Every year I watch an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie on my birthday as a gift to myself. It’s a small, often private ritual that I hold sacred, and it’s one I plan months in advance. Which version of Arnold am I going to celebrate with – the one who gets in gunfights with alligators?, the one who gives birth to a baby with his own adult face?, or maybe a double-trouble combo of Arnie clones? The possibilities are endless. This year, the decision was easy. I happened to find a used DVD copy of the nü-metal Schwarzenegger relic End of Days on a thrift store shelf a few months before my birthday, making my selection obvious. Then, just a couple days before this year’s Big Event, a tabloid new story came out about Schwarzenegger’s abhorrent behavior on the set of End of Days. Specifically, he was accused of deliberately farting in the face of his co-star Miriam Margoles during their fight scene. And did he apologize for this workplace transgression? No, dear reader, he laughed. Beyond confirming yet again that all millionaires are assholes, it was kind of a nothing news item, worthy only of a chuckle while scrolling though headlines on the old Twitter feed. It was the easily most press End of Days has gotten in this century, though, and its timing meant that this year I was celebrating my birthday with The Fart Movie.
Anyway, the Nü-Metal Arnöld movie holds up fairly well. There was once a time in my life where any vaguely gothy movie with a prominent KoRn single on its tie-in soundtrack was an instant 5-star classic in my eyes, so I can’t say I enjoyed it as much now as I did when it was a Blockbuster rental, but it’s still a hoot. End of Days is a product that only could have been made in that exact spiked-collars-and-wallet-chains era, marketing itself specifically as Y2k horror. Set “three nights before every computer fails,” the film dreads the approach of the year 2000 with the same dread Christian doomsayers approach the birth of antichrist. In fact, it directly links the two strands of paranoia. You see, the Mark of the Beast has been misinterpreted in modern translations of the Bible. That “666” has been flipped by mistake, making 1999 the Year of the Beast, when Satan would return to Earth to choose his bride and the mother of his world-destroying son. The oncoming worldwide computer crashes of Y2k appear to be coincidental, but they’re frequently cited by radio DJs in the background as a parallel end-of-the-world scenario. In case you don’t remember, Y2k never happened the way its biggest doomsayers promised, but Gabriel Byrne sure does arrive on Earth as a father-to-be Satan in this film, and there’s only one Austrian-accented supercop in all of NYC who can stop him before it’s too late: Jericho Cane.
End of Days takes the genre mashup “action horror” about as literally as it possibly can. Satan’s quest to become a father before the Times Square ball drops on Y2k positions the film as the 90s blockbuster version of Rosemary’s Baby, but it’s the 90s version of Rosemary’s Baby that would’ve been produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. Sure, there are spooky Catholic ceremonies behind every locked door in every NYC church, as the city’s priests wage a secret Good vs Evil battle with the Prince of Darkness. And there are plenty of CG demons, back-alley crucifixions, and Satanic orgies to keep the teenage edgelord KoRn fans in the audience drooling on their JNCOs. None of it is supposed to be especially scary, though. It’s all just badass, gothy set dressing for a standard-issue Arnie action flick, complete with helicopter chases and storefront explosions. Schwarzenegger plays such a cliché version of an action-hero cop that he borders on parody, especially in an early scene when he’s introduced pouring coffee, pizza, Pepto, and Chinese leftovers into a blender as a makeshift hangover cure – like a noir goblin. Luckily, that approach means he still gets to land some of his standard action hero one-liners despite the oppressive gloominess of the setting, like in a scene where he tells Satan, “I want you to go to Hell,” and Satan shoots back, “You see, the problem is sometimes Hell goes to you.” That’s some beautiful late-90s cheese, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
End of Days has a lot of problems. Its 2-hour runtime is super bloated for a movie with so few ideas. Its female lead, Robin Tunney, doesn’t have much to do besides wait around as a damsel in Satanic distress (and to vaguely resemble Brittany Murphy). Worst yet, Kevin Pollak was brought in as sarcastic comic relief, as if the producers weren’t convinced Arnie wasn’t funny enough on his own (despite being, hands down, the funniest action lead of all time) and somehow thought Kevin Frickin Pollak was the solution to that non-problem. Still, it feels like an essential artifact in both nü-metal & Y2k genre cinema, bridging the gap between two really dumb things I cared way too much about when I was 12 years old, with my all-time favorite action star at the helm (and sometimes on the cross). It has an interesting production history too. Both Sam Raimi & Guillermo del Toro turned down the chance to direct before it fell in the lap of anonymous workman Peter Hyams. It was also written with Tom Cruise in mind to star, which would’ve changed the entire tone & meaning of the project. It’s the kind of what-could’ve-been scenario that really fires up your imagination . . . until the conversation is dominated by the fact that Schwarzenegger is a bully who farted in the face of Miriam Margoles. Oh well, at least he didn’t fart into an open flame, since flames & explosives were such a prominent aspect of its Satanic set decoration. A lot more people could’ve been hurt.
Every year I watch an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie on my birthday as a gift to myself. This year I caught up with the latest installment in the action star’s career-defining franchise, something I probably should’ve watched on the big screen when that was an option. For the first half of Terminator: Dark Fate, I was worried that I had goofed up in my programming choice, as Unkie Arnie is nowhere to be seen in what’s mostly a star-making vehicle for Mackenzie Davis, the new badass in town. Then, the film reunites Schwarzenegger with Linda Hamilton as longtime human/Terminator frenemies and all is right in the world again. As a pair, their sharply acidic comedic rapport and stone-faced action heroism feel like they haven’t missed a beat since Judgement Day in 1992, even if the world has drastically changed around them. Because I’m rapidly becoming an old man, that latter half’s familiar callbacks to the series’ James Cameron era are what really hooked me as a viewer here. Still, Mackenzie Davis’s intrusion in the series as a self-described “augmented supersoldier from the future” provides some much-needed momentum to keep that throwback from feeling like stagnant nostalgia bait, and the movie generally does a good job of maintaining a balance between the old & the new.
Because of its self-fulfilling time travel plots and vague references to many “possible futures”, the Terminator series is free to blaspheme its own internal lore. The last film in the saga, Genisys, was jeered for its own overwriting of past events in the Terminator timeline (wrongly, in my opinion), while Dark Fate was celebrated for the same disregard for series continuity (rightly so, imo). In this “possible present” timeline, all Terminator films post-Judgement Day have been wiped from the series, positioning Dark Fate as an alternate Terminator 3. Sarah Connor (Hamilton) has successfully stopped the Skynet apocalypse, but Terminator-assassins are still created in variations of the future that have nothing to do with Skynet at all. One of these first-generation T-800 assassins has successfully murdered her son (whose services as a Human Resistance leader are no longer needed anyway), inspiring her to dedicate the rest of her life stamping out time-traveling Terminator bots whenever and wherever they crossover into her timeline. This particular episode finds her joining forces with a human-machine hybrid from “the” future (Davis) to protect their own timeline’s version of a John-Connor-to-be from another shape-shifting T-1000. To her horror, this mission must also enlist the help of the original-flavor Terminator who killed her son (Arnie). Bitter banter, uneasy alliances, and money-torching chase sequences ensue.
