Border Incident (1949)

*. Dana Polan begins his DVD commentary on Border Incident by mentioning how it’s less a film noir (as it’s usually packaged) than it is a police procedural or what he calls a “government agency film.” I think he’s right, and I’d also call it an issue movie, one that addresses a timely political matter.
*. Here the issue being dealt with is illegal immigration, a subject introduced by opening voiceover (typical, Polan tells us, of the government agency film). It’s certainly a timely enough political issue today, and Border Incident could probably be compared in interesting ways to Sicario. Even more timely, however, are the pictures of the All-American canal, the largest irrigation canal in the world, diverting water from the Colorado River to California’s Imperial Valley, turning the desert into a paradise. It’s not a point the film raises, but today I think we see all this and wonder how sustainable it is. As big an issue as illegal immigration continues to be, California running out of water may be bigger.
*. Whatever the issue being explored, Border Incident feels very contemporary. The reason, I’m almost sad to say, is its abrupt and brutal violence. Polan remarks on how life is cheap in many of director Anthony Mann’s movies, but it seems especially so here. People are just commodities, not so different from cabbages. Actually killing people isn’t as hard a job as disposing of the bodies after. Having a farm or a handy pit of quicksand is helpful.
*. Speaking of which: quicksand in a desert canyon? I’m not sure that’s even possible. Also, according to experts, drowning in quicksand is very unlikely anyway. In a movie that otherwise scores a lot of points for its brutal realism the quicksand pit is a false note.
*. On the subject of brutality, how is George Murphy being tortured in the truck scene? It seems to be pulling on him in some way but it’s not clear to me what is being done. Looks painful though, and the image of him being caught in the headlights nicely foreshadows his final moments.

*. It’s beautifully photographed, as usual, by frequent Mann collaborator John Alton, but there’s more to it visually than just the painting in light. The scene where Ricardo Montalban visits Murphy, who is imprisoned in a tower, is perfectly handled in terms of making use of that space in a way that allows us to understand what is going on and thus experience Montalban’s predicament and how athletically he gets out of it. That’s not at all as easy a thing as it seems. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker we wouldn’t have as clear a sense of what is going on and where the characters are in relation to one another.

*. Remarkably, it’s a movie where the violence still has the power to shock. This is felt in various places throughout the film, but most powerfully at the end with the murder of Murphy’s character. Yes, the all-American boy becomes mulch under the blades of the disc while his Mexican counterpart is the hero. What makes this even more surprising is the way they play with the idea that Montalban is going to be able to rescue him at the last minute. I think this is what everyone in the audience would have been expecting (it’s what I was expecting!) and to have that hope snuffed out in such a horrific way is very contemporary. There are few scenes I can think of so bleak in other movies of the time.
*. Polan praises the sound design in the water tower sequence where there’s no music but only the soft sound of the pump in the background. I think we could say the same about Murphy’s death, where again there is no music and all we hear is the clanking noise of the tractor’s caterpillar treads (like those of a tank). Added to this is the fact that Murphy makes no sound, no call for help, no scream, no muttering to himself. He is without speech in extremis.
*. For all its violence, the political issue of the braceros is actually kind of quaint. No one is smuggling drugs, and the braceros aren’t gangsters themselves or women being forced into prostitution. They’re just farm labour. The only real problem here is that they’re being murdered by the smugglers after they get paid.
*. Another surprising element is that, for a police procedural, the police really aren’t that effective. The bad guys are ahead of them every step of the way, and are ultimately only foiled because they fall out among themselves (for reasons I wasn’t clear on). On the plus side, at least our boys aren’t undone by a femme fatale. They aren’t falling for any floozies. But even here, among the few female characters we do see the gang seem to be miles ahead of the cops. The woman at the staging place for the braceros identifies Montalban immediately by his soft hands, while Amboy’s wife easily gets the drop on him while he’s on the phone. So despite not being sexual snares the ladies are still playing a game that’s more advanced than the men.
*. This is a good little movie, suspenseful and very professionally turned out. It’s bleakness and “uncompromisingly violent” (Leonard Maltin) story help it stand out from other titles of the time that were almost as dark. Just ignore the closing narration and its invocation of the happy valley and “the bounty of God Almighty.” This is a movie about the valley of the shadow of death.

