Alien: Covenant Review

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I hate Prometheus and I don’t say that lightly. Part of this resentment towards Ridley Scott’s 2012 sci-fi opus is that it was sold as an Alien prequel. I fed into that promise and gleefully went to a midnight showing (actually 1:30 am because all screenings earlier were sold out) at Arclight even though I had to be up at 6 am for work. Needless to say, I was more than disappointed when I was delivered this black goo, giant space engineers bullshit and one lousy pseudo xenomorph in the finale as a consolation prize after enduring two hours of unanswered questions. I left the theater tired and pissed. Even if the effects were astounding and Charlize Theron was a bad ass, that couldn’t excuse that this was a movie of all setup, no payoff, and horrid Guy Pierce old man make up. Would I see the sequel to this lie? Of course! With the outrage that befell Prometheus on its release meant that the successor would have to ACTUALLY be the Alien prequel we demanded. Dropping the P name, Alien: Covenant aims to regain the fanbase being more action packed and aligned with the structural style of the original series.

The spaceship Covenant is on track to a newly found habitable planet to start a colony with the 2,000 hyper-sleeping passengers on board. After an unforeseen accident that forces the crew awake and burning up the captain in his hibernation pod, the reeling crew takes an abrupt side mission to an unknown planet they receive a cryptic signal from. This opening act in space is a lot of Scott flexing his muscles showing us the breathtaking recreation of space as if he didn’t get enough of that in The Martian. It’s also an opportunity to learn about the team, only half being of interest, that includes freshly appointed leader Oram (Billy Crudup), his second in command and the girlfriend of the burned up corpse Dany (Catherine Waterston), synthetic Walter who is more stilted and robotic than Prometheus’ David (both Michael Fassbender) and Danny McBride in a cowboy hat. We follow the expedition unit onto the lush green landscape that has some hostile beings that we’re quite familiar with. The chaos that catapults the team in motion is by the Prometheus introduced slimy xenomorph-adjacent and leads to more than just brutal attacks and body bursting. Without giving too much away, Covenant bridges the 2012 film or at least the remaining bits of it with the beloved Alien mythos.

What I want to get out there is that I think this is an ok movie, a serviceable Alien prequel and light years better than Prometheus, at the same time this movie can’t exist without it. It makes Prometheus the vegetables you had to eat first before you got to the steak that is Covenant, or more appropriately the quality of a turkey burger. The new film amps up the action and the energy that the previous film lacks because it’s a solemn mood piece. Covenant is delivering quiet horror followed by monumental fight sequences in the style of the original Alien. It’s more of the violence and gore that I wanted but at the same time incorporates the philosophical subject matters spearheading Prometheus. A major overarching theme of the entire series is the idea of playing God especially when it comes to this strange extraterrestrial species. With Alien and Aliens, it was Weyland Industries wanting to harvest the xenomorph for testing and bio-weaponry at the expense of the company casualties then in Alien: Resurrection its cruel genetically modified Sigourney Weaver-xenomorph hybrids. While Covenant’s goal is to deliver the familiarity you have with the series it does get to dig deeper into the God complex that the founder of Weyland Industries passed onto his prized possession, David. Corrupted with power and egomania, David becomes an uneasy figure to survivors which I liked as an alternative threat to the usual double mouthed creature.

Because there’s such a strong focus on this storyline when we actually get to the xenomorph it filled me with elation because it’s the cherry on top of this heavy tenuous enclosed horror of being trapped with an android. While I’m glad they don’t overuse the xenomorph, the turn into the third act doesn’t really know what to do with David. The narrative closure of this film is muddled in its intentions of what is meant to surprise you and I never need to be an hour ahead of a twist. In general, the film is filled with very little surprise because this franchise is so played out. This new millennium diverging series has trapped itself in a corner of being tied with Alien. It seems like Riddley Scott is trying to expand the universe, explore this future of uncharted galaxies and questioning human’s place in the cosmos but if it’s connected to Alien we demand xenomorphs and then it’s the same movie over and over again. You can’t win. Hell, I find AVP is a better side project because it’s a different space to play in, it’s ridiculous and at least the tagline is upfront with the fact that we all lose. With Scott signed on for two additional sequels and considering the cliffhanger the film ends on, theoretically, there is a story there but it sounds pretty similar to Aliens and I’d prefer to have no one touching a remake of that.

