Monthly Archives: October 2017

Shut-eye Hotel (2007)

*. I like horror movies. I like film noir. And I like the animation of Bill Plympton. This one should have been a can’t-miss proposition.
*. It missed. I’m not sure what they were going for. It’s not funny, or scary, or even very noir. In fact, it’s kind of pointless.
*. A pair of detectives investigate strange murders that have been occurring at the oddly-shaped Shut-eye Hotel. It turns out that the pillows on the bed are actually strange creatures that are attacking people when they fall asleep.
*. Perhaps the ravenous pillow can be taken as representing the subconscious, like the hungry four-poster in Death Bed: The Bed That Eats. Otherwise it just seems a silly kind of idea.
*. If it sounds like I’m trying to read a message into an obvious bit of light entertainment, a short film that’s as fluffy as those feathers that spill from the pillow creature’s guts, it’s because this is a fantasy. Fantasy always makes me think in terms of the symbolic. That giant Dr. Seuss hotel, for example, rising out of a barren plain, without any roads leading into it. It’s part of the landscape of dream.
*. I do like how the animation works, creating a scribbly darkness with volume that light doesn’t penetrate so much as it just digs into. The beams from windows, headlights, and flashlights only make shapes, we don’t get the sense that they’re illuminating anything.
*. Well, it’s an animated short. I guess I shouldn’t ask for too much. But it just seems as though this was a story that didn’t need to be told, at least in this form. In terms of its design though I think it’s very well done.

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Death Bed: The Bed That Eats (1977)

*. When watching grade-Z horror films from the 1960s and ’70s it’s pretty obvious that the directors didn’t think very much of what they were doing. This is made even clearer when you listen to the DVD commentaries by schlock auteurs like Herschell Gordon Lewis or William Grefe, which are funnier than any comic send-ups of their films. You can’t mock their work more than they mock it themselves.
*. I haven’t listened to the commentary for Death Bed so I don’t know how seriously writer-director George Barry took it. I believe it was the only movie he ever made, and he produced it himself as well, so you’d think it meant something to him. It even took him five years, working off and on. But apparently he mostly forgot about it, and indeed seems to have thought it was never released, before finding out otherwise many years later.
*. So I don’t know to what extent Barry thought this whole film was a joke. Clearly there are parts of it that aren’t meant to be taken seriously. The hungry bed drinking a bottle of Pepto-Bismol, for example, to help soothe its upset tummy (or bleeding ulcer). Right from the opening, as we hear the sound of the bed munching away, we know we’re in a silly place.
*. That may not bother you at all. I’m not sure it bothers me much. But it is something I wonder about.

*. I’ve often heard Death Bed described as surrealism, and there may be something in this. We speak of falling into our beds and then falling asleep or falling into a dream. The idea being that in sleep we descend into a subconscious state. What Barry does is he extends the metaphor and has the sleepers being devoured by the bed, by sleep, and by their dreams. Is the bed all just a bad dream? Or is the bed dreaming its victims? You decide.
*. Apparently the concept came to Barry in a dream and he wanted it to play like a fairy tale. I think he succeeded in this, with the girls bringing their picnic basket o the odd building in the woods that houses the magical bed. There is also an Artist imprisoned behind one of his own paintings, a back story involving a demon and his sleeping princess bride, and a curse that needs to be lifted. It’s very much fairy tale stuff.
*. Or you could call it art house stuff. I got a real Jean Rollin vibe off of Death Bed. I imagine if Barry had kept going he would have gone further in this direction, as interested in campy sex as in horror.
*. I consider it more erotic-comedy-horror than horror comedy. The bed is as horny as it is hungry, with the “eating” of its victims being obviously sexual: the ejaculating wine bottle beneath a couple making out, the orgy massacre, all the hubba-hubba heavy breathing. You could even see it as a movie about the dangers of sex, which was becoming a major horror theme at the time.
*. The Artist (that is, Aubrey Beardsley) is an interesting narrator, and he’s necessary because we need to know the bed’s history and the bed (obviously) isn’t talking. Usually such a character has a privileged role: the author of the film, directing the action as well as commenting on it. But here he’s more a marginal figure, not in control of the events until the very end, when the bed falls asleep.

*. Aside from the caged Artist the only other aspect of the film that’s noteworthy is the digestive system of the bed itself. This begins with a bubbling up of foamy bile followed by a descent into a yellow acidic liquid. It looks quite bizarre, but has an unfortunate similarity in appearance to the artist Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ.” The connection is made even stronger by the appearance of a cross on a chain suspended in the solution. I doubt this movie was any influence on Serrano, but . . .
*. You’d think a movie this campy, with such a zany premise, would be a lot more fun. But the fact is it’s really very dull. Once we get used to the way the bed operates it’s just a process repeated over and over, and there’s hardly any suspense. Meanwhile, the plot is so bizarre that even after turning to several online synopses for help I still wasn’t entirely sure what had happened. That sort of confusion is ultimately self-defeating, as it’s hard to stay interested in the story when you don’t understand what’s going on. Death Bed is a curiosity to be sure, but I don’t think it’s an enjoyable enough experience for anyone to want to see it more than once.