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Free Fire (2016)

*. I never thought I’d say something like this but . . . I think this movie would’ve been better with zombies.
*. I’m thinking something along the lines of the French film The Horde (2009), where you had a bunch of bad guys with an arsenal of weapons shooting it out in a derelict apartment building before the hungry dead come knocking. That would have been fun here. Gangsters in ’70s style fashion armed to the teeth in an abandoned warehouse and then . . . zombies!
*. I’m not saying that would be the most original concept ever, but compared to this? What’s the point of this movie? An arms deal at a warehouse goes south and the different parties start shooting at each other. I’ve seen it billed as the longest gunfight in movie history, lasting 55 minutes. Great. But that’s it. Less than halfway through I was waiting for the zombies.
*. Sure, it might have worked. With innovative direction or some interesting new slant on how to present such an action staple. With a more complicated plot, and maybe a twist or two. With better dialogue or lively, well-drawn characters. Hey, even with more violence, or at least something beyond the usual squibs exploding on shoulders and legs.
*. But Free Fire has none of that. It’s not bad at what it does, but it isn’t very good or very original either. And what it does is so damn simple it just comes across as pointless. It only exerts a grim sort of fascination, like watching some endurance sporting event where the characters crawl around on their bellies, bleeding into the dirt, struggling to survive.

*. On the DVD commentary writer-director Ben Wheatley sums it up as “basically a kind of political crime thriller that never gets out of the first two minutes of the film, it just grinds to a halt and sits in the first scene.” I wonder if he was joking. It all seems like such a let down after High-Rise, which had just been the year before.
*. There’s an interesting tidbit on the commentary where Wheatley says that Tom Davis (he’s the big fellow who shows up at the warehouse near the end) actually can’t drive. This made me think of the commentary for Get Carter (1971) where I found out that Michael Caine couldn’t drive. This surprises me. I can understand people who don’t drive. I sold my own car a couple of years ago and have only driven a few times since. Apparently a lot of young people these days are choosing to live car-less. But how do you go through life without ever learning how to drive? That must take some effort.
*. The movie it gets compared to the most is Reservoir Dogs. The soundtrack, which I’d call retro but since the film is set in the ’70s isn’t (the use of John Denver, though, certainly is ironic). The mixture of comedy and brutal violence. The gang of bad guys in the warehouse turning on each other. Even the business of there being a rat in the group whose identity the others are trying to figure out. So yes, there are plenty of surface resemblances. But I don’t see this as a step beyond Tarantino. It’s much less.
*. It’s a decent cast, given very little to do. Brie Larson in particular looks out of place. Which leads me to another point. For such a simple set-up I felt there was a lot to the plot that still needed explaining. What was Justine’s role in all this? Just a facilitator? Wouldn’t that make Ord redundant? Why didn’t Stevo tell Frank that there were issues between him and Hank? Then they could have come up with a work-around. Was the original plan to have the snipers kill everyone? How was that going to work?
*. As you would expect, the production team worked on the layout of the warehouse extensively. Despite this, there’s no clear sense of space in the movie. This turns into a big drawback. I just couldn’t follow where all the characters were placed and where (or why) they were moving.
*. In the “making of” featurette included with the DVD Larson talks about how the directive on set was for everything to be “cool.” This reminded me of the imperative to be cool that David Leitch talks about on his commentary for Atomic Blonde. This made me wonder if there’s any other mode for filmmaking other than cool (and its flipside irony).
*. I’m sympathetic to writer-director Ben Wheatley’s desire to do a smaller, more restricted action-thriller instead of the usual epic, superhero nonsense. He wanted to do things “a bit more realistically” (but immediately stresses that he didn’t want to be completely realistic). That said, I think he needed to find some way to liven things up a bit. Even just using that dolly to zip around the warehouse more.
*. Well, I said Free Fire isn’t bad at what it does. It’s at least medium cool. I actually enjoyed it a bit more the second time through. Fans of gangster movies should have no trouble remaining engaged for 90 minutes. There’s not much else on offer here though aside from the usual routine, however well put forth. Reservoir Dogs was a gamechanger in 1992. I feel like we’re still waiting for someone to change it again.

High-Rise (2015)

*. When I was re-reading J. G. Ballard’s High-Rise recently I found myself wondering to what extent it could be described as an SF novel. It came out in 1975 and I don’t know if it presents any technology that didn’t exist at the time. It doesn’t date itself either, so I think readers could have imagined it being set in the present.
*. Nevertheless, in its vision of an urban world where the machine stops and civilization regresses to something tribal along the lines of the island in Lord of the Flies there is something dystopic if not apocalyptic going on. Nowadays we elide the genre question by just referring to such books as speculative fiction. They take place in a recognizable reality not quite our own.
*. The reason I bring this up is because this film version is set in the 1970s, or at least an alternative 1970s. According to the DVD commentary this was a decision made by the screenwriter Amy Jump, though it’s fair to ask if there’s anything in the script that refers to that particular period. Nothing in the dialogue, I would say, though apparently there were a lot of directions in the script making note of design elements that were elaborated on by the art department here.

