Category Archives: 2010s

American Animals (2018)

*. A group of young men try to steal some expensive books from a university library. Why? That is the question.
*. The answer is that there’s not much of an answer. Spencer (Barry Keoghan) is the most mysterious. He wants to experience life intensely. He wants to suffer for his art. He wants to do something, be something. He’s bored. Take your pick from the thin pickings.
*. One of the quirks of American Animals is that it dramatizes the crime and the events leading up to it but intercuts interviews with the actual figures involved (writer-director Bart Layton’s previous film was a documentary). Trying to understand Spencer I found myself focusing on his interview segments. This may be in part because I really don’t like focusing on Barry Keoghan. I don’t think I like this actor much. He was very unlikeable in The Killing of a Sacred Deer but I put that down to the part and the film’s director. Yorgos Lanthimos doesn’t want you to like his actors. But I find Keoghan just as unlikeable here, despite the attempt to establish some sympathy for his character.
*. And it’s not just a question of liking or not liking him. I feel like I don’t get any insight into Spencer, or understand his motivations at all.
*. Warren (Evan Peters) is the easiest member of the gang to come to grips with. He’s from the a rougher neighbourhood, for starters. He’s phony, and slightly psychopathic. A young man, not very bright but somewhat charismatic, full of himself and on the make. When we see the real Warren he’s a familiar face.
*. I am baffled by the other two burglars. How they thought this was a good idea is beyond me. Perhaps they all saw themselves as the star of the movie and were as surprised as anyone at being relegated to supporting roles, albeit with the same 7-year sentence at the end.
*. Naturally enough, they seem to have been thinking in terms of a heist picture. The go to Blockbuster to do research, watching The Killing for tips. Their planning sessions mimic, pointlessly, Reservoir Dogs. Warren imagines the end of their story being like the fantasy ending of The Shawshank Redemption (something else that dishonest movie has to answer for). The film does not, however, invoke its two closest analogs: The Bling Ring and the Ocean’s movies of Steven Soderbergh.
*. I’ll start with Soderbergh. As I’ve said before, Soderbergh is maybe the slickest director around, and American Animals imitates that slickness with nearly every shot. It’s a movie that throws every visual trick in the book at you. Part of the title sequence, for example, comes at us, for no reason at all, upside-down. This trickiness doesn’t play in the chaotic, clashing manner of an Oliver Stone, however, but with Soderbergh’s trademark smoothness. We shift from different points of view using all sorts of graceful elisions and sleight-of-hand. Even when the trick makes itself obvious — switching to black-and-white, using split screens, rewinding the film, and introducing impossible characters into scenes — nothing ever seems out of place. Throw in a retro soundtrack of pop rock (that, like the upside-down shots, makes no sense to me) and you’ve got Ocean’s Kentucky.
*. With all this gimmickry you have to wonder what the point is. To appeal to an audience that can’t focus on one thing at a time? To distract us from a not very interesting story? To provide a distraction? To be emotionally expressive? I think it’s very well done, or very slickly done, but I don’t see where it lends itself to drawing a fuller or deeper portrait of Spencer and Warren. Which, I believe, was the goal.
*. The connection to The Bling Ring is more thematic. Both movies deal with gangs of relatively affluent suburban young people who adopt the gangster lifestyle and found themselves, not ironically, the stars of their own crime film. But in The Bling Ring the motivation is more to the point, while in American Animals . . . well, as I began by suggesting, perhaps the lack of motivation is the point. Either way: kids today.
*. For me it’s a frustrating film. It’s well produced and sometimes quite clever, with the heist itself being a suspenseful set piece. But it also fails to live up to its potential. It’s a true story that gives itself an opportunity to really open up that story for further investigation, or moral or social inquiry, and it doesn’t go there. Instead it settles for being a movie about a bunch of young people who wanted to be in a heist movie, and that’s exactly where they ended up.