Get Out (2017)

*. Get Out was the big buzz movie of 2017, and follows the big buzz thriller of 2014, Gone Girl, in being a fantasy on a leading water-cooler issue (race instead of gender battle lines this time out). I liked Get Out more, a lot more, than Gone Girl because it’s put across with more talent, energy and conviction in just about every department. And I do think Get Out is a great movie. But if you take away the race angle, I don’t think it’s anything new.
*. By the way, the twist or basic premise behind the evil plot in Get Out is really very good. You know this affluent, twenty-first century version of the American gothic family is creepy as hell and up to something, and what it turns out to be is both plausible (judged on its own terms) and thematically apt. The way it works also makes a second viewing even more enjoyable than the first, which is something I don’t say about a lot of movies. So I’ll provide a spoiler alert here. Don’t read these notes if you haven’t seen Get Out yet.

*. Let’s start with race. Writer-director Jordan Peele wanted to expose the post-racial lie of the Obama era, by which (I think) he means the hypocrisy of white “liberal” America. Fair enough, though I don’t know how representative the members of this particular country club are of that demographic. I think the movie also pulls a bit of a dodge with its response to Chris’s agonized question “Why black people?”
*. Get Out supplies a number of answers. Once you’ve tried black you’ll never go back. Black is the new black. Every black man is a super athlete. With all they have going for them, why wouldn’t some aging white moneybags pick a black chassis for his next life?
*. But how convincing are any of these explanations? It’s worth noting that when asked the question directly the blind art dealer who has purchased Chris says he doesn’t care about race at all but only wants Chris’s eyes. This is nonsense, since everyone has eyes. But then, the dealer is colour blind, literally.
*. I still have trouble with the idea of a bunch of rich old white folk wanting to be black. The script tries hard to explain some of it. Grandpa always wanted to be a physical specimen and held a special grudge against Jesse Owens. Grandma only wants to keep a clean house and help out in the kitchen. They’re both just role-playing as domestic servants. He likes chopping wood and nobody tells her what to do. OK. But still. Why black people?

*. There are other answers the movie doesn’t adopt. Because missing black people won’t be as missed as missing white people. Because they’re seen as being less than fully human and so appropriate test subjects for the Coagula treatment. Because black men are easily seduced by white women. Get Out doesn’t go down any of these roads, at least very far.
*. But even though there are still some awkward questions about this part of the movie, I don’t think they’re that troubling. Enough is done for us to buy into the film’s dominant metaphor of a futuristic form of slavery, which works right down to the slave auction using bingo cards. (I did wonder why they were using bingo cards though.)
*. Race aside, it’s a pretty standard horror film in a lot of ways. I was even expecting to see an overhead shot of the car driving out to the parents’ house but I guess they couldn’t afford it. That said, the familiar horror tropes are all nicely adapted to the movie’s theme. Right from the opening scene, where instead of a girl out walking alone we have a young black man, and when we first see the headlights of a car behind him we’re actually afraid that it might be the cops.
*. Get Out is full of fun stuff like that. It’s no accident, for example, that Chris escapes slavery by picking cotton. But the cotton ear plugs aren’t just symbolic, they make perfect sense. Peele wanted to make a movie where the hero wasn’t an idiot and I think he succeeded. Every step of the way we can understand why Chris is acting the way he does. And, given the film’s premise, everything that happens is entirely logical. It’s a really well crafted script and a pleasure to watch unfold even on repeated viewings.

*. Some pruning helped. In particular there was originally a lot of back story about the organization, which apparently Peele envisioned as having a history going back to the Templars (they were even dubbed the Red Alchemist Society). That is, apparently, where Jeremy’s helmet comes from. I’m very happy Peele cut all this, as I don’t see what sense it would have made. Didn’t Roman Armitage (Grandpa) invent the process? They certainly couldn’t have been doing it, or anything like it, back in the Middle Ages.
*. Less is more in other ways as well. The violence is abrupt and usually presented with very quick edits that left me wondering if they’d even had to use squibs. Usually we just cut to the after effects of violence. Well, they did use squibs at the end, but even there the gore is just flashed on the screen.

*. The less-is-more approach pays off very nicely at the end as well with the house burning down. Usually this is done in spectacular fashion, but I’m guessing they didn’t have the money for that so instead we get something more effective: a house slowly filling with smoke. It’s a little thing, probably dictated by budget concerns, but it seemed fresh and it worked well.
*. This was Peele’s first feature and he came to it out of a comedy background. It’s been noted before how closely related comedy and horror are in terms of their dependence on timing, whether it be for setting up a joke or a scare. But the material here is also very well suited for someone with a comic background.

*. I don’t want to say Get Out is a horror comedy. It isn’t, though the scenes with Rod the indefatigable and resourceful TSA agent do provide comic relief. Instead, it’s a “horror movie [with] . . . a satirical premise” (Peele), and that premise has to stay just sinister and threatening enough without becoming absurd. The temptation to play some of it broad must have been great, but was resisted.
*. This was the same temptation faced by the producers of The Stepford Wives, the movie that Peele was most aware of as an inspiration. There were all kinds of problems when making the 1975 version of Ira Levin’s novel, with no one quite sure of what tone was being taken, leading to uneven results. When it was remade in 2004 a comic approach was fully embraced.
*. In Get Out the satirical premise could have been played for laughs. A group of young black actors playing the Stepford Brothers is a great premise for a skit. And yet the results are more unnerving than funny. The goofy, pressurized blankness on the faces of Walter (Marcus Henderson), Georgina (Betty Gabriel) and the transformed Dre (Lakeith Stanfield) is fascinating to watch. I don’t think Peele is a particularly stylish director, but he knows enough to let great faces do their work. He gives them all the screen they need, especially his lead Daniel Kaaluya, and they work it wonderfully.