*. I say an alternative 1970s because I was around in the ’70s and it didn’t look much like this. Albeit I was living on a farm at the time and not a high-rise. I thought it interesting that director Ben Wheatley (who was born in 1972) says that the supermarket in the building scared him because it reminded him so much of the period (“I really felt I was in the ’70s again”). I say this is interesting because the supermarket struck me as a generic fantasy. But then Wheatley backtracks and says it’s “not maybe how other people might remember it.”
*. Also on the commentary Tom Hiddleston remarks on how the wardrobe had it so that “it looked like the ’70s but also looked like a vision of the future.” In this I think it matches well with what Ballard was doing. In the novel Laing “finds it difficult not to believe that they were living in a future that had already taken place, and that was now exhausted.” Everything in the building is so new, and so old. In just such a way science fiction is always about the present more than the shape of things to come.

*. What’s the point of all this? I just got to thinking about the dates because of the speculative angle, and was wondering when a period film isn’t a period film. Does setting this film in a make-believe 1970s have some deeper meaning other than the fact that Wheatley feels drawn to the era? Here let’s note that his next film, Free Fire, would also harken back to the days of sideburns and moustaches.
*. I actually think the date does mean something, though that meaning isn’t clear. Which I don’t mean as a criticism since I like the fact that the film version isn’t as preachy as the book. A little bit of Ballard, I feel, goes a long way and I usually get tired of his (short) novels about halfway through. I think High-Rise may be his best novel, but still you get the point pretty quickly. A lot of reviewers didn’t like the movie High-Rise because they found it plotless and pointless but I appreciated its languid pace and relative reticence.
*. The screenplay diverges from the novel in several ways that are major but not significant. The characters of Toby, Munrow, and Simmons are wholly invented. Wilder’s wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss) is heavily pregnant, which she isn’t in the book. Laing no longer has a sister he is incestuously drawn to and in the book he doesn’t paint his apartment. On the thematic level the willing retreat-into-solitude angle is dropped, not much is done beyond the obvious with the class warfare subtext, and there’s little of the threatening feminine principle Ballard harps on so much, with the maternal maenads at the end getting short shrift instead of being more clearly shown becoming the building’s true inheritors.

*. I say these changes aren’t significant because I don’t think it’s the script’s development (or non-development) of certain themes that is really driving the film. Instead, style is in the driver’s seat: the way the movie looks.
*. That may make it sound like High-Rise is a shallow movie, and to be fair it’s not as political or philosophical as Ballard’s book (Thatcher’s radio broadcast at the end is out of place). But I think it nicely captures the fact that these are shallow people, inhabiting a shallow world. More shallow even than Ballard’s 1970s. In the ’70s Wilder had his handheld camera and it was shocking that the residents were shooting their own porn, but how blase that all seems now!
*. The most interesting thing about the movie is its attitude toward the ’70s, because, like I say, this isn’t made clear. I was often reminded of Godard, especially Weekend with the parking lot appearing as a kind of Godardian carmageddon. And wasn’t Weekend (1967) both an expression of the spirit of its age and a reaction against that same spirit, seeing it as nihilistic and morally bankrupt? Another French influence might be the novelist Michel Houellebecq, who indicted the same generation most powerfully in The Elementary Particles (Les Particules élémentaires).

*. The thing is, I don’t see where Wheatley comes down on any one side in these generational debates, and I don’t mind. He is showing and not telling. Do we see ourselves in the residents of the building? Do we see them as the architects of their own downfall, or as lab rats in an experiment being run by Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons)? Are we seeing the evolution of a new social type, which turns out to be something both more advanced and more primitive? Are men the bad guys, and is the triumphal sisterhood at the end a brave new world? I don’t know. Wheatley doesn’t editorialize. In fact, I’m not sure he even thought about questions like these.
*. It’s a beautiful movie to look at, but I wonder if Wheatley ever considered going in the other direction entirely and filming it shaky-cam style. Certainly the story lends itself to such an approach, since we’re told in the book that everyone is constantly filming themselves. And Wilder’s handheld camera is one of the key props in the story. I’m not saying it would have been easy, but given how much has been made out of less promising material in found-footage horror movies I think the potential was there, and maybe still is, for doing something alone these lines.