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The Bling Ring (2013)

*. The Bling Ring was a name given to a bunch of young people who broke into celebrity homes in the suburbs of Los Angeles in 2008-2009. I feel I have to begin by mentioning this because ten years after their crime spree, a Vanity Fair article by Nancy Jo Sales that inspired both a TV movie in 2011 and this film in 2013, and a book-length treatment by Sales that came out the same year, I imagine the actual events that started the ball rolling have now been forgotten. The Ring’s fifteen minutes were up a long time ago.
*. One may wonder, as I did, why a dramatic film (much less two) was necessary. Of course anything linking crime and celebrity will have an audience, so instead of necessary perhaps a better question would be who would find such a story attractive. What, for example, would attract Sofia Coppola to such a project?
*. Item: During the “Making of” featurette included with the DVD production designer Anne Ross has this to say about her reaction when Coppola told her that she was keen on doing it: “I was completely uninterested and I couldn’t believe she wanted to spend all this time living in this world, because it was so repellent to me, and it was repellent to her too so I was very confused about it.”
*. I feel the same way. I enjoyed Sales’ book, but I didn’t think a movie was necessary. What would be the purpose? Satire? But the funniest parts in the movie are things that the gang actually said and did and all the best lines are verbatim quotes. And in any event you can’t satirize this sort of behaviour. It’s self-satirizing.
*. I also wonder what the purpose was in changing all the names. No doubt some legal consideration was involved, but since the individuals represented are easily identifiable anyway I don’t know what the problem might have been. I mean, any resemblance to persons living or dead was not only not coincidental but purposive and precise.
*. One of Mark Kermode’s most violent takedowns on his review channel is of the film Entourage. What he seemed to hate the most about it was the message that everyone in the audience would like to emulate the bros in the movie. That’s not Coppola’s point here, but it is an opinion we hear expressed by Marc, who says that celebrities like Paris Hilton live “the lifestyle everybody wants.” That seems to me to be a litmus test for movies like this. Perhaps not so much whether you would want to live this sort of life, but can you even relate to someone who would?
*. Put another way, just how offended are you by these people? Kermode thought Larry Clark or Harmony Korine would have made the same film in a nastier fashion, and he thinks that would have been a bad thing. On the other hand he can’t find much to praise in Coppola’s “terribly lightweight and terribly affectless” portrayal of a world that is equally vacuous. Ross says she found the Ring repellent, but Kermode found a “kind of engaging sympathy” in their portrayal.
*. Saying that I really don’t care much either way may be a cop out, but it’s how I felt. Fifteen minutes in (I looked at the clock) I wrote a note to myself asking “Why is this movie so dull?” Was Coppola really that interested in the story? It doesn’t seem to have inspired her. Anyone could have made this movie, and probably already had.
*. After reading the book I wondered if the gang members were really as stupid as they seemed to be or if they were just acting stupid. They did think they were reality TV stars, after all (and in the case of a couple of them they actually were). Where Coppola’s film falls down, I feel, is that she gets no closer to answering this question. We just never get the sense of the characters as having any depth or inner life, which makes it impossible to care about them. It seems to me that a dramatic film would allow a director the opportunity to be more creative or personal or suggestive in this regard, but we remain in the land of surfaces and the superficial.
*. Where are they now? Do you even care who they were then?

Escape Room (2019)