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The Vintage Gets Around to Batman Forever

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Recently I received a lot of flack for watching the much beguiled Batman & Robin. It wasn’t just because I was making a bad decision in how I should spend my time, it was that I skipped over an important and questionably superior piece of the Batman mythology, Batman Forever. My friends who berated me for my discretion maintained strong adoration for the third installment in the series, so much so my compadre in superhero cinema, Mari, brought over her well-worn VHS copy and clunky VCR for a nostalgic viewing experience at my home (we had no way of hooking that relic up so we resorted to HBOGO). With a highly informed guide, I embraced this journey and returned to a simpler, less gritty DC universe for the 1995 hit, Batman Forever.

Structurally, Forever and Batman & Robin are nearly identical. One villain is already established and reeking havoc in Gotham. The former is Tommy Lee Jones as Two Face rocking some dope makeup and playing a Joker adjacent lunatic, already a better choice than Schwarzenegger’s uninspired Mr. Freeze. Then we witness the second villain’s origin story, here Jim Carey as fuck boy The Riddler who is dying to be the next Bruce Wayne. He and Uma Thurman both win me over as seductive masterminds (Carey cleans up well) and clearly on board with this wacky pursuit. The beats of fighting their sworn enemy Batman play out exactly the same but Forever just has better execution. Two Face has devil and angel henchmen played by some of my favorite actresses in thankless roles (Drew Barrymore and Debi Mazar) which at least is better than blow up doll Bane. Both films have the introduction of a new hero as well, once again Forever winning out with Robin (Chris O’Donnell) who witnesses maybe not gory but still the haunting demise of his acrobat family. I stated before that O’Donnell sells the plucky yet rebellious character in B&R better than Alicia Silverstone’s Batgirl who is Cher but if she traded shopping for motorcycles. O’Donnell’s 1995 wardrobe doesn’t age well with his single earring and bad boy 90210 get up but it supplied me with countless laughs.

 
Once all the characters are in place, the movie is the simple formula of villains hatch plot to take over Gotham and Batman must foil them. At least one thing to knock down Forever’s credit if it seems like I’m praising it too much is that this evil genius plan doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Riddler has this brainwave device that can look into people’s mind and extract their knowledge which, sure is pretty invasive but our villains don’t harness that resource for any kind of gain. It comes in handy once when used on Bruce Wayne to reveals that all he thinks about are bats, hence proof he’s Batman. I at least wanted Riddler to be able to have special powers or something epic caused by his invention. Obviously, these are less than perfect motivations than what we get from the previous films (Penguin running for mayor). I was very disappointed that Two Face was relegated to B villain status as Riddler’s machine made for the central focus. Tommy Lee Jones is a great hammy actor who I was so excited for from the start but then is downgraded to grunts and snarls as Riddler spits out his surprisingly sexual puns. It’s a shame to waste such good Jones. Aside from the villains which has always been DC’s biggest strength, the narrative arc is Batman’s growth as a pair/father figure with Robin but in all honesty, Lego Batman achieves this ten times better and with actual humor. Nothing in the series is quite funny and rather Schumacher’s goal is for it to be enjoyable for kids and then later to sell toys which this doesn’t do as blatantly. I haven’t even mentioned Nicole Kidman who’s forth billed because her character is essentially the poster of To Die For. Her role as Dr. Chase Meridian is as empty as all the other female parts because she goes completely goo-goo over the sight of the caped crusader. She beckons him with the bat signal and welcomes him in a slip. I’m not judging her for being thirsty but at least give her some other drive than sex because yeah, she’ll settle for Bruce. As for the man himself, I’ve avoided discussing the Bat because I’m not too impressed with Val Kilmer though he’s got the look of a playboy billionaire than anyone to come before or after him. He’s slightly more invested than Clooney but not much. It’s hard to blame him when his given such uninteresting material. Kilmer works better when eccentric and Bruce Wayne is a dry steak amongst the more juicy criminals.