*. It’s a seamless film that never skips a beat and is filled with moments that are hard to forget. The silent bingo auction. The house of guests falling quiet as Chris goes upstairs. Georgina flying into a rage at how Chris has ruined her house. Jeremy as Napoleon Dynamite’s brother all grown up, his dreams of becoming a cage fighter now awaiting a vicarious realization. Rose eating her Froot Loops and drinking a glass of milk in bed, using a black straw, before transforming herself into the Great White Hunter: the stuffed lion chasing down Chris’s runaway buck.

*. I think Get Out is one of the small handful of movies that get made in any given year that will really last, and will still be talked about fifty years from now, assuming we’re still talking about movies fifty years from now (which I very much doubt). What’s more, I don’t think this will have anything to do with its message on race in America. It will be because it’s a really effective suspense thriller with a tight script and some great performances. I’m just left wondering why Hollywood should find this to be so hard.

2 Days in the Valley (1996)

*. It may be hard to remember now, or even outside of some readers’ memories, but Pulp Fiction was quickly followed by a lot of clones. They’ve been mostly forgotten, or will be soon.
*. 2 Days in the Valley was one such clone. There’s a fractured narrative following the incidentally connected lives of a bunch of Angelenos hailing from high life and low. There are some violent hoods included in the mix. One of them has a favourite routine he likes to go through before killing someone. There’s a cool retro soundtrack. The action is laced with knowing humour. You know the script.
*. None of it works this time. The different narrative threads are awkwardly stitched together. The jokes are laboured (for example, Hopper telling Dosmo that he takes him seriously as a professional when Dosmo’s pants are down around his ankles). Dosmo is afraid of dogs. That’s a joke. Teddy Peppers made a bad TV-movie with an elephant in it. That’s a joke.
*. Charlize Theron wasn’t supposed to be here, but she was available so this became her first leading role. She was only twenty. There’s one reason to watch this movie. She’s it.
*. There’s nothing else to say. The dialogue isn’t very fast or very clever, and it needs to be both. Most such movies are a slow build to a clever conclusion, but while Roger Ebert found the ending here “neat and ingenious” I thought it was predictable. I guess they didn’t know what to do with Alvin (Jeff Daniels). Or with the massage parlour subplot. And I guess Teddy is going to marry the nurse. In a final in-joke Dosmo (Danny Aiello) says he’s going to Brooklyn to open a pizzeria. But that was years ago.
*. I’ll leave you with something nice. Here’s a pic of Charlize Theron.

 

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

*. It didn’t take long after Blade Runner 2049‘s release for a narrative to start to build around it. The reviews were glowing, with lots of five-star ratings and critical gushings over the rich visuals and complex plot. Box office, however, was disappointing. Immediately the point was raised that Blade Runner, now considered a classic, had done poorly with audiences on its original release as well. Perhaps attention spans had become so attenuated on a steady diet of superhero movies we could no longer appreciate the stateliness of Blade Runner 2049. Perhaps it was too philosophical for the masses.
*. Or perhaps critics and reviewers are now only part of a giant publicity/hype machine and had it wrong.
*. Yes, in both cases. But on balance, I found Blade Runner 2049 a bit of a let down.
*. I’ll start with what I liked. I think in Denis Villeneuve they found the right man for the job. His urban and desert landscapes have always had a kind of desolate, futuristic barrenness about them, and his characters are drawn with the sort of blank lack of affect we can easily associate with the not-fully human. In short, the look and the feel of this movie is just right, and the spiritual-industrial score is a perfect fit as well.

*. The cast works well too. In particular Ryan Gosling is great as the new Deckard and Sylvia Hoeks is his equal as his femme counterpart Luv. It’s so obvious these two are made for each other that it’s sad to see them fight. They should be making super-babies.
*. There’s also one terrific scene, where Joseph K (to give him his full Kafkaesque moniker) engages in a creepy threesome with Joi and the prostitute Mariette. I take it this was meant as an homage to Vertigo and the famous kiss between James Stewart and Kim Novak (who is also playing two characters in one). It’s a magic movie moment, recreated perfectly.
*. Now, on to the rather longer list of what I didn’t like.
*. The movie looks great, but the visuals are too strong, overwhelming the script in many places. At times it almost seems like we’ve gone past Ridley Scott to Terry Gilliam. The Tyrell headquarters in particular makes no sense at all. I guess in an overpopulated future L.A. the spectacular waste of space involved in Wallace’s techno-aquarium is just conspicuous affluence, but it gets to the point where it’s the only thing that even registers. A big scene between Wallace and Deckard should be left to the actors, but instead they’re left on the 17th hole at Sawgrass while inexplicable shadows fall over their faces so it’s hard to really focus on what it is they’re saying.

