Ghost in the Shell (2017)

*. If you just look up “Ghost in the Shell” on Wikipedia you’ll see it described as a “Japanese media franchise.” It began as a manga (comic book) that debuted in 1989 and was turned into an anime film in 1995. It has since expanded into other feature films, a couple of TV series, and more comic books. Not to mention this “live action” film.
*. It’s important to know this history because if you don’t and you just come to Ghost in the Shell cold I think the first thing you’ll be struck by is that it’s an old story, just another cyberpunk thriller riffing on virtual reality and questions of what it means to be posthuman. Well, it is an old story. Kitted out with lots of expensive effects, but the themes it deals with, the story itself, and the whole look of the film, was nothing new in 2017. In fact, it was getting very tired.
*. You’ll have noticed I put “live action” in quotation marks. With the amount of CGI work and other effects in SF movies these days, I think they should be considered hybrids at best. It’s like the “live action” Jungle Book and Lion King Those aren’t real animals, it’s just Disney switching to a different style of animation.
*. So Ghost in the Shell has the look of Blade Runner, especially in its evocation of the city of the future. And when I say Blade Runner I mean not the original Blade Runner but the tinselly Blade Runner 2049. It has bits of Robocop. Some of The Matrix. But there’s nothing at all here that struck me as new or particularly impressive. Mira has a human mind in a manufactured body and says she is the first of her kind. Not if you’ve read any science fiction from the last century.
*. Critics were underwhelmed and even antagonistic.
*. What mostly got their backs up was the “whitewashing” of the character of Mira/Motoko: having an originally Asian character played by a white actress. This didn’t bother me nearly as much as the fact that they made Mira into such a babe. This is typical of manga/anime/comic books in general, and was certainly on full display in the original film, but as with everything else here it feels old. As soon as Mira takes off her cape in that opening reveal and shows her form in her camouflage bodysuit you go “Va-va-voom!” And then you wonder why they would give a cyborg warrior such an hourglass figure. I mean, why have boobs at all? Shouldn’t they have just given her more chest armour?
*. Actually, Scarlett Johansson was a natural choice for the part. She’s become the go-to actress for portraying the posthuman. Think Under the Skin, Lucy, and Her. Anthony Lane: “Such is the zone that Johansson patrols.” Or, as Mira puts it at the end, she’s the first of her kind but she won’t be the last. That seem excessively optimistic to me, but it does put a new spin on the concept of the It girl.
*. The other thing that reviewers didn’t like, especially those familiar with the source material, was the watering down of the philosophical questioning. They may have a point. We certainly don’t get much of that here. Mira is just on a quest to discover who she is, only to find out that it’s not her memories but what she does that defines her. Ho-hum.
*. I’m afraid these notes may be making me sound kind of jaded. But there really isn’t anything here we haven’t seen or heard before. The evil corporation. The heroic hackers. The superhuman hero. The slow-motion martial arts and gun fights. The technology that is all so seamless and works like magic. Thirty years ago I might have found this interesting.
*. The ending is particularly lame. We’re supposed to believe Kuze is some kind of incredibly powerful enhanced networked mind and then he gets taken out by something as crude as a remote-controlled spider tank? Shouldn’t he have seen that coming? (Note that in the 1995 film he planned to die and merge his consciousness with Motoko Kusanagi, but that is rejected here.) And why can’t he just upload his consciousness to the cloud instead of dying in that wrecked robotic chassis? Come to think of it, why is everyone still hooked up to wires and skull jacks? Doesn’t this future have wireless?
*. There you have it. Bright and shiny but dull and instantly forgettable. Obviously they were hoping for some kind of franchise but the box office was disappointing. It might have worked a little better if they’d spent more time introducing us to the rest of the Section 9 team, but I’m not sure they had any more personality than Mira. They really shouldn’t have bothered at all.

Ghost in the Shell (1995)

*. We begin by seeing things from Motoko Kusanagi’s point of view, with her tactical vision and voices being listened to over various frequencies. We are immersed in a mechanical world, just like Kusanagi inside her shell. It’s the perfect opening note to strike.
*. Anime is a special taste. It’s never been a particular favourite genre of mine, but when it’s done well, as it is here, I do think it has a kind of poetry to it. I still don’t care for the saucer-eyes of the characters, but the way the murky images appear to move slowly as though underwater, and the way a single bit of graceful motion within a static frame draws the eye and is made expressive are things I can appreciate. How much of that is due to Mamoru Oshii’s direction and how much to the nature of the medium itself is another question.
*. At the time it was a very expensive production, and the animation — a combination of traditional cel animation and CGI — was a painstaking process. The results, however, were worth it. The look of the film fits the theme, with that blending of the digital with old school atmosphere.
*. The story feels a bit trite, but has to be judged in context. The movie is based on a manga comic book that started publication in 1989. Cyberpunk was something new. William Gibson’s Neuromancer had only been a few years earlier. The idea of cyberspace and human-computer hybrids was something relatively new. When the Puppet Master describes itself as “a living, thinking entity who was created in the sea of information” that must have seemed kind of deep at the time.