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So there’s some concrete evidence this isn’t a landmark piece of cinema but the reason I’m writing this whole review anyway is to retroactively confirm that it is better than B&R. Burton is at least on as a producer for Forever which may be why it’s limited to only one butt shot and that there are no extreme sports included. The quality overall is better. All the sets look professional and I like the inclusion of a real location for city hall. There’s one scene in which Robin explores the seedy part of town that includes the neon graffiti that permeates all of B&R and I applaud that there only that scene to remind me of the paintball arena sets that I despise so much in the sequel. Batman Forever has a little more self-respect than the garbage fire that was to follow. Due to my backward choice in viewing, it gets rated on a curb, working in its favor but that doesn’t make it a masterpiece. I wouldn’t trade it in for any Burton or Nolan work. But better than Batman v Superman? Now that’s a conversation worth having…

Testing the Waters with Cecil B. Demented

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I’m still dipping my toes into the world of iconic anarchist director John Waters’ filmography. I liked the rawness of his early work 1971’s Multiple Maniacs but years ago when I tried to watch the Tracey Ullman sex comedy, A Dirty Shame, I couldn’t even last thirty minutes. Water’s MO for his decade-spanning career has been to push the boundaries of censorship and social norms. His films are known for depicting vulgarity for vulgarity’s sake. It’s why his films can be hit or miss for so many audience members, it depends on if you’re willing to embrace that uniqueness as well as enjoy it. I’ve been on the side of respecting his boldness and experimentation but finding the finished product either mildly boorish or boring because of the narrative’s focus on the gross-out rather than a compelling story. His new millennium entertainment satire Cecil B. Demented is somewhat of a departure than what I expected from a John Water’s joint. While crying “rebellion”, Demented has a very clear engaging plot and exceptional production value. The unorthodox characters and casting are what give it Waters signature feel.

The film opens at a local Baltimore movie theater prepping for a red carpet premiere of a new major motion picture starring aging actress Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith). It’s established she’s kind of a bitch, shown by how poorly she treats her assistant played by Ricki Lake, and that all her movies are mainstream trash. During the lavish event, she is kidnapped by a group calling themselves SprocketHoles, a youthful terrorist organization who want to send a message to Hollywood that they must stop making schmaltzy garbage and indie, radical filmmaking is the only true artful cinema. Honey is held hostage in their bohemian dwellings and transported to locations across the city to film guerilla style scenes for director and rebel leader, Cecil B. Demented (Stephen Dorff). Their unethical practices lead to shootouts and all participant are willing to die in the name of cinema, even Honey as she becomes indoctrinated into their cult. It’s very obvious that John Water’s wanted to make his version of the Patty Hearst Story and structuring it as a Hollywood satire is a great way to channel his message through. It does stand as one of the more grabbing aspects because I immediately delved into a K-hole of reading about Patty Hearst details and it’s as bananas as this movie makes it out to be. I should also note Hearst plays a small role as a concerned mother of one of the anarchists and it’s both off-color and fascinating.

I need to take a second and breakdown some of the cast because it’s intriguing. First, Melanie Griffith is both the worst and best choice for the lead. I’ll say it here, we give her a pass for Working Girl but she’s a terrible actress. Her delivery is always flat and unconvincing. I like this in scenes when Honey is acting for the camera because it’s a statement that Hollywood will turn no talent pretty faces into a star but I wish for all the other scenes she could be a real person but Griffith always sounds stilted. It makes sense that Waters would want her because he loves offbeat performances. Patty Hearst can’t sell a line to save her life but it’s weird and that’s what he wants. Yet the supporting cast is astonishingly good due in part to the casting of youthful up and comers like Maggie Gyllenhaal and Michael Shannon (credited Mike). The collective, in general, contain the most fun characters, each representing an aspect of the filmmaking process, Gyllenhaal’s Raven is the makeup artist and Shannon’s Petie is the driver and they all have codenames tattooed on them of famous independent directors, Fassbinder, Almodovar, etc. Each member is a little crazy either by drugs (Adrian Grenier’s glue huffing Lyle), sex (Alicia Witt’s porn star Cherish) or Satan (Raven is a satanist). I will say the two black members of the team Lewis (Larry Gillard Jr) and Chardonnay (Zenzele Uzoma) while during the kidnapping are essential but once out of disguise become troubling stereotypes of what someone in the year 2000 would call “urban”. They are relegated to providing a hip-hop score to the residence and when Lewis speaks (Chardonnay has very few lines other than rapping) he has an unnecessary ebonics dialect. Can’t say it’s much of a surprise that writing black characters isn’t John Waters strong suit.

