For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer, Brandon, and Alli discuss William Grefé’s public domain horror curio Impulse (1974), in which William Shatner models leisure suits & strangles women in the blinding Florida sunshine.
02:20 Mars Attacks! (1996) 06:20 Spell (2020) 08:35 Bill and Ted Face the Music (2020) 10:40 The Wind (2018) 13:32 Grim Prairie Tales (1990) 15:25 Point Break (1991) 18:40 Black Widow (2021) 21:40 Cruella (2021) 24:45 Cowards Bend the Knee (2003) 27:35 Valley of the Dolls (1967)
As often as I gripe about megacorporate movie products under the Disney umbrella—Star Wars, The MCU, and their loose collection of live-action reboots—cheaply pandering to wide audiences with Easter eggs & nostalgia triggers, the truth is that I also love to be pandered to. I absolutely loved the recent black comedy I Blame Society, but it did nothing to challenge me as an audience. Everything about the film feels like it was aimed directly at my tastes, from its no-budget D.I.Y. aesthetic to the transgressive joy it finds in Misbehaved Women to its flippant meta commentary on movies as an artform. If I vaguely described everything I love to see in movies in a focus group meeting, this is the exact end product I’d expect from the algorithm my feedback was plugged into (minus a few keywords like “drag,” “pro wrestling,” “witchcraft,” and “outer space”). I slopped up everything the film dished out like a pig at a trough, completely content and undiscerning about what I was being served – the exact kind of passive, incurious media engagement I mock most audiences for when I’m at my snootiest. It felt great.
The essential difference between I Blame Society and modern big-budget filmmaking is that it wasn’t focus-grouped & algorithmed into existence. The reason the film is so sharply resonant & relatable is because it’s deeply personal & specific to the creative voice of its auteur. Gillian Wallace Horvat writes, directs, and stars in this incredibly dark comedy about a struggling filmmaker who shares her name and (an absurdly exaggerated version of) her real-life persona. In the film, she realizes that her unappreciated skills behind the camera mirror the skills needed to pull off The Perfect Murder, an epiphany that quickly turns her into a serial killer. This premise is adapted from an off-handed compliment made by a real-life friend who said Horvat would make an excellent murderer, which she investigated in a short-length documentary a few years ago. Footage from that short is included in I Blame Society as an abandoned project that Horvat intends to tease out into a feature, much to the horror & concern of the people who love her. After years of not being able to land funding for her dark, off-putting screenplay pitches, she decides to throw all her creative energy & frustration with her industry into one D.I.Y. project that will prove to the world that she is a fully capable filmmaker . . . and, thus, a fully capable murderer.
Horvat is not shy about explaining exactly what’s pissing her off in her creative field and in the world at large. I Blame Society is a vicious, angry film, often functioning as direct commentary on how difficult it is for women to participate in professional filmmaking as an artform. In-character, Horvat attends pitch meetings with Duplass Brothers-type indie producers who use press-friendly buzzwords like “strong female characters” to signify that they’re changing with the times by unlocking the gates for women filmmakers to express themselves, but they don’t mean a word of it. Horvat’s ideas are uniformly dismissed outright for their discomforting tone or “unlikeable” female leads. The only work she’s ever offered is slapping her name on a man’s creative vision to meet a studio’s diversity quota. It’s a cyclical, gendered rejection from her industry that eventually jokerfies her, to the point where the violence she commits in retaliation is intentionally designed to make the audience queasy – a giant fuck-you that undermines her “likeability” instead of aiming for easy “You go, girl!” cheerleading.
Despite that seething, on-the-surface anger with the world, I Blame Society is relentlessly hilarious from start to end. It combines the observational, no-budget filmmaking humor of Matt Farley’s Local Legends with the smiling, Influencer brain rot of last year’s ride-share thriller Spree. Horvat smiles through her entire descent into murderous madness, often tossing out #girlboss catchphrases like “Lean in, baby” and “I’m living my best life” in the middle of her crimes to signal control & composure to her followers. Even the low-tech equipment she uses to document her violence/art—head-mounted Go-Pros, hand-cranked wheelchair dollies, strategically hidden smartphones—read as visual gags, constantly undermining her surface-level calm with a flailing sense of desperation & lunacy. The humor begins at a straight-forward angle of likening filmmaking to murder, as in a sequence where Horvat’s version of “location scouting” turns out to be stalking & home invasion. From there, it only gets exponentially warped and esoteric; some of the funniest jokes are just the intensity in Horvat’s eyes as she chipperly explains the rationale behind her work. You have to be locked onto her peculiar wavelength to fully appreciate that line of humor, but it’s just as relentless as it is sharply observed.
I Blame Society was shot in less than two weeks with a small crew of close collaborators and no concern for wide-audience appeal beyond Horvat amusing her own mischievous brain. As much as I felt the film was aimed directly at my particular tastes, it’s clearly intended to vent & alienate, not to pander. I’d say that it’s further proof that the personal is universal, but I don’t honestly believe it has that kind of far-reaching appeal, nor does it intend to. If you have any personal affection for D.I.Y. filmmaking or Unlikeable Women, though, it’s the can’t-miss movie of the year. Disney’s going to pander to everyone else on a near-weekly basis, but the rest of us have to pounce on the scraps that fall through the cracks whenever we can. This particular trough doesn’t get filled very often.
