Death Laid an Egg (1968)

*. I like it. But is it giallo?
*. That’s the first label that critics have reached for, and it’s an obvious enough fit. From someone — is it a killer? — putting on some black gloves in the opening montage, to the strange style notes of zooms and fast cuts, the convoluted plot involving perverse psychological hang-ups, and even the weirdness of the title itself. We’re breathing the heady atmosphere of yellow trash here, all of it pushed to the limit.
*. But pushed too far? Take the title (in Italian: La morte ha fatto l’uovo). That’s not just weird on the order of A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, Don’t Torture a Duckling, The Black Belly of the Tarantula, or Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye, but laughable. Surely it indicates that what’s to come is meant as a joke. Then there’s the score by Bruno Maderna. How to describe it? Psychedelic? And I already mentioned the camera tricks, which are so overworked they become ridiculous.
*. After that opening montage we’re whisked away to what looks to be a fashion shoot with the three leads. Marco (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is taking pictures of his beautiful wife Anna (Gina Lollabrigida) and Anna’s cousin Gabri (Ewa Aulin). But while it seems like a fashion shoot, it’s taking place inside a high-tech chicken farm. Anna even holds up a plucked chicken at one point. What the hell is going on? Is it part of an advertising campaign? For chickens? Eggs? Clothing?
*. It’s tempting to call it a giallo parody, though in 1968 that would be pretty early. But I’m sure some kind of satire is what was intended. “Satire” is a word that has etymological roots relating to a stew, and that’s the overall sense I had of Death Laid an Egg. It just skips along, tossing little bits and pieces of everything into the pot. It’s sexy, with girls in lingerie and bikinis (bras and panties, Gabri explains to Anna, are just as important as what’s underneath). It jumps from place to place without any apparent logic (where does that corn field come from?). There are strange story elements that don’t seem to have any function, like the breeding of the Frankenchickens or the displaced workers.
*. What it’s not, however, is gory or suspenseful. Which is why I hesitated at calling it giallo. In fact, the mystery here turns out to be quite pedestrian, neither interesting nor unexpected and with a crudely introduced visual clue. What director Giulio Questi seems more interested in is some kind of social commentary, whether with regard to the impact of technology on farming or about the loose morals in the upper-class party with its strange romance room. This latter makes us feel like we’re entering Buñuel territory, the Italian bourgeoisie being puppets to their perversities. Though Marco’s fetish, once it gets explained, seems kind of humdrum.
*. Well, like I said, I enjoyed it most of the way through. The ending has a cute little twist but overall the final act is a letdown. It’s a spirited good time for fans of the bizarre that avoids, just, slipping into total chaos.

Prom Night III: The Last Kiss (1990)