Structurally, Dark Fate is smart in the way it gradually highlights each of its four main players as action-hero badasses in distinct layers. We start with Mackenzie Davis as a fully-formed hero with no patience for Linda Hamilton to pass off the torch as her obvious successor. Hamilton then forcefully wedges herself into the main action despite Davis’s protests, righteously announcing to the future-soldier and the moviegoers of the world that she’s still a formidable screen presence – complete with aviator sunglasses and a severe haircut. Schwarzenegger is late to the party, but provides essential monotone humor and retro machismo to authentically tie this new chapter into the series’ decades-old origins. Newcomer Natalia Reyes has the least to do as the damsel-turned-rebel these muscular brutes circle to protect, but by the end of the film her personality and her place in the future emerge convincingly enough for her to be more than just a human MacGuffin. At the very least, it’s her character arc that provides the self-fulfilling-timeline tomfoolery that makes this franchise such a fun, resettable time travel playground to begin with. The movie wouldn’t be anything special without Hamilton & Schwarzenegger growling at each other in reluctant collaboration, but Davis & Reyes do a decent job of refreshing that dynamic for our alternate present.
As a standalone action blockbuster, divorced from its long-running IP, Dark Fate is nothing exceptional. Even so, it probably is the best sequel in its series since Judgement Day, which I’m saying as someone who has some affection for all Terminator movies – minus McG’s Salvation. I’ll never enjoy these action-heavy sequels as much as the grimy Roger Corman sci-fi noir of the original The Terminator (Judgement Day included), but Dark Fate understands the exact balance between quippy humor & Hollywood spectacle needed to make them worthwhile. I miss the tactile effects work that distinguished the original Terminator, and there’s a lot of modern-TV backstory plotting that weighs this thing down; but again, those are the grumblings of an old man who misses the old world. Dark Fate includes just enough throwback Hamilton & Schwarzenegger rivalry to keep old grumps like me smiling, while also injecting some much-needed fresh blood to keep this machine running into “the” future.
Every year for my birthday, I watch an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie as a gift to myself. Something about that Austrian galoot’s heyday as the live-action cartoon version of an American action star makes me warmly nostalgic in a way no other media can. This year, I took a risk by revisiting one of the lesser loved action flicks from the final days of Arnie’s golden era, just a few years before he switched from explosions to politics. The 6th Day held up much better than expected as a dumb-as-rocks nostalgia trip, though, with the camp value of its early-aughts futurism aging like fine wine over the past couple decades. More importantly, it was surprisingly solid Schwarzenegger Birthday programming (something I should remember for future celebrations). Not only does the film deliver two Arnies for the price of one, but it’s also set on his own character’s birthday for at least the first half of the film. My only regret is not timing my viewing where I could have blown out my birthday candles at the same time as my favorite muscled-up goofball.
In short, The 6th Day presents an alternate reality where Joel Schumacher directed Total Recall, and it’s just as delightfully stupid & gaudy as that sounds. In the near future—”sooner than you think”—a Totally American Dad (and helicopter pilot for an X-treme sports snowboarding company) has his life derailed when he is cloned against his will by an evil Bill Gates type and his scientist lackeys. Horrified to discover that he’s been replaced in his home (and marital bed) by his own clone, Schwarzenegger vows to take down the Evil Scientist Dweebs who ruined his life with the only tools he knows: punches, explosions, and one-liners. Beyond the chase scenes & mustache-twirling villainy that earns the film its vintage action movie credentials, The 6th Day is essentially just a collection of kitschy predictions of what the “future” is going to look like circa 2015. Some of these predictions are supposed to read as Super Cool to the macho set: the continued sports world dominance of the XFL, remote control helicopters you can pilot with video game joysticks, programmable slutty hologram girlfriends, etc. Most predictions are supposed to be terrifying & dystopian: the criminalization of tobacco use, creepy robot smart-dolls made for little girls and, most importantly, the Dolly the Sheep cloning experiments being extended to creating human life. And Schwarzenegger’s at the center of it all, just trying his best to be a good Husband & Dad like every red-blooded American should.
Admittedly, The 6th Day can’t compete with the very best of Schwarzenegger’s macho American caricatures, as seen in trash-action classics like Commando &The Running Man. Still, it’s charming to see him doing his thing so many years after he already spoofed himself for it in Last Action Hero. Playing off the film’s cloning theme, Arnie lands not one but two “Go screw yourself” one-liners, as well as the self-referential zinger “I might be back.” That is comedy, folks. There’s also something adorable about his character’s quest to return to a life of chomping cigars and making love with his wife, which is positioned as being in direct opposition to The Modern World. The details surrounding this macho, all-American throwback kitsch can be surprisingly grotesque, as the cloning gimmick at the center of the movie essentially makes human bodies disposable and, thus, fair game to dismantle. No amount of severed thumbs, limbs, or intestines can fully pave over the childlike naivete at the film’s core, though, and the violence ends up coming across as more live-action Looney Tunes than anything genuinely severe. The 6th Day is a little overlong and very much overwhelmingly macho, but it’s mostly a hoot. It will likely never enjoy the same Cult Classic reputation as other brainless action spectacles from Schwarzenegger’s prime, but I find it to be one of those classics’ better late-career clones. I can’t wait to blow out my birthday candles with Unkie Arnie on my next revisit.
One of my all-time favorite movie subgenres is the The Internet is Trying to Kill Us thriller, in which mundane online user-interface tech is transformed into a horrific menace that’s aiming to destroy us all. The genre was still in its infancy in the mid-90s at a time when The Internet was just starting to invade our homes, which gave early specimens like The Net a growing-pains conundrum on how to translate online imagery & lingo into traditional studio thriller beats. As a result, that film spends a lot of time following Sandra Bullock around irl as baddies erase her identity online – a compromise between the cyberthriller and the traditional action film (as opposed to more recent, fully-immersed Internet Thrillers like Unfriended). Looking back on the Arnold Schwarzenegger action flick Eraser now, over two decades after its release, it’s a film that feels equally paranoid about the advancement of 90s computer tech and the flimsiness of personal identity in the Information Age as The Net, but it makes even less of an effort to translate that Luddite unease into new cinematic language. Eraser turns the fears surrounding computer tech’s intrusion into American homes into a villainous threat by manifesting it as a big scary future-gun. It’s the most direct, literal approach to the topic possible, and it’s charmingly boneheaded as a result.
The future-gun in Eraser doesn’t shoot bullets, but rather electromagnetic impulses. Its viewfinder display is designed like the sickly green MS DOS grids that decorated far too many cyberthrillers in the 90s, most notably The Matrix. Instead of merely offering the gun operator night vision, this feature allows them to see through walls & bodies like a digital X-ray machine. The gun is designed for military use (and, naturally, falls into the hands of international terrorists), but it’s almost exclusively deployed in domestic settings throughout the film. Characters who threaten to expose the government’s mishandling of the gun’s development and sale are shot at with “electromagnetic impulses” through the walls of their own homes in the Washington D.C. suburbs, so that computerized technology is literally invading their domestic spaces to destroy therm. Vanessa Williams stars as a military-weapons detractor who steals the designs for this future-gun on a miniature CDR, so she is pursued for the disc in the exact way Bullock is pursued for her own forbidden floppy disc in The Net. The only difference here is that Arnold Schwarzenegger is heroic for erasing her identity online as a way of protecting her as a witness. The tagline even boasts, “He will erase your past to protect your future.” Sill, the flimsiness of identity in the digital age is a premise the film banks on to hook the audience, and the film shares a lot of thematic & aesthetic preoccupations with The Net even if it replaces the ethereal qualities of The Internet with a physical “electromagnetic” gun.