*. Blade Runner, which informs a lot of the look of New Port City, as it would the look of so many cities of the future, came out in 1982. So while this movie is ground-breaking there’s also a lot that was becoming standard grammar. I’d also mention the highly sexualized presentation of the heroine, who rises like Aphrodite through the opening credit sequence and is basically nude a lot of the time (that is, in skin-tight outfits with her nipples jutting out). Now sure, most superheroines are exaggeratedly sexy, but then there’s Kusanagi turned into a schoolgirl at the end. How perfectly manga. At least we’re spared the tentacles.
*. Is it more than just a great-looking anime? Here I’m not sure. The story is pretty basic and moves at an awkward pace. Why is there so much expository dialogue? Plus the fact is I just wasn’t as interested in Kusanagi as I thought I should have been. I think some of the blame for this falls on the choice of having Mimi Woods do her voice in the English version. That didn’t work at all for me.
*. I’ve seen this referred to as one of the greatest if not the greatest anime ever made. I can’t judge that, but it is a movie I not only enjoy but admire in a lot of ways. It’s also grown on me over several viewings. I don’t think it transcends its genre, but twenty-five years later it’s earned its status as a classic.

All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006)

*. Hm. I’m not sure what to make of this one. The way the title appears on the screen along with a scream and then a splatter of blood makes me think we’re in horror-comedy territory. An impression reinforced by the vision of Mandy Lane (Amber Heard) progressing through high school halls, her bust the cynosure of admiring and envious eyes.
*. It seems Mandy Lane has blossomed over the summer into a goddess. But, like any goddess, she is untouchable. As one boy informs us while we watch her bounce around the track: “There she is boys, Mandy Lane. Untouched, pure. Since the dawn of junior year men have tried to possess her, and to date all have failed. Some have even died in their reckless pursuit of this angel.” The dying part will continue.
*. A gang of students — three girls, three boys — then head out to a cabin in the woods, or really a luxurious remote farmhouse, to drink, take drugs, and have sex. If this sounds like the set-up to an ’80s slasher flick you won’t be surprised by anything that follows. Point-of-view shots peering in windows alert us to the presence of a killer. There is a stop at the last gas station for a 150 miles on the way to the farm. There is a direct identification of sex with death in a couple of the kills. There’s no cell phone service out on the farm and the landline has been cut. The power goes off. The characters split up so they can be picked off one by one. A girl runs around in her sexy night attire. Bodies are discovered to the accompaniment of screams. There’s a last girl who won’t put out.
*. In all of this you may wonder what the point is in invoking so many obvious clichés. Homage? Satire? Laziness? Feminist reimagining? All of these at the same time? Kim Newman says it’s a film that “deconstructs the slasher,” and your guess is as good as mine what that means. I never understood deconstruction.
*. Oddly enough, I found most of the nods to the slasher tradition to just be irrelevant. All the Boys Love Mandy Lane feels like a slasher movie that wants to be something other than a slasher movie, but it doesn’t quite know what that something is. On the DVD commentary director Jonathan Levine calls it “a high school film in the Trojan horse of a slasher movie.” But then is it really a high school movie? There’s a body-shaming leitmotif that might have fit the bill but this mainly made me wonder why these kids were hanging out with each other in the first place. I know teens can be mean, but aren’t these guys supposed to be friends?
*. Is the movie all that interested in the soon-to-be-dead teenagers? Kim Newman apparently thought so, saying “Levine’s Texas kids are a world away from on-hiatus TV stars swapping pop-culture epigrams and owe more to the zit-popping realism of Richard Linklater or Larry Clark.” I think this is being charitable. The cast seem to only be slasher-film stereotypes: the stoner, the token black guy, the obnoxious heel, the princess/slut, the virginal last girl. None of them seemed particularly real to me.
*. Well, here I will insert a spoiler alert. The only part of All the Boys Love Mandy Lane that I found interesting is the way the last girl, who may very well be a virgin, turns out to be, if not the main killer, at least the psychopathic mastermind behind the killings. The only problem with this is that no explanation whatsoever is even attempted for Mandy’s delinquency. It’s just a twist that comes out of nowhere. Levine calls attention to the single brief scene of Mandy’s home life as giving some insight into her character, but when I re-watched it looking for such clues I didn’t come up with anything. Is there some foreshadowing I’m missing?
*. I’ve read in several places that Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre was an inspiration, but on the DVD commentary Levine specifically refers, twice, to the 2003 remake as being what they were influenced by. Now that’s scary.
*. It’s a movie with a curious history, beginning life as a student project at the American Film Institute, premiering on the midnight movie circuit at the Toronto Film Festival in 2006, and then having to wait until 2013 (!) for an American release. You’ll have to read the details elsewhere. My understanding is that the rights were bought and sold a few times as distributors came and went.
*. The delay allowed it to gain a sort of underground cult status, but also put it behind the times. As Christy Lemire remarked, “Its attempts at examining and subverting the well-worn conventions of the genre in the script from Jacob Forman might have seemed more novel seven years ago. But by now we’ve seen this approach executed much more effectively—and thrillingly—in films like The Cabin in the Woods.” To which one should say, in this movie’s defence, that The Cabin in the Woods cost a hell of a lot more to make.
*. More to the point, the “examining and subverting,” or, if you must, deconstruction, of genre conventions wasn’t that new in 2006 either. All of which brings me back to my unsureness about this movie. It’s not scary — the kills cheat on the gore right from the opening dive (for obvious budget reasons) and there’s little attempt to build suspense. It doesn’t seem particularly invested in the genre, at whatever level. The characters aren’t realistic, but are every bit as annoying as the victims in any slasher flick. The twist at the end feels tossed in, and even though I like the way the final act plays out (the slaughter pit leftover from Hud was particularly nice), I can’t say it landed with any sort of impact.
*. The way it’s put together, with different styles of photography and editing, is inoffensive, though it does have the flavour of student work, meaning experimenting with a lot of different ways of doing things without worrying too much about how appropriate or effective they may be. Montage? Why not? At times I even thought the DVD I was watching was damaged, and to be honest I’m not sure it wasn’t. Were those skips and freeze frames deliberate? If so, what was their point?
*. I think Amber Heard is pretty good in her first leading role. She’d go on to do worse. As a genre piece I don’t think it’s a movie that amounts to much, but it’s not bad at all for early work done on a low budget and it made for a pretty good calling card.