*. I don’t imagine there are a lot of people who miss, or for that matter even remember, the low-budget, free-wheeling horror comedies that played alongside all the slasher, dead-teenager flicks in the 1980s and ’90s. Though I suppose titles like Saturday the 14th (1981) and The Silence of the Hams (1994) were about as lasting in their own day as the Scary Movie franchise entries. And, like the Scary Movie movies, they mainly worked by sending up what had become horror clichés. But parody has a short shelf life, entangled as it is with the notoriety of whatever inspired it.
*. Which brings us to Prom Night III: The Last Kiss, another movie I think few people miss or remember or even were aware of at the time. It’s a bit different than the usual horror parody though in having its own story to tell, which does follow, loosely if more-or-less directly, from the end of Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II. It’s both part of the Prom Night franchise and a parody of the same.
*. I had very mixed feelings watching this one. This may in part be because I watched half of it before giving up, then went back and watched the rest of it months later. I started out not thinking much of it at all — aside from the terrific opening, which has Mary Lou Maloney (Courtney Taylor) doing some lingerie line-dancing in hell before cutting through her ankle shackles with a nail file — but when I finished watching it I wound up liking it, just a bit. Maybe I was in a better mood. Or at least a different mood. You really have to be in the right mood to enjoy a movie like this.
*. Taking a step back and trying to be fair minded, it’s an enjoyably creative romp. With little in the way of resources they have to make do with imagination. After Mary Lou slips her chains in hell she returns to Hamilton High and hooks up with a Ferris Bueller type named Alex (Tim Conlon), for whom she can do certain favours. Alex already has a girlfriend, Sarah (Cynthia Preston), and basically the movie comes down to these two having to fight it out over who’s going to get their man. As Mary Lou says, it’s not who you take to the prom, it’s who you go home with.
*. The kills aren’t particularly well done, but at least they’re different. A janitor is electrocuted by a jukebox. Canadian boxing legend (this was a Canadian production) George Chuvalo is stabbed to death with ice cream cones. A guidance counselor is dissolved in battery acid. A jock is speared by a football that turns into a drill. It’s all good. And the final vision of a demonic Hamilton High when Alex and Sarah go down the rabbit hole is actually pretty neat.
*. I’ve often thought that a real sign of a director’s ability is how easy they can make something difficult look, so that a display of real skill may not even be noticed. (This is something, by the way, that holds true across the arts in general.) With that said, here’s a bit from director Ron Oliver as quoted in Caelum Vatnsdal’s They Came from Within, when asked about a shot that takes us across an auditorium to a close-up of the principal cutting his own finger off: “All in one shot . . . It was my Dario Argento homage because I wanted the audience to be shocked by it — no cutaways, nothing. It just happens. But nobody ever mentioned it! Kinda makes a director feel like a putz for even bothering!”
*. I’ll confess I didn’t catch the homage to Argento either. So a belated hats off. Oliver didn’t need to make the effort of doing that in one shot, but he did anyway.
*. I began by talking about how few, if any, of these horror comedies from the period have lasted. Prom Night III has disappeared into near oblivion along with most of its peers, but I think judged alongside them it’s a bit above average. With more money it might even have been ahead of its time. I’d certainly rather watch it again than the awful 2008 franchise reset.

The Lone Ranger (2013)

*. What a mess. Perhaps not as bad as it was made out to be at the time, but still a terrible mess.
*. When I say it’s not as bad as it was made out to be I’m referring to all the bad press it got. It was way over budget, didn’t perform well at the box office, and even caught flack for the casting of Johnny Depp as a Native American. For the most part it was panned by critics. But despite all this, it’s not a disaster or a terribly bad movie. Just a mess.
*. Let’s start with the good stuff: the big action sequences, usually involving trains, are actually pretty good and probably played very well in theatres (where I didn’t see it). This is a really big movie, with an expansive vision of the West that looks awesome.
*. Another thing I liked is Depp’s performance as Tonto. Maybe not politically correct, but enjoyable enough.
*. But moving on to what I mean by a mess.
*. In the first place the tone is all over the place. At times it’s a broad, slapstick farce, with the somewhat thick Lone Ranger (Armie Hammer) blessed with indestructibility and being bailed out time and again not just by Tonto but by his magical horse Silver as well. Then at other times things take a turn for the dark, with the evil Butch Cavendish even cutting out his victims’ hearts and eating them. I just didn’t know what they were going for here.
*. Related to this problem with tone is whether they were looking to mythologize or demythologize a particular vision of the West. At different times they seem to be going for both, but the two are irresolvably in conflict.
*. Another big drawback was the lack of a romantic interest. Normally I wouldn’t care about this either way, but the thing here is that they sort of introduce it, with John Reid being in love with his brother’s widow, but then they can’t really do anything with it. Compare, as I think you must, Pirates of the Caribbean and the relationship between Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley. Since this movie was clearly designed to be a similar sort of production (the same studio, director, star, and writer) I thought they were crazy just to insinuate something here and not do more.
*. Finally, it’s too much. The run time is 2 hours and 30 minutes, which is a haul. It’s wrapped up in an irritating frame which has an aged Tonto telling the story to a super-cute kid at a fair years later. Why bother with this? And as impressed as I was by the big action scenes I thought they all tended to go on a bit too long. They look spectacular, but like the rest of the plot they play out in predictable ways. Reid having to struggle with his law-and-order scruples, for example, just gets tedious after a while.
*. As with a lot of movies that flop in a spectacular way there has been a swing of the pendulum back. And, as also often happens in these cases, it has swung back too far. The Lone Ranger, as I’ve said, isn’t a bad movie. But for all the time and effort lavished on it, it seems very unsure of what it was all about. I found it loud but not very engaging.