Eraser only has one foot in the future of Internet Age techno thrillers. Everything about the film besides the future-gun and the erasure of online identity records is very much rooted in the familiar tropes & imagery of the Schwarzenegger action canon. The film opens with a suiting-up montage (one of many) where Arnold loads down his muscly body with superfluous weaponry. He dresses in almost the exact leather jacket outfits he already self-parodied himself for in The Last Action Hero four years prior. Every time he enters the frame he’s accompanied by guitar-solo theme music announcing his heroism. Most dialogue consists of 90s-era action movie one-liners as Schwarzenegger goes about the business of saving the world from terrorists & cyberguns, including the title-riffing quip “Smile. You’ve just been erased.” Within this familiar framework, Eraser can only stand out on the strength of its individual set pieces, of which ether are two absolute stunners: one where Arnie jumps out of an airplane without a parachute and one where he kills a room full of baddies by releasing CG alligators at the zoo. The gators sequence stuck with me in particular as a kid, being the only detail I vividly remembered about the film besides the cybergun. I was glad to confirm on revisit that the gator stunt is extensive, featuring far more CG chomping action than necessary to get its point across. If only they could’ve found a way to arm the gators with their own cyberguns to tie the sequence into the film’s larger themes of technophobia . . .
I wouldn’t vouch for Eraser’s excellence as an especially exceptional example of Arnold Schwarzenegger action cinema, nor as a clear early entry in the Evil Internet canon. The evil-clone movie The Sixth Day might even be a more calcified example of an Arnie film that directly engages with the technophobia of the early Internet Era. Still, there’s a kind of distinctly 90s anxiety about computerized technology invading suburban homes in Eraser that makes it just as fun of a dated watch as more explicitly Internet-dreading thrillers like The Net. Besides, it really does have some of the best gator-flavored mayhem you’re likely to see in a big budget action movie of its ilk, a novelty that cannot be undervalued.
Every year for my birthday I treat myself to a movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, the greatest action star who ever lived. Along with Arnie’s award-winning physique and willingness to commit, I’ve always appreciated that he approached his action roles with a cartoonish sense of humor, often using the emotionless affect of his thick Austrian accent to deliver over-written one-liners in pitch-perfect deadpan. Because I’m watching these movies in self-indulgent celebration, I often choose pictures with a deliberately comedic bent: Twins, Junior, The Last Action Hero, etc. That’s likely why my expectations of this year’s indulgence, Red Heat, were way off from the tone of the actual picture, which steers away from Arnold’s deadpan goofball humor to achieve something much nastier & less fun than his usual mode. With a premise that pairs Arnold as a Soviet Moscow police officer with Jim Belushi’s red-blooded Chicago Cop, I expected Red Heat to be a fish-out-of-water buddy cop comedy along the lines of a Rush Hour, or at least a Lethal Weapon. Admittedly, there are a couple stray moments of that buddy cop action humor spread throughout Red Heat. For instance, when Arnold’s Soviet officer first arrives at his shitty Chicago hotel, he slips a quarter into a coin-operated television only for porn to appear on the screen. He shakes head in disgust and mutters in his traditional deadpan, “Capitalism.” For the most part, though, Red Heat trades in Arnold’s usual deadpan humor for a much more straightforward slice of jingoistic Cold War action schlock than what I knew to expect.
What Red Heat lacks in comic relief, it more than makes up for in shameless brutality & sleaze. Cult genre director Walter Hill (The Warriors, Streets of Fire, The Driver) brings his usual knack for style-over-taste schlock cinema sensibilities to what could have just as easily been a Shane Black-style yuck-em-up. There’s a novelty to that tonal shift, especially if you’ve seen one too many tough-guy Arnold performances before; you just have to know to expect it. The film sets the table early on for the cold, brutal sleaze it’s going to deliver throughout with a Moscow-set fight scene in a public sauna. A lurid exercise in culture-gazing, Hill shoots the scene with immense interest in the Soviet comrade’s mixed-gender nudity in the sauna, fixated particularly on Arnold’s naked ass & all nearby tits. This sexual leering quickly erupts into a violent display as Arnold attacks some drug dealing baddies, smashing them through windows into the cold Northern snow. There’s a vicious, mostly naked fistfight against that snow-white backdrop, followed by a second location shootout that leaves multiple cops dead and a drug kingpin on the run to Chicago. Arnold is tasked to escort the drug dealer back to Moscow for trial, paired with Belushi’s street-wise Chicago cop to keep tabs on his collateral damage. That chaperone duty is all for naught; a blood-soaked trail of bullet-riddled bodies is left behind in Arnold’s wake as he fights his way towards a violent showdown involving Greyhound buses at the film’s climax. There’s also a McGuffin locker key that the two factions fight for possession of throughout, but it’s an object that could easily be circumvented with a crowbar & some elbow grease. The real prize this film is chasing is cheap sex & cold-blooded violence.
Although Red Heat is not a buddy cop comedy, it does extensively play with the tropes of one, almost to the point of subversion. Belushi plays the Rob Schneider to Arnold’s Sly Stallone, functioning as the useless, wiseass sidekick no one finds especially funny. It’s difficult to gauge, but it seems the movie doesn’t find him amusing either, often playing his jokes & general demeanor as macho grotesqueries. Belushi is introduced ogling sex workers form the distant safety of his squad car, to his coworkers’ vocal disgust. He commences to hit on every woman in his path with all the charm of your average misogynist slob, only for every flirtation to be immediately shut down with fervor. When he sexually harasses a citizen on the street with a slimy “How ya doin’?,” she immediately retorts, “Blow yourself,” which the movie posits as a reasonable response. This macho blowhard caricature is in direct opposition to Arnold’s stand-up professional gentlemen of a Soviet officer who, despite having the same depth of humanity as his performance in the original The Terminator, is the film’s de facto protagonist. It’s difficult to tell how much of this cultural reversal was intended by Hill, but Red Heat often portrays Arnold’s Soviet, straight-laced demeanor as being much more palatable than Belushi’s sleaze-ball American counterpart. Then again, there’s a villainous crossdressing gag in the film that feels like an early warning shot for Hill’s most recent, flagrantly transphobic film (Re)Assignment, so I may be reading the film’s politics the wrong way. Either this is a total anomaly in the Cold War action cheapie genre in the way it contrasts Soviet & American sensibilities or my own POV is so far outside Hill’s eternal sleaze that I saw a comic relief character he meant to be charming as an irredeemable scumbag on my own volition. I know which scenario is more likely, but I also know that I found Arnold’s character vastly more tolerable than Belushi’s.