Serial Mom (1994)

*. John Waters is one of the very rare low-budget, exploitation auteurs to make a successful jump to the (more-or-less) mainstream. He was able to do this because he has some talent. A lot of marginal directors fall on their face when given greater resources because guerilla filmmaking, a specific talent, is really all they can do. Waters, however, has a broader competence.
*. Serial Mom is one of his better known mainstream films, and despite its reputation (oversold, I think, as a cult film) it strikes me as only gently subversive. Once more conventional morality is shown to be hypocrisy, with the placid exterior of American suburban life concealing a host of evils. This was not a new theme for Waters, or really for anyone in 1994. Serial Mom is basically a genteel version of Female Trouble (1974), befitting a more genteel time.
*. Despite not having much in the way of shock value, however, I think Serial Mom is well made. It also has a rock solid central performance by Kathleen Turner as Beverly Sutphin, the titular mom. But in the end it’s not much of a movie.
*. The big problem, which I’ve already flagged, is that it’s just not tough enough to be satire. The send-up of celebrity culture is always timely, and this movie came out just as the O.J. Simpson insanity broke, but it’s nothing new. And the trashing of the Leave It to Beaver caricature of the American family (with the Cleavers being specifically invoked at one point) is even older. We didn’t need John Waters to give us this.
*. But was satire even the intention? I’m not so sure. In his review Roger Ebert thought the film undone by Waters’s “essential niceness” and the tenderness he expresses for Beverly Sutphin. I think this is missing something. Though I don’t know Waters, I have read some of his books as well as seen many of his movies and I have to say I doubt he is a nice man. I think that’s an act. And I don’t think he expresses tenderness so much for Beverly as he identifies with her.
*. The thing is, Water is himself a collector of murder memorabilia and has a fan’s obsession for serial killers, so he can’t really be sending these things up. I think that this part of the movie isn’t meant as satire. Instead, I think he’s just saying that this is the natural state of the American id. Everything else is a lie. The kitsch you order from the Franklin Mint, singing along with the musical Annie . . . all of that trash. But no man is a liar in his vices, so the porn videos, the Chicks With Dicks magazine, and the serial killer scrapbook are real, or at least realer.
*. Beverly embodies this split in her multiple personality disorder. Half of her is perfect: ornithology, cooking, and generally keeping up appearances. But the other half, the real half, is the serial killer. And, crucially, it is this darker aspect that we are meant to approve of.
*. Like I say, however, none of this is new. Nor is it controversial or shocking or funny. And in the second half of the film you really have the sense that things are getting out of hand. The whole concert sequence should have been cut.
*. Worst of all, a fine performance by Kathleen Turner is wasted. Beverly is obviously the only character Waters is even slightly interested in, but he doesn’t get much out of her. She could have been so much more interesting. While going mainstream, Waters seems to have trouble going big screen. Serial Mom only feels like a rental. On VHS.