*. They’re not saying much. Right after Deckard tells Wallace (Jared Leto) that he “knows what’s real,” Wallace figures he’ll get him to spill his guts by tempting him with a duplicate Rachael. Now why would he think Deckard would fall for something so contrived? It’s preposterous. Then to just execute the false Rachael makes no sense except to underline, I suppose, how nasty a piece of work he is. For someone whose main problem is finding a way to produce more replicants Wallace seems to dispose of them in a rather cavalier fashion.
*. I don’t understand Wallace’s plan. He just needs to produce more free labour? That’s it? And if he only wants to breed more replicants, shouldn’t the resistance be working with him?
*. It’s actually a big problem with the script that Wallace isn’t fleshed out more. As far as I can tell he’s just here to play the Tyrell character from the first movie, but he has a far less significant role. Poor Jared Leto is given almost nothing to work with. They could have cut his character out of the film entirely and it wouldn’t have made any difference. We don’t even know what happens to him in the end.
*. But then, I might also ask why they bothered bringing Harrison Ford as Deckard back. He really doesn’t have any function in the plot. There’s a scene at the end where K and Luv are fighting it out in the flooding air car. In one shot you can see him looking on and you imagine Harrison Ford wondering why he even has to be there.
*. Well, the reason he has to be there is because of the really very stupid plot. It’s based on a crazy premise, which is that (spoiler alert!) the original run of replicants can reproduce, and that Rachael actually had Deckard’s baby!
*. Now, really. How is that possible? You mean the Tyrell Corporation didn’t know they gave their “female” replicants fully-functioning wombs? And even assuming this always was part of the plan, or that Rachael was a special prototype, why should their offspring be some kind of human-replicant hybrid, or cyborg-with-a-soul? The whole Golden Child subplot is nonsense, though it taps into the fashionable Singularity thesis of SF movies like Transcendence and Lucy.
*. So Luv just walks right into the LAPD building, takes what she wants out of the morgue, kills an attendant, and walks back out, and that’s it? No security cam footage or anything to tie her to the crime? Come on.

*. Villeneuve’s pacing is a known factor, and I don’t have a problem with it. What I do have a problem with is that despite such a long running time there is much here left undeveloped while much is included that should have been cut. It’s hard not to feel like we’re being set up for a sequel where we’ll find out more about Ana, the replicant underground, and what happened to Wallace (and, for that matter, K).
*. The ultimate point being made is both muddled and depressing. Muddled because we’re still not sure who is human, or if it makes a difference. (The one great line in the script comes when K asks Deckard if Deckard’s dog is real and he responds “I don’t know. Ask him.”)
*. It’s depressing because in so far as the film asks the question “what it means to be human,” the answer seems to be “a lot less than you might think.” Let’s face it, the replicants and AIs in this movie are a lot easier to identify with than the humans. Which, by the way, calls into question their goal to be “more human than human.” Why would they want that?
*. Is there something here that reflects our own sense of unease with our debased and relatively inferior humanity? How well would one of our jaded netizens do in one of these Nabokovian Turing tests? I doubt they’d score as high as K. Meanwhile, K has no interest in dating a real woman and prefers the company of his more sympatico AI Joi. Which is the same sort of rejection our species was served by Scarlett Johansson in Her.
*. There’s been some criticism of the presentation of women in Blade Runner 2049, and to be fair I thought something more might have been done to balance things out. I honestly thought that when Robin Wright’s Lieutenant Joshi showed up at K’s apartment and started helping herself to the booze that she was going to end up ordering him to get in the sack with her. Hey, he is Ryan Gosling. But somehow she is able to resist the temptation.
*. I guess the most depressing part though is that, in this vision of the future, I’m with K. Humanity is just using tech as porn or prostitution anyway, so let’s get rid of all the johns. In R. U. R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), the original SF robot story, Karel Čapek’s robots stumble at the same hurdle of how to procreate, while humanity, even before their downfall, has largely given up on breeding any new stock. So if K and Luv (or Joi, or Mariette) want to get it on, I wouldn’t want to stand in their way. They might make beautiful movies together. Or a high-def, twenty-story tall sex tape.

Arrival (2016)

*. In my notes on Incendies I concluded by saying that Denis Villeneuve’s vision was one that would be hard to maintain when success came calling. I think Arrival shows that he maintained it. Whether he should have, at least to this extent, is another question.
*. Most of what you’d expect from a Villeneuve film is here. The plot that is a slow (very slow in this case) burn. The emotionally scarred and deadened characters who always seem as though they’re half asleep. The painterly settings (natural and urban). Jóhann Jóhannsson’s mournful strings that seem to echo the whale songs of the aliens and the sirens of the base camp. The Heptapods themselves are also familiar, looking like Louise Bourgeouis’s statue of Mother from Enemy, only missing a leg. There’s even a shot where Louise (Amy Adams) has a vision of one in her tent that seems an exact quote of the end of Enemy.
*. But here’s the thing: Arrival is a genre picture. I like how Villeneuve grounds it in such a personal story, but it still needs to move a bit faster than this, especially at the end. The final half hour here really drags. I know that saying one finds a thoughtful film boring or dull is enough to brand one immediately a philistine, but I think the ending would have been a lot more powerful if they’d given it to us straight. Before we drift into the final montage, with Louise truly unstuck in time, we’ve already figured out what’s going on. We know Ian is Hannah’s father, so why be so coy about it until the very end? Was the reveal at the end of La Jetée (1962) any less effective for being so abrupt?
*. Then there is the story. It’s based on a Ted Chiang novella and I guess it’s a decent premise. By that I mean it’s an interesting attempt at making an end run around the paradoxes that come with every time travel story. But it doesn’t hold water. Because they use a different sort of language (which we can still interpret) the Heptapods are able to comprehend all of time at once. Hm. That seems a mighty big leap to make just because they don’t use a past or future tense. And at the end of the day (if the day has an end) I don’t see where it solves any of the problems we’re all familiar with in time travel stories. I won’t go through all the paradoxes; suffice to say they’re all still there, at least by my reckoning.
*. To take only the most important example: the main point being made is similar to that posited by Nietzsche in his myth of eternal recurrence. Here’s the relevant passage from The Gay Science: “What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!’ Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? . . . Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?”
*. The demon’s question is made real by Louise’s understanding of the Heptapod language. “If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?” she asks Ian. But it’s an idle question because the real point is whether or not she could change things. That shouldn’t be possible, even given her understanding of the alien language.
*. Another real problem I had with the story was how stupid the military was. In the first place, why is the military in complete control? Where is the president? Why is China being run by General Shang? Why do we only hear it briefly mentioned once near the end that the U.N. might have to get involved in this? You mean they weren’t already?
*. Meanwhile, the military behave like they haven’t learned a thing since The Day the Earth Stood Still. They want to know what these aliens want, and they want to know right now. They’ve got no time for scientific fancy-talk about how complex this might be. And if they don’t get the answers they want, well, even though the aliens are no threat whatsoever, they’re going to have to blow ’em up real good. Hang the consequences! I mean, it just may be that they’re dangerous if provoked — after all, they have spaceships and have mastered faster-than-light travel — but so what? We’ll never know until we launch a few missiles at them.
*. Arrival is something different, and I give it a lot of credit for that. It’s just that standing back from it a bit I’m not sure that many of the risks it takes pay off and I don’t think it’s all that original a story once you strip away the linguistics stuff, which is all window dressing anyway. The film’s design elements are impressive, though the Heptapods themselves look and sound maybe a bit too much like the creatures in The Mist. The cast, as usual for a Villeneuve movie, give subdued performances, and are often half hidden in darkness, shadow, or silhouette. This is all to the good. And yet.
*. It may be that my attention span has entered a zone of terminal atrophy, but I think Arrival could have used more of a spark.

