip the script into that of a cheap home-invasion horror movie, with the innocent victims emerging triumphant in art if not in life.
*. In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood the script is flipped in much the same way, by a pair of Hollywood has-beens — fading star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his loyal stunt double/personal assistant Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) — tapping into a less anachronistic zeitgeist. Movies, in both movies, are what come to the rescue. They are more powerful, if not more real, than reality. It’s a point nicely captured by Tex Watson holding a real gun on Cliff Booth, who holds his fingers up in the shape of an imaginary pistol. You can guess who wins that draw.
*. The idea seems to be that, at least in Hollywood, the myth is more important than any notion of truth. Reality is changed by the lens we view it through. Life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel . . . and a horror movie to those who grew up watching horror movies, and a Western to actors who play cowboys. The title is an obvious nod to Sergio Leone’s famous trilogy but it also lets us know that this is a fairy tale, not a docudrama. Rick keeps a fully fueled flamethrower in his shed? Well, why not.
*. Tarantino was taken to task for presenting a reactionary defence of a mythic Hollywood, but has there ever been any other kind? The hippies are the product of the entertainment industry but they insist on taking its lessons literally. As gang member Sadie puts it, “if you grew up watching TV, you grew up watching murder.” Thus they are justified in wanting to “kill the people who taught us to kill.” Tarantino, who also grew up watching TV and watching murder, drew a different lesson, wanting to make movies with the people who taught him to make movies.
*. There’s the germ of an interesting idea here, just as there was in The Haunting of Sharon Tate. In this film it’s more developed, but I still find it frustrating and shallow. One reason being that Tarantino seems less interested in other movies now than he is in doing homages to himself, right down to his fetish for feet.
*. In his best movies Tarantino placed real characters in the midst of a media-rich environment, but here the characters (I want to put that word in quotation marks) are so much the creation of that environment that we can’t imagine them outside of it. There’s a long section that shows Rick playing the bad guy in a crumby Western. It’s telling that we never see the cameras or crew. We don’t need to. We know they’re there, just as we know they’re always there. The Spahn Ranch is an old movie set. Cliff lives next door to a drive-in theatre. But even driving down the highway we feel the cameras are on. This is something both Cliff and Rich understand. It’s in their bones. The hippies are absolutely baffled by it, like straight men and women caught in an absurdist play.
*. This is a very well made movie. The streetscapes are flawlessly recreated in ways I couldn’t even imagine but which I suspect cost a lot of money. But the whole thing moves very awkwardly, and is hamstrung by its cast of comic dimwits. Indeed, if there is a point it seems to be that the dimmer you are the happier you will be, at least in Hollywood. Old George Spahn (Bruce Dern) has figured that much out, preferring to be thought blind while he has teenagers “fuck his brains out” in between sleeping and watching TV. Drugs, sex, violence, and movies. That’s all there is. Just don’t take any of it literally or seriously, because none of it is real.

The Haunting of Sharon Tate (2019)

*. For some reason, and I don’t think it’s as obvious as it might seem, the Manson family murders have long held a special fascination for filmmakers. Maybe, because of the industry connections, it’s seen as a story that’s somehow “about” the dark side of Hollywood. Whatever the reason, there have been plenty of films on the subject, ranging from the 1976 made-for-TV docudrama Helter Skelter to Wolves at the Door, Manson’s Lost Girls, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The last mentioned being a movie having a lot in common with The Haunting of Sharon Tate, especially with regard to the mystical connection they draw between life and (bad) movies.
*. The idea here is that Sharon Tate has dreams of being murdered in the manner that she actually was murdered, along with several of her friends, in 1969. Forewarned is forearmed, and in this telling of the story she manages to escape her fate and turn the tables on the murderous hippie crew, killing them in turn.
*. I think there may have been a point writer-director Daniel Farrands was trying to make here, I’m just not sure what it was. Something about dreams as either premonitions or windows into an alternate reality? Or maybe it’s not dreams so much as movies that provide such a window or escape.
*. An epigraph from Poe asks “Is all that we see or seem / but a dream within a dream?” As with almost every epigraph to a movie that I’ve ever seen, this is an almost totally meaningless flourish. I take it as nothing more than a wave of the hand at the question of what is real.
*. A more fruitful entry point is in the bit of poolside dialogue between Tate (Hilary Duff) and friend Jay Sebring (Jonathan Bennett). Tate begins by asking: “Do you think it’s possible to alter the course of our fate, or is our story just our book, written before we were even born?” That is not a particularly deep reflection, but credit to Duff for delivering it with a straight face. This is more than Bennett is able to manage in his response: “I like to think that anything’s possible. And I think that there’s infinite choices, infinite realities. We’re probably living out different versions of our own story, for, who knows?, probably forever. At least until we get it right. I guess in moviespeak it means we can rewrite our own scripts. But I think no matter which road we choose, we always arrive at the same place.”
*. There are a couple of observations I’d make about this. In the first place, it’s a bit of dialogue that is repeated at the end of the movie so I guess Farrands thought it was important, and possibly even profound. You may judge that for yourself. To my mind, the idea that we can choose between infinite possibilities and write our own script but still end up in the same place seems contradictory.
*. Second, I mentioned how Duff at least keeps a straight face while Bennett does not. I think they both deliver atrocious performances, but in their defence they are playing characters who are not supposed to be that bright. Tate was also a bad actor, so what would a good performance by someone playing a bad actor look like? This? Margot Robbie did more with a lot less, and Leonardo DiCaprio was better playing an even more pathetic thespian.
*. That problem of how to fairly judge such matters is one I wrestled with a lot watching this movie. On the one hand, it’s a very bad home-invasion horror flick. Clichés abound, both visual and narrative. Scary stuff happens and then Sharon wakes up screaming. There are lots of shlocky jump scares and even more shlocky jump cuts. There’s some CGI work that is laughably bad (just look at the swarm of flies around the dead dog, or the blood flying from the victims). So it is a bad movie. But then I wondered if the point was that we were supposed to see Tate as someone (a real historical person? a celebrity brand like Hilary Duff?) trapped in a bad movie. There were even a couple of moments when I thought they were going to break the fourth wall and really open things up, but that didn’t happen.
*. Instead, we’re left with an ending that I found to be a cop out. Tate and her friends really are dead, but they are also shown smiling and walking away from the crime scene. Are they ghosts? They can’t be inhabitants of a parallel reality because then the overlap wouldn’t make sense. Or is this only a Hollywood ending, of the kind you might expect in the bad movie they were just part of? Is that supposed to be Tate walking off into a celebrity afterlife, or Duff?
*. I don’t think there are answers to any of these questions because I don’t think the film was that well thought out. But I didn’t hate it as much as most reviewers did. Exploiting a real-life tragedy for cheap thrills didn’t offend me, though I was uncomfortable with watching a very pregnant woman being terrorized for 90 minutes. But what was the point of all this? Perhaps I’m missing some deeper irony, but I think it’s more likely that it was just a bad idea from the start.