The Social Dilemma (2020)

*. A blog is a form of social media, so I guess I’m as guilty as anyone in the triumph of our new digital overlords since I’ve been doing this for over twenty years. Still, I take some comfort and pride in not being on Facebook, and not having LinkedIn or Instagram accounts. I’ve also railed enough, in print and online, on the ill effects of the digital revolution. So a documentary like The Social Dilemma was both preaching to a convert as well as covering a lot of ground I was already familiar with. Still, I’m glad it’s here, as I don’t think we can have enough warnings about what’s going on.
*. What’s going on is something more than just data mining, or the selling of users’ identity to advertisers as the real “product” of social media. I think we all know about that. Instead, as tech guru Jaron Lanier puts it in what I thought the film’s most insightful comment, the endgame is the transformation of the individual through the manipulation of their fears and anxieties, wants and needs. Big Tech (or Big Data) don’t just want to know more about us, they want to remake us into better (that is better conditioned, more submissive and reliable) consumers.
*. This transformation is achieved through social media tapping into our need for connection, the product of millions of years of evolution, and providing dopamine hits that addict us to their ceaseless tide of highs (likes and shares and up-votes). One can instantly relate to the dramatic vignette here of the teenage girl breaking into the lockbox that her mother has put her cell phone into. I’ve seen fathers have to wrestle their daughters to the floor to pry phones from their grasp. The addiction is real.
*. I should say something more about these dramatized scenes as they’re the main way The Social Dilemma differentiates itself from the usual sort of talking-head documentary. I’ve heard some people complain about the way the experiences of one family with cell phones is used to illustrate the ideas expressed by the various experts being interviewed, but I didn’t mind the change of gears. I thought they were well integrated with the rest of the movie, and helped to break things up a bit.
*. My only complaint was that having Vincent Kartheiser play the different aspects of the AI puppetmaster was misleading. There really isn’t a human face behind the AI of the tech giants, only the operation of various algorithms that are now mostly beyond human understanding and perhaps even human control. Not that making money is some absolute end that the directors of big tech didn’t always have in mind. It’s not like the money mill is some experiment that got out of hand, which is how it’s sometimes presented.
*. As the talking heads (mostly former executives from the big tech companies) point out, it’s not that the technology is evil but that it has its own agenda (making money) that is independent of, and indeed indifferent to, human welfare. A Fitbit watch isn’t designed to improve health, but to monitor us. Whether we get healthier by using it, or drop dead, doesn’t really matter to Google. In much the same way, if lies and disinformation move faster on the Internet, and thus drive more traffic and make more money, then that’s what the platforms are going to provide more of. They’re not interested in spreading lies per se, they just don’t care about the truth.
*. Put another way, the main interviewee here is Tristan Harris, ex-Google ethicist and co-founder of a group called the Center for Humane Society. But is it even possible to imagine a humane Internet now? That seems almost like an oxymoron.
*. I’m freestyling here, but that’s what a movie like this is meant to encourage. It helps that I’m in broad agreement with the points being made. My own take is that the Internet hasn’t created any of the problems itemized here — depression, anxiety, addiction, political polarization — but only made them worse by amplifying and exacerbating them.
*. I also don’t see the process being reversed. As is often the case in such documentaries the producers try to end things on an optimistic note, but here it seems particularly forced. Everyone is aware that in a fight between a divided and often oblivious citizenry on one side and ever more powerful AIs collecting ever larger troves of data, all backed by the world’s largest and most profitable corporations on the other, humanity has a huge handicap.
*. In many ways I think the situation is even bleaker than represented here. With the focus mainly on social media, things like online gaming, gambling, and pornography aren’t even mentioned, for example. And too much emphasis is put on Facebook, which is just one player, albeit a big one. Also, the domestic drama suggests, I think misleadingly, that the impact is greatest with young people. While that’s the demographic I feel sorriest for — their brains are being fried, and they’re never going to get them back — my own experience is that the parental (and even grandparental) generations are in this mess just as deep. It’s just that we can still remember a better time.
*. A dilemma? I guess there are trade-offs. Harris mentions Uber as being one of the blessings of the new world order. And someone else mentions the old line about how grandparents are getting to chat with their grandchildren on Facetime now. The price of all this, however, may be incalculable.