*. Escape Room takes it premise, and its title, from a type of video game that has since morphed into real-life versions, forcing contestants to find ways out of various puzzling traps. Danny, one of the players in Escape Room, is apparently familiar with this form of entertainment, though it was new to me.
*. My own identification of the premise is that of a film genre I’ve referred to before as the Game of Death. Think Cube and Saw (the great progenitors), and such other low-budget iterations as House of 9, Breathing Room, Kill Theory, Nine Dead, Would You Rather, and Circle. That there have been so many films like this is the reason a lot of reviewers found Escape Room to be formulaic and clichéd.
*. What is the formula? I think we can identify a number of common elements. A small group of people, strangers to each other, have been brought together. They are being watched by a God-like observer, usually through security cameras. Also like God, the person running the show knows their darkest secrets and personal demons, and has seemingly infinite resources to test them. The trapped individuals then have to complete some task and find a way out of the trap they’re in. It’s a game, often played for mortal stakes.
*. All of this is part of Escape Room, to the extent that I don’t have to explain anything more about the plot. Basically a group of people volunteer to take part in an escape room game for a cash prize, only to find out that the winner will only be the last man (or woman) standing. Even the God-like forces running the show remain, as usual, mysterious. The Minos Corporation is rich, all-powerful, and omniscient but unknowable.
*. A more pressing question: Why is it that this particular formula became so popular at this time? Are we just bored by our staid, comfortable, even affluent, lives? Jay Ellis’s Jason does resemble Michael Douglas in The Game a bit. Or has modern life brought us to see ourselves as being lab rats in some kind of sinister experiment? It’s not too fanciful a thought, given the behaviour of certain social media networks. So score another one for the paranoid among us.
*. Here is the explanation offered by the Game Master (as distinguished from the Puzzle Maker) in Escape Room: “From the beginning of civilization we’ve known there was something captivating about watching human beings fight for their lives. That’s why we watch gladiator games, public executions, rubber-necking on the freeway. But now the world’s gone soft. Everything is safe. Everything is careful. So, we created a sport for people who still have a thirst for savagery, and we provided them with a box seat for life’s ultimate drama.” That’s “we” as in you in the audience watching Escape Room. “We” don’t play the game but get our kicks vicariously.
*. The formula lends itself to entertainment then, being the representation of a kind of game show. Escape Room, however, does little to advance the genre despite its bigger budget (I mean that relatively; most of these movies are excruciatingly cheap).
*. It’s hard to see where there’s much original here, right down to the invitations coming in Hellraiser boxes. The different trap rooms are nothing special, and the way the puzzles are solved struck me as highly implausible. The obligatory falling out and mutual suspicion within the group felt forced and contrived. And since when did Petula Clark’s “Downtown” become muzak or “shitty music” to be treated in such a demeaning way? That’s a great song.
*. Included with the DVD is the always-to-be-dreaded alternate ending. The reason these make me cringe is because they signal up front that the writer/director/producers didn’t know how to finish the movie. And that’s about as bad as it gets. I watched both endings and — surprise! — they’re both terrible. Unfortunately they wanted a sequel so they had to leave things open-ended. Nothing resolved. Nothing explained. Just more rooms to explore and another game to play.

Cold Pursuit (2019)