As much as this is John Waters criticizing the Hollywood system, this feels closer to a studio movie. It’s a large budget than his initial projects so it’s all around better quality than the grainy amateurishness associated with his early work. But that’s the changing of the industry. Movies like Mondo Trasho and Pink Flamingos were edgy in the 60’s and 70’s because they were perverted and unlike anything that a studio would be willing to create but as society progressed his debauchery was less groundbreaking. Cecil laments that mainstream cinema “stole our sex and co-opted our violence” referring to the boundary pushing that underground cinema pioneered. This film isn’t that revolutionary or avant-garde because as Waters sees it, it’s almost impossible to do so anymore. Hollywood embraces weirdness in a way it wouldn’t 40 years earlier. The unforeseen twist of it all is that if this movie came out a year later, it would be seen as very divisive. Cecil B. Demented is wholly a pre-9/11 movie. With the amount of terrorism and mass shootings this film contains, it really struck a cord as a 2017 viewer. Gun violence in a movie theater is less of something to laugh about now and radicalization as much more significant connotations. I hope Waters’ finds solace that retroactively this movie becomes tasteless.

Cecil B. Demented is a decent gateway into the foray of John Waters. It gives you a gist of the of extremes he incorporates like the fact the climax of the film is people literally climaxing in a rooftop orgy. Like all his films it’s about outcasts and perverts and how life is better with eccentricities. There is a lot of accessible parody for a laymen viewer like the sequel hating stance towards “Forrest Gump 2”. The tone is overall silly which makes it highly palatable to watch these brightly colored sets and over the top characters try to make a movie. The wackiness of the crew running into and hiding out in different movie theaters in the city (family friendly, action oriented and porno) makes for Scooby-Doo level hijinx which is easier to convince someone to see than a movie that has a fetish rape (a John Waters standard). Yeah, it’s a little demented, but it’s mostly a lot of fun.

The Vintage Revisits: Batman&Robin

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Wow, how Batman can go off the rails when put in the wrong hands. I recently rewatched the 1989 Tim Burton Batman and was blown away by its bold style, dark humor and everyone’s level of commitment to this heightened universe. I know Nolan gets all the credit for making the gritty, realistic Batman, but I don’t need him to exist in my world. Burton’s vision of a 1930’s cartoonishly drawn Gotham works because the peril feels real and the visuals are corrupting. Jack Nicholson’s disfigured Joker with his plasticy face that is more creepy as a normal skin tone or the two bit crooks Batman encounters in the opening who look like Tommy in Trainspotting post-AIDS are really disturbing. I was so impressed that the first swing at making a Batman movie post Adam West cult classic TV show, managed to still have that childlike appeal of a comic book but have this sinister edge. After the well-earned success of this blockbuster, sequels were bound to follow and the bar was set insanely high. You may ask why I decided to jump all the way to the end of this quadrilogy bypassing Batman Returns which has the incomparable Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman and penguins with bombs strapped on their backs and then Batman Forever a movie I’ve never seen so I can make a comment on how great the villains are and ending up at the notoriously panned nail in the coffin that is Batman & Robin. Is it because it was all that was available at the library? Who’s to say but there is some small connection I have to this forlorn entry. While I didn’t see it upon release when I was the ripe age of 5 (the target demo) I did have the coloring book which made me aware of the characters and broad design of the feature. Twenty years later the images in that book pay off and I saw that world animate in front of my eyes, and boy is it a shit show.

Joel Schumacher is definitely the person I’m gonna blame for all of this. Taking over the reigns from Burton, there is a huge visual and tonal shift that accounts for the downfall of this film. The stories are always the same, Batman comes up against some big baddies, usually two wackos that got their powers from falling into a vat of fill-in-the-blank and their plans for overtaking Gotham must be squashed. Because of the simplicity, it all comes down to the execution. Burton’s color pallet was hues of black and when there would be splashes of color like in the Prince scored Balloon Parade it really pops. That’s why the Joker’s white and green face is so striking because it’s contrasted against a black backdrop of the city. Here, Schumacher takes that cartoon element and runs with it more literally. Every set is painted in heavy neon. The movie never feels dark because there’s so much neon light pouring in at every angle. Just looking at the poster itself, it’s very honed in on the fact that if Mr. Freeze is around, everything is super blue or Poison Ivy, it’s painfully green. He then also tweaks the tone to fit that brightness. Gone is the disturbing grossness you get with a creep like Penguin. Every inch of this movie has to be bubbly, big and kid friendly. All the henchmen do extreme sports which relegate our heroes to having to fight on roller skates, motorcycles and sky diving surf boards. It’s a clear reminder at how lame extreme sports are but that they were studio shorthand for “cool” in the late 90’s. All the sets look like cheap paintball arenas compared to the well crafted, gothic scenery of Burton’s landscape. As someone who loves a hand built, practical set I found myself cringing at locations like the artificial icicle lair and Poison Ivy’s Audrey Two puppet.