*. Mark Kermode thought he could detect the influence of Zardoz in a big way. That’s a stretch and I’m not sure what he was looking at. I suppose Luke Evans would be the Sean Connery character, but beyond that I don’t see much visual connection and both movies are primarily visual.
*. This was a movie that divided critics pretty severely. I’m curious as to how much of this broke down on national lines. Obviously it’s a British novel and British production (though shot in Northern Ireland). The cast seem to respond to their situation (in the book and the film) with a British sense of SNAFU (Situation Normal: All Fucked Up). We rarely see anyone aside from Wilder showing any emotion. Laing only loses it when someone tries to take his paint. Aside from that, everyone seems narcotized. But this is the effect that living in the tower has. It returns people to a childlike state, with all that implies. I mean, anyone could leave at any time. It’s not that they can’t leave, it’s that they don’t want to.

*. The long takes, the musical interludes, the baroque design all scream of pretension, but that’s not the feeling I had watching High-Rise. It’s glossy like a wealthy lifestyles magazine, but complicated in much the same way. This is a double vision of heaven as hell, superimposed on one another.
*. I shouldn’t like High-Rise. I’m a big fan of the novel but the movie is far removed from the book, going for style over substance and not bothering to tell much of a coherent story at all. Even Wilder’s ascension of the tower isn’t a hero’s progress we can follow. Aside from Luke Evans I didn’t think anyone in the cast stood out, though that may have been more by design (Hiddleston as Everyman). And yet . . .
*. And yet this is one of my favourite movies of the past several years. Maybe it’s the way feeling and emotion seem to be seeping from the film like the water draining from the swimming pool, leaving only rotten debris behind. Or the loneliness of Laing, turning the last of man’s best friends on a spit while he stares off into nothing. Or the strangely vapid emptiness of the new matriarchy, preparing their Better Homes and Gardens photoshoot on the roof. Or Wilder doing his caveman dance in chiaroscuro on coke, or floating on the blood-dimmed tide. These moments last, and I think each means something.

*. I mentioned in my notes on The Trial how the nightmares of Kafka have a kind of comforting message to them. Ballard’s sometimes give me the same impression. It’s one of the paradoxes of High-Rise that Thanatos, the death impulse of civilization, is so seductive not just for allowing such an unrestrained exercise of libido but for its very coziness. Those barriered apartments are the cocoons of modern living, no matter if we’re starving inside or drowning in our own shit and garbage. Death and decline have become our comfort zone.
*. That’s as timely a message as it was forty years ago, and I think it’s the same message here as it was then. It’s just delivered in a different language, uniquely satirical and retro without invoking any generational irony. This might be a collection of home movies made by our parents, prophetic both as nightmare and as fantasy.

Quiz the eighty-third: Searching (Part one)

Some of these quizzes can be answered using the help of a search engine (even if that’s cheating). But until now I haven’t had a quiz that’s about using a search engine. See if you can find the answers to these searches. Get all of them and you’ll be several ahead of me. I’ve actually forgotten where some of these came from. I may never be able to find them now.

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Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)

*. Right from the beginning (I’m looking at the original English-language newspaper advertisement) Tetsuo: The Iron Man was compared to the work of David Lynch and David Cronenberg. I still see it discussed this way, almost as a critical default setting. In fact, reading over various reviews and commentaries online I don’t think I found more than a couple that didn’t mention at least one of the Daves.
*. I don’t get it. I don’t see any visual relationship between this film and the work of Cronenberg or Lynch. None at all. You can say it’s like Eraserhead because it’s in black-and-white, or like Cronenberg because it deals with body horror (a rather wide-ranging term) but that’s it. Writer-director Shin’ya Tsukamoto has called himself a disciple of Cronenberg and there are thematic connections to be made. The fetishization of technology is of a piece with what we saw in Videodrome and would see in Crash. But those are common enough themes and, as I’ve said, these films don’t look the same or move in the same way.
*. Just sticking with movement, there’s nothing like the crazy editing we see here in the work of the Daves. If anything their films are characterized by a languid sense of pacing. This movie is manic from start to finish. Pacing is a big part of any film, and any director’s sense of style, and here Tsukamoto is worlds apart from Lynch and Cronenberg.
*. I don’t even think the thematic connection to Cronenberg can be pushed very far. This is because I’m unclear what themes are being explored in Tetsuo. The most common interpretation that I’ve seen has it that it’s meant as a commentary on the regimentation of Japanese society, but the metal man (the meaning of “tetsuo”) doesn’t take on the bureaucracy or corporate capitalism. He’s just a monster. And anyway, doesn’t the fact that the salaryman becomes crazier and more rebellious as he becomes more mechanical undercut such a message? Isn’t this movie about embracing, however perversely or violently, our transformation into a form of technology?

