Patron Request: ‘Perfect Blue’

While Satoshi Kon was best known as a director for his surreal, often abstract imagery, I find his debut film Perfect Blue more interesting as an editing exercise. There are plenty of striking images here, to be sure. What’s far more striking to me, though, is the way the film uses the cut to depict the typically Kon-ian theme of the blurred boundary between reality and fiction. He uses edits to fool the audience into thinking there’s a clear divide between the two, with main character Mima often snapping out of her disturbing fantasies with the abruptness of a smash cut. Here on one side of the cut is illusion, here on the other side is the real world. This is what the film leads us to understand.

Later on, this begins to break down, and it becomes less and less clear which side is which. In one extended sequence, Mima spends several days blacking out while shooting scenes for her TV show, each time waking up in her bed with no memory of the previous day. The nature of her role on the show becomes intermingled with her real-life paranoia over a stalker known only as Mr. Me-Mania. The edits in this sequence introduce and replace possibly imagined elements with such a matter-of-fact rhythm that it’s difficult to piece together if any of it is real or false. Kon would show off his penchant for visual stylization in later films like Paprika, but it’s here in his earliest feature that he shows off an equally profound talent for manipulating film grammar.

What I find just as compelling is the film’s take on the Japanese film industry, and how it thrives on depicting sexual violence against women. In order to make it as an actress, Mima is expected to film a horrific rape scene. She convinces herself that she’s happy to do it, that it’ll just be pretend, but it’s shooting this scene that directly precedes the first splinter in her psyche. It’s a deeply upsetting scene, both for the content of the show-within-a-film and the casual callousness of the mostly faceless cast and crew. The actor playing Mima’s rapist does whisper an apology in her ear, but there’s no indication that they’ve endeavored to make her feel comfortable or safe. Her humanity is of no concern. It’s no wonder she starts to feel depersonalized. No one in her life seems to care about her as a person more than they care about her as a commercial (and fetishized) object. Her sense of self is gradually drained away, until she’s left reading a fake online diary purportedly written by her to discover what she did the day before. I know a lot of trans people who have a trans reading of Perfect Blue, and I imagine it has something to do with Mima’s confused sense of identity in the film’s later sections. She’s not herself, she’s only pretending to be. It makes the film’s final shot, where she looks in a mirror and declares, “I’m real,” surprisingly triumphant.

I liked Perfect Blue quite a bit. It’s not my favorite Kon work (that would still be his TV series Paranoia Agent) but it’s got just enough of the touches I love from him. He’d only ramp up those touches later in his career, so it’s interesting to see a version of Kon that seems somewhat restrained, mostly for the better.

Patron Request: ‘Cameraperson’

It always rankles a little when someone draws a direct comparison between film (particularly documentary film) and memory. Memory is by its nature mutable and fluid. It changes with time, reshaped by its attached emotional context. Film, on the other hand, is static. While it can never be fully objective, its images cannot change once captured. Your experience with a film may change over time, but the film itself never can. Memory, though, is never a solid thing.

On the other hand, I think about the phenomenon of false memories. Our brain can concoct recollections of things that never happened, but which may represent some greater emotional or historical truth. I have a distinct memory of my mother insisting that I could no longer drink soy milk because it contained estrogen. She now insists this never happened. Did she simply forget? Or did my brain create this event as a metaphor for my dysphoria, and the at-the-time terrifying prospect of transition? It doesn’t matter if the memory really happened, ultimately. What matters is what it represents about that point in my life. Memory is not a historical record, but it is useful in how it suggests historical truth. This, I think, is much closer to how cinema operates.

It’s something I thought about a lot while watching Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson. The film introduces itself as a sort of memoir of Johnson’s life and career, made up of unused footage from nearly twenty documentary films on which she served as cinematographer. Johnson is a constant presence in these clips, far from the typically invisible DP role. Her physical presence in a scene is always felt. She reclaims her first-person perspective from the directors who would typically assume it, which feels especially radical in clips from films made by documentary titans like Michael Moore and Laura Poitras. These clips, removed from the directorial intents and political contexts with which they would have been presented, take on the shape of Johnson’s personal memory fragments.

I think of one lengthy tracking shot following a young boxer who has just lost a match. He furiously storms out of the ring and back to the locker room, swearing and punching every inanimate object in sight. Johnson follows him there, and then back out into the stadium, where he finds and embraces his mother. In a documentary about this athlete, Johnson’s presence would be totally anonymous. The camera would almost act as surveillance, an intangible object. Here, though, all we can think about is the way Johnson takes up space in those tight backstage corridors, how dangerously close she gets to the young man’s rampage. This is not an objective capture of this event, it is one person’s memory of it. We occupy the space behind her eyes.