Outside the Walter Hill-level brutality of its violence, there’s nothing especially significant about Red Heat as an action cheapie. Any interest I had in its subversions of buddy cop tropes & Soviet-American cultural contrasts are so personally subjective and out of character with Hill’s larger catalog that their merit is questionable at best. The only minor historical significance achieved by Red Heat is that it was the first American production allowed to film in The Red Square in Moscow. The film only puts that location to significant use for police-marching background imagery in the opening credits (which does include the beautiful image of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s name in cyrillic typeface). The majority of its Moscow-set sequences were instead filmed in Hungary. Likewise, the film boasts an incredible cast of supporting characters (Laurence Fishburne, Gina Gershon, Peter Boyle, Kurt Fuller), but all are relegated to little impact in bit roles. The best chance anyone has to enjoying Red Heat is for the cheap thrills of a straightforward, hyperviolent action thriller, one where dead cops, naked flesh, and jazzercise all mix together in schlocky 1980s excess. That excess is not at all boosted by the typical Arnold humor the way you’d see in classics like Commando & The Running Man, which is a large part of why it’s a more middling entry into the affable muscle-man’s canon, even if a remarkably sleazy one.
It’s been two decades since the release of Batman & Robin and its director, Joel Schumacher, is still doing an apology tour in the press, begging forgiveness for his sins against the Batmanbrand. I do not understand the need. Much like how Tim Burton’s Batman vision didn’t escape its Studio Notes prison until its second installment, Batman Returns (the greatest Batman film to date), and Christopher Nolan’s second Batman effort, The Dark Knight, similarly improved on its own predecessor, Schumacher’s personal imprint on the Batman series didn’t reach its purest form until the director’s second effort. With Batman Forever, you can feel Schumacher steering the ship away from Burton’s gloomy freakshow back to the live-action cartoon days of Adam West in Batman: The Movie (’66). There’s too much Burton hangover looming in that film for it to feel like its own work, however, leaving a compromised vision not at all helped by the energy imbalance of hyperactive child Jim Carrey and comatose bore Val Kilmer. With the follow-up, Schumacher was allowed to completely cut loose, reportedly directing action sequences with megaphone instructions to “Remember! This is a cartoon!” during shoots. Audiences expecting more weirdo Burton gloom violently rejected Batman & Robin when it first hit cinemas in 1997, but I believe time has been kind to its charming dedication to Adam West silliness and Saturday morning cartoon aesthetics, not to mention its more prurient interests. I have no doubt that a rowdy 2017 midnight movie crowd would have a great time with it as an over-the-top Batman-themed comedy, which is exactly how it was originally intended to play.
The #1 roadblock audiences seem to have with enjoying Batman & Robin is the casting of George Clooney as the Caped Crusader. My guess is that after the Reclusive Weirdo Who Disguises His Voice When In Costume interpretations of the character from Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, and Kevin Conroy, the world wasn’t quite ready to see Batman as the swashbuckling goofball he had been portrayed as in earlier adaptations. Clooney only tackles Batman as the Movie Star Handsome billionaire cad Bruce Wayne and does little to differentiate that presence from his night-time, in-costume persona. That approach maybe less faithful to the character’s dual nature in the comic book source material (I don’t know or care), but it’s not all that different from the more openly-winking Adam West interpretation of the character or, perhaps more accurately, how Batman was brought to life in 1940s serials by Lewis Wilson & Robert Lowery. Besides, even Batman & Robin seems largely disinterested in what Clooney’s Dark Knight brings to the table. Has Batman ever been the most interesting character in his own movies? Why wish for more of a brooding Keaton staring into his fireplace in the dark or more Christian Bale trying to out-gruff Aidan Gillen in his disguised tough guy voice when you can enjoy the simple pleasures of a Handsome Movie Star hamming it up with an ensemble cast of campy weirdos? Schumacher borrows a page from Batman Returns and floods the screen with wacky side characters who fall both in the Good Guys camp (Chris O’Donnell as hot-to-trot boy toy Robin & Alicia Silverstone as a Cher Horowitz-flavored Batgirl) and the Bad Guys camp (Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze & Uma Thruman as Poison Ivy). Clooney mostly just looks pretty and stays out of the way, which is more than I could ever ask for in a Batman performance.
Batman & Robin makes no attempt to hide that Batman himself is not the main attraction. George Clooney’s name is billed second to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s at the top of the credits. When the Batman logo appears it immediately freezes over, visualizing Mr. Freeze’s command of the spotlight. Excepting the disposable scenes of family drama at Wayne Manor, Batman & Robin mostly details Freeze’s plan to literally put Gotham on ice, a plot he hopes to enact with the help of botanist-turned-terrorist Poison Ivy and a nonstop onslaught of sweet, delicious puns. Much like with Schwarzenegger’s career high roles in titles like Commando & Total Recall, his impact as the top villain here is hinged on lizard brain word play (courtesy of screenwriter Akiva Goldsman). He taunts Batman & his bat-crew with some of the world’s most chill, ice-themed one-liners: “Stay cool, bird boy,” “Let’s kick some ice!,” “Cool party!,” “Ice to see you!,” etc., etc., etc. If you do not understand the basic appeal of that kind of pun-heavy joke writing, which is very much rooted in comic book tradition, you cannot be helped. Mr. Freeze sports a cartoonish character design, being kept frozen with “a crypto suit powered by diamond-enhanced lasers.” The character also serves as a rare crossroads where Schwarzenegger’s talents as a chilling 80s villain & a yuck-em-up 90s comedian kids think is cool can co-exist in full self-contradictory glory. Uma Thurman’s anarcho crust punk botany activist turned dive bar drag act is much less interesting as a villain, but there’s more than enough Arnold screentime to make up for any deficiency there. If Schumacher’s main objective was to bring Batman back to its over the top cartoon, pre-Burton Gloom roots, he more than covered it between Clooney’s Handsome Hero and Schwarzenegger’s Goofball Goon. Everything else was just lagniappe.
Subverting its welcome return to a time when Kids’ Stuff was treated like Kids’ Stuff, Batman & Robin also stands as the most aggressively queer major studio superhero film to date (with Bryan Singer’s sexless X2 standing as its closest competition, I suppose). I’m not sure how many out, gay directors have had a crack at major studio superhero properties (I’m guessing the answer is Too Few), but Schumacher took the opportunity to play up Batman’s queer kink potential to its most PG-acceptable extreme (how the film instead got saddled with a PG-13 rating, I’ll never know). The opening sequence of quick cut closeups is a Russ Meyer-esque assault of Batman & Robin’s leatherclad bodies as they suit up: nips, butts, crotch, butt, nips. Later, when Silverstone first gears up in her Batgirl costume, her leather clad posterior is immediately covered with a heavy cape, the same leering attention completely drained from the moment. Poison Ivy gets a fair amount of kink play in herself, dragging her power bottom sub Bane around by the leather collar & iron clad chastity belt and setting up her headquarters in a day-glo bathhouse. Any man who dares to kiss Ivy, the only sexually available woman in the movie, immediately dies by the toxins in her poison lips and Robin’s line, “You’ve got some real issues with women, you know that?” begins to feel as if it applies to the movie at large. Schumacher seems conspicuously disinterested in his female characters, which might help explain why Thurman’s performance as Ivy feels a little flat and why Silverstone’s Batgirl has a perfect Tom of Finland beard stubble ring of car exhaust when she removes her bike helmet after her big motorcycle chase scene, essentially wearing masculine drag. While waiting for a cure for his frozen wife, Mr. Freeze spurns the advances of Poison Ivy & his closest female crony, dismissing the come-on “I’m feeling hot,” with the quip, “I find that unlikely.” Bruce Wayne has a supermodel beard he only interacts with at public events and is only attracted to Poison Ivy whenever drugged by her weaponized pheremone potion. He mostly just focuses on his masculine relationships with Robin, the Boy Wonder, & Alfred, The Butler. Ultimately, Schumacher’s explicit, deliberate repurposing of Batman as a queer kink icon is mostly relegated to those early leering shots of leatherclad bat-nipples & bat-butt, but since that perspective is an underrepresented minority in the genre, its potency as a novelty cannot be undervalued (and it does unintentionally spill over into other aspects of the work).
