The inaugural season of USA Network’s ferocious hacking drama Mr. Robot hit like a revelation, with imagery and angles that came to symbolize the disjointed reality through which computer genius Elliot (Golden Globe and SAG Award nominee Rami Malek) lives, increasingly unable to distinguish the roiling war for the freedom of information and intellect from the contentious personalities inside his own head. Hacking proves to be the perfect symbol for the psychological subversion that Elliot, along with his friends, family, and even enemies, cannot help but indulge: a perfectly attuned system infiltrated by sudden, substantial reminders that power isn’t absolute or centralized, and no one has full control of illusion or reality.
Christian Slater (#1–10 of 6)
In horror anthology movies, the probability runs high that one or more tales will be terrible. It’s an affliction to which even the best films aren’t immune. While narrative shifts are expected and tolerated, one bad segment can derail an audience’s patience and goodwill, sending the film into a death spiral more horrific than anything depicted on screen. Filmmakers used to better their odds by limiting the number of tales being told, or better yet, by crafting their anthologies in the guise of episodic television, where the nature of the beast is measured in terms of a series rather than a single-sitting entity.
Tales from the Darkside plays both sides of this fence; before it made a beeline for the big screen, it ran for four seasons in syndication. Perhaps all that practice on TV made the filmmakers keep its three tales just about even in the quality department. Each mini-movie has the same tally of moments of greatness, grossness, and dullness, giving Tales from the Darkside: The Movie an even-handed feel. Plus, this being a horror film, viewers watching from a future point in time can enjoy spotting the newbie actors who became stars later on, and others whose stars of fame were quickly descending into obscurity.
The first half of Lars von Trier’s probable masterpiece, Nymphomaniac, arrives on eddies of a “playful” publicity campaign that threatened to flatten the licentiousness (and even the straight-up sexiness) of the subject matter into a string of dopey gags. A series of posters featuring ASCII-rendered genitalia and photos capturing its international cast mid-coitus, were mischievous in a way consistent with von Trier’s own smirking, ludic impishness—the pranksterish postures that ignite even his worst and most boring work.
At the risk of whittling one of the most thorny, interesting, and exasperating of living filmmakers down to a single problem, the central concern (for me, at least) with von Trier and his films is that this playfulness rather easily teeters into boring didacticism. His button-pushing provocations—both in terms of his films’ frequently controversial material (rape, depression, mental retardation, racism, more rape) and the ideas (or discernible whiffs of ideas) that drive them—become needling and banal.
It’s like we’re constantly asked to take for granted that von Trier is playing his own devil’s advocate, putting across visions of nihilistic reckoning, sneering at the feeble human soul’s instinctual gravitation toward corruptibility and self-pollution, while simultaneously being asked to believe that he somehow believes the opposite. He angers and riles us and ignites the passion and intellect, while not really meaning any of it, off in the corner with that shit-eating grin on his face offered up as some mawkish mea culpa. He’s like Gabbo on The Simpsons, bashfully offering little else in his own defense beyond, basically, “I’m a bad widdle boy.” It’s infuriating. And much more so because it’s meant to be exactly that.
As you’ve no doubt noticed from the last few entries in this series, the waning days of 1988’s summer didn’t feel quite like the blockbuster season we now see extending all the way up to September. Opening on August 12, 1988, Francis Ford Coppola’s Tucker: The Man and His Dream was the kind of prestige project you’d more likely associate with awards season. For Coppola, it is among his most personal films, not only because it spent the longest time in gestation, but because it’s the closest the filmmaker has ever come to a confessional about the professional betrayals he’d contended with in his career, and the virtues and flaws of mounting a creative collaboration.
As Coppola recounts in the DVD commentary, he had been fascinated with Tucker ever since childhood, when his father had invested in the iconoclast’s auto company. Coppola had conceived of a Tucker musical biopic while still in film school at UCLA. His initial vision was as ambitious as Tucker’s was for his automobile. In the years after the Godfather films, Coppola had attained sufficient clout, enough to invite Gene Kelly to choreograph, and to offer the lead role to actors like Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, and even Burt Reynolds. Coppola wanted composer Leonard Bernstein (West Side Story) to score, with Singin’ in the Rain’s Betty Comden and Adolph Green writing the lyrics, and the collaboration produced at least one song. But this iteration of Tucker was ultimately scrapped after the failure of Coppola’s experimental One from the Heart (1982).
With little more than two strategically placed parentheses, Lars von Trier may well have delivered the best poster of the year, a preposterously simple, characteristically devious tease that succeeds in saying nothing and, potentially, everything about his latest film. Reported, more than a year ago, to be a two-part endeavor (details of when and how each part will be released remain somewhat ambiguous), the self-explanatory Nymphomaniac stars von Trier’s masochistic muse, Charlotte Gainsbourg, as a self-diagnosed sex addict, who, at age 50, spills her lifelong string of trysts to a man (Stellan Skarsgård) who finds her beaten in the street. That’s essentially all that’s known, aside from the fact that the film will include bona fide, non-simulated sex, and that Shia LaBeouf will be among the libidinous partners baring all.
Depending on how you received Antichrist, a sins-of-the-mother horrorshow that culminated with one of cinema’s most unshakable acts of violence (you know the one), von Trier can be viewed as a conscience-deprived misogynist or the world’s most offbeat feminist. In either case, there’s no getting past his fascination with female genitalia, which is bluntly evoked here without any immediate crudeness. One might call the apparent obsession Freudian, but such a common label seems dumbly reductive for a man of von Trier’s oft-immeasurable thematic predilections. Still, Sigmund would be proud if he moseyed over to the movie’s current website, which, speaking of revisiting the past, lets the viewer enter those parentheses via a move of the scroll bar, simulating the ultimate return to the ultimate source.
It’s an age-old story: boy meets girl; boy sleazes on girl, then steals girl’s brother’s scooter and wrecks it; girl’s brother reclaims the scooter and gets beaten up in the process; girl confronts boy with repair bill, which he refuses to pay; boy’s father will pay, but only if girl lets him have sex with her, repeatedly; girl’s brother accidentally shoots boy’s father in the arm; girl, brother, and their friends go into hiding at an abandoned miniature-golf palace while Peter Coyote makes bewildered faces. You know…that age-old story.
Digging further into The Legend of Billie Jean raises many more questions than it answers, because as contrived and frail as the main “plot” sounds, it’s got nothing on the various B plots. Everyone remembers that Billie Jean chops her long blonde hair off à la Joan of Arc—a tortured parallel the film refuses to drop—and becomes a folk hero. Nobody remembers the rest, but along the way, the eponymous Billie Jean (Helen Slater) and her scooter-crossed brother, Binx (Christian Slater, in his film debut), acquire a hostage in Lloyd (Keith Gordon), a bored rich boy who’s eager to test his district-attorney father’s love by not only letting the Billie Jean Kids kidnap him but in fact suggesting it himself—this, after they’ve broken into his house and eaten all the food in the fridge and Billie Jean has hit him in the nuts with a guitar.