Our current Movie of the Month, 1992’s Sneakers, is a mainstream thriller about elite hackers played by middle-aged movie stars instead of teenage Mall Goths. As a “cyberpunk” thriller about elite early-internet hackers, it is absurdly un-hip. I’ve come to expect my movie hackers to be young, androgynous perverts dressed in glossy patent leather, not near-geriatric celebrities who tuck in their shirt-tails. However, as a big-budget Dad Movie that plays with 90s-specific cyberterror anxieties, I found it solidly entertaining. It feels like a dispatch from a bygone studio filmmaking era when movie stars actually drove ticket sales, so that their importance on the screen is stressed way more than directorial style or production design – which are slick enough here but deliberately avoid calling attention to themselves. Even among the movie’s biggest fans, I get the sense that it satisfies most as a comfort watch steeped in nostalgia for that era, right down to the clunkiness of its landline phones and desktop computers.
I appreciate Sneakers‘s appeal as a star-studded studio thriller, but I personally prefer my Evil Technology movies to be just a smidge goofier, sexier, or more stylistically over the top. Thankfully there are plenty of trashier, less reputable 90s thrillers about computer hackers to choose from. Here are a few recommended titles if you enjoyed our Movie of the Month but want to see something a little less sensible.
For something just a smidge goofier than Sneakers that still sticks to the mainstream star-vehicle format, I’d recommend the much-mocked but highly entertaining The Net. The Net stars Sandra Bullock as a loner computer hacker, vulnerable to attack because she’s friendless in the world. Watching Bullock’s slovenly hacker eat junk food & code in her “cyberchat” computer dungeon really pushes her Sweetheart Next Door onscreen persona into absurdly unbelievable territory. Bullock’s inability to lose herself in a role comes hand in hand with movie star celebrity, a suspension of disbelief audiences are willing to accommodate because we love seeing these megastars perform, Everyday Sweethearts or no. It’s the same suspension of disbelief that asks us to buy a middle-age Robert Redford as the hippest computer genius on the planet or Dan Ackroyd as a Mall Goth conspiracy theorist, when more reasonable casting would’ve skewed younger or nerdier.
Besides Bullock’s natural star power & effortless charm, The Net’s main draw for modern audiences is its glimpse at 1990s era fears & misunderstandings of online culture, which is pushed to a much goofier extreme than the standard political thriller beats of Sneakers. The film’s main conflict involves an encrypted floppy disc that hackers are willing to murder Bullock’s online slob to obtain, exploiting then-contemporary audiences’ fears of the vulnerability of digitally stored information. Characters anxiously explain the vulnerability of our “electronic shadow” in a world where “our entire lives are in the computer,” waiting to be hacked. The film’s tagline bellows, “Her driver’s license. Her bank account. Her credit card. Her identity. DELETED.” Most of The Net‘s basic thriller elements derive from Bullock’s helplessness in the face of this online identity persecution limiting her mobility & capital as she protects the McGuffinous floppy disc. On the sillier end, there are also primitive AOL-era emojis, in-dialogue explanations of terms like “IRL” (all-caps), and exchanges like “You’re hacker too?,” “Isn’t everybody?,” to help color The Net as a so-bad-it’s-good early Internet relic.
Where The Net truly gets good for me is in its lack of confidence that its chosen subject is sufficiently cinematic. Unsure audiences will bother reading online chatroom text to themselves, Bullock’s computer “helpfully” reads out the chatter in exaggerated robotic voice synthesizers. Discontented with merely displaying online data in matter-of-fact presentation, harsh music video edits & slashing sound cues are deployed to make computer readouts more “dynamic” (read: obnoxious). To add some explosive energy to the onscreen thrills, the film’s evil hacker syndicate graduate from hijacking online personal data to hijacking personal airplanes – essentially hacking victims to death in fiery crashes. It’s all deeply, incurably silly, a tone that only improves with time as its moment in tech becomes more obsolete. Whereas Sneakers molds a traditional, reasonable political thriller formula onto a 90s cyberterror setting, The Net goes out of its way to stress the contemporary gimmickry of his computer hacker plot to the point of delirium.
For something “sexier” than Sneakers, I’d point to the Michael Douglas erotic thriller Disclosure, which features the middle-age movie star in yet another deadly battle with a femme fatale who desperately wants to fuck him to death . . . this time with computer hacking! Douglas stars as a misogynist computer programmer whose daily sexist microaggressions are turned back on him a thousandfold by his new bombshell boss (and sexual harasser), played by Demi Moore. It literalizes the 90s-era War of the Sexes in the same queasy way all these mainstream erotic thrillers do, which you’re either going to be on board for or not. However, this particular example is flavored with an Early Internet tech obsession that includes wide-eyed wonder at cell phones, emails, video calls, and CD-ROMs – placing it in the same techno-espionage realm as Sneakers, just with the absurdity dialed to 11.
There is no actual, consensual sex in Disclosure, despite its erotic thriller patina. Most of the frank, adult conversations about sexuality are contained to legal mediations about the gendered nature of consent and power in the workplace. The actual computer hacking portion is also minimal in its screentime, but once it arrives it is a doozy. The climax of the film is staged in a Virtual Reality simulation of a filing cabinet in a digital hallway, with Michael Douglas frantically searching for confidential files while a Matrixed-out killbot version of Demi Moore systematically deletes them with VR lasers. Of all the examples of movies overreaching in their attempts to make computer hacking look visually dynamic and Cool, this is easily up there in the techno-absurdism Hall of Fame. It’s also lot more thrilling than it sounds on paper, depending on your taste for this kind of horned-up, technophobic trash.
And of course, no list of 90s computer-hacking thrillers would be complete without the over-styled, undercooked excess of 1995’s Hackers. When I was picturing my ideal version of Sneakers—young perverts in fetish gear throwing around the word “elite” as if it were the ultimate honor—I’m pretty sure I was just picturing Hackers . . . a film I had never seen before. Whereas Sneakers is careful to present its corporate espionage computer hacking in a reasonable, rational context that’s careful not to deviate too far from the mainstream thriller norm, Hackers fully commits to its Computer Hacking: The Movie gimmickry. Jonny Lee Miller stars as a child hacker (alias Zero Cool) who has to lay low after being convicted for hacking into the systems of major American banks, then emerges as a hip teen hacker (new alias Crash Override) who’s pinched for a similar corporate espionage crime he did not commit. Will he and his elite-hacker friends be able to out-hack their evil-hacker enemies to clear their names before they’re sent to prison? Who cares? The real draw here is the rapid-edit visualizations of computer hacking in action, wherein Zero/Crash closes his eyes and zones out to psychedelic clips of vintage TV shows & pop culture ephemera while his hands furiously clack away at his light-up keyboard, techno constantly blaring in the background.