The editing, too, is deliriously freeform. It’s a stream-of-consciousness film, with one bit recalling the next recalling the next, until you can’t remember where you started. Recollections of Johnson’s late mother give way to a scene about one of her friends going through the belongings of her own mother, who took her own life. Cameraperson calls itself a memoir, but it has none of the rigidity of the form. It really does feel like a 100-minute sequence of continual remembrance. To watch it is to feel like you’re remembering along with Johnson. Its flow is totally natural and unpretentious. It does feels less like a deliberate construction and more like it streamed directly out of Johnson’s brain. This is, of course, a testament to how brilliantly and deliberately Johnson did construct it. I’m in awe of her accomplishment here.

Patron Request: ‘The Third Man’

For some reason (the reason is that I’m stupid) I always thought The Third Man was directed by Orson Welles rather than just starring him. I think my brain mixed it up with Touch of Evil. This doesn’t really have any bearing on the review. Just wanted to establish context for me actually knowing very little about movies.

What I found most immediately striking about The Third Man, beyond the near-constant dutch angles and bizarrely uptempo score, is the similarity in the structure of its first two acts to Citizen Kane. Both films feature an unassuming writer picking up the pieces after the death of a titanic personality by interviewing many of the people whose lives he touched. There are even one or two direct references to Kane. It feels at times like a pulpier riff on Welles’ film, bringing the detective elements of the story more to the forefront. The circumstances surrounding Kane’s death were a mystery only inasmuch as they represented the general lack of public knowledge about the man’s life. Harry Lime, on the other hand, was quite well-known; it’s the actions that caused the death itself which are obscured. It’s not a perfect parallel by any means. It’s just something that jumped out at me.

While the film’s unswerving dedication to its tilting cinematography is certainly admirable for the time, it comes off to me now as a bit overcooked. I wish director Carol Reed had come up with some other ways to express the film’s disjointed tension. As it stands, it plays the exact same trick over and over and over again. It’s not a bad trick! It’s just wearying after a while. I know I’m going to come across as a jumped-up know-nothing youngster, and that’s fine. This is just my personal reaction.

Orson, of course, is killer. Without question he is the best thing about the movie. He brings so much light and life into the thing with just the briefest initial glance. It’s like the film is infused with tremendous electricity from the first frame we see his face. That sly, cocksure, uptilted grin instantly transforms the film. It’s his movie from that moment on, even when he’s not on-screen. I expect he conquers even the first two-thirds on repeat viewings, when you know exactly what he’s going to bring to the table. I could talk about Orson all day. I just love him so dearly.

That being said, I wish I had more to say about The Third Man. Besides Orson, it doesn’t really intersect with a lot of my cinematic interests, at least not in the current moment. It’s quite a good film, obviously. It’s just not one that strikes me in any particularly interesting way.

Patron Request: ‘Frank’

If my Letterboxd rating is anything to go on, I actually liked Frank a bit more on rewatch than I did back in 2014. Only a bit, though. I also found aspects of it more troubling than I did five years ago. It’s not a very good film. But it’s the sort of film where I can very clearly see all the directions where it could have gone disastrously wrong, and didn’t. That’s something I can’t help but find myself appreciating.

It’s a story of eye-roll-inducing familiarity. A true outsider artist and his compatriots are tempted to sand the edges off their work for the sake of mainstream recognition by an ambitious new addition to their crew. In this case, though, the film takes on the perspective of that ambitious new addition. It follows Domhnall Gleeson’s Jon from his initial awe at the impossibly unique creative energies of Michael Fassbender’s Frank and his band to his eventual destruction of it through pushing them to change their sound in advance of a SXSW gig. It’s interesting, in theory, to watch as Jon’s desire to be liked by his new bandmates devolves into a desire to be liked by a widespread fanbase. The film does a decent job of seeding this idea from the beginning, with Jon facetiously bragging to his 18 Twitter followers all about the songs he’s “writing.” He’s clearly, from the beginning, a guy who cares more about being liked by as many people as possible than about making something personally meaningful. I quite liked the film’s handling of his arc, thin as it was at times. I especially liked that Frank hands its ending over to the reconciliation of the people Jon screwed, leaving Jon nothing to do but walk away. The film has a generous spirit that way.