*. Instead of trying to interpret it, I see it mainly as just another bit of Japanese zaniness. It’s off the wall and all over the place with scenes of sex and violence so extreme they don’t even register because they’re so silly. It has some shock value and nicely evokes the industrial grotesque but it doesn’t carry a message any deeper than a Toho monster movie, or an episode of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, which are the analogs I was most reminded of by the slugfest at the end. Is the final hybrid creature a giant cock, as is usually suggested? This is something else I don’t see. It looks more Dalek than dick to me. The giant drill strikes me as more naturalistic, mainly in the way it seems to operate with a mind of its own.
*. The first time I saw Tetsuo was in a version without subtitles, which is how I think it was initially played on the festival circuit. I don’t see how it makes much difference. Most people who watch it today head online for help in understanding the plot. I’ve had recourse to the same aids, and while what I’ve learned is sometimes interesting I don’t know how far to trust these sources. The synopses that I’ve read seem to explain more than we can safely assume from what’s on screen. And so there are parts of the film where I’m still not sure what’s going on.
*. This isn’t to belittle Tetsuo. I’d rather watch this again than Crash any day. It took Tsukamoto a grueling 18 months to make, and you can really feel that odd juxtaposition between the care he took with it and its frantic, hyper-kinetic qualities, between its art-house and grindhouse origins. I don’t find it as weird as a lot of other people do. To me it looks like a lot of experimental or avant-garde film from 70 years ago, only with a punkier soundtrack and more blood. At just over an hour it becomes repetitive, but it’s still a movie to enjoy and even delight in, and one that introduces a new sensibility.

Us (2019)

* OK, bear with me on this one.
*. I really liked Get Out. In fact, it’s one of my favourite films — not just horror films, but films — of the last five years. Why? Because it has such a tight, well-constructed plot. The premise may be far-fetched, but if you accept it then everything else follows logically and makes sense.
*. I did not like Us. This is in part because I don’t think it’s as well made, but mostly because it does not make sense. Who, or what, are the Tethered? Red doesn’t seem to know, and her explanation (that they were somehow made by humans in order to control people on the surface like puppets) is highly implausible if not contradicted by the evidence of how they seem to actually operate. How many of them are there? How do they live? How do they all escape from the underground? Are they only in the U.S., or are they also found in other countries with abandoned subway lines and alarming Gini coefficients? What is their revolutionary purpose? Do they just want to rise up and join hands across America? Shouldn’t they all be wearing sunglasses or suffering from Vitamin D deficiencies?
*. None of this would be a problem, or at least be a big problem, if Us was only presenting itself as a fantasy or allegory. That notion of a literal underclass — the myth of the Morlocks — has been recycled a lot over the last twenty years or so in speculative fiction and film. Which is as you would expect during a time of increasing social and economic inequality.
*. But the thing is, Jordan Peele apparently wanted the movie to be judged more as a straight-up horror movie and not a horror-comedy or social commentary. If we judge it this way then I think it should make sense, as Get Out did. Otherwise the fear factor is overcome by confusion and a plague of nagging questions.
*. To take just one example of how frustrating this is, take the plot twist that everything relies on. Not to pat myself on the back, but I had this figured out in the very early going. It was clear to me shortly after Red arrives with her family in the driveway that there had been a switch in the House of Mirrors years earlier. What confused me, and what left me confused even after the end of the movie, was how this worked. Red wanted revenge, I could get that, but what was (the new) Adelaide’s game? Is she going to be the leader of the revolution now, or is she just going to settle into a comfortable bourgeois life above ground?