It’s pretty obvious that what makes Batman so great are his villains and it has been stated already that it often stands as the best way to judge a Batman movie. I definitely wouldn’t want to have this movie solely be judged by its heroes because they’re pretty abysmal. George Clooney taking over the role filled first by Michael Keaton then Val Kilmer, the salt and pepper haired gentleman seems less than thrilled to be taking on the iconic caped crusader. Clooney sleepwalks as Bruce Wayne made only more clear by the high energy, chipper demeanor Chris O’Donnell brings to the boy wonder. The newest edition to their crew is Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl and she’s never been the greatest actress to begin with but when saddled with dialogue only written in quips, she can not sell the contrived lines like “watch and learn, little boy.” The quips and puns are a staple of the campy Batman era and are in full swing here as that is only way Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy know how to communicate. Mr.Freeze is the central villain with his diamond robbing needs and character motivation of trying to find a cure for his cryogenically frozen wife. Schwarzenegger has the natural build for a super villain but due to the goofiness of the environment, he never feels like a threat, just a rogue agent of the Blue Man Group. Poison Ivy (played by Uma Thurman) becomes the nastiest of the baddies mostly because she’s a woman and her transformation from nerdy scientist Pamela Isley to a vivacious seductress in a coded sexual awakening makes her be fit for ultimate punishment. Antiquated sexual politics strikes again! Uma Thurman is by far is my MVP because she’s having a grand time delivering every line with a slice of ham. Least valuable player goes to Bane who is played by a luchador Stretch Armstrong which is one of the most disappointing characters I’ve ever seen put on screen. Once you’ve had Tom Hardy do it right, you can’t turn back,

From the word go, my reaction to this was “is this a joke?” It literally begins with ass shots of Batman and Robin suiting up. I wish I could say that the juicy homoeroticism continues throughout but it’s just this weird note to kick off the action. This is a children’s movie that starts like a gay porn. It’s so hokey and the campiness isn’t fully embraced by the cast and ontop of that is overshadowed by the obvious angle that this movie exists to sell toys. It’s caught in such a limbo of intent. Lost Boys is a better example of Schumacher’s ability to make a children’s film that can balance the camp and the darkness while appealing to a broader audience. Batman & Robin dissolved the 90’s incarnation of Batman, only reviving its credibility with the animated series then getting a second chance with Batman Begins. I find myself enjoying the muddled mythology and vicissitude of Batman’s on-screen history which all pays off in Lego Batman. Suprise! Didn’t expect this review to be a ploy to praise Lego Batman but that’s the kind of chaos the Joker would unequivocally approve of.

The Vintage Revisits: The People Under The Stairs

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Now no longer a Moviepass member, podcasts predominantly dictate my film watching decisions. The Next Picture Show podcast, run by former Dissolve critics, upon the release of Get Out in March paired it with Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs. While Stepford Wives is the more direct link, they chose the 1991 adventure horror for its racial themes which are very specific to its era. It’s still an odd choice because as much as I love Wes Craven, he is a hit or miss kind of guy. People Under the Stairs falls somewhere in the middle, not the masterpiece of Scream or the trashy mess of My Soul to Take. It’s unique that it’s not particularly scary and more satirical. At the same time being told from a child’s perspective as he tries to escape the maze of a boobytrapped mansion, it becomes a weird violent Home Alone alternative. Within this genre mishmash, there’s a lot to dig into even if it’s not all fully realized.