Where things fall apart, and they do, is in the way the film deals with the subject of mental illness. I suppose it’s not all disastrous. The explanation for Frank’s insistence on wearing a big head at all times isn’t much of an explanation at all. There’s no deep dark trauma in his childhood that made him this way. It’s just how he’s always been. Jon and others have fun mythologizing Frank because of his outre appearance, but there’s no secret history here. He’s just Frank. The willingness to let someone’s mental health just be a part of them, without narrativized explication, is absolutely a good thing.

The problem is in the way the film treats “mental illness” as a nebulous concept and not an umbrella term. Frank “has mental illness” because of his head thing. Another bandmate, Don, “has it” because he used to have sex with mannequins. Jon brazenly assumes Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Clara is mentally ill because….she’s a little mean, I guess? It doesn’t conceptualize mental illness as anything beyond “a thing you have or are that makes you kooky.” It makes the film shallow and borderline offensive. Frank has nothing of value to say about mental illness. In fact, it has nothing to say at all. It’s just a term to be bandied about to add a little gravitas to the characters’ quirkiness. It’s a truly terrible approach.

Still, I can’t help but admit that it could have been much, much worse. Frank is fine. It only ever toes the line in its most dangerous aspects. It’s not a good film. But was it ever going to be? I think when you’re working with such a tired premise, this might be as close to greatness as it’s possible to get. It’s sort of commendable that they made it this far. Perhaps this is too generous of me. But I’m a generous girl.

Patron Request: ‘Chimes at Midnight’

Was there ever a better match between artist and character than Orson Welles and John Falstaff? Both of them portly men of good humor, who delighted in life and friendship, beloved by those around them even when their prodding goes too far, boisterous and charming and ever engaging in trickery and falsehoods. It’s almost as though Welles formed his personality based on Falstaff. This would make his on-screen work in Chimes at Midnight a sort of performance-within-a-performance, or perhaps a literalization of his projected real-life persona. More likely is that Welles was the man Welles was always going to be, and that he saw in Falstaff a kindred spirit of unlikely familiarity. It’s easy to look at many Welles films and see the magnum opus in each, to find it each one a complete statement of artistic intent. Chimes at Midnight, though, feels more personal than most. This is Wellesfinding drama in himself.

I don’t want to be too literal in my analysis here. The relationship between Falstaff and Hal has been likened to the relationship between Welles and Hollywood — each of the formers once a darling of the latters, both were cruelly rejected after a fashion. I find this a little too pat, personally speaking. I don’t feel comfortable ascribing to Welles such an obvious metaphor. Still, one sees in Falstaff’s gleeful thievery Welles’ excitement at managing to fund his own work, a prospect which was tremendously difficult for almost his entire career. Even Chimes at Midnight itself paused production while Welles went in search of more funding. One imagines Welles chatting up investors with the same chortling, back-slapping amiableness as Falstaff does with everyone in the tavern, making himself irresistible as a cunning way of staying alive.

Welles just seems so at home in this role. He was one of the greatest screen actors of all time, but he never seemed more natural than he does here. Even speaking such elaborate and flowery Shakespeare dialogue, you get the sense that this is what he’s like all the time. It’s fun to compare it to his ostensibly more “real” performance in F for Fake. They feel cut from the same cloth. You can see the same sly smile on his face throughout both films. You get the same sense that you’re in the hands of a master trickster, but one who only wants to see you have a good time. Welles plays Falstaff as he played himself, and as by all accounts he was off-screen.

And of course, do I even need to say that his direction is outstanding? It seems redundant when discussing a Welles film. I was awestruck by those hazy shafts of light pouring into the castle, how they seemed to suggest Falstaff himself penetrating Hal’s doubts. Or how about the incredible battle scene, which sees Welles take on a rare sequence of melee action as though he was born to do it. The shots of dying men slopping around in the mud are unsettlingly grim. It shades Falstaff’s antics during the battle with a bit more uncertainty. We delight in his goofery, yes, but should we in the face of so much carnage and despair?

I adored Chimes at Midnight. It’s such a typically Wellesian entry in his filmography. Putting aside his phenomenal direction and the obvious greatness of the Shakespeare source, it’s just nice to watch Welles be himself for a couple hours. I get the same thing out of it that I get from F for Fake. It’s as simple as that I love watching Orson Welles, whether he’s on screen or behind the camera. He’s one of cinema history’s most enjoyable presences.