Inferno (2016)

*. The end. At least of the first Robert Langdon trilogy. I suspect he’ll be back however.
*. I find the success of these films almost entirely inexplicable. Yes, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code was a huge bestseller and the movie was able to ride that wave, especially given its A-list talent and huge budget. But it was a terrible movie that wasn’t even much fun as a train wreck.
*. It was followed up by Angels & Demons, which was just more of the same, albeit a little crazier and more up-tempo. Which brings us to Inferno, a movie nearly as stupid as the others and even less enjoyable. Box office was disappointing and, at least for a time, the franchise was put to bed. Long may it slumber in peace!
*. What is the appeal of these films? Are they just fantasy travelogues, with Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, accompanied by a beautiful young woman, running around famoust tourist locations and looking at Renaissance artwork — which he has near godlike access to, and which he gets to inspect privately while crowds mill about outside? That would be appealing — have you seen the lines to get in to the Uffizi? — but alas there is, as always, the stupidity factor to be accounted for.
*. Mark Kermode, who had a lot of fun ranting on these films, thought Angels & Demons the stupidest movie he had ever seen, and referred to the plot of this one as “intergalactically stupid . . . mind-pulverizingly dumb, despite the huge amounts of high art references in it, it is a film of lowest-common denominator stupidity.” Is that then the point? That people who do know a bit about Renaissance art, or Dante, or the Bible, can laugh at this hokum? Are these stupid movies for smart people, or movies that are meant to make stupid people feel smart because of all their cack-handed highbrow references?
*. I don’t know. Langdon, for example, strikes me as being impossibly thick. Despite being an expert auhority in all this stuff it seems that he knows neither Latin nor Italian. Which makes him more of an Everyman, if that is a good thing. Even I, however, knew that we were going to the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul before we got to the tomb of Enrico Dandolo, not because I’ve read a lot of Byzantine history but because I’d seen From Russia With Love.
*. Leaving these matters aside, there’s . . . not much else to say. Basically this movie is a total rehash of the plots of the previous two. As already noted, Langdon and his female companion run around looking at art and solving really simple puzzles.
*. Of course in any franchise the individual films resemble one another. But in the case of these movies they are so similar, and so long and so slow-moving in the bargain, that you actually start to get exasperated. This is particularly the case with the big “twist” in Inferno, which is so blindingly obvious right from the start that even if you didn’t know how Ian McKellen and Ewan McGregor both turned in the previous films you’d still know Felicity Jones was playing for the other team here. You don’t even get a spoiler alert for that one.
*. Even the villainous billionaire with a plot to cull the human herd — a figure who has become rather popular in recent films, from Valentine in Kingsman: The Secret Service to Dr. Isaacs in Resident Evil: The Final Chapter and Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War — is bungled. I mean, he’s dead at the beginning of the film, which means he has to keep being reintroduced through repetitive flashbacks where he seems to be delivering the same TED talk to different audiences. Meanwhile, there’s a whole subplot involving some organization that basically runs a version of The Game that I couldn’t figure out at all. The plot isn’t just stupid, it makes no sense.
*. Despite all of this Inferno could have been entertaining. But Ron Howard can’t direct material like this and make it interesting. Actually, I think Howard is a very limited director who has a lot of trouble making anything seem interesting. Looking over his filmography I’m a little in awe of how someone could have such a long, successful career making movies that are at their very best good-natured and bland. Is it so profitable, so important, just to be competent and inoffensive?
*. Maybe it is, but if you’re making a suspense/action thriller I don’t see where his talents even rise to the level of competence. These movies are all dull, dumb, and forgettable. I really feel bad that I wasted my time watching them, and that’s something I don’t even say about most of the third-rate exploitation cinema or horror flicks I watch.
*. So, like I say, I expect more of these movies. They may be better, however, with Howard and Hanks moving on. I’d like to say they couldn’t be worse but I feel like that would be tempting fate. Let’s face it, there’s always another, lower circle of hell in Hollywood.

Angels & Demons (2009)