I get the sense from the Christopher Nolan & Zach Snyder takes on Batman that the two directors were almost apologizing for the goofier aspects of the material. Tim Burton’s definitive adaptation at least understood the camp value lurking under Batman’s gloomy sheen of vigilante orphans brooding in black leather. I’m by no means a Schumacher fanatic in a general sense, but I appreciate how weirdly personal he made the return to that barely-buried camp. Every frame of Batman & Robin is excessively stylized, like a superhero comic book version of Michael Bay’s Armageddon (which I mean as a compliment). Looney Tunes sound effects, gigantic diamonds so cartoonish they look like clip art, sky surfing, ice-skating goons, a dinosaur bones display that roars in pain when it’s knocked over, Mr. Freeze’s (oddly pun-free) meta-commentary about how he hates “when people talk during the movie”: every decision projects the feeling of a Saturday morning cartoon come to life. I suppose someone had to eventually make a movie specifically targeted at queer children who aren’t yet entirely sure why Batman makes blood rush to their crotches and if that’s the only worthwhile thing Schumacher ever achieves in his lifetime, at least he filled a niche. What’s beautiful about it is that he got a major studio to foot the bill. Whenever a Coolio cameo or an American Express ad placement (“Never leave the Bat Cave without it,”) or a moment of well-aged special effects spectacle interrupt Schumacher’s leering at Clooney’s bat-ass or Schwarzenegger’s steady stream of super cool ice puns, the film’s strange crossroads of Art & Commerce becomes amusingly absurd. Movies this blatantly commercial are rarely as bizarrely cartoonish or as deliriously horny as Batman & Robin. It’s time we ask Schumacher to stop apologizing for making Batman silly again and instead congratulate him for making him so subversively weird.
There’s no question that in the very limited subgenre of Ivan Reitman comedies where Arnold Schwarzenegger is teamed with Danny DeVito in a mismatched comedy duo, Twinsis the crown jewel. Where does that leave its only competition, though? Much like how Twins finds it endlessly hilarious that Schwarzenegger is large & DeVito is small, the follow-up to that pairing, Junior, is tickled by the idea of the smaller actor getting the larger one pregnant. That’s not an idea that necessarily generates brilliant comedy on a joke to joke basis, but it does lead to very pressing questions like How?, Why?, and Wait What? that could never be fully answered by a single motion picture. Reitman & company were so amused by the idea of a pregnant Arnold Schwarzenegger that they never stopped to consider the reasoning or the implications behind the unholy creation, leading to an oddly tame studio comedy with an absurdly bizarre basic premise that’s made all the more jarring by the fact that it’s not fully explored. Twins is the funnier, more successful Schwarzenegger/DeVito comedy in Reitman’s catalog, but Junior is clearly the strangest.
Schwarzenegger begins Junior as a caricature of a meat-head supernerd near-identical to the one he played in Twins. The only difference is that this nerd is uptight, a cynical academic who’s nervous around the children & social obligations he encounters through his career in fertility research. As his foil, DeVito is also similar to the chauvanistic snake oil salesman he plays in Twins, except this time he works in the field of gynecology. In the name of saving their collaborative research project from having its university funding pulled (or some other such contrivance), the two goofs make the rash decision to experiment on themselves to prove their very sciency science serum is effective in increasing fertility. This leads to Arnold being impregnated with an egg stolen from a fellow researcher’s (and eventual love interest’s) competing project, fertilized by his own sperm. Their experiment is never supposed to continue past the first trimester, but Schwarzenegger’s shifting hormones convince him to carry the child full-time, against all logic & good taste. We watch in amusement/horror as pregnancy slowly opens his cold, dead heart to life’s simple joys and he finds true love with the researcher (a befuddled, Nutty Professor-mode Emma Thompson) whose egg he hijacked without consent. It’s all very conventional in a textbook romcom sense, except for the obvious deviation from that model in having the film’s emotional work carried on the back of a male, pregnant bodybuilder.
The strangest aspect of Junior is not the presence of a visibly pregnant Arnold Schwarzenegger, but the general absence of traditional jokes. Besides the absurdity of its premise and a couple stray jabs of gay panic humor, the film does little to reach for moments of over the top comedy. What’s left, then, is the uneasy feeling of watching DeVito & Schwarzenegger gestate a baby, which feels subversively bizarre only in the way it’s mostly played straight. DeVito compliments Schwarzenegger’s sperm in a flat, matter of fact tone, remarking “Strong swimmers. Big load. Way to go.” He penetrates Schwarzenegger’s abdominal wall to impregnate him with a giant needle, with little attention paid to how he will carry a baby without the help of a womb or umbilical cord. Schwarzenegger’s struggles with morning sickness, nipple soreness, and hormone-induced horniness are only amusing because of the physical presence of the actor conveying them. Besides a third act drag routine at an expectant mothers’ retreat or his action movie one-liner delivery of “My body, my choice,” there aren’t many comedic touches to his presence in the film. In fact, in a nightmare sequence where his face is superimposed over a screaming baby’s, a brief moment of mid-90s CGI, he can even be outright terrifying.
Junior‘s one joke begins & ends with its basic premise: Danny DeVito gets Arnold Schwarzenegger pregnant. There’s something perverse about playing that premise straight instead of reaching for a laugh-a-minute giggle fest, but the fact of the matter is that the film’s main attraction is the absurdity of its own existence. If you want to see DeVito & Schwarzenegger bounce off one another as a top of their game comedy duo, watch Twins. Junior should be reserved for when you want something other than humor: unease, confusion, and (in the case of the CG Arnold baby) horror. The film feels like Reitman somehow got away with a longform prank on pop culture at large. I’m sure he was tickled with the results, but he rest of us can hope to muster stunned awe.