Patron Request: ‘Synecdoche, New York’

Of Synecdoche, New York, Roger Ebert said, “Think about it a little and, my god, it’s about you. Whoever you are.” You used to hear this sentiment often on films with characters like Caden Cotard, straight white guys tragically beset with unplaceable ennui and dread and extremely placeable horniness. Characters like this are treated as a sort of human default state, a canvas on which a full picture of humanity can be painted. When the critical establishment looks so much like Caden Cotard, of course their takeaway would be that Synecdoche, New York is a film about humanity at large, about everyone. The film’s ideas about the human condition are, in actuality, quite narrow. This is a movie with a very specific worldview about a very specific kind of person. I didn’t quite hate it. But I’m not included in its “everyone.”

Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, to be clear. I’m not upset by the notion of making a film about any one kind of person. What rankles is pretending that such a film speaks to the entirety of humanity. This film didn’t speak to me, even as it toyed with thoughts of gendered performance near the end. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was watching a film for someone else, something I wasn’t meant to be watching at all.

One thing I did like more than a bit about the film is its editing. This was probably the only “meta” aspect of its design that worked for me. The film plays with the purpose of a cut to collapse time by not letting its main character in on the trick. Cuts disguise years-long jumps without Caden seeming aware that any time has passed at all. Our understanding of object permanence means that a film implies the existence of its characters even when they aren’t on screen. Not so here. Caden seems to pop out of being when he’s not in the frame, and pops back in just as suddenly. It’s one of the few page tricks of Kaufman’s that he’s able to translate perfectly to the screen.

It’s unfortunate that I can’t say the same for so much of the rest of the film. While I don’t love all the work of Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry, they undeniably have a touch as directors that Kaufman simply doesn’t. His compositions are rather blase, rarely serving to heighten the world’s absurdity or even, in its worst moments, so much as illustrate it. Where is the silliness, the surrealism, besides on the page? Kaufman simply shoots his script, letting himself down tremendously.

Philip Seymour Hoffman, of course, is the film’s big bright shining star. There wasn’t a film he acted in where this wasn’t the case. He grants such depth to Caden’s wandering emotional state, knowing exactly when to get capital-B Big and when to shrink away. For a film entirely about artificiality in performance, there’s none to be found here. I think this more than anything else is what keeps the film from completely falling apart. Although I would have been curious to see a version of Synecdoche that went all-in on fakery and obviousness in acting, I appreciate what Hoffman does to ground such a fanciful work in something that feels true.

I can also appreciate what people see in this film that I just don’t. As I said, I don’t think it’s terrible. There’s plenty to like here. But I struggle to get on board with a film that seems, outside of its lead performance, so lifeless and aimless. It has little to say about the human condition that’s of interest to me. What I like about it is in its meager formal invention and its unsurprisingly titanic lead performance. It’s just not the sort of film I like very much, even if I can easily see why others do.

Patron Request: ‘Happy Hour’

I wanted to come out of Happy Hour prepared to talk about something other than its runtime. But at nearly five-and-a-half hours, it’s hard not to center your takeaway around its length. As someone with an attention deficit disorder, films with runtime of more than two hours are always going to be a challenge for me. Breaking them up into multiple viewing sessions makes it hard for me to stay on track. It’s just never going to be easy for me to approach films at this time-scale.

With that being said, I found Happy Hour a pleasant sit. Its pacing is so languid and relaxed that it’s easy to lose yourself in it. It hardly feels like so much time has passed when scenes go on for upwards of 30 minutes. Films of this length sometimes can’t help feeling episodic. Some are deliberately structured that way to maintain a pace that’s easy to follow. Happy Hour is structured like a film of more than half its runtime, just with scenes that last much longer than they otherwise would. The film’s many dinner table conversations play out in real time, with a flow so natural and friendly you hardly notice how much time has elapsed. The film is absorbing in its simplicity, never alienating in its scope. In other words, despite how long Happy Hour is, it’s an easy film to watch.

I found it interesting how director Ryusuke Hamaguchi refuses to approach the film with the formal matter-of-fact-ness one might expect from such a lengthy depiction of rather down-to-earth subject matter. It’s not stylistically bare-bones the way recent Clint Eastwood films ar, but it’s far from a hyper-stylized melodrama either. Hamaguchi is an unadorning but engaged artist, finding a happy medium between basic naturalism and a full display of his inventive filmmaking skill. I think about the moment when he shoots two men standing opposite each other from behind the back of the first man, whose body obscures the second. Then he cuts to what can only be the first man’s POV, a six-inch shift forward for the camera that makes the first man disappear entirely, radically changing the image with only the slightest movement. Then again, the film is so linear in its editing that I almost gasped when the first instance of intercutting occurred nearly four hours in. The film’s simplicity and understated tone never belies Hamaguchi’s sharpness as a film artist.