The Deadly Mantis (1957)

*. Say you’re a moviegoer with simple, even childish tastes. You know what you like and what you like is a good giant-bug movie. So you’re all in when you see an ad for The Deadly Mantis.
*. I think you’d still be likely to be disappointed. The problem here is not the story, which is as disposable as always in such films. Apparently a volcano in the southern hemisphere causes some ice to thaw at the North Pole, releasing the giant mantis. The army and the scientific establishment are called in. You know the drill.
*. And the appearance of the mantis isn’t all that bad. Clifford Stine was in charge of the effects and he does well enough with what he had to work with. They actually built a 200-foot long papier-mâché mantis for some of the shots. It’s not that impressive because it doesn’t move very much and looks ridiculous when flying, but it’s passable. In the final battle in the Manhattan Tunnel it’s even a bit impressive.
*. The real problem here is with the huge amount of footage they’ve shoehorned in from other sources. Some of it is stock footage but a lot of it also comes from other movies. Most of it consists of scenes of the U.S. military in action, but there’s also an Inuit village that is presumably being attacked by the mantis. There’s so much of this material that you start to feel that the movie is a collage put together in the editing room. It also underlines the fact that there’s virtually no real story here to follow. All you’re really doing is following the mantis, which seems to be buzzing all over the place geographically. Originally he’s supposed to be going due south, but he winds up in Washington and then heads back up to New York City.
*. About the only thing I found interesting was the treatment of the “female woman,” as the lovestruck airmen at the DEW base call Marge Blaine (Alix Talton). She’s the obligatory babe appearing in all these movies, whose main purpose is to scream and be rescued. But, and this is a quality she shares with most of her B-movie, creature-feature peers, she’s also a genuine professional woman. In this case a journalist. She doesn’t like being swept off her feet at the end, but, what the hell, she’d like to marry that nice Col. Parkman anyway. You can have your cake and eat it too. Or at least it seemed that way in the ’50s.

Blair Witch (2016)

*. Maybe there really was a Blair Witch. The franchise, if we can call it that, does seem to have been cursed. The Blair Witch Project was a phenomenal success, but the creators Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez didn’t go onto anything. The star Heather Donahue is out of movies. The sequel Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 bombed. Another sequel, this film, was stuck in development hell for years and had a disappointing reception when released.
*. Is there a lesson here? It seems to me that the idea itself was a one-off, but I guess there was a lot of “mythology” to develop around the figure of the witch, whoever or whatever she was. And other franchises had a lot of success with less (Paranormal Activity, for example). So maybe something else went wrong. Or, in the case of the original film, went right, like catching lightning in a bottle.
*. The team of director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett weren’t novices. They’d done You’re Next and worked on V/H/S and V/H/S/2 (with Barrett contributing some of the more interesting episodes to the latter anthologies). And they’d certainly had time to come up with something good. But still this Blair Witch is a letdown.
*. Most director’s or cast and crew commentaries are recorded before the film is released in theatres. There are probably good reasons for this, though it means we miss something. That “something” being any reaction to initial critical and audience response. On the DVD commentary for Blair Witch Wingard and Barrett make light of the critical drubbing and tepid box office the film initially received, though it’s worth noting that the reviews weren’t all bad and the movie did make money. So the commentary gives them a chance to answer some of their critics.
*. Perhaps the biggest complaint against the film was that it was just a rehash of the original, to which it is a direct sequel. There was a reason for this though, as they felt the need to get the franchise “back on the rails” after Book of Shadows. Still, it’s a charge that sticks. There are small variations played on the formula, but mostly it’s the same plot as The Blair Witch Project. A group of young people with cameras enter the Blair Woods, trying to find out what happened to the original trio. They hear scary sounds at night. There are twig ornaments arranged around their tent. They wind up in the same spooky house where the final camera is knocked from the last girl’s hand. And so, curtain.
*. The small variations aren’t enough. The kids have a drone and GPS, neither of which work very well. Aside from that, all the running around in the woods at night with flashlights (and it’s always night, due to some strange warping of time) got tiresome. Especially so for me, because, while I like hiking, I hate camping. The small group dynamics, meanwhile, seem forced. It’s not that, or not just that, there’s no Heather Donahue here to carry things. The thing is, the cast here isn’t allowed to do any acting. They just pant and scream and run and jump and look scared.
*. Even the appearance of what I thought was the Witch comes as no surprise. Is that Javier Botet? No, but it might as well be. I mentioned in my notes on The Other Side of the Door (also 2016) how he’d established a very popular look (he played a similar figure in The Conjuring 2 the same year). That look is here again with the emaciated hag we only catch glimpses of.
*. I say I thought this was the Witch but according to Barrett it’s actually meant to be one of her victims and was never meant to represent the Witch herself. Whatever. How is that a distinction that’s supposed to mean anything to the audience? Or, for that matter, the people in the cabin?
*. I guess they did about as well as expected given the limitations they put on themselves. It’s a lot more chaotic and fiercely edited than the first movie but that may just be the result of audience attention deflation. The Blair Witch Project gave people headaches, but by this time it probably seemed pedestrian. As a result, I felt left behind, and it was only on a second viewing that I could really tell what was going on. I’m getting old.
*. To be honest, by 2016 found footage as a genre was pretty much played out. It may have hit its market (not creative) peak with the big-budget Cloverfield, which had been eight years before this movie. What else new was there to do with the form? On the evidence of Blair Witch, not much. And so a walk in the woods turns into a frantic run, screaming, with flashlights, down memory lane.