*. I began my notes on The Da Vinci Code saying it was critic proof. So is Angels & Demons, and for the same reason. So is there any point repeating what I said about the earlier movie? Perhaps, if I do it quickly. Because all of it still applies.
*. First off, I thought The Da Vinci Code was very stupid. It made a total hash out of church history. Well, Angels & Demons makes a total hash out of church history and physics. The evil plot here has to do with the Illuminati stealing a piece of anti-matter and threatening to blow up Vatican City during a papal conclave, in revenge for their persecution at the hands of the church some centuries earlier. Or at least that’s the cover story. Meaning it’s the evil plot the villain wants you to believe. So, yeah. Mark Kermode called this “the stupidest film I can remember seeing.” He meant it. Take him at his word.
*. I wondered, watching The Da Vinci Code, if there’d ever been a movie with so much expository dialogue. Again, Angels & Demons seems to have raised the bar. In addition to the mini-lectures offered up by Robert Langdon we even get narrative provided by cutaways to news coverage about what’s going on. It seems like every time anyone opens their mouth they’re having to explain something or deliver a crash course on some bit of Art History 101. Then they hop in their cars and speed off to the next location.
*. But why? If the story makes no sense in the first place, why spend so much time getting bogged down trying to explain what’s going on? There’s something about this whole concept that doesn’t work, even before you start asking fundamental questions that Langdon might have asked himself like why the Illuminati would bother turning their revenge plot into such an elaborate puzzle just for him to solve.
*. By the way, we’re supposed to believe that Professor Langdon, the world’s foremost authority on these arcane matters of church history and someone who has been trying for ten years to get access to the Vatican library, cannot read either Latin or modern Italian? I’m not even going to bother.
*. Finally, I said that The Da Vinci Code might have worked if they’d tried to be funny, but instead it took itself seriously without ever becoming camp, so that it ended up stuffy and dull. Angels & Demons actually marks a slight improvement in this regard. It’s not quite as long (though more than long enough) and it’s so ridiculous that there are moments where you do get to laugh. I mean, if you’re not laughing at the end then it’s only because you’ve fallen asleep. I only missed Ian McKellen hamming things up, as Ewan McGregor is no substitute.
*. I think critics actually enjoy movies like Angels & Demons because in a review they can kick it around a bit by making jokes about how stupid it is. I have notes enough to do the same but I thought this was such a poor movie I don’t even want to bother. It’s not that I hate it, I just think it’s a spectacular waste. That so much production value and talent went in to a project this unimaginably stupid is one thing, but Angels & Demons is rotten all the way through. Despite all of its silly puzzles the basic plot is so obvious, so lazy and so leadenly developed, complete with solemn choruses chanting in the background, that I found this to be a chore just to sit through. And still there was another Robert Langdon film to come.

The Da Vinci Code (2006)

*. You often hear the comment made of some films being “critic proof.” I guess The Da Vinci Code fits the label as well as most. It’s based on a megabestselling novel that everyone acknowledged was awful, something that itself showed how little effect bad reviews have. The movie, in turn, had a whack of money and talent behind it so there was no way it could lose. In fact, I suspect most people thought it was going to be an improvement on Dan Brown’s book because, well, how could it not be?
*. I’d put myself in that camp. I only read the first couple of chapters of the novel before deciding it was garbage. I figured that the movie would be more fun.
*. It’s not. To be sure, it’s just as stupid as the book, right from the title on down (it should be The Leonardo Code). I had hoped it would be silly. There is a difference between silly and stupid. Silly you can enjoy. Stupid you just have to put up with.
*. In case you haven’t heard, the premise here is that Jesus had a child with Mary Magdalene, leading to a bloodline traceable down to the present day. This has some cryptic connection to the Holy Grail, which I think is meant as a metaphor. Anyway, a secret Catholic sect wants to erase the descendants of Jesus because . . . if word got out about all of this then the Church would be brought into disrepute. Or something like that. Then there’s another guy (Ian McKellen) who wants to find the descendants of Jesus in order to . . . expose the hypocrisy of the Church? Honestly, there’s no sorting this garbage out.
*. A lot of Christian groups were upset, or at least pretended to be upset, over The Da Vinci Code. For obvious reasons, but perhaps also just because the story is so ridiculous. If any of this had even begun to make sense I think they might not have been so bothered by it. Or maybe if the descendants of Jesus had some super powers, making them into a kind of Holy Justice League. Instead, all Sophie can do is cure headaches by the laying on of hands.
*. I don’t think there’s any point going over how incoherent the conspiracy theory/treasure hunt plot is. I think people have done this already in a lot more detail than I want to go into here. Instead I’ll just say a few things about the movie.
*. Two-and-a-half hours. Ugh. I guess that comes with taking itself so seriously, and not wanting to cut any part of the book that (apparently) people loved so much. But it sure makes for a dull movie, with terrible pacing and acres of expository dialogue. In fact, I wonder if there’s ever been a screenplay with this high a percentage of lines being used solely to explain the crazy plot and bring us up to speed.
*. At some point when making the translation from page to screen you have to bite the bullet and make some cuts. Plenty of opportunities suggest themselves here. To take just one: Why bother including Langdon’s claustrophobia? It plays no role in the plot and doesn’t tell us anything important or significant about him. And yet they keep playing it up as though it might mean something. If they’d left it out they could have also cut the whole scene with Langdon and Sophie escaping in the back of the armored van.
*. Poor Audrey Tautou. I really mean it. Apparently several actresses wanted the part but Ron Howard always had his eye on Tautou. I can think of few recent leading roles so embarassing. At least Tom Hanks gets to look as though he’s always about to break out laughing at this garbage script. But Tautou has to play it straight, even with Hanks and McKellen grinning at her over their “V is for Vagina” hand signals.
*. I’m on again about how they went wrong playing what should be silly fun as something serious. Tautou should have hammed it up. Howard should have definitely cut an hour from the running time. Instead, Brown’s novel was taken as scripture, with predictable results.
*. This might have been the end of it, but studios around this time were becoming solely fixated on franchise filmmaking and the box office had not disappointed. More, and less, was to come.