Is it possible to be nostalgic for something while you’re watching it for the first time? Hackers has everything I want in movies: tons of style, no substance, mystical visualizations of The Internet, wet dreams about crossdressing, Matthew Lillard, etc. In the abstract, I recognize that Sneakers is technically the better film, but its competence keeps it from achieving anything half as fun or as surreal as this 90s-teen derivative. I very much appreciated Sneakers as is, but I spent its entire runtime re-imagining it as my ideal version of a 90s computer-hacking thriller . . . only to later discover that Hackers already is that exact ideal. It’s, without question, the most ridiculous and most essential film in this set. Hack the planet!
I thought I knew what to expect out of a Nicolas Cage revenge thriller about a disgruntled chef’s John Wick-style fight to recover his stolen truffle pig. Even now, I can picture exactly what that movie should look & feel like from start to end. Pig is not that film. It defies all expectations of its over-the-top genre premise & Cage’s late-career casting in its violence, performances, purpose, and tone. Just about the last thing I expected was that I would be struggling to see the screen for the final third of its runtime because crying into my mask was fogging up my glasses. It’s not any showier in its emotional beats than it is in its revenge-genre payoffs, but it still choked me up in ways I’m finding difficult to articulate. It’s a quietly powerful, surprisingly thoughtful film about Nic Cage’s stolen truffle pig.
Nicolas Cage makes dozens of movies every year—most of which are rightfully ignored straight-to-VOD action thrillers—but there are only two kinds that typically get any wider attention: muted actor-showcase dramas like Joe and mindfuck genre-flicks like Mandy. Pig can’t comfortably be sorted into either of those categories, since it continually flirts with being both. Cage plays his unwashed Oregonian wildman with a quiet dignity & deeply felt sense of hurt – both for loss of his pig and for a greater loss suffered in his mysterious past as a big-city hipster chef in Portland. His journey to recover the pig is an exaggerated, absurd caricature of the Portland culinary scene, though, complete with underground BOH fight clubs & violent mafioso food distributors. It’s an understated execution of a preposterous premise, refusing to behave either as a sober return-to-form showcase for the often-mocked actor or as fodder for his infinite supply of so-bad-its-good YouTube highlight reels. It’s its own uniquely beautiful, tenderly macho thing, with more to say about culinary arts than the peculiar flavors of Nic Cage’s screen presence.
Like in the high-fashion revenge Western The Dressmaker, the violence & cruelty suffered by our battered antihero in Pig is not avenged with more violence & cruelty; it is avenged with art. Nic Cage ends the film caked in blood, as he does in Mandy, but his weapon of choice in seeking revenge are his skills as a chef. His carefully-worded criticism of another chef’s menu choices or his own perfectly balanced, deliberately unpretentious cooking are delivered as skull-crushing blows to his enemies, undercutting the typical hyperviolence of the genre with food-culture commentary. Pig covers a lot of ground in its food-scene philosophizing, from the cutthroat competition of food trucks to the self-aggrandized pageantry of fine dining. I specifically got choked up by its focus on the ways passionate, authentic food preparation can trigger powerful sensory memories in us, an emotional effect deployed here like the detonation of a well-placed bomb. I started to sorely miss sharing luxuriant meals with people I care about, an experience that’s been in short supply over the past 17 months, and one I never expected to be weaponized in Nic Cage’s pig-themed John Wick knockoff.
Nic Cage is my favorite working actor. I know that bias makes me sound like an irony-poisoned hipster, but I genuinely find his choices in roles & performance ticks to be thrilling in a way few better-respected actors allow themselves to indugle. Even so, I admire how Pig breaks through the expectations and boundaries typical to the modern Nic Cage Film. At the very least, it’s his best work since Mandy, which Swampflix highlighted as our collective favorite film of the 2010s. It’s especially worth seeing for anyone who’s ever worked a BOH position in a commercial kitchen, since its draw as restaurant-culture commentary often overpowers Cage’s consciously muted performance. There’s a chance it’s both too restrained and too absurd to earn its place in the Nic Cage Hall of Fame, but it deserves that kind of recognition.
It had been sixteen long months since I last saw a movie projected in a proper cinema. Early in the pandemic, I went out for a nice restaurant meal and a screening of The Invisible Man on a Friday night, fully aware that it would be my last taste of either indulgence for a good long while. Over a year later, I pulled up to AMC Elmwood listening to the mayor on the radio strongly “advising” indoor mask wearing again due to the rapid local spread of the Delta Variant (one week before that advisory snowballed into a mandate). So maybe this long-delayed return trip would also be my last taste of moviegoing for a long while; maybe it would be the only chance I had to see a movie at the megaplex in all of 2021. I made it count by watching some vapid trash.
The first Escape Room was a surprise delight: the rare example of an early-January gimmick thriller that actually lives up to its preposterous premise: “What if escape rooms, but for real?” That premise was also smartly designed to support as many sequels as audiences could care to see. There are some vague motions towards toppling the impossibly widespread conspiracy network that set up the film’s lethal escape room death traps, but for the most part the series is so far all about the rooms themselves. Escape Room 2: Tournament of Champions isn’t as surprising nor as tense as its predecessor, but its death traps are plentiful and plenty preposterous, including an electrified subway car, a city-block acid bath, and an “art deco bank of death.” There’s nowhere for the series to go in terms of worldbuilding or metaphorical purpose, so all it can really do is continue to escalate the size & cruelty of its death traps until the entire planet and life itself are all one giant escape room. I sincerely hope we see enough sequels for it to get there; these are great braindead popcorn flicks.