I watched Happy Hour on a plane ride home from vacation, completely free of distraction. Had I watched it anywhere else, I would have undoubtedly found it harder to pay attention to. It’s just the way my brain works (or doesn’t work) and I wish it wasn’t. I was so thrilled that I had the experience with Happy Hour that I did, and that I was able to give it its proper due. Hamaguchi’s new film Asako I & II is one I’m really excited to see this year. Maybe its runtime is a bit more manageable.

Patron Request: ‘Swiss Army Man’

I love my patrons, each and every one. I can’t thank you all enough for choosing to support me and the work that I do. I wish I could show you how much I appreciate what you do for me. I especially wish I could show it by loving every single film you request that I write about. But sadly, that isn’t always going to be the case. I really did not like Swiss Army Man. I didn’t despise it, and I have no desire to tear it down. But it really, really did not work for me.

A big part of it is that it reminds me of a time in my life when it would have played like gangbusters for me. I think about myself in high school and college, depressed and lonely and positive no one could ever love me. I was exactly the sort of person this movie would have spoken to, with its attempts at profundity and calculatedly heart-lifting score. Paul Dano’s cross-dressing in particular would have spoken to me, for obvious reasons. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I think I’m mature enough now to look at a film like this and not hate it for being insufferably twee and insipid. I’m happy that other people get something out of Swiss Army Man. It’s just not for me anymore.

The other part of it, the part I find less easy to shrug off and more subtly insidious, is the Weepy Horny Bearded Guy of it all. Though it purports to be a film about the oddities and complexities of life, really it’s a film about being a man. An isolated, depressed, self-loathing man, but ultimately a straight guy. I love plenty of movies about straight guys, so I don’t just object on principle. What bothers me is the way Swiss Army Man confuses a creepy one-sided attachment on a woman for some sort of profound expression of love. Dano’s character, Hank, uses a creepshot of a woman he sees on the bus as his phone background, and much of the film concerns him explaining to his corpse friend Manny the proper way to woo her. His admittance that he’s actually unskilled in talking to women is meant to make him seem more innocent, more endearing. But I’ve known too many guys like this for it to play as anything more than unsettling.

I wish there had been a moment where Hank realized that his attachment to this woman (played in a truly pathetic bit of misuse by Mary Elizabeth Winstead) was false and inappropriate, but that his bond with Manny meant that finding love was not an impossibility for him. That should be the lesson for a character like this. Instead, the film is about Hank learning that being weird is actually cool, a great lesson that’s been covered by every children’s TV show for the past half-century. It’s wild to think that the praise for this film was all about how original and unique it was. The elevator pitch is unusual, sure, but it’s not saying anything new.

I’ll say again that I don’t find Swiss Army Man so detestable that it’s worth really ripping into. It’s not completely harmless, but it’s more or less inert. It’s just not a film that was ever going to work for me at this point in my life. It doesn’t have the things that excite and inspire me about cinema, and it misfires in some unavoidable ways. Also, when I get right down to it, I just have never found fart jokes funny. Maybe that’s the most important thing.

Patron Request: ‘The Killer’

One of my favorite genres of movie is “two men who are rivals who nonetheless feel a powerful homoerotic connection to each other.” Michael Mann is the reigning champ in this area. I don’t think Heat is ever going to be topped. But John Woo offers some stiff competition with The Killer. This movie really blew my hair back.

The De Niro role here is Chow Yun-Fat as Ah-Jong, a classic killer with a heart of gold. Ah-Jong accidentally blinds an innocent woman during a shootout, and means to make it right by taking one last job to help pay for her cornea transplant. The Pacino is Danny Lee as Li Ying, an icy young detective who becomes instantly enamored with Ah-Jong’s combination of sincere empathy and exacting murder skill. He talks with dreamy longing of the passion he saw in Ah-Jong’s eyes. He’s drawn to this man across the boundary of the law, for reasons he can’t quite explain to himself.

This is what we talk about when we talk about “homoeroticism” in films like this. It’s that ineffable attraction between masculine attributes, the confusing question of “do I want him to do I want to be him?” It’s why Pacino and De Niro hold hands as the latter bleeds out. They want so badly to be together, but they can’t be. One is a cop, one is a criminal. The law dynamic obfuscates the subtextual obstacle here: both of them are men.