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

*. I had a bad first experience with this movie. I’d heard all the buzz — it was hard to escape at the time — and gone to see it with about five or six other people. Afterwards we stood together in the parking lot of the multiplex staring at our shoes. To say we were underwhelmed would probably be an understatement. Finally one of us (it wasn’t me) confessed he had a headache.
*. I think I felt even worse than that. I felt like I’d been had. The Blair Witch Project is often described both as the first found-footage horror film (it wasn’t, though it was pretty much solely responsible for establishing the genre) and as the first film to fully exploit an Internet marketing campaign. I can forgive the first, but not the second claim to fame.
*. The Blair Witch Project went on to become one of the most profitable movies ever made. The shooting budget was around $50,000 but post production was ten times that (it took eight days to film and eight months to edit). Box office was $250 million. Imitators looking to cash in were legion. But for the most part they didn’t because so much of that initial success was the result of the marketing, which struck me as largely a trick played on the public.
*. In short, the whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth. In the twenty-plus years since, however, I’ve mellowed a bit. Leaving aside the marketing and cultural impact, I think Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez (writers, directors, editors) made a decent little movie out of nothing. It has some genuinely scary moments, which are achieved without gore, effects of any kind, or even a witch.
*. As with the best of such indie ventures it triumphs in making a virtue out of its limitations. It’s not a movie that tries to do too much, but stays grounded in its basic premise, resulting in a film that is, in Kim Newman’s expert judgment, “naturally messy, but surprisingly consistent and to the point.” Throw in some serendipitous grace notes in the filming and you have what I think every low-budget filmmaker privately prays for: a happy accident of art.
*. Another big boost comes from Heather Donahue. On the DVD commentary track one of the voices (I believe it’s Sanchez) says “the single best decision we made in the whole thing was casting Heather.” Originally I think there were to be three male characters lost in the woods but Donahue was so impressive in her audition they decided to put her in. I don’t believe this changed the script (insofar as there was a script). It sounds sort of like the casting of Duane Jones in Night of the Living Dead or Sigourney Weaver in Alien in parts that weren’t specifically written for a black man or a woman. I think it’s wonderful when that kind of blind casting happens, and as such cases show you can get great results.
*. Still, after twenty years I do think it’s a film that’s getting smaller in hindsight. Of course there have been many more shaky-cam horror movies, some of them not only more expensively produced and more sophisticated but better than this. But there are other reasons for its diminishment as well.
*. In my notes on Man Bites Dog I wondered how much it mattered that the creators never went on to do much of anything else. In that case I don’t think it did, as one of them committed suicide and in any event the film was a creative one-off as well as a bit of a succès de scandale with legs. Here, however, the subsequent disappearance of the filmmakers does raise some doubts.
*. In brief, the project had a limited afterlife. There were a pair of sequels, the most immediate, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, doing so poorly with critics and audiences that plans for a third movie were quickly scrapped. Then they tried again with Blair Witch in 2016, which only performed marginally better.
*. But then the found-footage genre was soon played out as well. And how many great movies did it give us? I’d rate Rec as probably the pick of the crop. And even that franchise gave up on the gimmick before the series finished.
*. Playing “Where are they now?”, I think it’s fair to say Myrick and Sanchez haven’t done much else that’s noteworthy. Sanchez directed one of the segments in V/H/S/2 (not the best) and has worked in TV. Heather Donahue apparently retired, at least for a while, claiming that she had trouble finding work because of backlash for having done Blair Witch. This doesn’t sound right but I don’t know the details. Joshua Leonard seems to have kept working the most. He played the heavy in Unsane, where he was pretty good. But I didn’t recognize him, and that’s the only other thing I’ve seen him in.
*. More than a movie, I look back on The Blair Witch Project today as a kind of cultural moment. Like a lot of things that the Internet made popular it went viral and then sort of vanished because there really wasn’t much there in the first place. I remember it well, which is to its credit. But I don’t think I’ll be watching it again. It’s not a movie I see anything more in today than I did at the multiplex.