Foolishly, I borrowed the first Escape Room from the library the week before watching its sequel in theaters, thinking I’d need a refresher on the lore & surviving characters before diving into a new chapter. After 25min of AMC’s trailers and commercials, Tournament of Champions included a recap highlight of the first film – effectively a “Previously on . . .” TV show recap of everything I needed to know, making that rewatch redundant. I did appreciate a few things about watching both Escape Rooms as a double feature, though, even if was unnecessary. As a pair, they were a much-needed balm after being repeatedly burned by the inferior Cube series in recent weeks, which has a similar knack for preposterous traps but only a small fraction of the follow-through. They also best the Saw films in that regard, mostly in their aversion to torturous cruelty – solemnly acknowledging the lives lost without reveling in the grisly details of their demise. As much as I’d like to praise these films as survivors’ guilt thrillers with a critical eye towards audiences’ bloodlust, though, the truth is their death contraptions are just entertainingly absurd.
Watching the original Escape Room at home, then watching Tournament of Champions at my old AMC Elmwood haunt only reinforced the things I miss about the theatrical environment. I’m convinced the first Escape Room is the better film, but I had a lot more fun watching the sequel big & loud with a (sparsely populated but sparsely masked) crowd. I was once again fully, properly immersed in a feature film, by which I mean I couldn’t check my phone every half-second my attention lagged. I’d love to make that experience a regular routine again, even if for the inanest bullshit movies imaginable. Sixteen months is a long, long wait for that simple of an indulgence, but I also don’t know how I often I want to sit for hours in a dark room with the general public right now, all things considered.
Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made Hanna, Brandon, and Britnee watch Sneakers (1992).
Boomer: I love the movie Sneakers. This movie has everything: government conspiracies, a villain with a praiseworthy goal, hacking, phreaking, a blind man driving a van, the creation of a voiceprint password by cobbling together pieces of recordings, two scenes with River Phoenix in a scrub top, significant anagrams, post-Cold War espionage, ancient car phones, crawlspaces, codenames, rooftop confrontations, extremely futuristic but uncomfortable looking furniture made out of wire mesh, call tracing, electronic toy dogs, complex mathematics, briefcases full of cash, intrigue, prestidigitation, and two-time Emmy, Golden Globe, and Oscar nominee Mary McDonnell. I’ve seen it at least a dozen times and I never, ever get tired of it.
Martin Bishop (Robert Redford), some twenty years after his friend and fellow idealist Cosmo was arrested while Martin was out getting pizza to celebrate some illegal but morally admirable money transfers, now works with a tiger team of “sneakers.” There’s Crease (Sidney Poitier), ex-C.I.A. and the group’s watchtower man; conspiracy theorist and electronics whiz “Mother” (real-life conspiracy theorist Dan Aykroyd); Irwin “Whistler” Emery (David Strathairn), a blind man whose hearing is so precise that it allows him to participate in the now largely defunct form of hacking known as phreaking; and young, pretty Carl Arbogast (River Phoenix), a hacking prodigy. Only two people know that Martin is actually the still-wanted fugitive once known as Martin Brice: Cosmo, who died in prison, and his ex-girlfriend, Liz (Mary McDonnell), with whom he is still relatively friendly. His secret, and his freedom, are threatened one day when Martin is approached by two men from the NSA (Timothy Busfield and Eddie Jones) who task him with stealing a “black box” piece of decryption hardware from a mathematician named Janek (Donal Logue, in his first film role). Although they succeed in obtaining the device, their payday is complicated by the revelation that they’ve actually been duped by former NSA operatives, now working for a person or persons unknown. Now, the team, including Liz, will have to use all of their wits to avoid not just jail time, but death.
Sneakers was a box office success. This is owed in no small part, I’m sure, to its all-star cast, which also includes James Earl Jones and Ben Kingsley in roles that are too spoilery to note in a synopsis. It’s got a great soundtrack from the late James Horner, who perfectly balances the film’s intermittent intrigue and danger with its larger comedic tone, creating something that is at turns triumphant, cautious, and playful. Director Phil Alden Robinson, who also wrote the screenplay alongside Walter F. Parkes and Lawrence Lasker (the duo who previously penned the somewhat thematically similar WarGames), seems to be seeking to correct the mistakes of 1985’s Fletch. The earlier film, on which Robinson was an uncredited screenwriter, is also one of intrigue with touches of comedy, but despite Fletch‘s modicum of success at both the box office and with audiences, I agree with Roger Ebert’s contemporary assessment of the movie’s star: “[Chevy] Chase’s performance tends to reduce all the scenes to the same level. […] Fletch needed an actor more interested in playing the character than in playing himself.” Here, Robinson banks on Robert Redford’s longtime association with the conspiracy genre (Three Days of the Condor, All The President’s Men) as well as his natural charisma as an actor to do some of the shorthand of making Sneakers work without having to do too much legwork itself. Of course, every actor is great here; Poitier could have been used more, but he’s the absolute center of every scene that he’s in, and my love of Mary McDonnell is long documented so I won’t repeat myself here. Aykroyd, bless him, makes a meal out of his proto-Mulder role as he effortlessly tosses off lines about increases in cattle mutilations and ties the (unsuccessful, he claims) assassination of JFK to the men behind the Pete Rose scandal.