*. I don’t like being stuck with all these questions. It seems they only confuse the film’s otherwise rather simple message about class and privilege.
*. But that’s what Us is: a confusing, and/or confused, take on a not-very-original theme. At one point, for example, once it becomes clear to the family that the outbreak of doubles is more general and is in fact spreading everywhere (they even see a news report on TV about what’s going on), there’s a scene where they debate whether they should just stay where they are (with food and water) or get in an SUV and try to run for the border. This is, of course, a scene that will be familiar to anyone who has seen a zombie movie. And, as the family drive through the deserted streets, littered with bodies, we recognize the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse. The zombie apocalypse being, I would add, yet another form the theme of class warfare has taken in our time, along with the home-invasion film (which Us also invokes).
*. Only this isn’t just another zombie movie because . . . ? Well, because Jordan Peele is a bright guy and he’s thrown not just one bone but a whole bag of them out there for the critics. There are hints, direct and indirect, to an entire catalogue of other horror movies. Jaws. The Goonies. The Shining. Critics love this kind of thing. There are also lots of Easter eggs to keep everyone chattering online. There’s the number 11. What could that mean? Jeremiah 11:11. Hm. So we go read that. Does it have any special meaning here? Well, yes, it could be seen as saying something. But it’s more a kind of general prophetic warning. Meanwhile, look at all those rabbits! I wonder what’s up with them! I’ll bet they’re symbols. Or something.
*. Anthony Lane thought that “Marxists and Freudians alike will have years of fun with this movie.” I think they may be done with it already.
*. All of the bones just strike me as being cute. Cute more than clever, and I don’t rate cleverness that highly. Do they make Us a bad movie? No. But they’re just included to prime the critical pump, and what I find most depressing is precisely that programmed critical response.
*. Immediately upon its release Us was met with universal praise, mostly from critics who saw it as having some important message to deliver about race or class in America. Which it does, but, as I’ve been saying, it was delivering this message in a way that was both formulaic (the Morlock myth, the zombie parallel) and scattered all over the place. In this it was almost the opposite (or evil twin?) of Get Out, which was so successful in conveying the same message in a more focused manner. Nevertheless, as though being carried along in the wake of that earlier movie, critics simply piled on to say all the same things. Us! It’s like U.S.! Oh my God! Did you notice that?
*. It’s hard not to feel that critics, surprised by the success of Get Out, felt a need to overcompensate in their response to Us. Nobody wanted to miss the same boat twice. And so we were treated to endless reviews much like Richard Brody’s, telling us that “Us is nothing short of a colossal achievement.” This it most certainly is not. Here’s an example of how bad things have gotten, taken from Brody’s review: “Peele employs point-of-view shots to put audience members in the position of the characters, to conjure subjective and fragmentary experience that reverberates with the metaphysical eeriness of their suddenly doubled world. ” That’s an awful lot of overblown verbiage to describe something — a point-of-view shot in a horror movie — that was in no need of explanation in the first place.
*. A couple of somewhat funny scenes. Some suspense, but the horror potential is never realized (with the child doubles in particular being underutilized in this regard). I’ll give it credit for a bit of weirdness what with all the Tethered business, but it’s a weirdness that doesn’t stand any looking into. Lupita Nyong’o is terrific, and is the sole reason I’d rate this one slightly above average. But that’s as high as I’d place it.

Crash (1996)

*. I know I should like Crash a lot more.
*. I say that not so much because I like the fiction of J. G. Ballard and the films of David Cronenberg, though I do. Nor is it because the car chases and crashes we see take place on Toronto streets and expressways I’ve traveled many times myself. Instead, it’s because I think Crash is a lousy movie that I think I should like it more. That’s a paradox worth explaining.
*. I admire movies that split opinion sharply. Such polarity usually means people have strong feelings about the movie, either pro or con, which is some achievement in the present cultural environment. We’re all pretty jaded today, not unlike the autoerotic thrillseekers in this film, and it’s surprising to have a movie give rise to real disagreement, as Crash has since its release.
*. I think, however, that the critical divide is phoney. In the first place, simply being sensationalistic is a cheap way of creating a false dissensus. As Kenneth Turan advised in his review, we should “remember that for a canny marketing department ‘controversial’ is the last refuge of the tedious. Kicks may be getting harder to find, but Crash is not a great place to look for new ones.”
*. More than that, my real problem with Crash is not that it tries too hard to be on the edge but that it isn’t edgy enough. At Cannes Crash won a Special Jury Prize “for originality, daring and audacity.” Roger Ebert called it “challenging, courageous, and original.” I think you could apply all of these adjectives to Ballard’s novel. I don’t think any of them apply to Cronenberg’s film. Instead, the word I’d use is “trite.”
*. What is controversial, or edgy, or provocative, about cars=bodies=sex? Even Vaughn says that his line about the reshaping of the human body by modern technology is shallow. Or what is new in the observation that as industrial creatures ourselves we’ve become more mechanical and soulless in our passions and desires. If, as Anthony Lane observes, Crash “is primarily a metaphor, all about the human race sliding into the thrall of its own machinery, then it’s kind of obvious, and, anyway, Cronenberg has done it before. James Woods having a tape inserted into his abdomen in Videodrome is a better sick joke about biotechnology than James Spader fondling a steering column.”
*. About the only daring thing I can see in Crash is its daring us to like it. Ebert thought it a nearly great movie “although I cannot say I ‘liked’ it.” Mark Kermode called it “pretty much perfect” and “perhaps the Cronenberg film I admire the most,” but admitted it’s a “hard film to like.” There is something challenging, I guess, in what Lane refers to as Cronenberg’s “disdain for the customary satisfactions of cinema.” You’re going to have to like Crash despite its not caring if you do.
*. I’ve been quoting from these critical responses to Crash in part because of what I see as the film’s triteness. I don’t see where I have much to add to what is so easily and has so often been observed. That the sex is deliberately unerotic, despite being grounded in fetish obsessions. That the actors all seem narcotized, even when they’re killing each other. We see people being turned into machines after surgery, and surgery being done on machines to save people. OK, we get it. But so what?
*. I even felt cheated by the absence of Holly Hunter. Apparently she really wanted to be in a Cronenberg film so she got this role, which is not only minor but largely superfluous. I was actually surprised when she turned up again at the end for a kiss after having gone AWOL for most of the movie. I wonder what she felt when she read the script, or if she even understood what was going on.
*. Speaking of Holly’s kiss at the end, what are we supposed to make of the fact that the characters progress to homosexual acts? Is this supposed to indicate real homosexual desire? I doubt it, as none of the lovers seem that in to their partners. Though Vaughn may have a thing for Ballard. Or is this the idea that each man (or woman) kills the thing they love being put into action by (literally) driving one’s lover to death? Or, still spinning my own wheels here, is it mean to indicate a kind of descent into narcissism? Homosexuality does seem significant in some way, but I’m not sure how.
*. The sad thing is that I think Cronenberg cared about something here. He had something to say about art, and sex, and death. I’m just not sure what that something was beyond the obvious. And it is that obviousness that, even more than the presentation, makes it all so dull. I kept waiting to be surprised. And given all the high praise it has received over the years, it’s a movie that I’ve given a chance to grow on me. But I’m still waiting.