Den of Thieves (2018)

*. Well, this wasn’t very pleasant.
*. Lots of movies have unlikeable characters. For a long time the only stock of bodies in slasher flicks and dead teenager movies came from the usual bunch of morons and jerks you couldn’t wait to see die in some horrible way. A comedy may be filled with satirical caricatures, and a drama may be populated by mostly bad people. But Den of Thieves misjudges our sympathy for such types, asking us to get behind a bunch of jerks I wouldn’t want to spend two minutes alone with. And this movie is a whopping 140 minutes long!
*. It’s a heist movie. A gang of master thieves is looking to rob the Federal Reserve Bank in Los Angeles, which everyone takes to be impossible. On the other side, a team of hard-driving police officers is out to stop them.
*. Much is made of the fact that there’s no way to tell the cops from the robbers. The leader of the police (Gerard Butler) warns one captive, before torturing him, that the police are a gang as well, only they have badges. Both sides have obviously spent a lot of time in the gym and getting covered in tattoos so that with their shirts off it’s hard to tell them apart.
*. They’re all ex-jocks, ex-military, ex-cons, and in the years since they’ve just gained a bit of man fat around the middle. Butler apparently had to gain twenty pounds for the role. That’s a guy thing. He looks like he hasn’t taken a shower in . . . well, it looks like he doesn’t take showers. Even after working out. Which is probably why his woman has left him. He has a cry in his pick-up after seeing his daughter in the playground, through a chain-link fence. Oh, the mess he has made of his life. The pain he has caused these innocents. But duty calls. He must return to being an alpha asshole.
*. This is so overdone it’s hard to miss, and few critics did. Andrea Thompson called it out for containing “some of the most egregious examples of toxic masculinity I’ve ever seen in a modern movie,” and much as I roll my eyes at invocations of “toxic masculinity” I have to grant her point. I mean, the cops here even have a weight bench set up in their office. Women are absent except as strippers and Butler’s aforementioned wife, who bails on him. The men crack jokes about gay sex but also like to give manly hugs to their bros, or bruhs, or brahs, or whatever they call each other when they’re pumping each other up.
*. A little of this would go a long way and there’s a lot of it. I’ve said it’s unpleasant and several scenes are downright hard to watch. Probably the worst is when Butler (his character’s name is Big Nick) shows up at a dinner party his ex is attending and tries to humiliate her or the guests. I’m not sure what the point of that was. It was really uncomfortable.
*. As for the rest of the movie there’s not much to say. It was universally compared to Heat, a movie I’ve always found to be overrated. Still, it’s better than this. The heist itself is wildly improbable, and made even more so because we can’t believe for a second that this gang of meatheads could come up with such a plan, or pull it off. Nor can we believe Big Nick capable of figuring out what is going on. There’s some bizarre back-and-forth between him and an FBI agent where he all but shouts his incompetence from the rooftops, but still I think we’re supposed to assume that he’s actually good at his job.
*. The final shootout was reasonably well done, but it had been done before, better, in Sicario. The twist ending struck some reviewers as too much. I thought it, by this time, de rigueur in such a film. Most proximately I was reminded of the end of Logan Lucky. In any event, I can’t think of any reason for a follow-up, but there were immediate reports of a sequel. At least it couldn’t be any worse. Could it? The presence of all those MMA fighters in the London bar at the end may make us wonder.