Oblivion (2013)

*. Voiceover. Exposition. Most filmmakers hate it. But it’s often a necessary evil in an SF movie where some work has to be put into introducing a new world. Often necessary, but not always. They played with using it in Blade Runner, but most people agree it’s better without.
*. Oblivion begins with a long voiceover, courtesy of Jack Harper (Tom Cruise). What a terrible cold open. It put me off the film right away. And the bigger problem with it is that I didn’t see where it was necessary. There doesn’t seem to be much information given us that we require in order to understand what’s going on. And as we later find out, it’s mostly bullshit anyway (as if anyone in the audience actually thought humanity was going to pick up sticks and move to one of Saturn’s moons to live).
*. We don’t need details because details are unimportant. Oblivion is a big-picture picture, an IMAX experience. The basic structure of the story would be easy to follow even with the sound on mute. Dystopic future Earth. Aliens in charge. Heroic human resistance. Blow up the Death Star. We all go home. You don’t need a script. And I certainly don’t think you need a movie that goes on for over two hours.
*. All you really need are a bunch of jaw-dropping effects and breathtaking scenery, which isn’t hard to do if you have enough money. Did you know they shot the scene of Jack on a precipice watering a plant in Iceland, and that the crew had to use helicopters to get themselves and their equipment to the location? Question: Why? I guess money was no object.
*. This also made me wonder how long Iceland has been a go-to location for these barren SF landscapes. It certainly came into its own around this time, providing the backdrop for Prometheus, which came out the year before Oblivion, and a chunk of Interstellar as well (the stuff on the ice planet). But here it doesn’t seem as essential.
*. The physical landscape is only slightly less familiar than the ruins of civilization. Of course Jack and Vika are stationed above the wreckage New York City, which has been mostly buried under dirt (the ice caps have melted, but the Tet is sucking the oceans dry). This means we get to visit all the usual SF tourist destinations. A ruined Yankee Stadium. A ruined New York Public Library. A ruined Empire State Building. A ruined Brooklyn Bridge. We even quickly fly past the torch from a ruined Statue of Liberty. “God damn you! God damn you all to hell!”

*. I don’t find the design elements all that interesting. Jack and Vika live in a boring Modernist palace in the sky. The Tet can let them live in luxury but can’t get them spare parts for the drones? Meanwhile, the Tet and its hydro stations are just floating inverted pyramids. The Bubble Ships are nothing special, and the drones just more bubbles. They also give the chase through the canyon even more of the effect of a giant pinball game. This may have been what they were going for but it doesn’t make it any better.
*. Why is the rebel hideout such a cavernous industrial site? To give the drones lots of open space to fly around in? I mean, the people don’t even have panic holes to escape to.
*. I don’t want to bash Tom Cruise. Who else could have played Jack in this movie? Of course that may be part of the problem with him. This is a Tom Cruise movie perhaps in the way that Mark Kermode found The Mummy to be, fatally, a Tom Cruise movie. The star defines the genre.
*. I do, however, want to quote some critical reactions to his performance, as he tends to bring out the best in critics and some of it may be relevant to another point I was thinking of. So here are a couple of samples with some of my own commentary.
*. David Edelstein: “After all of these years, he [Cruise] still indicates rather than feels, signaling thought by wrinkling his brow and squinting real hard and looking like a caveman encountering fire for the first time. He looks less like mankind’s savior than like a harbinger of devolution — the last stage before we’re back at lungfish.”
*. That’s funny because it’s kind of true. I also thought it struck a chord because of its vision of a world that will be taken over by millions of Tom Cruise clones, which is sort of like how we’re all going to turn into Johnny Depp at the end of Transcendence. The narcissism of celebrity is strong here.

*. Now here’s Wesley Morris: “Cruise is his reliable self. His determination to give us our money’s worth might represent the most intense and intensely ridiculous professional commitment in the history of the movies. It’s hard not to love a man who loves us as much as Cruise does. He just has no chemistry with anyone else.”
*. This is true. That Cruise really cares about these projects, that he believes in them, is clear listening to his DVD commentary with writer-director Joseph Kosinski. What is also true, however, is that he doesn’t play well with others.
*. Of course babes love Tom. Here he has Olga Kurylenko (a model) and Andrea Riseborough (a breathtaking nude silhouette) in conflict over his charms. But you never get the sense that he cares much about them. He’s too busy trying to figure himself out. And this made me consider the matter further. When has Cruise ever had chemistry with one of his female leads? I can’t say I really saw much of a spark with Kelly McGillis in Top Gun. With Rebecca De Mornay in Risky Business? We’re going back a while. And in all these examples it’s always the woman who has to do the most work. He seems weirdly asexual to me. The narcissism of celebrity is strong here as well.
*. The generic vapidity of the script is suggested by the fact that the studio considered using the film’s alternative title, which was Horizons. They went with Oblivion. I don’t see where either title means anything. I guess once your memory has been wiped you enter a kind of oblivion. But even that’s tenuous.