In the black slums of Los Angeles, a 13-year-old Fool (Brandon Adams), his sister and sickly mother are about to be evicted from their dilapidated apartment complex by their evil white landlords. Family friend Leroy (Ving Rhames) enlists Fool’s help to rob those same landlords who are reportedly hoarding mounds of gold in their creepy house in the suburbs. The robbery goes sour fast and Fool finds himself trapped in a house that’s more concerned with breakouts than break-ins as there are cannibals in the basement, a mute in the walls and a porcelain doll of a daughter being tortured in her own bedroom. This is a film filled with so many strange details, it’s difficult to cover in a brief summary. What’s important to know is that the landlords referred to as Man and Woman in the credits are Reagan era allegories and they’re into some fucked up shit. Podcasters Tasha Robinson, Keith Phipps and Scott Tobias found the metaphors quite blatant while for me as the credits rolled I turned to my boyfriend and said: “what were the people under the stairs supposed to stand for?” It’s a very clear generation gaps as Craven’s film is preying on the 80’s conservative, moral standards of the Republican-run government who preach purity but happily disenfranchise minorities. This shines clearest with the performances of Man and Woman played in extremely broad strokes by Everett McGill and Wendy Robie who are dolled up to be incestuous surrogates of Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Their greediness and racism which is more overt than the white liberals in Get Out are very real for that time especially when the LA riots would happen only a year later.

Out of all the obstacles that Fool faces in the house, the titular people under the stairs are the least imposing which is what contributes to the flaws of this film. If I were to rank the threats it would go Mommy Dearest Nancy Reagan, simpleton Ronald Reagan in a gimp costume, the Cujo Rottweiler named Prince, abject poverty and lastly the Romero-esque zombies lurking in the basement dungeon. The Reagans are enough of a menace with the Woman’s bitchy white woman stares and the Man IN A FULL GIMP LEATHER DADDY GET UP running around with a shotgun hunting down a child. They are more effect villains due in part to how the film is shot. The initial breaking and entering is a daytime occurrence and a majority of the story takes place in an afternoon. This isn’t a dark and shadowy mise en scene, there’s a lot of light pouring through windows, a reminder that there is a world outside of this prison. Because of that choice, the powder-faced mutants in the basement look cheap and silly because we can see them too clearly. The Reagans look like normal people but behind closed doors are the ones to fear.

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So we’ve got the political commentary, the parts that are intended to be scary but then this is also a poorly planned children’s film. I know not all films with a young protagonist have to be then geared towards children but even with murder and cannibalism, the tone has a playful energetic mentality that would appeal to a 13-year-old audience. It’s that Goonies spirit of treasure and adventure but misplaced here when there are more grounded stakes. Yet at one point when Fool and the mute Lost Boy, Roach (Sean Whalen), are being chased by Prince, Roach releases a trap door that shoots the dog down two floors and through the kitchen that might as well be accompanied by a slide whistle. Craven wants to have his cake and eat it too by making a Little Rascals and a Dawn of the Dead crossover but gets so muddled when you have this little kid saying the word “fuck”.

I know Wes Craven is a director capable of making horror movies with deep seeded messages. I consistently return to Last House on the Left, a brutal rape/revenge narrative but with clearly expressed commentary on 60’s counterculture and the Vietnam War. I respect his interest in branching out and wanting to talk directly about race but being a white man doesn’t make him the best candidate to do so. This kind of winking at the camera tone he would nail down a few years late with Scream. I wouldn’t say The People Under the Stairs is a failure (Ving Rhames in a movie is nothing to scoff at) yet the social awareness lacks a deep comprehension and the metaphors come off as half-baked in a 2017 perspective. Of course, the curiosity I end this review on is, is Vampire in Brooklyn any better?

A Star is Dead: Remembering Dorothy Stratten

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I’ve listened to all the episodes of the popular Hollywood history podcast “You Must Remeber This” without watching any of the movies that host, Karina Longworth, brings up. The past season of Dead Blondes has discussed some fascinating actresses with legendary careers and tragic deaths from icons like Marylin Monroe to forgotten starlets like Peg Entwistle. The final episode struck a cord with me though, the story of the brief stardom of Dorothy Stratten, a Playboy Playmate turned actresses who was murdered in the most horrendous of circumstances. It’s a story of exploitation, domestic abuse and the seedier side of Hollywood a la Boogie Nights. Maybe it stuck out because it plays out more like a “My Favorite Murder” episode than a “You Must Remember This”, for all you podcast nerds out there. It’s gory, graphic and salacious like many of the true crimes Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark discuss on that show and their catchphrase “fuck politeness” would have proved quite applicable to Stratten who was trapped in an abusive relationship almost out of obligation. Maybe my interest stems from it being is a Hollywood story, that I may have driven by the home where she was murdered on my way to the west side. Or most likely, that her life was adapted into a movie by Bob Fosse titled Star 80 and after I happened to watch All That Jazz last week, this biopic jumped out at me as one of Fosse’s final films. Here is where the first time a “You Must Remeber This” episode prompted me to actually dive deeper, at least in the form of Star 80.