Serenity (2019)

*. Those of you who have been reading these notes for a while know how I like to talk about how a video-game aesthetic took over mainstream filmmaking in the twenty-first century. I’m not just talking about the ubiquitous use of CGI, but all that comes with it, like the denial of reality, a sense of moral weightlessness, and a general superficiality that presents character as only pixel deep.
*. A glimpse of things to come was what I dubbed the Year of the Simulacrum: 1998. This was the year of The Matrix, Dark City, and The Truman Show. In each of these movies reality was revealed to be an artificial construct controlled by sinister forces. We hadn’t quite arrived in the new dispensation yet, but these were billboards announcing what was up ahead.
*. Which brings me to Serenity, a movie that takes the video-game movie to its logical next step by positing that reality isn’t just like a video game, but is in fact such a construct. In this way it’s like the simulacrum trilogy, only without any of the philosophical and moral questioning those movies indulged. In fact, it takes that questioning and turns it into pure mush.
*. Life, you see, is just a game made up by a kid in his bedroom. What’s more, this game isn’t just reality, it’s something even more than that. It is the afterlife, with Plymouth (the game’s version of Truman’s Seahaven Island) being a digital Garden of Eden. And I don’t mean it’s a cloud where consciousness can be uploaded, the so-called rapture of the nerds, but it’s really heaven.
*. Blame writer-director Steven Knight. The direction is totally slack and the script trash. The boy invents the game in part because his step-father is a jerk. How big a jerk? He’s the kind of guy who goes on a fishing trip and immediately starts talking about where he can find some children to fuck up the ass and how he abuses his son and plans on killing him. So I guess that means he’s a bad guy.
*. The cast is decent. But what can poor Anne Hathaway do with such a one-dimensional part? Or Jason Clarke, usually so enjoyable, do in his? Diane Lane just shows up, for no reason at all. Matthew McConaughey at least gets to take his clothes off and walk around in a wet t-shirt.
*. The twist, if you can call it that, is so stupid I don’t know how to properly address it. Of course it makes no sense at all, but in addition it’s gooey with sentimentality and had the effect of making me care even less about any of the characters since absolutely nothing is at stake. Reality is plastic, there are no rules, and death is no more real, or unreal, than anything else. “I don’t know. I don’t know what happened. I don’t know anything, you know. Nobody knows anything. You know, all that I know is that there’s a you and a me somewhere.” That’s not heavy, it’s thin.
*. Enough already. I can’t remember the last time I hated a movie so much. I mean I hate it for the fact that it even exists as much as for what it represents. We were warned in 1998. And twenty years later we get this?

The Delta Force (1986)