They’re Watching (2016)

*. They’re Watching is a fairly typical found-footage movie, about the crew of a home improvement show who fly off to Moldova to film the renos a young couple have made to their fixer-upper. I’d like to confess here that I didn’t even know that Moldova was a country. I thought it was part of Romania. There’s no telling what you’ll learn from watching trash movies.
*. The main hook here is that this is supposed to be a comedy, or horror-comedy. And it does have a lighthearted air to it. But it’s not very funny, or even an effective satire, and the fact is we’ve been down this road too many times before. Not just for being another shaky-cam movie but for the asshole Americans (and one Canadian, when it’s convenient) abroad experiencing a round of tourist terror.
*. Just as an aside, I find I’m getting a little tired of movies that simply aren’t very good claiming to be comedies. Or ironic in some way. Maybe that’s what they’re meant to be, but if they’re not funny then this seems to make things even worse. I watched this movie around the same time I watched Tragedy Girls, another supposed comedy-horror that wasn’t funny at all. Perhaps I’m just too old to get it. But I suspect there really isn’t that much to get.
*. In any event, I came away unimpressed. Here are my main complaints.
*. Whatever you think of the found-footage genre, they’re supposed to play by the rules, however awkward this makes the proceedings. The main rule being that everything we see is presumed to be stitched together out of film actually shot by the characters in the drama. That isn’t the case here, as there are scenes that don’t seem to have anybody behind the camera. I thought on a couple of occasions that the witch might be doing some filming, but that doesn’t make sense either.
*. Not that the character of the witch makes a lot of sense anyway. Has she possessed Becky, or has she always been Becky? If Goran hadn’t cheated on her, would she still have gone into full berserker mode? Is she getting revenge on the rest of the crew? For what? I didn’t understand any of this. Or why she needed a director to film her violence. I guess it may fit in with the story of Taliban atrocities, but those dots aren’t easy to connect.
*. You’ll note I didn’t give any spoiler alert for what I just said about Becky being the witch. Apparently this is considered to be a twist. But I don’t see how it could be. Surely we know from the first time we see her renovated house and she starts talking about the basement that she isn’t on the level.
*. If we assume the movie is a comedy, why does it waste so much time building up Greg’s Afghanistan story? Even if it weren’t a comedy why would they bother with all that? It doesn’t relate to anything, and is never used (except to get him a quickie pity-fuck from Sarah).
*. I’m not a fan of the cliché of characters running through dark woods with flashlights. But are we to assume in this film that Becky, and none of the crew, have flashlights? Night vision on their cameras is all they’ve got?
*. The special effects at the end are pretty bad, and all the shaky camera work, damaged film, and scrambled editing doesn’t help. I’m sure they were going for silly, but I’m not sure they even achieved that. It just struck me as being a mess.
*. The idea of making Alex the sole survivor was interesting. Unfortunately, it’s already partly given away in the film’s opening, which gives us a scene from the end of the movie. I’m not sure that was a smart move, or necessary.
*. I don’t have very much positive to say about this one. If you’re a fan of the genre you may find it enjoyable, or at least a diversion. Beyond that, the impression I was left with was that they just weren’t trying very hard.