It’s surreal watching this movie immediately after listening to Karina’s in-depth, well-researched retelling. Everything see says is played out directly on screen but with the creative flourishes of Fosse, of course. The narrative is semi-straight forward, beginning with Stratten in her hometown of British Columbia then being swept away to Hollywood and her demise but it’s not her perspective. This is a movie told through many perspectives, those who knew her, those who loved her and primarily Paul Snider, the husband that killed her. Throughout the progression, the film jumps to either talking head interviews with acquaintances, Stratten recounting her own experiences to reporters during her Playboy heyday and to Snider’s final hours as he releases his verbal and physical rage towards a dead Stratten. Fosse is bringing a documentary authenticity to the narrative, making it all the more brutal as it’s a constant reminder that this all indeed happened. Assisting that is the film’s refusal to shy away from the brutality. Movies of the 1980’s have never been the shining beacon of feminism and abusive relationships were not treated with the gravity they deserve so the fact that Snider’s manipulation and exploitation of a young woman is depicted as pure evil which is vindicating. I still was genuinely shocked when the film does major alluding to the fact that Snider raped her post-mortem which I was horrified to hear on the podcast, let alone see the set up to him doing so in a movie made in 1983.

What really sells this story aside from Fosse knowing how to construct a tension-filled arc are the performances of Eric Roberts and Mariel Hemmingway. I never thought I’d be praising music video actor Eric Roberts but his Snider is chilling. He is sleazy, self-obsessed and fiercely jealous and it scares the shit out of you. As a grown woman, of course, I finding him shady and repulsive but when he hits on a young 17-year-old Stratten at a Dairy Queen, you understand what would appeal to her. It’s a tight Eric Roberts’ bod offering her the world on a platter, a promise of getting out of Canada even if it means coaxing her into photographing nude. He has that charm that would make a young girl fall for this older man. One of the few things Karina mentions about Star 80 was that Hemmingway was criticized for treating Stratten like a bimbo and I couldn’t disagree more. Her presentation plays like the child that she is thrown into a very adult situation. At times she doesn’t know the answer to questions when we cut to those interviews but I read that as naive and overwhelmed than a dumb blonde stereotype. I like this performance because it is a reminder that she was a child, a Playmate at 19 and dead by 20. Hemmingway plays that innocence as well as the progression to the more mature woman who decides to confront Snider post break up, though it was a poor decision in itself to do so.

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Karina remarks that Hugh Hefner despised his portrayal in the movie too, here played by a leathery Cliff Robertson. It’s not particularly scathing especially considering it never broaches the subject that he slept with Stratten or as stated in Peter Bogdonavich’s book “The Killing of the Unicorn” that Hefner raped Stratten during her stay at the famed mansion. The movie is more a criticism of the objectification of women perpetrated by Playboy. In the movie during one of the returned to interviews Stratten herself says “Playboy’s motto is the girl next door, they look for girls who are wholesome, fresh, young and naive” which is equating that Hefner’s company tactics are not too different from Sniders. Fosse bombards the screen with the pinup images of a semi-nude Stratten, often inferring that these are the images that Snider is obsessing over as we see them plastered all over his apartment. Even though he brought her into this world of voyeurism, he is also a part of it and with all these photos made specifically for men to gawk at, it’s no wonder he interprets her as an item made to please him and now is reluctant to let go.

It’s important that Dorothy Stratten’s story lives on as devastating as it was. The next year would show the release of the battered wife expose TV movie The Burning Bed which was a smash hit for NBC and an even more iconic portrayal maybe because the woman comes out victorious. Watching this also reminded me of the underrated Lovelace biopic of Linda Lovelace, an eerily similar case of a possessive husband who pressured wife Linda Lovelace into a pornstar career, starring in Deep Throat. These movies are so moving and effective because they’re all true stories. There’s no need to make this up because these horrid narratives occur daily and these adaptations are valuable in term of awareness of domestic violence both psychologically and physically. I was shocked that I was unaware of Stratten account until now but by means of films, podcasts and whatever medias exist in the future that she never got to experience, we can keep her memory alive.