Since I’ve mentioned Ebert, however, it bears noting that he was lukewarm on the film, calling it “sometimes entertaining […] but thin” and claims that it “recycles” older film cliches: “Redford’s team […] is yet another version of the World War II platoon that always had one of everything. […] the black guy, the fat guy, the blind guy, the woman[,] and the Kid.” Although he found parts of Sneakers cliche at points, he also praised Robinson for directing “with skill and imagination.” Brandon, I know that I’ve forced you to watch quite a few conspiracy films over the years; you were moderately positive in our discussion of Winter Soldier but struggled to find something nice to say about Undiscovered Country. Given that Sneakers is at its core a cyberpunk story like previous Movie of the Month Strange Days, albeit one with a cassette futurism aesthetic, and that I know how much you love The Net, I’m hoping you enjoyed this one. Did it work for you? If so (or if not), why (or what would you have preferred)?
Brandon: Like the last Mary McDonnell film we discussed as a Movie of the Month selection, Passion Fish, Sneakers mostly landed with me as an Afternoon Movie: low-key mainstream filmmaking best enjoyed while the sun is still out on a profoundly lazy day. It’s the kind of movie I used to catch on broadcast television as a kid, when commercial breaks would stretch the runtime out to actually take up an entire afternoon, pleasantly so. At the risk of participating in gender binary rhetoric, I’d say the main difference is that Passion Fish is a Mom Movie, while Sneakers is solidly a Dad Movie — the perfect basic cable background fodder to passively enjoy while your grandpa snores over the soundtrack. As a “cyberpunk” thriller about elite early-internet hackers, it is absurdly un-hip; it’s all cyber and no punk. I’ve come to expect my movie hackers to be young, androgynous perverts dressed in glossy patent leather, not middle-aged movie stars who tuck in their shirt-tails. However, as a big-budget Dad Movie that plays with the same 1990s cyberterror anxieties exploited in the much goofier The Net, I found it highly entertaining. It feels like a dispatch from a bygone studio filmmaking era when movie stars actually drove ticket sales, so that their importance on the screen is stressed way more than directorial style or production design — which are slick enough here but deliberately avoid calling attention to themselves.
As a result, I was more invested in the charm of the casting and the performances than I was in the actual espionage plot, which boils down to a global-scale hacking MacGuffin that has since become standard to most modern blockbusters in the MCU and Fast & Furious vein. We’re introduced to Redford’s motley crew of square-looking cybercriminals in two separate rollcalls: one in which NSA agents read out their respective arrest records to quickly sketch out their past, and one in which they individually dance to Motown records with Mary McDonnell to show off their personal quirks. I found the movie to be most vibrantly alive in those two scenes because of its general commitment to highlighting the eccentricities of its cast. Redford & Poitier squeeze in an obligatory “We’re getting too old for this shit” quip in the first ten minutes of the film, but outside of those two rollcalls it’s rare for the movie to acknowledge just how out-of-place and Ordinary its elite hackers look (at least when compared to other 90s gems like Hackers and The Matrix), when that’s the only thing I really wanted to dwell on. I could’ve watched an entire movie about Dan Akroyd’s awkwardly past-his-prime Mall Goth conspiracy theorist, for instance, since that role could’ve been much more comfortably filled by a Janeane Garofalo or a Fairuza Balk type without any change in demeanor or costuming. What is Mother’s deal? I’d love to know.
Britnee, were you similarly distracted by the movie’s casting & costuming of its “cyberpunk” hackers? Who were the highlights (or lowlights) of the film’s cast of characters for you?
Britnee: I have to admit that Sneakers took me by surprise when I realized it was a hacker movie. I’ve known about its existence for years. It was always hanging out in my local library’s VHS collection. Its cover is a sneaky look at Robert Redford with a group of middle aged pals, so I just always assumed it was about him owning a shoe store in New England or something along those lines. It turns out that I was way off.
Like Brandon, I always expect hacker films to have a cast of sexy 90s cyperpunks. Leather pants, spiky hair, and those tiny cyber sunglasses that make no sense but all the sense at the same time. The only other way I’ve seen a hacker represented in a movie is a gamer guy with a messy t-shirt or a girl with a tight black tank top and cargo pants. The group in Sneakers is far from what I’m used to seeing as hackers in film. They look like my great-uncle and his group of wacky friends. Maybe Hollywood is working with the dark web overlords to paint a false picture of what real life computer hackers look like (sexy 90s cyperpunks) so we don’t think to consider middle aged sports bar crews as real hackers. Phil Robinson and friends were probably risking everything to go against “them” to show us a glimpse of what real hackers are. That’s my Sneakers conspiracy theory, anyway.
All that being said, Robert Redford knocked it out of the park as Marty. He always beams so much charisma on screen, and in Sneakers, he does so while balancing being a hacking genius and a hero to dads everywhere. I actually thought the casting all around was amazing, but I would have loved to see a nerdy middle aged woman in the same garb as Mother as a member of the crew. That would be the only suggestion I would make regarding casting, and that’s just me being selfish.
Something that really fascinated me about Sneakers was the beginning and ending wraparound about taking money from Republicans to give to liberal causes. I was surprised to see that in the movie considering it being in 1992 (post-Regan and in the midst of Bush). And it did tremendously well at the box office! Hanna, was this something that surprised you as well, considering the political climate at the time in the US?