Sicario (2015)

*. It’s not that surprising that Anthony Lane, reviewing Sicario in the New Yorker, saw in it a kind of Western. The cartel/border action flick has established itself now as a Western sub-genre, at least in the critical literature. That said, I see these movies as more akin to the gangster flicks of the 1930s, albeit having replaced the dirty streets of Prohibition-era New York and Chicago for the desert. Yes, the look is very Western (or neo-Western), but the cartels always make me think of the mob in Little Caesar and G-Men, and when Alejandro invades the drug lord’s hacienda in Sicario it’s hard not to think of the end of De Palma’s Scarface.
*. I like Sicario, and I want to say that right off the top because I do not like it as much as I think most people did. It’s a decent movie, but it’s a long way from a great one.
*. Take the photography. It’s by living legend Roger Deakins, and it looks very nice. If you were thinking while you were watching Sicario that it seems a lot like No Country for Old Men that probably has as much to do with the fact that Deakins shot both movies as it does to their both being about tales of border violence. But does Sicario look any better or any different than No Country for Old Men?

*. The shot that gets the most praise is of the team of warriors walking off into the desert, silhouetted against a desert sunset. It looks very nice. I don’t object to it, but aren’t all desert sunsets beautiful? When people talk about the beauty of a film’s photography I like to think it’s because the cinematographer has shot material that isn’t conventionally beautiful, or which may even be ugly, and made it look beautiful, or at least interesting. Like the long shot of a ditch full of garbage in Stalker, to take one example. And aside from the sunset here, how did this movie look any different than a random episode of Breaking Bad (which, admittedly, is a very good looking TV show)?

*. Sticking with the look of the film for just a second, what is with all the overhead shots? I’ve heard it said that there was a desire to blur the border between the U.S. and Mexico by showing it from above, where it effectively disappears, but I think in these exterior shots what director Denis Villeneuve really wants to do is blur the line between the camera as the omniscient eye of God and the view from surveillance drones or spy satellites. This gives the film the same kind of detached, almost clinical feel as the aerial shots in Enemy, where we feel like the characters are rats in a maze.
*. As an aside, another reason for the aerial shots, at least of Juarez, was that shooting in the city was considered to be too dangerous.

*. That said, Villeneuve’s thing for overhead shots goes beyond these homages to Google Earth. He also goes back to it in a number of interiors. Sometimes it seems to allude again to security cam footage, but elsewhere it just seems arty, or meant to take us into a kind of visual abstraction, as when when Macer washes her hands in the sink, or we get the cutaway in the torture scene to a shot of the drain and the jug of water. Normally such flourishes strike me as artificial and posturing, but they work with the overall feel of Sicario, which remains very cool and distant, even when it takes us indoors and up close and personal.
*. Another aspect of Sicario that gets a lot of praise is the handling of several set-piece scenes. The one that stands out the most (and which was the most difficult to film) is the traffic-jam shootout. Again, I thought this was a decent sequence, but not particularly memorable. Critics raved about how “tense” it was, but it didn’t seem that way to me. There are no surprises and it just plays out in a perfunctory manner. That may have been the point — that the police team is so highly trained and professional that the bad guys don’t even get a shot off — but it seemed kind of anti-climactic to me.
*. The same could be said of the tunnel sequence. Again, nothing much happens very quickly. I didn’t feel any suspense or tension, and at the end of it I didn’t feel as though anything was at stake. In fact, I was a little unclear what the point of the raid was, aside from just stirring things up.
*. Both scenes share that sense of quiet, underplayed professionalism, but I didn’t find them particularly compelling. Ditto for the bus station scene, where (again) nothing much happens but we get a quiet build-up to a payoff that never arrives. At least we were spared the torture though.
*. I called these scenes “quiet” but that only refers to the dialogue. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score isn’t underselling anything.