Seeing the Ghost

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The original Ghost in the Shell manga came out in 1989 and it’s debut anime feature in 1995. A lot in terms of sci-fi has been made since then. Because I know so little about anime, I can’t say how much this source material influenced future filmmakers. Seeing this new live action adaptation that has such bold and gorgeous art direction I can’t help but notice it feels like an amalgamation of other films in the genre. The Fifth Element comes to mind with the hyper active metropolis with flashy interactive billboards, neon color pallet and a near nude bodysuit wearing female protagonist but also The Matrix with the plug in culture and the more grimy underbelly of the advanced society. While I question which came first, the chicken or the egg, there are much more complicated goings on with this remake.

Even entering into this movie a blank slate, the title details the thematic drive that defines this neo noir. Major (Scarlett Johansson) is part of a government assembled anti-terrorism unit but is a key asset to her colleagues as she is a human mind in a synthetic body. Her creation is said to be one of a kind but this is a future where cyber enhancements are the norm and few have their original body parts. Still, she has superhuman capabilities like invisibility and is impervious to bodily harm. The story is the most uninspiring aspect of this eye candy production. After the first opening set piece which is a big shoot out involving diplomats and robot spider geishas, the team is informed that someone sinister orchestrated the attack and while the shady character is proposed to be the villain, from moment one you know this is a grand conspiracy kind of narrative and sure enough, there’s something fishy about the genesis of Major. The genericness of the plot occasionally took me out of it, reminding me that I’m watching a soulless studio product but then the stunning visual effects pulls me back with more spider based monsters and colorful yet seedy locations.

Aside from pretty things to stare at (enhanced considering I saw this in 3D) like any good science fiction, Ghost is delving into some philosophical ideas, I assume originated in the book and not prompted by Paramount. What the title invokes and has such specific language used again and again in the dialogue is that with her brain is tied her ghost or a more western way of putting it, spirit, that makes her human even though she inhabits an inanimate body. The movie is about her search for identity because while she is human she lacks memories of what happened before the accident that put her in this shell and past experiences are often what inform our personalities. Johansson is a convincing robot, utilizing physicality and a dry vocal delivery but that coldness also services as a lost soul. The people around her be it friends or superiors treat her different depending on if they see her as more of a person or a robot. Her journey is trying to connect to the society she feels so removed from.

Within this conversation of humanity, free will and identity, the unexpected reveals itself and in the most surprising turn of the movie, Ghost confronts its own whitewashing. The film received a lot of backlash when first announced because a white woman was cast as the lead in a traditional Japanese anime. Now in the past when American studios remake a Japanese property, say The Ring, it’s set in the States and given a white cast. What makes this instance particularly troubling is that the movie is set in a specifically Japanese-esque city and then giving Johansson Asian features. All this left a bad taste in the public’s mouth and is speculated to have contributed to the poor box office returns but the funny thing is that the narrative is self-aware of what its makers have done. As the conspiracy unfolds we learn that the fragmented past Major can recount is a fabrication and in reality, she was a local runaway named Motoko. She and fellow runaway turned failed experiment Hideo (played by Michael Pitt) are literal products of whitewashing. Sadly the film does little to explore further than condemning that these innocent Japanese youths were harvested for robotic experimentation. I would have loved to have seen a scathing commentary of the status placed on whiteness, but this is an action movie at heart unwilling to brace such resistance. It does allow a bit of leeway to like the movie now despite its controversy, but not much.

With that missed opportunity so goes the movie. I left the theater having enjoyed my time but it’s ultimately forgettable. It’s Avatar syndrome where a film believes it can survive on spectacle alone and while James Cameron’s work made a billion times more profit, viewers are quick to critique the unoriginal story. If it had more creative freedom with the writing than just the graphics it could be something I could recommend even while entrenched with its problematic casting. Maybe Ghost in the Shell walks away as a learning experience, a concrete example of viewers pushing back on whitewashing. A small victory during a time when we need such triumph. Though does this make me part of the problem because I went to go see it? Damnit, we’re all screwed.