Hanna: Actually, I think this movie was a pretty safe political bet for Hollywood at the time. Sneakers was released just two months before Clinton’s election in 1992, and Marty—played by white, charismatic, red-blooded American Redford—is, in some ways, a perfect embodiment of the Third Way, a left-center political position that Clinton championed. Marty and his adversary both agree “money’s most powerful ability is to allow bad people to continue doing bad things at the expense of those who don’t have it”; the antagonist wants (or proclaims to want) to completely destroy the binary of wealth by toppling the inherently corrupt economics systems across the globe; in his new world, billionaires will cease to exist. This is obviously an untenable solution, but at least it’s radical. Marty’s idea of economic justice, on the other hand, is moving millions of dollars from the Republican National Convention to non-profits and NGOs, which is a fun joke that doesn’t fundamentally change anything about who is able to wield power and wealth. I would love the RNC to be suddenly and inexplicably bankrupt, but I doubt that the Koch brothers would give up on their political machinations after the RNC’s funding wound up at Greenpeace in the Sneakers universe. The film seemed squarely settled in the camp of without actually challenging the circumstances fueling wealth inequality; the film’s solution isn’t to radically re-think a system that allows a few wealthy people to disproportionately control our political, social, and economic realities, but to periodically move million dollar donations from one (pretty unpopular) organization to philanthropic ones, like Robin Hood for CEOs. At the very least, I wish they had been funneling money from Unilever.
Did any of that have any impact on my opinion or enjoyment of this movie whatsoever? Absolutely not. I loved Sneakers, and crime comedies from the late 90s do not have any kind of responsibility to be politically radical. Like Boomer mentioned, Ebert was soured by Sneakers’s use of material recycled from other movies, and it does play like a movie designed identify every possible permutation of the crime comedy cliché; fortunately for Phil Alden Robinson, I was more than happy to lap it up. I love any and all heist/spy movies, but I especially appreciated the earnest absurdity of Sneakers, from the standard CSI mumbo jumbo (enhancing on the tiniest details of already blurry photos) to goofy spy nonsense involving a room fortified with temperature and motion alarms. These cliches are definitely animated by a stellar cast, and I don’t think this film would have worked quite so well for me if it weren’t for the performances, especially from Redford and Poitier. I was so tickled by Crease’s impassioned probe into the details of Janek’s secret funding at 52:42 that I had to rewind and rewatch it multiple times (“Don’t tell me you can’t do it, because I know you can! And don’t tell me you won’t do it, because I’ve got to have it! Dammit, I need to know, and I need to know now!”), and it couldn’t have worked without Poitier hamming it up. As others have mentioned, Redford perfectly captures a version of the Strong, Good-Hearted, Down-To-Earth Man with smoother edges (like Harrison Ford mixed with Alan Alda, kind of), a character that is equally irresistible to Dads and Moms alike. This is the kind of movie that should have been on annual rotation in my household, and I can’t wait to make up for lost time.
Boomer: I’ve been singing this film’s praises ever since it was first brought to my attention some 5-6 years after release, when it turned up at a sleepover. It’s the rare (perhaps the only) film with expressly leftist views that my father tolerated watching more than once, and that should tell you something about its quality, if nothing else.
Hanna: This movie made me remember how much I enjoy anagrams. I know it’s not a practical encoding technique, but those anagrams in the opening credits really roped me in, and I was on the edge of my seat when Robert Redford started shuffling those Scrabble tiles around. Spy films need more anagrams!
Brandon: As much as I enjoyed this movie as a time capsule of mainstream 90s filmmaking, I’m convinced I would’ve fully loved it as a post-“retirement” Soderbergh heist flick. Pairing this caliber of movie star casting with the more playful, eccentric visual style of an Ocean’s 12, Logan Lucky, or No Sudden Move would’ve pushed it much closer to the style-over-substance ethos that usually wins my heart. As is, it’s handsomely staged, but maybe a little too well behaved. Maybe what I’m saying is that I should finally check out Michael Mann’s Blackhat.
Britnee: In 2016, NBC planned on making a TV series reboot of Sneakers, but to my knowledge, it looks like nothing came of it. I actually think a Sneakers TV series would be pretty great, so I hope something is still brewing.
Upcoming Movies of the Month September: Britnee presents Hello Again (1987) October: Hanna presents Lisa and the Devil (1973) November: Brandon presents Planet of the Vampires (1965)
For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer, Brandon, and Alli discuss Korean provocateur Park Chan-wook’s English-language debut, Stoker (2013) — a high-style Gothic melodrama modeled after Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt.
In March 2020, I started reading Marie NDiaye’s novel My Heart Hemmed In about a week before Texas went into its first lockdown. It was a stunning book, beautiful and discomfiting, about a woman, Nadia, who suddenly and inexplicably becomes othered by her community. Friends, neighbors, amenable ex-lovers, strangers, her pupils: overnight, she becomes a pariah to them, something different and perhaps even obscene. As I was on the bus on the way home from work, not realizing that it would be the last time I would be taking that route, I was reading through a passage about Nadia also taking public transportation, and her growing awareness of being watched and observed, and that paranoid feeling surged through me as the eyes of my fellow commuters began to dart from face to face, seeking any sign of illness or contagion. It was a distinctly surreal experience that I do not recall fondly. NDiaye’s writings seemed, based on my own admittedly limited cultural knowledge, very French; Heart focused heavily not just on the feeling of being ostracized, but also on the confusion of it, and through narrative sleight of hand managed to let the reader know that there was something about her situation that Nadia unconsciously understood but forced beneath the surface of her conscious mind. Despite her constant claims that she couldn’t imagine the reason for her situation, the reader always knew that she was more aware than she let on. Although the novel upon which A Perfect Enemy is based, Cosmétique de l’ennemi, is Belgian (albeit written in French), the summaries of it which I’ve managed to locate indicate a similar self-deception at the original novel’s core, which does not (forgive the pun) translate to the big screen, nor am I certain it could have translated.