*. I like it when Macer (Emily Blunt) asks Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) what’s going on and he replies “You’re asking me how a watch works. For now we’ll just keep an eye on the time.” That’s a good line and I’m quoting it because it’s the only good line in the movie. This is a movie where nothing interesting or even of any import is said.
*. In other words, I didn’t care for the script. The dialogue is part of it, but the story is weak too. The plot is total nonsense. Emily Blunt’s Macer is a proxy for the audience, not knowing what’s going on. We’re with her. But then we find out what’s going on and it’s just a throwaway, and an unconvincing one at that. These guys are really worried about legality? They couldn’t find a more pliable FBI agent to adopt? Someone they could be sure of? And what is poor Reggie getting dragged along for?
*. Come to think of it, what even happens to Reggie? At one point I thought the team had just killed him after they came out of the tunnel. I don’t think that’s what happened, but we don’t see him again. So, maybe.
*. Alejandro’s one-man sassault on the drug lord’s home struck me as a really routine action-movie fantasy, with the hero taking vengeance for the murder of his family. I didn’t buy it for a minute and thought it seemed out of place.
*. Del Toro’s Alejandro is only another version of Javier Bardem’s Chigurh: an implacable and laconic force of fate embodying a cynical philosophy that has the world divided into predator and prey in a land of wolves. Apparently there were immediate plans for a sequel to Sicario based on his character. Because why not? We like superhero franchises.

*. The cast got a lot of praise. I don’t think they had to work very hard. Brolin and Del Toro could play these characters in their sleep, and Del Toro looks like he may have been trying to do just that. Emily Blunt has absolutely nothing to work with so just tries to get through things as blankly as possible. This gave me a new appreciation for what Villeneuve saw in Jake Gyllenhaal. He can do blank better than almost anyone and was Villeneuve’s true huckleberry.
*. I’ve heard that the script described Juarez as “a living hell.” The mayor of Juarez urged a boycott of the film because it presented a bad image of the city. But he also said that it was accurate enough up until about 2010, when things started getting better. That didn’t strike me as boosting the hometown very much.
*. At the end of the day I thought this was just a slick action flick with a generically vague script. It looks nice and scores some style points for not being so damn loud and frantically edited. Give Villeneuve and Deakins credit for that. But I don’t think it makes any profound political or moral point and I don’t think it’s as effective or original a piece of filmmaking as it was hailed as being on its release. Still, if they were to set up an Alejandro vs. Chigurh death-match in the sequel I’d probably watch.

Enemy (2013)

*. I really like Jose Saramago’s novel The Double, but when I was reading it I don’t think there was a single moment when I thought it needed to, or even could be, turned into a movie.
*. I bring up Saramago because Enemy is a film that invites and resists interpretation and you might be thinking that reading The Double will help you to a deeper or clearer understanding of what it’s about. I recommend reading The Double, but not for any light it will shed on Enemy. For starters, there are no spiders in the book, giant or otherwise.
*. The spider imagery is a good example of what I said about inviting and resisting interpretation. Spiders are obviously central, but they have no explicit meaning. Indeed, I’ve heard it said that the cast signed a confidentiality agreement forbidding them to speak to the press about the spiders. This suggests that there was a correct and secret meaning to them, though I think it might all have been part of the promotion.
*. For what it’s worth, my own reading of the spiders is pretty straightforward and I think widely agreed upon. They’re meant to symbolize the women who are trying to catch Adam/Anthony in their web (i.e., force him to commit and settle down).
*. So much, so easy. Things get more complicated, however, when we start trying to unpack what is “really” happening in the movie.
*. Let’s stick with the matter of the doubles. Here are the main possibilities:
*. (1) Only Adam (the history professor) really exists. Anthony (the actor) is just a fantasy. But to make this work, Adam has to be married to Helen (Anthony’s wife) and there is no Mary. The radio report of a car crash is about some totally unrelated accident.
*. (2) Only Adam really exists, but he pretends to be Anthony on the side. This is the split personality thesis. Adam/Anthony is thus really having an affair with Mary, posing as . . . Adam. Hm. I suppose this means that Mary dies alone in a car crash for some unrelated reason, but the whole business with her noticing the mark from this wedding ring makes no sense. I also wondered how he was affording the rent on two apartments without his wife noticing any red flags.
*. (3) Adam actually has a doppelgänger, for whatever supernatural or science-fictional reason (perhaps a device being used by the government in some future totalitarian Toronto). The double, Anthony, dies and Adam decides (or resigns himself) to settling down with Helen. She thinks this is a good idea too, though with her own misgivings.
*. That third possibility is usually discounted, if it’s brought up at all, but I’m not sure it should be dismissed so quickly. For one thing, it’s very much embedded in Saramago’s novel, which draws on the literature of the fantastic. Here the fantastic elements seem clearly identified with mental states (anxiety, dreams), but perceptions can be reality.
*. I don’t think there’s any easy way of sorting this out, even though many of the explications of the film seem to end with the notion of their being only one protagonist with a split personality. There’s a basic problem with this though. For example, it raises the question of why Adam’s fantasy life is being led by Adam and not Anthony. That’s a weird sort of fantasy. Adam is the part of the personality he’s trying to escape from.
*. There are also issues with regard to the time scheme that are unresolved and probably unresolvable. Is the trip to the sex club something that happens at the beginning of the story, or the end? Perhaps it doesn’t make a difference and we are just meant to understand that our hero is stuck in a loop, the historical “pattern” that he lectures about.