Comedic director Ivan Reitman is perhaps best known for his 80s trinity of goofball collaborations with sad sack enigma Bill Murray: Meatballs, Stripes, and (if the piss babies who light up internet message boards are to be believed) the most beloved comedy of all time, Ghostbusters. What’s funny to me is that Reitman has collaborated on just as many comedic properties with an entirely different type of 1980s personality: Arnold Schwarzenegger. The first three Schwarzenegger films that could comfortably be considered straight-forward comedies (Kindergarten Cop, Junior, and Twins) were all helmed by Reitman. It’s a director-actor collaboration that may not have inspired much critical praise in its time, but did help steer & reshape Arnold’s career into the more kid-friendly (yet still violent) territory of titles like The Last Action Hero & T2: Judgement Day that inspired many lifetime fans of the Austrian galoot’s oddly affable screen presence (myself included). The first of these collaborations, 1988’s Twins, was a movie that had somehow slipped by me until now and I feel forever foolish for living so much of my life without it. I should have grown up with this Arnold-Reitman classic as a youngster. I really liked it as an adult, but I would’ve loved it as a scamp.
Twins’s living cartoon narrative is blatantly written around its improbable casting. The film is strange, modern fairy tale that starts once upon a time in a science lab where six successful, elite men (athletes, professors, the like) and one beautiful woman donate their reproductive faculties to an experiment meant to create the world’s finest human specimen. Arnold Schwarzenegger portrays the result of that experiment (duh), the buffoonish supergenius Julius Benedict, who’s just as inhumanly strong & intelligent as he is devoid of common sense. The unintended side effect of the experiment and, naturally, Julius’s twin, is Vincent Benedict, a weird little sex magnet sleazeball played with pitch perfect hubris by Danny DeVito. Ignoring the “master race” Nazi ideal implications of this comedic setup, the casting of Schwarzenegger & DeVito in their respective roles as “the most fully developed human the world has ever seen” & “the crap that was left over” is pure, inspired genius, a dynamic that never stops being amusing over the film’s entire runtime. Twins finds particular delight in contrasting the two strangely loveable actors’ wildly disparate statures by dressing them in matching outfits & having them synchronize their movements in simple tasks like eating breakfast & washing their hands. It’s what the WWE refers to as “twin magic.” Not satisfied with hammering the point home in this endlessly repeated gag, the entire joke is capped off with the concluding punchline, “I just can’t get over how alike they are!” just before the end credits. It’s all wonderfully silly & relentlessly good-natured (except maybe for some stray Adventures in Babysitting-type indulgences in Reagan Era fears of the big city).
Twins ostensibly knows that the inherent silliness of its comedic setup doesn’t leave much room for small concerns like plot or character development, but instead of avoiding those storytelling requirements it doubles down & attempts to tackle them head on. There’s no less than four plots at work in Twins: one in which the titular duo embark on a cross-country road trip to meet their estranged parents; one where Vincent teaches Julian the value of street smarts & Julius returns the favor with the value of familial love; one where both brothers become romantic targets for women who find their respective physicalities irresistible; and one where they’re, no joke, hunted down by a mafia hitman from whom they unwittingly steal precious, illegal cargo. As if that all weren’t overwhelming enough, the film also attempts to have a lot to say about the nature vs nurture conundrum as well as the effect privilege has on someone’s life trajectory (the well-adjusted Julius was raised by a wealthy scientist; the slimeball Vincent was abandoned at an orphanage). It’s as if Twins knew its premise couldn’t possibly sustain any kind of worthwhile narrative or emotional investment, so it intentionally ate up its own runtime with an nonstop barrage of subplots & asides to hang its Schwarzenegger big/DeVito small visual gags off of. Whether or not this formula was intentional, it’s entirely successful and by the time it faces a climax at the same vague industrial complex all 80s films seem to end at, the whole thing feels remarkably silly & delightfully convoluted.
I’ve been doing my best in recent years to establish my own personal tradition of watching an annual Schwarzenegger film on my birthday, which is how I ended up watching Twins for the first time at the ripe age of 30. As an Arnold showcase, the film did not disappoint (no offense meant to DeVito, who was perfectly amusing as the con artist straight man). Casting the typically meathead-typecast Schwarzenegger as a supergenius was, uh, super genius enough on its own, but the film goes a step further by robbing him of common sense due to an extremely sheltered childhood, so that he’s some kind of an oxymoronic genius-idiot. This leads to a bottomless wealth of classic Schwarzenegger comedy bits, some as simple as watching him eat ice cream, pose with a Rambo poster, or misunderstand idioms in lines like, “Thank you for the cookies. I’m looking forward to tossing them.” The film even works in a reading of his classic Terminator line “I’ll be back,” because of course it does. Arnold’s consistently wonderful screen presence makes Julius an impossibly endearing goof, especially in moments when he butchers the Coasters song “Yakety Yak” in his incredibly thick Austrian accent or when he doesn’t recognize that he’s being shamelessly hit on by a ready-to-pounce Kelly Preston or robbed by violent street toughs. Julius will even go as far as apologizing when said robbery doesn’t go well, explaining of a fallen reprobate who fails to nab his briefcase, “I did nothing. Pavement was his enemy.”
Arnold had already halfheartedly tried his hand at comedy in his narrative film debut Hercules in New York, but that work is more unintentionally funny than anything & uses the bodybuilder exclusively for the size of his pecs, not his impeccable sense of comedic timing. Twins is where Schwarzenegger truly found his comedic voice and it arrived in a perfect moment for him to bounce that voice off his mismatched twin DeVito & a hilariously dated onslaught of cheesy 80s fashion & pop music trash. It seems that this good will won’t be forever buried in the oversized suit jackets & greasy ponytails of the past either. Just as Paul Feig was allowed to “ruin” childhoods in his recent remake of Ivan Reitman’s crown jewel, Ghostbusters, Reitman himself is attempting to revive the Twins property for a modern audience in an announced, decades-late sequel titled Triplets. The premise of Triplets would bring back Schwarzenegger & DeVito as Julius & Vincent, bowling them over with the discovery that they actually share a birthday with a third brother/wombmate, played by none other than Eddie Murphy. It’s a plot twist that makes absolutely no goddamn sense for so, so many reasons, but that didn’t stop the original Twins from being thoroughly delightful & I’m more than ready for Arnold to make a comeback to his comedy career, so I say bring it on. As long as the film ends with the line “I just can’t get over how alike they are,” I’m sure I’ll be happy.
There has been so much crossover between pop music & film over the decades that it’s almost difficult to distinguish exactly what makes May’s Movie of the Month, the full-length Girl Talk dance video Girl Walk // All Day, such a unique work. From the Beatles movies to MTV to beyond, pop musicians have turned to cinema as an outlet in many varied ways, not least of all including the music video, the concert film, and the tour documentary. Often enough, this visual element can be treated as a mere means of promotion, a backseat accompaniment to the true product being sold: the music itself. There are certainly some major exceptions to that music-video-as-advertisement mentality, however.