*. As I’ve said, I don’t think you even have to listen to any of the dialogue to understand what’s going on. Nobody says anything important. Nor does the premise make a lick of sense.
*. Example: Why does the Tet need all these human clones anyway? It can’t fix its own drones? It seems like they’re going through an awful lot of work for nothing. And even if they do need Jack, why bother with Vika? Is she just there to keep Jack company? Because otherwise an AI could do her job, better.
*. On the commentary track Kosinski cites the scene where Jack repairs the drone with some bubblegum (really) as demonstrating that the Tet needs the human ability to improvise, since drones can’t fix themselves. This is just too ridiculous for words.
*. Another problem with the script is its dependence on coincidence. How does Beech know that Jack will pick up the exact book he leaves for him? I didn’t even think he had left it for him until they said so on the commentary. I mean, the library is full of books. And how would he know Jack would turn to “Horatius,” and precisely stanza XXVII (of LXX)? And isn’t it lucky that Jack is reminded of the fact that Julia is his wife when they both just happen to be standing on the observation deck of the Empire State Building, where he proposed to her?
*. I guess the use of Macaulay’s poem is fitting. At least more fitting than dragging poor Dylan Thomas into Interstellar. But did we really need Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World” to make an appearance? It seems reduced to kitsch here. As a footnote: At the end of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel 2001 a print of “Christina’s World” is hanging in the cheap hotel room Bowman is removed to after passing through the Star Gate. But it does not appear in Kubrick’s movie. Stanley knew better.
*. I’ve gone on longer about this movie than it deserves. It looks pretty, in a very conventional way. The story, however, flubs every chance at excitement or drama. I would have loved to have seen more of Melissa Leo’s Sally playing with Jack. Even as an avatar she makes a great villain. But canceling her out is Morgan Freeman playing pretty much the same role he always does. Doesn’t knowing he’s in this movie sort of ruin any surprise about what’s really going on?
*. Richard Corliss: “Six minutes or 60 years after seeing the movie, viewers are unlikely to remember it.” My time is up!

More American Graffiti (1979)

*. In my notes on American Graffiti I mentioned how it might be thought of as the real inflection point in American cinema in the 1970s, turning away from independent, anti-establishment films toward more commercial properties. American Graffiti certainly was commercial, being a surprising box office hit. It was also about as American as mom and apple pie and hot rods.
*. Given that success, the lag time for a follow up (six years) may be thought surprising. There are two reasons for it. In the first place, franchise filmmaking hadn’t taken hold yet, where a sequel is often being planned even before a film is released. Second: a couple of other, even more lucrative blockbusters had changed the game. What with Jaws and Star Wars setting the bar there was little demand for more American Graffiti.
*. This could have been seen as liberating, and I think to some extent it was. The producers here were free to go in a new direction and they did. More American Graffiti, to its credit, is something different. Not a good movie, but different.
*. Two things stand out. In the first place it’s more of a broad comedy than the first film. American Graffiti was going for gentle nostalgia. More American Graffiti goes for laughs. The second change-up is the intriguing way the story is presented. There are basically four stories interwoven, taking place at different times and shot in different styles (a smaller frame for one, split screens for another). Sure it’s a gimmick, but were you expecting a gimmick? I wasn’t.
*. As with any gimmick movie, the gimmick raises a question: But for the gimmick, would the movie be interesting or worth watching? Sometimes I don’t think this question is fair. I don’t, for example, think it’s fair to ask whether Memento would be worth watching if it was played forward instead of backward. It’s a movie that was designed to play in reverse. In other films, however, the question of the added value of the gimmick can fairly be raised. And it was here.
*. David Ansen in Newsweek put it this way: “This [the film’s composite structure] is all very film-school fancy, but what does it mean? Alas, precious little. ‘More’ in this case is decidedly less. Once you get used to the cross-cutting — which is rather like switching channels between four different TV shows — the realization dawns that none of the segments is particularly interesting.”
*. In other words, the film-school stunts are just there to make up for the fact that nothing much is going on. But this makes one pause. Could anything less be going on than in American Graffiti? And isn’t there in fact a lot going on here? Steve and Cindy (now married with children) break up and then have to get back together again after various adventures, Debbie becomes a roadie for a hippie band, John Milner has to win a big race (again), and Toad is trying to think up some scheme for getting out of Vietnam.
*. Well, we might say, there are different ways of being interesting. There is a lot going on here, but I agree with Ansen that it does little to hold one’s attention, even with the scattered narrative. It’s just that I wasn’t much interested in American Graffiti either.
*. More American Graffiti also seems kind of pointless. There is an anti-establishment message playing throughout. Steve has to learn to let Cindy go her own way, and ends up fighting against the Man. Milner resists being co-opted by corporate interests. Toad bucks authority in ‘Nam. Bob Falfa, the villain of American Graffiti, has a cameo as a jackbooted thug (motorcycle cop). Again one has the sense of a sequel coming too late. In 1979 such a message could almost play as nostalgically as the cruising lifestyle of the first film.
*. It’s a movie that let a lot of people down, mainly because it was not, in fact, “more” American Graffiti. But I respect the direction taken. They took chances. They came up with something different. And what they came up with wasn’t all bad. Personally, I’d just as soon watch this movie again as American Graffiti. But I’m not a fan of either. In both cases I think maybe you had to be there.