A Bigger Splash (2015)

*. You know you’re getting old when . . . you find yourself shaking your head at the strange mating behaviour of a group of characters who are getting horny at a vacation villa on an Italian island, and then realize that the leads are both only in their late fifties.
*. There’s a point I’m getting at with this. A Bigger Splash is ostensibly an “adult” film, which means that (1) it’s not based on a comic book or video game, and (2) it’s a drama about people in “relationships” (sorry for the quotation marks, but you know what I mean).
*. But A Bigger Splash really isn’t that kind of an adult movie. This is because the quartet of holidayers have no connection to reality. They are headed by Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton), a rock star of a previous generation who is now enjoying a celebrity afterlife. The others are Marianne’s boy toy Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), an ex-lover named Harry (Ralph Fiennes) and Harry’s daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson).

*. Celebrities, and by extension their entourages, don’t live in our world. As A Bigger Splash illustrates they live without responsibilities or consequences. If the restaurant is full and they don’t have a reservation there is no problem, a table is immediately vacated for them. If it isn’t a big enough umbrella, somebody else is getting wet. If there’s a concert in town it doesn’t matter because the whole town will show up instead to see them perform (shitty) karaoke. And if they accidentally kill someone . . . well, you get the picture.
*. Aside from the celebrity angle this remake of the French film La Piscine (1969) does curiously little to modernize the original. It’s a timeless tale of jealous passions. So timeless that as soon as things get started (literally foreshadowed by an ominous shadow passing over Marianne and Paul in the form of Harry’s plane), we know how this will play out. Surely they do as well? After all, aside from poor Penelope they are adults. Aren’t they?

*. I think the tragedy here is that they’re not. All except for Penelope, who is 17 years old and, at the end, I think relieved to get away from Marianne and her freaky, wounded lovers.
*. At least that’s one reading of what’s going on. It’s a movie that’s both exact and reticent. Paul and Penelope remain ciphers to me. I think they may only be fuel for Harry and Marianne, representing a youthfulness that the older couple feed on. They are also both junior members of the entourage, and perhaps there’s something significant that they both get slapped by their elders as a way of trying to put them in their place.
*. A lot of other movies seem to be floating in the background. Night Moves, for example, with Dakota Johnson reprising her mom’s role in that film as the seductive (or aspiring to be seductive) nymph. Or Harry and Paul going full Women in Love in the pool. Another, stronger precursor is Sexy Beast, with Fiennes in the Ben Kingsley role: a force of chaos, a blast from the past that the wealthy expats or vacationers just want to go away so that they can get on with soaking up the sun and having lazy sex.
*. Reading the responses to the film that I’ve seen there seem to be a number of questions that bother people. Here are a few.
*. (1) Is Penelope really Harry’s daughter? I don’t see any reason to question this but many people do. It seems it would be a subject he’d address ahead of his protestations that he’s not fucking her, but I don’t recall him ever doing so.

*. (2) Do Paul and Penelope fuck? I suppose the short answer here is that it doesn’t matter as much as the impression Marianne and Harry are under that they have. Personally, I have a hard time seeing it. They don’t seem that much into each other. But then Paul is such a himbo anyway I’m not sure he’s into anyone as much as himself, seeing sex as just a bit of servicing.
*. (3) What exactly is Marianne accusing Penelope of at the end? OK, this is more a question that just bothers me. But I mean they all know at this point that Paul killed her father, so that would seem to make Paul and Marianne a bit on the wrong foot. Marianne, however, seems to think the kid has performed an act of lèse-majesté against celebrity. Which, I guess, she has. She’s not a Paul.
*. So the police suspect some wrongdoing because the sand was disturbed at the bottom of the pool? Huh? It didn’t look to me as though there was any sand at the bottom of the pool. Even if it were disturbed, what would someone be able to tell from that? Could they tell when it was disturbed? By what, or by whom, or by how many people? This seems really flimsy to me.

*. The cast received near universal praise. I’m not so sure. Fiennes is a fireball, but those roles are, I think, less difficult than people imagine. It’s not hard acting crazy and stealing all the attention. Did I believe in Harry? I certainly didn’t believe that Marianne was a rock star, and I really like Tilda Swinton. Paul is a blank and Penelope is left underwritten — perhaps by design, and perhaps because nobody understood her.
*. Director Luca Guadagnino was turning into a very hot property around this time. He has what I think is a fresh vision and way of imagining old stories, but his weaknesses are also evident: a random sense of pacing, for example, and the presence of poorly digested gobbets of politics. Flaws that were only going to be magnified in his remake of Suspiria.
*. I do think A Bigger Splash is a good movie, but I can’t shake the feeling that it is so, at least in part, accidentally. Despite making me feel old, I could only identify with Penelope at the end and her escape from all that her parents (i.e., characters of my generation) represent. In so far as I can identify with Harry and Marianne, and it’s hard, I’d like to apologize. But, in my generation’s defence, I’d want to add that we’re better than what came before us.