The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, The Who’s Tommy, and Prince’s Purple Rain are all readily recognizable examples of major musicians trying to put their music to film by constructing a feature-length narrative work with songs from a single album interjected between the plot points as punctuation. The concert film is its own artform, one perfected by more experimental examples like The Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense & Björk’s Biophilia Live(I’m sure Kanye West’s Jodorowsky-inspired Yeezus film will be right up there if he ever releases the damn thing), but they don’t seem quite as solid of a music-meets-film artform as the narrative versions of the records mentioned above. The problem that even the narrative music movies (something we’ve previously referred to as Pop Music Cinema around here) feel somewhat stilted in their integration of music & cinema, not quite reaching a fully-formed, fully-committed ideal. Concert films are a type of documentary. Narrative pop music films are often a next-stage evolution of the Broadway musical where the songs punctuate the dialogue as a kind of emotional spike or act break. Neither are 100% the music video as feature-length cinema.
Girl Walk // All Day feels different from most of pop music cinema’s past because it is more of pure conversion of the music video into the feature-length film medium. The most apt term I’ve heard to describe what I’m getting at here was recently coined by Beyoncé as “the visual album” (more on that below). I like that term because it distinguishes the artform from the “music video album”, which is quite literally just a collection of music videos, as opposed to a feature-length, singular work that poses the music video as a narrative artform. Think of the difference between The Beatles’ album Please Please Me and their more thematically cohesive later works like Abbey Road and you’ll see the same difference between “the music video album” and “the visual album”. Just because Beach House released a music video for every track on Teen Dream doesn’t mean all the videos from that record function as a singularly-minded, narratively cohesive collection. Girl Walk // All Day is a (fan-made) visual representation of a Girl Talk mixtape in its entirety. It’s much more akin to a music video than a traditional musical, but it still functions as a feature-length, narrative work with a (loose plot) entirely driven by the shifting dynamics of its soundtrack. Nothing exists in a void, however. Just because Girl Walk // All Day is, in my mind at least, the most fully-realized convergence of the music video & the feature film into a singular work doesn’t mean it was the first, last, or most significant example of its kind.
There are many other “visual albums” out there in the world and I’ve collected a solid list of five examples below of some of the highlights of the genre, including, of course, the Beyoncé work I lifted the term from. I don’t think the “visual album” has yet reached hit its peak. There’s plenty of room for the artform to expand into an distinct medium worthy of respect & adoration. I could even argue that the “visual album” is the logical next step for the musical as cinema, a medium that has stagnated in a lot of ways over the past few decades. Here’s five boudnary-pushing examples of the visual album that offer a distinctive look on where the genre could presumably go in the future, each promising just as much innovation as Girl Walk // All Day, if not more.
1. Lemonade (2016)
It’d be a shame to praise the “visual album” as an artform without mentioning the source of where I lifted the term. It also helps that the product itself is an exquisite work of art. Beyoncé has been going through a spiritual growth spurt in the last few years where she’s struggling to break away from her long-established persona of top-of-the-world pop idol to reveal a more creative, vulnerable persona underneath. Her recent “visual album” Lemonade feels like a culmination of this momentum, a grand personal statement that cuts through her usual “flawless” visage to expose a galaxy of emotional conflicts & spiritual second-guessings the world was previously not privy to. It’s at times a deeply uncomfortable experience, as if you’re reading someone’s diary entries or poetry as they stare you down. However, it can also be an empowering & triumphant one, particularly aimed at giving a voice to the underserved POV of being a young black woman in modern America.
Lemonade is significant to the visual album medium not only for giving it a name, but also pushing the boundaries of form & narrative. In some ways it resembles the traditional mode of a “music video album” in that it represents each track from the audio version of Lemonade with a distinctly separate music video. Those rigid divisions serve mostly as chapter breaks, however, as the spoken word pieces that bind them represent an overall, loose narrative tableau about romantic grief, revenge, vulnerability, and empowerment. It’s the same kind of cryptic dialogue vs powerful cinematography formula that’s been driving Terrence Malicks’ work for years. At the risk of incurring the wrath of the Beyhive, Ill confess that I don’t find every risk Lemonade takes pays off (the country song & the poetry can both be a bit much for me at times), but I respect its ambition in a general sense, especially when the more powerful, successful moments hit you like a ton of emotional bricks. Lemonade names, expands, and complicates the concept of the visual album as a medium and demands to be seen if you have an interest in the meeting place where the music video blurs with cinema.
2. The Line, the Cross and the Curve (1993)
I’ve been a huge Kate Bush fan since I first heard The Hounds of Love & The Dreaming in high school, but it took me a good, long while to get into her work from the 90s & beyond.There’s a pop slickness to Kate Bush’s sound, as strange is it is, that can be a little off-putting to me depending on the production .It was the short film The Line, the Cross and the Curve that finally unlocked this world for me and in the years since I first watched it Bush’s 1993 album The Red Shoes has become one of my favorites from the brilliant singer/songwriter. Composed of six music video segments pulled from the twelve tracks on The Red Shoes, The Line, the Cross and the Curve is a short film directed by Bush herself that mimics the 1948 Powell-Pressburger masterpiece The Red Shoes as a basic framework before deviating into something idiosyncratically sensual & surreal. Girl Walk // All Day might be the most successive marriage of the music video & the narrative feature film and Lemonade deserves its own accolades for expanding & labeling the “visual album” as an artform, but The Line, the Cross and the Curve is still a personal pet favorite for me based on pure emotional impact alone.
Bush recorded The Red Shoes in the wake of her emotional devastation of losing two loved ones & suffering a romantic break-up in a single year. The film version & the album both hold a similar cryptic diary/therapy dynamic as Lemonade, but the range & depth of emotions on display in The Line, the Cross and the Curve sometimes reach a sensual, celebratory jubilee not touched by Beyoncé’s distant descendant. I’m thinking particularly of the lush fruitscape of the “Eat the Music” portion of the film, a visual representation of a song so strong that it turned a tune I was too cynical to appreciate into one of my favorite pop music diddies of all time. Bush’s film also can play it tender (“Moments of Pleasure”) or demonically wicked (“The Red Shoes”) depending on its mood and although the singer/songwriter/dancer/director herself has gone on record voicing her frustration with the finished product, I find it to be something of a masterpiece, an early pinnacle of the “visual album” medium. My only complaint is that it could’ve easily included the other six tracks from The Red Shoes & functioned as a feature film.
3. Ultimate Reality (2007)
One of the strangest concert experiences of my life was one of the first (of many wonderful) times I saw Dan Deacon perform live. Instead of having a traditional opening act for this particular tour, Deacon’s set was preceded by a “live performance” of his “visual album” Ultimate Reality. Two drummers took the stage to simultaneously perform on top of Deacon’s trademark synth carnage as a live soundtrack to a film that was projected behind them (provided by visual artist & frequent Deacon collaborator Jimmy Joe Roche). Scrapping together clips from Arnold Schwarzenegger classic from various phases of the action movie god’s career, Ultimate Reality repurposes the Governator’s past work into a single, kaleidoscopic mess of confusingly plotted narrative & eye-burning psychedelia.
Ultimate Reality approaches the music video as cinema concept from the same jubilant, illegal mindframe as Girl Walk // All Day, except it blends all of its “borrowed” material into an endurance contest instead of a crowd-pleasing celebration of the art of dance. There’s a very loose narrative plot at work in the film that tells some kind of time-traveling story Arnold thwarting a doomsday scenario, but it’s an entirely superfluous to the work’s true bread & butter: mind-melting visual & aural assault. Ultimate Reality is simultaneously one of the most beautiful & the most difficult to watch visual albums you’re ever likely to see (it’s pretty much literally a technicolor kaleidoscope of Arnold Schwarzenegger clips & Dan Deacon synths, after all). It’s by far my favorite way way to clear my house at the end of a party. Just pop in the DVD & watch them scatter.
4. Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem (2003)
I’m far, far, far from an electronica fan, which makes me a bit of a sourpuss when it comes to enjoying the immensely popular French pop duo Daft Punk. A few singles will catch my attention every now & then, but listening to one of their albums in its entirety is something I’m not likely to ever to do voluntarily. Every rule has its exceptions, however, and I have found myself blaring the band’s soundtrack for the underrated cheap thrill Tron: Legacy. There’s something integrally cinematic about Daft Punk’s music that lends it well to soundtrack work, especially sci-fi movies and I would gladly watch any film the band scores for their contributions alone. It’s a good thing, then, that the Daft Punk visual album Interstella 5555 is a sci-fi film mostly set in outer space.
A French-Japanese co-production constructed by Toei Animation, the production studio behind legendary works like Sailor Moon & Dragon Ball Z, Interstella 5555 illustrates Daft Punk’s hit album Discovery in its entirety. Much like with Girl Walk // All Day, the visual album features no dialogue outside the band’s lyrics (which are at one point sampled in the Girl Walk movie, coincidentally), but its narrative is much more solid & vividly clear. In the movie the space alien band The Crescentdolls is kidnapped by an American record studio/ancient cult and forced to perform a one hit wonder & sign autographs for adoring fans at a punishingly repetitive schedule. Their quest to escape this hopeless imprisonment rests in the hands of a mercenary hero who flies around in a guitar-shaped spaceship & spends a lot of his time rocking out to bonafide jams while floating around in a vacuum. The film is beautiful, funny, terrifying, and easily recognizable as one of the best examples of the visual album to date. I’ll admit that somewhere around the third act the repetition of the dance music started to exhaust me a bit, but if you’re a more committed Daft Punk fan you might not even have that problem. As far as accomplishing the goals it establishes for itself, the film is wholly successful & thoroughly delightful.
5. Trapped in the Closet (2005-2012)
R. Kelly is, in all likelihood, a complete monster (unless you want to consider the shocking pile of evidence against his good name hearsay), but that doesn’t mean he’s not an entertaining monster. There are so many ridiculous phases & highlights to the R&B singer’s career that I’m not even going to attempt to touch on them, here, but I think it’s fairly clear that his de facto magnum opus, Trapped in the Closet, has earned its place among the most noteworthy examples of the visual album medium. Kelly took the idea of a narrative film music video hybrid literally to the point of outright hilarity. Described as a “rap opera”, the seemingly never-ending saga of Trapped in the Closet follows the second-by-second developments of a love triangle that spirals out of control into an absurdly complicated web of deceipt, revenge, murder, and romance.
Trapped in the Closet is a gloriously silly watch (even when it’s offensively close-minded) and at times feels way more akin to a daytime soap opera than music video cinema, but it’s inspired so much pop culture weirdness to follow (including a glorious Weird Al parody & what’s easily one of the best Wikipedia pages I’ve ever read) that it’s near impossible to discuss the visual album as a concept without including its name. Trapped in the Closet may aim for a more straight-forward narrative than Girl Walk, Lemonade, etc. (even hilariously so), but easily matches those projects in ambition & sheer audacity. R. Kelly combined the music video & the narrative feature into a single, punishing, over-the-top work of high camp. Even if you can’t stomach the idea of sitting through all 33 “chapters” of the monotonously bonkers story, you should at least consider getting a taste of the early episodes and skimming through the Wikipedia plot synopsis, including this flow chart of who’s bonked whom in its web of sex & lies.
Loving Arnold Schwarzenegger can sometimes mean loving repetition. There are distinct phases to the action legend’s career where he shifts gears & tries new types of films, but he’s pretty much consistently the same old Arnold in each role. Whether it’s The Running Man, Commando, or Kindergarten Cop, all wildly different films, he’s pretty much consistently the spotless tough guy with a great sense of comic timing & an unexplained Austrian accent. It’s been interesting to see, though, where he wants to go with his career in its latest phase. The post-gubernatorial, elderly Arnold is a strange bird, one that’s difficult to pigeonhole just yet. In projects like Terminator Genisys & The Last Stand, it definitely feel like he’s slipping back into his old ways, but then there’s more out-there choices like this year’s zom-drama Maggie, which showed him playing tender & quietly pensive. I didn’t enjoy Maggie very much on the whole, but I did respect Arnold’s vulnerability in getting out there & trying something new at this late stage of his career, even if he was disappointingly quiet & inexpressive in that role.
It wasn’t until I saw last year’s Sabotage that I got a glimpse of where I’d love Arnold’s career to go. Playing a crooked, disgraced DEA agent who heads an out-of-control crew that has devolved more or less into a gang, Arnold subverts his eternally unblemished good guy routine for the first time I can remember since The Terminator. And he does it so well. There’s something so satisfying to see him pull a (to borrow a pro wrestling term) heel-turn at this point of his career & play a cigar-chomping scumbag driven out of his mind by the violence of Mexican drug cartels. It’s already a little jarring to watch him head a team instead of falling into his usual lone wolf Commando routine, but it’s even more jarring to watch him head a team of such hopeless reprobates.
The catch with Sabotage is that Arnold is far from the film’s only scumbag. The entire film is just oozing with scum. I felt dirty just watching it. With character names like “Breacher” & “Grinder” and a visual palette that makes time to include blood, shit, and viscera, Sabotage is an ugly, ugly film. Much like with Swordfish & See No Evil, it’s the kind of movie where nearly every line of dialogue is loaded with an insult. Characters constantly call each other “assholes” & “crackwhores” and command each other to “Shut the fuck up” or “Wake up, you drunk fuck” or to quit “fingering The Devil’s pussy.” It’s far from a pleasant film & I wasn’t surprised to learn afterwards that the dude who wrote & directed it was also responsible for penning both Training Day & that upcoming Suicide Squad movie. David Ayer apparently has an eye & an ear for the grotesque and from what I’ve seen from his work this kind of nastiness is something he brings to the screen often.
The only truly remarkable thing about Sabotage‘s nastiness is that it managed to drag Schwarzenegger through the mud with it. This is far from the actor’s first ultraviolent rodeo, but his bloody action films usually have a sort of detached, cartoonish nature to them that’s intentionally missing here. Although Arnold’s shown chomping cigars & pumping iron in Sabotage, he’s almost unrecognisable as the film’s King Scumbag. I honestly appreciated that about the film. Its I Know What You Did Last Summer revenge plot was tolerable, but not exactly thrilling, and it was severely lacking for a single pleasant image or line of dialogue or any ray of sunshine, really to break through its deeply nasty, garbage water pessimism, but Arnold’s performance kinda made up for those shortcomings. There’s a really interesting idea at the heart of the way he plays villain here & I’d love to see that thread explored in other, more easy-to-stomach projects in the future.