*. “Liberal Hollywood” isn’t a total canard, as it’s probably true that the film business tilts somewhat to the left. That said, there has always been a link between Hollywood and the Republican party as well, from Ronald Reagan to Arnold Schwarzenegger. As the latter name suggests, action heroes may be a natural fit with right-wing politics. Think also of names like Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis.
*. But among all the action stars of the 1980s it would be hard to get any further to the right than Chuck Norris, whose political views have tracked with the most extreme directions taken by the Republican party even into the age of Trump. But even in the ’80s many of his movies had a more obvious political message than those of his peers. In Missing in Action, for example, he got to go back and do Vietnam right, one-upping Stallone, and in The Delta Force we see Operation Eagle Claw getting a do-over, complete with a scene where our hero goes back to rescue a fallen comrade. America wasn’t leaving anyone behind this time!
*. As the Delta warriors bug out from the desert there’s a significant passage of dialogue where Norris’s character (McCoy) complains about how “they” screwed up the operation by going against his advice. He adds: “I spent five years in Vietnam watching them doing the planning, and us to die.” In other words, it’s all the government’s fault. Again. And if there’s any theme that unites today’s right more than its hatred of government I don’t know what it is. Bruce Willis: “I’m a Republican only as far as I want a smaller government, I want less government intrusion. . . . I hate the government, OK? I’m apolitical. Write that down. I’m not a Republican.”
*. I bring all this up as a way of introducing The Delta Force as an overtly political movie. In fact, I would call it propaganda. I don’t mean that pejoratively; I’ll allow that there may be good propaganda, and that a propaganda movie need not be a bad movie. I only use the label as a way of understanding what it’s about. It’s a cheesy action flick to be sure, but one that plays a lot of jingo tunes.
*. That message is one of American-Israeli solidarity. “Israel is America’s best friend in the Middle East” is an actual line of dialogue in the film. We shouldn’t be surprised by this, as co-writer and director Menahem Golan is an Israeli and the movie itself was shot in entirely in Israel. That’s where The Delta Force is, literally, coming from.
*. The story was a timely one in 1986, as the film was based on the hijacking of a TWA flight only the year before. Despite the timestamps used to give it all a sense of documentary realism, however, the script goes in for melodrama. The singling out of Jewish passengers on the plane was something that happened, but it’s introduced here in an incredible way. Could the hijackers have been that shocked that an American flight from the Eastern Mediterranean to New York had — gasp! — some Jews on board? Then there is the bit with the Holocaust survivor whose wife tells us that it is “all happening again.” And a little girl who pleads “Please don’t take my daddy! Daddy take me with you!” And a noble Catholic priest who volunteers to go with the Jews because Jesus was a Jew, etc. This is all laying it on pretty thick.
*. By coincidence I was listening to the DVD commentary track for All Through the Night while I was writing up these notes. Here’s what director Vincent Sherman had to say about propaganda: “You can do propaganda if it’s done well, if it’s done right. If it’s done in the context of the story and not just stuck in, but seems part of the story, and part of the character, then there’s no resentment to it. But if it’s obvious propaganda then you have trouble. Audiences turn away from it.” The Delta Force is obvious.
*. I’m not sure, but it may be that Golan thought he was making an important movie here instead of just another piece of crap. It has this important political message. It’s over two hours long. It has an all-star cast, with Martin Balsam, Robert Vaughn, Shelley Winters, and George Kennedy all putting in appearances. And Robert Foster, who I didn’t even recognize, playing the terrorist. He gives one of those really good performances in a bad movie that make you respect an actor’s professionalism and craft.
*. As for Lee Marvin, this was his last movie and I thought at times he didn’t appear in great shape. He also has wildly shaggy old-man eyebrows. Do you think they might have asked somebody to trim them? Luckily he doesn’t have to do too much but say things like “Take ’em down” and “One minute to go-time.” But at least he was game. “There aren’t too many firm film offers these days that guarantee money up front,” he later said.
*. As for Norris, in the words of Golan: “We look at Chuck as having the potential of a Clint Eastwood . . . His acting talent is getting better. He’s in the right style, and he’s very popular.”
*. Well, he was very popular at the time. But the bit about his acting talent getting better was only wishful thinking. Norris is no actor, and he’s at his best when he’s asked to do very little. I really didn’t find him convincing in this role at all, and what’s more disappointing is the fact that he doesn’t get to perform much in the way of martial arts. Which is, after all, the only thing he does well.
*. Alan Silvestri’s score is quite good, and would later get used as the fanfare for car-racing events on television. It is, however, overused. After an hour of it I think I’d already had enough, but then they seem to have just put the main theme on repeat for the whole back end of the movie.
*. Whatever his good intentions, I don’t think Golan could resist making just another stupid shoot-’em-up. There’s a car chase through some narrow streets that throws in about as many clichés as you can imagine. Norris hangs out of the passenger side of the van that’s being chased by the terrorists and shoots at them. Then he shoots out of the back window of the van after it gets blown away. The racing vehicles shear the open door of a car off. A vehicle smashes into a pile of watermelons. The cars go driving down a stairway. Vehicles crash and then inexplicably explode into massive fireballs. Did anything get left out?
*. So there’s the car chase. And lots of icky Arabs. And good guys walking through hails of bullets unscathed (except for one token fallen warrior), taking down bad guys while shooting from the hip. The icing on the cake, however, is Norris’s motorbike, which fires missiles forward and backward. This really pushes the movie over the line into silliness, undercutting any seriousness we might have been wanting to take its political message with.
*. Of course the good guys win, celebrating by cracking open some Bud and singing “America the Beautiful.” As I said, it’s a movie that wears its heart (if that’s the word) on its sleeve. Unfortunately its politics are an awkward fit with its trashiness, and instead of being a serious political thriller it quickly turns into another really dull Cannon action movie. Chuck Norris was in a number of flicks that were better than this, which should tell you everything you need to know about how bad it is.