American Graffiti (1973)

*. It’s a commonplace to see Star Wars and Jaws as marking the end of an era, meaning the end of the New Hollywood chronicled by Peter Biskind in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. But maybe the end came earlier. American Graffiti was a huge box office success and it categorically rejects the darkness and seriousness of the creative golden age of American film in the early ’70s. In fact, I think you could even argue that it rejects the darkness and seriousness of Rebel Without a Cause (1955).
*. Friend and mentor Francis Ford Coppola, brought in to be a “name” producer, had advised George Lucas, who had been disappointed in the reception given THX 1138, to do something “warm and fuzzy.” That is to say, commercial. Lucas did not think this would be difficult.
*. This may make American Graffiti out to be a cynical production, but the shoe fits. This is, at least in some ways, how everyone saw the project at the time: as a turn against the New Hollywood and its late-Vietnam pessimism. So, pushing the setting back to 1962 (before the watershed moment of the Kennedy assassination) was a return to a state of innocence. The kids never get into any trouble (from the law, scary gangs, gun-wielding store owners, or even fiery car crashes) that they can’t walk away from. The only clouds in that otherwise brilliantly blue sky at the end would take the form of the gang’s yearbook notices.
*. It’s a movie that looks in two directions. It’s an ode to nostalgia, which is what audiences have always appreciated in it. But it also looks ahead in lots of obvious ways. The talent would all go on to gaudier things, and shortly. And other new directions were being marked out as well.
*. This was a groundbreaking film. Its use of a playlist soundtrack to create a sort of musical montage, and the presentation of a milieu rather than a story, was in advance of Altman’s Nashville. It’s just that Altman had characters and here we only have stereotypes: the muscled rocker who is king of the strip, the cool kid (Richard Howard as the Big Man on Campus), the nerd, the dreamer, the good girl and the slutty girl with a heart of a gold. We’re not too far advanced from the pages of Archie comics here, or the soon-to-debut Happy Days.
*. Apparently the budget for the music was $80,000, which strikes me as very low. It would be inconceivable for a low-budget film to get together a soundtrack like this today. And even though I’m not a big fan, I think it sounds great.
*. But you’ll have probably guessed by now that I don’t like the movie much. Perhaps it’s just because the milieu in question is so alien to my own childhood. I didn’t grow up near anyplace like Modesto, and I’ve never cared about cars. I never engaged in the kind of mating rituals that so fascinated Lucas. So the nostalgia factor doesn’t work for me.
*. More than that, the movie looks muddy and seems almost randomly assembled. On a few occasions I had the feeling that important connecting scenes had been lost when Lucas cut it down from its original 3 hours. Worse, I find the reaching for some more profound or mythic significance a bit lame. Suzanne Somers in a white T-Bird is the unattainable blonde idealized by the romantic hero who is about to begin his journey, while “the the “solemn endnotes about the destiny of the four young men are superficial and pompous, and filled with the wish to keep pain at arm’s length” (David Thomson, who considered this to be the best film Lucas ever made).
*. The endnotes and the blonde in the T-Bird also have another meaning. Lucas has often been taken to task for not really understanding women or relationships. He’s not misogynist (or at least I don’t know of that charge being made) but he just isn’t interested in women very much. So the blonde will remain unattainable and another page of endnotes telling us whatever happened to the female leads was cut because Lucas thought it just made the movie too long.
*. Though I think American Graffiti overrated it’s easy to understand what its many fans see in it. It’s a movie that was designed to charm and not to offend. There’s lots of terrific music and likeable young actors who embody the freedom of youth, a time when one’s actions hold no consequences and there’s nothing much to do but drive up and down the strip all night long.
*. A good time, and a favourite of many, but a great movie? Its mythic evocation of a time and place has by now replaced the reality, or has become more important than the reality, but despite all the talent involved on both sides of the camera I have a hard time pointing to anything about the film that impresses me, or that strikes me as particularly well done. Lucas, like a lot of super-popular entertainers, had the same need as the public apparently did for this kind of story, and so was able to make popular culture over in his own mental image of what it should be. We’re still living with the consequences of that.