Manson’s Lost Girls (2016)

*. The word “charisma” comes from a Greek word meaning “gift” — and in particular a gift of grace, or gift freely given — which is an etymology that hints at its mysterious origin. Where does charisma come from? How does it work? Why do some people have it and others don’t? God only knows.
*. The mystery of charisma is what makes us wonder at so many political and religious leaders. Apparently Hitler had it, though watching film of him today he seems ridiculous. I guess you had to be there. Charles (Charlie) Manson must have had some, since he managed to gather together a small cult (or “family”) whose members eventually would kill for him. This despite being a smaller-than-average (5’4″), uneducated, no-talent jailbird/bum with delusions of grandeur.
*. I think that to some degree, and probably a pretty large degree, people seduce themselves. A significant number of German people were waiting for someone like Hitler to come around. Manson was able to prey on not-very-bright young women with low self esteem and daddy issues. Part of being charismatic is knowing your audience and adapting your performance and message to it. Both Hitler and Manson made a conscious study of this.
*. Charisma can be a difficult property to capture on film, especially when the charismatic in question is a creepy character. Did you think Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd in The Master was the kind of guy who could start his own religion? Did you feel drawn to him or falling under his spell? If not, how well could you relate to the events depicted in that movie?
*. There have been some portrayals of cult leaders that have captured their dark charisma. Powers Boothe as Jim Jones in the TV-movie Guyana Tragedy (1980) is one. And Steve Railsback did a credible Charlie Manson in the TV-movie Helter Skelter (1974).
*. Manson’s Lost Girls was also released as a TV-movie, premiering on the Lifetime channel. The similarities end there though, as Jeff Ward doesn’t really convince me as the demonic Pied Piper of the Spahn Ranch. He’s believable as a psychopath, but we don’t get the charm. He seems like a child, always ready to fly off the handle whenever he doesn’t get his way. That may be (and I think probably is) a fair understanding of the kind of guy Manson was, but, particularly in a film like this, we needed to see or be made to feel more of his hypnotic power.
*. The reason I say this is because, as the title indicates, the main focus here is on his harem of hippie chicks. Unfortunately, we never come to understand them. How did they end up here? What did they see in Charlie?
*. Manson himself is, I think, whitewashed. For starters, even by the standards of his day he held outrageously racist and sexist views, believing in a battle to the death between whites and blacks and treating all women as sex slaves and domestic drudges. These essential elements of his world view aren’t even touched on here. If anything, the Manson we get is more like the idealized figure his girls imagined than the real thing.
*. Perhaps more attention needed to be given to just one of the girls, like the narrator Linda Kasabian (Mackenzie Mauzy). As it is, the others are really too vacant to ever get a grip on. Eden Brolin is very good as the enforcer Susan Atkins, but she doesn’t have another level to her.
*. I can’t say this movie engaged me much, and it did little to evoke a sense of the time and place beyond the music and the fact that the men have hair on their chests. Remember that?
*. Most of all, however, it didn’t do enough to address the nature of the charismatic relationship. There’s a coda with Linda being questioned by Vincent Bugliosi (the Manson prosecutor who wrote Helter Skelter) where he tries to understand Manson’s hold on the girls and she just says that he made them feel special. This comes as a throwaway, and one that wouldn’t have been necessary if the rest of the movie had explored the matter more thoroughly.