*. Cold Pursuit is a remake of the 2014 Norwegian film In Order of Disappearance. It’s a very close remake, with the differences being mainly cosmetic. The Serbian gang are now Native Americans, for example. About the only substantive difference I noticed was that the gangster’s estranged wife doesn’t get beat up this time around. Instead she grabs him by the balls. I guess the message is that American women are tougher than their Norwegian counterparts, but I doubt that’s actually true.
*. I liked In Order of Disappearance, but didn’t think of it as a movie crying out for a remake. That it was given an English-language makeover so quickly says something about how hard up Hollywood is for such properties. This is surprising, given how generic a plot it is.
*. Luckily, it’s a good remake. One thing that I think helped is that the original wasn’t a specifically Norwegian or European gangster film. It’s not like some J-horror movies that just don’t translate when you move them to the U.S. In fact, the first time around writer-director Hans Petter Moland was consciously aiming to make a Tarantino-style movie, so moving things to Colorado (or British Columbia and Alberta, where most of it was shot) wasn’t transplanting the original story so much as bringing it back home.
*. Leaving Moland at the helm was also a good idea, as he had a clearer idea of the sort of tone he was trying to set. Aside from that, however, I wonder how interesting a director finds such an exercise. I mean, basically he was turning around and making the exact same movie just a couple of years later. Shouldn’t it be better the second time? You’d think he would have a pretty good idea of what had worked before and what hadn’t.
*. Unfortunately the film was snakebit coming out of the starting gate because Liam Neeson gave a disastrous press interview while promoting it. This killed it at the box office. I think it might have gone on to find an audience, as it’s better than most if not all of Neeson’s previous action work (can you separate any of the Taken movies in your head? distinguish between Non-Stop and The Commuter?). I don’t think the public had grown tired of him playing such roles yet, and it’s a bit sad to see him go out on such a relatively high note because of a publicity faux pas.
*. Comparisons are not to Cold Pursuit‘s favour. Neeson is good, but I didn’t think he was an improvement on Stellan Skarsgård. Tom Bateman’s gang boss is fine, but Pål Sverre Hagen was better as the nasty dandy. Tom Jackson doesn’t project any of the slightly deranged menace of Bruno Ganz. Laura Dern has all of about three lines before disappearing.
*. Aside from the cast there’s not much new to say here as not much new is attempted. I was hoping they’d do something more with the snow plow, but there wasn’t room for that much variation. The only chance for showing some creativity comes in the way the various kills are artistically arranged. A man’s bloody corpse falls into a rack of white wedding gowns. Another is shot through a twenty-dollar bill. Another collapses into a deflating sofa. These are all meant to get a smile, and they do. Also smile-worthy are some of the musical cues.
*. It’s a decent little movie that has some fun with various conventions. I guess the story was good enough to be worth retelling, as I found it more than watchable enough even knowing in advance how it all was going to play out. It’s no better than it was the first time around, but I wouldn’t say it’s any worse either. It’s pretty much the same movie with a different cast and in English. Sure I would have liked something more, but I wasn’t expecting to get it and was happy enough with this.

 

The Commuter (2018)

*. A mysterious woman introduces herself to you on a commuter train. She gives you a task to perform. Do it and you get $100,000. Fail and your family dies. You’ll probably die too. Hell, everyone on the train will likely die.
*. That sounds a lot like the previous collaboration of director Jaume Collet-Serra and Liam Neeson, Non-Stop, where the action took place on a plane, with Neeson playing another ex-cop trying to identify the bad guy before a bomb goes off. What it also sounds like, in broader outline, is a Game of Death film, where an innocent is plucked out of his or her everyday life and made to play a game for mortal stakes.
*. It’s unclear, however, exactly who or what is behind the game. The various conspirators we meet all seem to be mere flunkies, or in some cases perhaps conscripts to the cause who are as compromised or unwilling as Michael MacCauley (Neeson). This is something else The Commuter has in common with Game of Death movies (think of the end of Saw). Even Joanna may be little more than a contractor, and thus expendable.
*. As to what the precious evidence that must be destroyed consists of, I don’t think we’re ever told. Surely, however, for an organization as powerful as this retrieving it needn’t have been quite so complicated a matter. Did no one tell them that the more parts there are to a conspiracy the more likely it is to go awry? Economize, economize.
*. Is the fact that such background is missing a drawback? Not really, though it is uncommonly lazy. What I found significant, however, is that I didn’t care. The whole premise seemed so stupid it made no difference to me what was really going on. When Michael is told that he doesn’t know the power of the forces he’s up against I just shrugged. As a plot device this was all a wave of the hand anyway.
*. I also didn’t understand the behaviour of the FBI agent or what he was supposed to be doing. In this respect he is the exact counterpart of the second air marshal in Non-Stop, who I couldn’t figure out either. Ryan Engle is credited as screenwriter for both films and I have to wonder if he was just recycling characters as well as plots.
*. The thing about movies of this kind is that they are all about being clever. The hero is cast in the role of detective or puzzle-solver, and the game is filled with devious twists. If you’re not tricky enough you’re going to disappoint the audience.
*. Prepare to be disappointed here. There’s nothing tricky about The Commuter at all. It’s final act even turns into the old runaway-train gag, topped off with one of those “oh my god, the friend of the hero is actually the villain!” moments. There is no suspense. There is little imagination. In one of the fight scenes Neeson has to beat on someone with an electric guitar. That, I’m afraid, is as good as it gets.
*. There’s not much to add. The only thing to like here is Neeson, and even he’s starting to seem tired as an action hero. The best I can find myself saying is that he’s putting a little more effort into these roles than Bruce Willis is these days. Faint praise indeed, but the rest of the film is just a bore.