Successful and renowned Polish architect Jeremiasz Angust (Tomasz Kot) has just finished giving a lecture in Paris about his philosophy of design. In so doing, he quotes Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (probably best known in the Western Hemisphere as the author of The Little Prince): “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” This is tied into his desire to design spaces which are to the benefit not of an aristocratic class, but to the societal underclasses, who deserve beauty as much as their supposed betters. En route to the airport to return home, he offers to share a cab with a rain-soaked young Dutch woman who gives her name as Texel Textor (Athena Strates). Despite the objections of the cab driver, they also turn back to retrieve Texel’s suitcase, which causes both of them to miss their flights. As they each wait for the next available flight, Jeremiasz politely attempts to rebuff Texel’s attempts to engage him in further conversation, especially once her interest in him is further aroused by the fact that he had designed the very airport in which they are currently stranded. He finally gives in to her begging to hear her out as she tells him stories about her childhood, promising one such tale about how she killed a classmate in her youth. As they adjourn to a very nice lounge, the miniature diorama of the airport shows two tiny figures inside painted to look just like Jeremiasz and Texel, in an otherwise monochromatic white sea.
Texel tells three stories. The first is about her disgust with the sound of her stepfather’s eating as a child and how her own rejection of food due to textural issues led to her being punished by mixing up offal and other unappetizing food remnants to feed to the family’s cats, but forced herself to eat that mixture and discovered she loved it. The second story is about her friendship with another girl from school, who was much more well-off and of whom the poor Texel was deeply envious, even going so far as to destroy the wealthier girl’s toys out of spite. One night she prayed for the girl to die while stabbing a doll, and learned the following day at school that she had died in the night. Between these stories, Texel asks Jeremiasz about his wife, noting his wedding band, but he reveals nothing other than to say that he still loves her, which Texel doubts, noting that when someone loves another person, they can’t help but talk about them more than Jeremiasz is willing to speak of his bride. Jeremiasz says that Texel can’t possibly think that her prayers killed her classmate, but Texel tells her final story, about seeing a beautiful woman in a French cemetery, standing over a sculpture of a mourning woman that looks almost just like her. She falls madly in love with the woman instantly and pursues her, much to the woman’s dismay, and although Texel catches up with the woman and even knocks her down, the mourner manages to get away. Texel spends years trying to find her again, and when she does and realizes the woman does not recognize her from that day in the graveyard, she weasels her way into the woman’s home, only for the woman to eventually recognize Texel’s mad laughter, and then a tragedy occurs.
Although there’s not much to spoil here for a first time viewer and I’m not giving this film a recommendation, I’ll still refrain from sharing too much about how Texel and Jeremiasz were connected prior to their “chance” meeting, although an astute reader may have already figured it out. That’s by far the least interesting part of the film. Maybe I’m simply still haunted by Hereditary, but I had really hoped that the recurring image of the tiny figures of Texel and Jeremiasz appearing in the model airport in the transitions between scenes would be a larger and more literal factor in the plot, and that perhaps Texel was some kind of avenging spirit or witch come to force Jeremiasz to confront or reckon with something from his past. I’m not saying that’s not what happens in the movie, but, again, I don’t want to ruin the ending or the journey should you find yourself with access to this film and time to kill. The twist isn’t telegraphed necessarily, but it is foreshadowed heavily enough that you’ll probably stay a few steps ahead of the reveal. Even if that doesn’t work, what does work in the “long conversation” part of Act II are Texel’s interruptions of her own stories to ask Jeremiasz what he’s imagining when she talks about childhood poverty or elementary school buildings, and corrects his mental images, which draw on his own experiences, with clearer and more specific ones that accurately reflect her past. I love movies about memory, and this is an interesting and dynamic way to confront, inspect, and visualize the imperfections of memory and imagination in a visual way. There’s also a striking scene in the final act of the film that’s evoked by the movie’s poster image, but to say more about it would give too much away.
Unfortunately, where A Perfect Enemy falls flat is in the performances. Although there’s something indescribably “off” about Marta Nieto, who plays the object of Texel’s affections, it’s Kot who delivers one of the strangest performances I’ve ever seen here, and not in a good way. At first I thought it might have been a language barrier issue and was fully prepared to, on this film’s behalf, argue that it might have been better to allow Kot to speak his native Polish and subtitle the movie instead of forcing him to speak English throughout, but I watched an English-language interview with him, and he speaks the language fluently. I cannot imagine what prompted the acting choice to deliver every line of Jeremiasz’s dialogue so stiltedly; as a result of it, Kot delivers a performance that is—and I hesitate to use this term without sufficient reason but there are truly no other or more accurate descriptors—Wiseaunian. I don’t think that Kot is a bad actor necessarily, but it’s such a huge distraction that one could almost (but not quite) overlook what an amazing performance Strates is bringing to the table. She manages to portray innocence, madness, and clarity of purpose in what could have easily been a textbook standard manic pixie nightmare girl, and I really look forward to seeing her in future roles. I’m also fascinated by director Kike Maíllo’s cinematic eye; there are a lot of breathtaking images here (most of which were included in the film’s extremely well-crafted trailer), and I can’t wait to see him take the helm of another thriller that’s less hampered by a familiar narrative twist and a wooden performance from its lead.
In recent months I’ve been enjoying floating round in the grey area between classic noir & melodrama with a few Joan Crawford classics like Mildred Pierceand The Damned Don’t Cry. While I still have a few more titles to visit before I abandon that track (I particularly look forward to traveling down Flamingo Road), the Gene Tierney psych-thriller Leave Her to Heaven was an excellent detour on the journey. I don’t want to suggest that anyone but Tierney should’ve been cast in the film’s central, villainous role, but Leave Her To Heaven is the exact kind of sinister romantic obsession story that Crawford excelled at in the best of her melodramatic noirs. The difference is that Joan would’ve gobbled up the scenery with a fiery passion, hurling cocktail glasses at the wall and clawing at her victims like a wild animal. By contrast, Tierney is ice cold in her own femme fatale villainy – passionate in her romantic obsession, yet inhumanly ruthless in eliminating that romance’s minor obstacles. Her red Technicolor lipstick is louder than she ever raises her voice, yet she leaves behind a shocking trail of dead as she inevitably gets her way. It’s an entirely different mode of femme villainy than I’m used to from the genre’s more animated, expressive titans like Crawford & Stanwyck, but it’s just as stunning to watch.