So it was a delight to see The Killer take a different road. The two men here actually do team up by the end, forced by circumstance into a partnership neither would openly admit they’d pined for. The smiles on their faces as they headed guns-blazing into the fray together warmed my heart. Who doesn’t love a good pair of murder boyfriends?

The action, of course, is phenomenal. Does it even need to be said? I love Woo’s idea of gunplay, with its focus on constant movement and trigger-pulling. It’s a far cry from the precision and specificity of action in something like John Wick. These guys blast away with reckless abandon, shooting enough bullets to kill their target by law of averages. There’s barely a headshot to be found in the whole film. I especially like the way some actors thrust their arms out as they fire, as if they’re wizards casting a spell rather than shooting a pistol. The whole thing feels heightened and slightly fantastical. It also goes to the more melodramatic tone. These guys don’t just want to kill each other, they want to blast each other to bits. The final kill isn’t a cold point-blank execution, but several chest-shots resulting from a frustrated fury. It’s gunfighting not as a stop along the road to emotional beats, but as the direct expression of those emotions. That’s what truly great action filmmaking looks like.

I adored The Killer. It hits so many buttons for me, from the Mann-ish man love to the expressionistic fighting to one brief moment of Obayashi-style green screen abstraction. It’s a great, great movie. I hope that Woo’s upcoming American remake starring Lupita Nyong’o doesn’t cast a man opposite her. A lesbian version of this movie is like something out of my dream journal.

Patron Request: ‘The Terminator’

It’s weird to get twenty minutes into what you believe to be a rewatch and realize, “Wait, I’ve never seen this movie before.” It’s existed in your head for so long as this false memory, and now you’re discovering what it actually is for the first time. The idea of The Terminator I’d been carrying with me for all this time was quite a ways off from what the film actually is. I think it’s been mischaracterized in recent years as the developing franchise has cemented its identity.

People like to draw a line between The Terminator and its sequel in much the same way we do with Alien and Aliens (the latter of which, of course, was also directed by James Cameron). In the popular imagination, the first film in both series is a lowkey horror-thriller, and the second film is a large-scale action blockbuster. This dichotomy describes the Alien films quite well, which led me to believe the same must be true of the Terminator films. Terminator 2: Judgment Day is absolutely an action film of massive scope, after all.

But The Terminator isn’t the subdued thriller I’ve seen it characterized as for so long. This is a pretty straightforward action movie, albeit one more focused on ratcheting tension than explosive catharsis. There are multiple combination shootouts and car chases. A huge fuel tanker explodes in a Fury Road-esque fireball. A dozen cops get massacred. And it’s not like it’s some low-budget creeper, either. There’s a lot of incredible effects work in this film.

I should stop talking around it and actually talk about the film itself. It’s great! Cameron, even this early in his career, had a strong command of camerawork. The precision with which the camera will sweep down to meet a fleeing character or speeding car is so exciting to watch. There aren’t any rough edges on this film. It’s exactingly shot and paced. It never feels too stiff, though. It’s methodical, but not overly engineered. It’s a bit like the T-800, I suppose — quite lifelike in appearance, but with the calculated ferocity of a machine.

Speaking of the man himself, has Arnold Schwarzenegger ever been used better since? The 90s recasting of him as slapstick straight man is as tragic a miscalculation as an actor has ever suffered. Even the T2 version of him that learns human emotion feels a bit contrived in the face of his Terminator performance. Any actor can conjure charisma, but it takes something special to make yourself a void of it. That’s what Schwarzenegger does here. He’s a bit like the Xenomorph, actually, in his towering stature and terrifying lack of humanity. Later films turned “I’ll be back” into a heroic catchphrase. Here, it stands out for its bluntness and lack of subtext. Schwarzenegger plays the Terminator with the absence of personality, and that’s what makes him so compelling a villain.

Having now (finally) seen both, I feel comfortable saying that I prefer The Terminator to its sequel. There’s fun to be had with the bombast of T2, but it’s missing the formal precision of the original. And certainly none of the subsequent terrible sequels come close to matching it. Somehow I doubt the man behind Deadpool is going to show the same innate talent for moviemaking that James Cameron did with only his second feature. However you feel about the some of his films’ more troubling elements, there’s no denying that Cameron has got the goods as a director. He’s just one of those wunderkind guys who can pick up a camera and make something perfect. It’s a real shame he’s stuck in Avatar-land for the foreseeable future.