*. All of this is very clever, and fun to puzzle over, but I think the point of it is just to jazz up the otherwise obvious reading I began with: that what we have here is just the story of a middle-aged, slightly introverted man who is anxious about settling down and becoming a father. The idea of the hero having a split personality isn’t very original or engaging by itself. Fight Club is probably the best known recent example, but it’s a plot with a long history, going back to films like De Palma’s Sisters. Also, the complexities of Saramago’s novel, which depend a lot on metafictional conceits, are hard (though not impossible) to translate to the screen. This leaves Denis Villeneuve playing with a pretty limited bag of tricks, involving a lot of misdirections and red herrings.
*. I don’t want to give the impression from any of this that I didn’t like Enemy. In fact, it’s one of my favourite movies of this decade. I don’t think it’s as complex or as deep as some have made it out to be, but it is serious and thought-provoking, original and well made. It’s sad they didn’t keep Saramago’s twist at the end, but I don’t they could have given the streamlining they’d done to the theme.
*. It also stars Jake Gyllenhaal. Jake Gyllenhaal always strikes me as someone who is coming down off something. For what it’s worth, I thought he made a more credible Anthony than Adam. In the latter role he seemed affected to me, and I got tired of the stutter.
*. I lived in Toronto for ten years. God what an ugly city. As I recall it’s even worse in reality than it looks here.

*. It has to be more than just laziness that makes me think of Cronenberg here. More than just Villeneuve and Cronenberg both being Canadians with a thing for psychological thrillers, or the weird plot (are Adam and Anthony dead ringers?), or the way the foreboding architecture is used to make people seem like test subjects in some lab experiment (Adam teaches at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough Campus, which is a Cronenbergian location as well). No, there’s something else.
*. The fear of the other sex, for example. Or the insect imagery, which has it that instead of a man turning into a fly we have a woman turning into a spider — and note how bug-like Anthony appears in his motorcycle gear. He’s not really a predator, he’s the prey.
*. But most of all I think it’s just a shared sense of subtle and quiet unease. We are not at home in this alien world.
*. I was going to say something appreciative of the photography, and specifically the burnt orange and yellow colour scheme, which makes Toronto seem an urban desert (and Villeneuve does like the desert). It’s certainly a lot warmer than my own memories of the place, which are all painted in a couple of shades of grey. It’s also nicer than the aquarium colours (predominantly blue and green) that have become the default for so many horror movies lately.
*. But then I began to wonder why so many films are going this route, settling on a specific and quite limited palette instead of making a more dramatic use of colour to create a deeper sense of space. So much of today’s photography seems bleached or tinted and that’s it.

*. I’ve mentioned before how much I love a scene where we get to see a character just thinking. So it should come as no surprise that the moment in the movie I like the best comes when Helen (Sarah Gadon) is considering what to do with this man in her bed. What makes this especially wonderful is that it’s not that we know something she may or may not have figured out (that this isn’t her husband), but that she knows something we don’t and perhaps never will, which is Adam/Anthony’s real character.
*. I want to end with that because it’s a high note and I really did like Enemy. I wouldn’t have thought The Double a likely work to be adapted into a successful film, but I think they took the right approach here, staying true to most of the story while taking it in some interesting new directions. There are layers here worth peeling back, but something at the center that I don’t think we can ever get to.

Prisoners (2013)

*. When a movie works it’s usually the result of a team effort. All the pieces have to come together just right. Failure, however, can be the result of a single bad element. The bad element in Prisoners is the script by Aaron Guzikowski, which was considered a very hot property but took a while to develop. What were they thinking?
*. All we have here is a bog-simple serial killer story, expanded to inordinate length (and, reportedly, the film was going to be even longer). Yes, there’s a twist at the end. But the final explanation for everything that is going on, which stitches together all the various gruesome findings that Detective Loki has been turning up, is so stupid that we’re left tossing our hands in the air. Really?
*. As ludicrous as the plot is, it could still have been cleared up in about five minutes if anyone involved in such an elaborate, generational conspiracy had the ability to talk. This is something they are either unable or unwilling to do, which makes no sense at all. Alex knows what’s going on and what he’s being asked, but for some reason clams up in the face of all Keller’s punishment. Admittedly, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) doesn’t seem to know the first thing about torture (just beating someone to a pulp isn’t very effective), but why won’t he answer the questions put to him, except in laconic riddles?
*. Then there’s Bob Taylor. He also knows what’s going on but apparently has a bad case of PTSD. Or something. Anyway, he’d rather blow his head off than actually reveal anything. Joy has some excuse (she’s drugged up), but even later she’s in no condition to tell the police exactly what happened to her and Anna because . . . well, just because if anyone did that then there wouldn’t be a movie.
*. By the way, I think I missed how Joy escaped. Was she let go? For what reason?
*. Even at the end we have Anna, who presumably could tell the police where her father might be, or at the very least help with their investigation of the murder property, just sitting and staring at Loki, saying nothing. What is with these people? Reticence is made into a fetish in this movie.

*. So the script, for me, turned into a deal breaker. I didn’t credit any of it for a second. I could cut these notes off now, but I guess there are a few other things to say.
*. Prisoners was Denis Villeneuve’s first English-language feature, which is enough itself to give the trashy proceedings some extra weight. It’s a good looking movie, even when the dominant visual motif is of seeing things through a glass darkly. A significant amount of the film is shot looking through dirty windows, rain and mud-streaked windshields, and filthy or clouded mirrors. Apparently Melissa Leo even asked the prop department not to clean her character’s glasses at the end of each day’s shooting.