A large part of Leave Her to Heaven‘s novelty within its genre is in seeing the femme fatale archetype interpreted as a Too-Dutiful Housewife, as opposed to a Sultry Seductress. Tierney’s major crime is that she wants to spend too much time with her husband. Well, that and the murders. Her main crime is probably the murders. The first act of the film is a slow-moving courtship ritual in which a bestselling author (Cornel Wilde) is allured by the charms of a fiercely independent socialite (Tierney) whose family is quietly terrified of her. The doomed author feels compelled to position himself as her macho protector, but it’s clear from her family’s unease with the courtship that he should be protecting himself. It isn’t until their inevitable marriage that the exact nature of that threat becomes clear. Ferociously possessive of her husband’s time and attention, Tierney takes her newfound role as a housewife far too seriously. She announces early on, “I have no intention of hiring a cook, or a housekeeper, or any other servants, ever. I don’t know want anyone else but me to do anything for you.” The husband finds this proclamation sweet, but she really means it. Any possible distraction to their alone time—whether family, visitors, his writing, or their baby—is in danger of being obliterated by her possessive jealousy. In becoming The Dream Wife, she’s a total fucking nightmare.
There’s a pervasive, harmful myth in modern Western culture that your romantic partner must be your Everything, that no other relationship matters once you make that all-encompassing monogamous commitment. Leave Her To Heaven turns that expectation into something incredibly sinister, thanks largely to Tierney’s ice-queen ruthlessness. Even when she suffers her unavoidable punishment for her transgressions under the dictums of The Hays Code, she still finds a way to weaponize that punishment and continue her campaign of preemptive revenge upon her marriage’s potential distractions. Between its Academy Ratio framing and lush Technicolor sheen (something that was especially eye-searing on my shiny new Criterion Blu-ray), Leave Her to Heaven is dressed up in some remarkably classy Old Hollywood packaging. Meanwhile, Tierney’s femme fatale housewife feels like she stepped out of a trashy novel from Ira Levin or Gillian Flynn. She’s one of cinema’s greatest, most delectable monsters, and she achieves that all-timer status by dutifully following the basic tenets of modern monogamy. As much of a sucker I am for Joan Crawford’s explosive fury in her own melodrama-noirs, I was totally won over by Tierney’s more reserved, slow-simmering resentment here. I need to make a point to watch more of her own 1940s crime melodramas once I’m done chasing down all of Joan’s.
I recently corrected a major personal blindspot for an episode of The Swampflix Podcast: I finally watched Vertigo. Actually, we watched four different versions of Vertigo for that discussion, if you include its cheap-o homages Obsession, Perversion Story, and The Green Fog. While I wasn’t fully convinced by the critical consensus that Vertigo is The Greatest Film of All Time (a near-impossible standard for any movie to live up to), I found the experience of watching that same story repeated in film after film to be mildly hypnotic, to the point where I now see its influence everywhere. Thinking back to recent, unrelated movies I didn’t immediately clock as “Hitchcockian” when I first watched them—titles likePhoenix, Ismael’s Ghosts, Double Lover, and Dogs Don’t Wear Pants—all I see is Vertigo, Vertigo, Vertigo all the way down. That was also my exact experience while watching the recent Hungarian romance thriller Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time. Any of the long-simmering intrigue & dread the movie establishes with its high-concept premise can’t help but feel like a distant, hollow echo of Vertigo to me right now, while I’m still stumbling through new movies in this Hitch-hypnotized state.
At least Preparations to Be Together gender-flips the usual Vertigo dynamic, detailing the romantic & erotic obsession of a woman trailing her dream version of a man who may not exist, as opposed to the Pygmalion tropes of the story we’re used to. A Hungarian neurosurgeon returns to her home city of Budapest after decades of practicing medicine in New Jersey, stalling her prestigious career on the cutting edge of medicine technologies to chase down a man she had a brief romantic connection with at a medical conference. When she reunites with him in his hospital’s parking lot, he does not recognize her, claiming they have never met. And so, we have the ironic story of a neurosurgeon losing her mind as she obsesses over a man she’s intensely attracted to but who also may be a total stranger, a ghost, or a figment of her imagination. She’s more of a quiet observer than she is an active, charismatic protagonist – conveying most of her internal conflict through the cold intensity of actor Natasa Stork’s metallic blue eyes. Still, director Lili Horvát manages to maintain a constant tension between heartbreaking loneliness & otherworldly mystery throughout, even if her reluctance to do anything flashy or concrete with that stored-up energy can be a little frustrating once the end credits hit.
Preparations to Be Together feels like Vertigo reimagined (or maybe unimagined) as the kind of middling Euro psych-thrillers I routinely, dutifully watched as a teen, when late-night IFC broadcasts were my only access to High Brow Cinema. Its unflinching indulgences in sexual intimacy, surgical gore, and philosophical discussions of the human brain are the exact kind of thing that would’ve made me feel smarter than I really was as a mouthbreathing teenager, but I can’t say they resonate with any real heft now. It ultimately wasn’t my recent over-exposure to the apparently wide-ranging genre of Vertigo Homage that numbed me to the movie’s low-key, ethereal charms. It was more that after decades of watching so many wishy-washy Euro headscratchers on cable broadcasts, film festival screens, and borrowed library DVDs it’s hard for any one example to stand out from the others. If anything, my recent Hitchcock Homage tangent was a life raft that gave me something solid to latch onto, since so much of the film is fluid & restrained.