*. David Thomson really, really didn’t like Prisoners, calling it “hideous, cruel, degrading, depressing, relentless, prolonged, humorless, claustrophobic, and a mockery of any surviving tradition in which films are entertaining. And 153 minutes.” In particular he singled out the look of the film (which I liked): “the dreadful territory where American films are occurring, nowadays, places where nature has succumbed to development (and then development has been abandoned). You look at the place and think, Good God, do people have to live there? . . . Pictures go in search of real, cheap places to do their work, and America begins to look like a Soviet wasteland where the decaying billboards for forgotten advertisements bind up our wounds.”
*. This is a good rant, but I don’t think it’s fair. Actually the film is set in Pennsylvania (but was shot in Georgia), and while Thomson might not want to imagine people living in such an environment, many do. I think it looks like the same sort of locale where Buffalo Bill hailed from in The Silence of the Lambs, and I thought both the interiors and exteriors were realistically and dramatically rendered. Yes it’s a grim setting, but Villeneuve has a thing for these post-apocalyptic urban and natural landscapes. Keller is preparing for end times that have already arrived.
*. The other thing that follows from this being a Villeneuve movie is that nobody smiles. His universe is joyless, and his characters (I’m speaking of all his movies here) seem to walk around stunned by loss and misfortune. One gets the sense they don’t much enjoy being alive. Even the villain in Prisoners just goes about killing as some kind of grim duty.
*. I think it was the director of Donnie Darko who said that Jake Gyllenhaal really impressed him by how long he could go without blinking. I wonder if Villeneuve was thinking of that when he gave Loki the tic of blinking all the time. I can’t think of any other reason for it.
*. For all the intelligence implied by his improbable name, Loki isn’t that bright is he? And he sure as hell doesn’t believe in having back-up. As for driving like a madman to the hospital at the end instead of calling for an ambulance, I’m totally at a loss.
*. I think Hugh Jackman has more talent as an actor than he usually gets to exercise, but this is a lousy role. The movie unfortunately splits into two threads, which becomes a problem when what happens in one thread is a lot more interesting than the other. Loki’s investigations are interesting, in a very routine police-procedural way. The scenes set in Keller Dover’s torture crib are silly, ineffective, and dull.
*. Is there some kind of moral point being made? Not much of one. I guess just the usual one about the cycle of violence and the pointlessness of torture, themes that Villeneuve seems attracted to. But beyond that? Does Keller’s faith redeem him in any way? It’s given a lot of attention, and contrasted with the anti-faith of the killers, but ultimately I don’t see anything made of it.
*. So it’s longer than the usual psycho thriller and is an attractive production, tricked out with the distinctive languorous look favoured by this director. But at the end of the day it’s a formulaic and stupid script that can’t carry the weight it’s asked to. I think it needed to be either more serious or more fun. I would have enjoyed it more if they had played it as trash.

Incendies (2010)

*. I like Incendies, but it’s a movie with a really big flaw.
*. I don’t mind the contrived plot, which was taken from a play by Wajdi Mouawad that was in turn inspired by the story of Souha Bechara. Denis Villeneuve was attracted by its likeness to Greek tragedy, which is hard to miss. The coincidences would be hard to take without such classical precedent. We have to believe they are all due to the workings of fate.
*. Then we come to the reveal at the end, which like Greek tragedy (and maybe all tragedies, really) has the story turn inward on itself, being a family tragedy. But my response was not so much surprise as bafflement. I was confused. How did this work?
*. My confusion was based on a misunderstanding of the movie’s time scheme. Let’s outline what happens. Nawal Marjan has a baby that is taken from her. Then she moves to the city and gets involved in politics. This eventually lands her in prison, where she spends fifteen years, at the end of which she is raped and gives birth to twins. Later she moves to Canada, where she gets a job in a law office. The twins grow up. Then Nawal accidentally meets her first child, who turns out to be the guy who raped her in prison. Thus the father of the twins is also their brother.
*. That’s weird, but the revelation has none of the power of the similar reveal at the end of Chinatown. This is because in Chinatown it comes as a real surprise but the logic of it immediately strikes us in the face. In Incendies it’s not a huge surprise and it doesn’t immediately make sense.
*. The problem, the “really big flaw” I began by mentioning, has to do with the dates. Nawal is, I believe, played by the same actress throughout the film, which covers a time span from her teenage years to sometime in her seventies (I assume). This was probably necessary given the film’s fractured time scheme. If they didn’t have this consistency the audience might have gotten lost.
*. Unfortunately, it also has the effect of making the viewer mentally compress the time scheme. In short, I didn’t see how Nawal’s son could be all grown up by the time she’s done her time in prison. I had assumed the time lapse between her giving birth to him and then being arrested was around two or three years. Instead it seems to have been nearly twenty. Then Nihad (her son) at the end seems to be much too young. I know it should all be theoretically possible and that I’m just reading it wrong, but this doesn’t ease my gut sense that it doesn’t add up.

*. I think it’s a testament to Villeneuve’s eye that he’s able to make a story this compelling and powerful out of such improbable and confusing material. He does it with a style that would go on to become his trademark, and in particular a camera whose quiet (but not slow) movement is full of implied threat and casual doom (amplified by some heavy strings). His landscapes, urban or desert, are burned out, and his characters are similarly burnt out, shell-shocked cases. You don’t see too many people smiling in a Villeneuve movie. There’s a pathetic scene in Incendies where Jeanne is invited into a circle of village women to have tea and she seems like she’s almost enjoying the moment before getting slapped down by reality in the form of the village matriarch.
*. It bugs me, but I can overlook the problem I have with the timeline. What I love is the overall flow of the picture, as well as the stand-out set-piece scenes like the harrowing bus massacre and Narwal’s moment of anagnorisis at the pool. Villeneuve’s pacing is a relief coming from the usual hyper-edited Hollywood light show and there’s no denying his eye for the visionary mundane. He asks that we notice things on a human scale, and makes the case for why this is important. As his career took off this was a personal style that he would be hard pressed to defend.