Non-Stop (2014)

*. The opening shot reveals the morose face of Bill the U.S. Air Marshal (Liam Neeson) through the windshield of his car. This is the contemporary (as of 2014) action hero as grey veteran. Wounded. Vulnerable. But only on the inside. He’s still tough as nails and pretty much a superman.
*. Bill is a burned-out case and has taken to drink. On his flight from New York to London he will be tested by a terrorist who has, for some obscure reason, developed an enormously complicated plan involving killing passengers one-by-one before threatening to blow the whole plane out of the sky.
*. I won’t tell you what the plot involves. Not because I don’t want to spoil it (it does that well enough on its own, and anyway I don’t care about spoilers), but because it would take too long to explain and even then I’m not sure it would make any sense. I mean, I’m still not sure what role the other air marshal on the plane had to play. What was going on there? In any event, I like how the news reporter at the end calls it “an unbelievable twist.” At least they gave us a wink.
*. As I was watching I was intrigued by the possibility that Bill might really be a terrorist, suffering the law enforcement version of Munchausen syndrome by proxy. That would have been interesting. And been more believable than what we find out is really going on. I mean, using a blowpipe to fire poison darts at people? That’s from Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (U.S. title Death in the Air). And it was less ridiculous in Christie’s story!
*. If you’re not into reading Agatha Christie novels — and, if you’re watching Non-Stop, you probably aren’t — then you can see this as just a remake of Passenger 57, or any other classic Hollywood action movie from that era. Producer Joel Silver is best known for having done the Lethal Weapon series and the first two Die Hard films, and basically Non-Stop is more of the same with CGI.
*. Silver figured there would have to be a sequel, but he didn’t want it to be set on a plane. You do have to mix these things up a bit. As it happened, Neeson and director Jaume Collet-Serra would soon reunite for The Commuter, which is almost this same exact movie, right down to the laughable plot, set on a train.
*. So it’s all very silly, but in a familiar way. I was expecting the ending to be a rabbit pulled out of a hat and it sure was. But getting to the end was, if not a lot of fun, at least entertaining enough. The hero is no longer a figure interested in self-sacrifice but is rather someone seeking his own redemption, which is effected in a clumsy way at the end as he gets to save a surrogate daughter. This is meant to make us feel good. At least good enough to want to see it all over again a few years later.

In Order of Disapperance (2014)

*. Cold, slow, and dry. None of which are bad attributes in themselves, but put them all together and you’ve got a strange kind of action movie. There are lots of people being killed — the title announces the coming body count — but not in a noisy way. Everything seems quiet and low key. Then again, maybe Scandinavian people are like this. They don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves.
*. The plot is familiar even if the setting is a little off the beaten track. Nils (Stellan Skarsgård) is a dour fellow who drives a massive snow plow. His son is unknowingly sucked into some shady drug dealings and ends up being killed by gangsters. Nils seeks revenge, and the cycle of violence expands when the local gang gets into a turf war with the Serbian mob.
*. Scandinavian noir? Well, there is a lot of snow and it’s definitely noir. And it has that sense of quiet about it that may be characteristic of the genre. But I’d call it more a modern Brit crime film crossed with Fargo. Director Hans Petter Moland also acknowledges he’s a big fan of the Coen brothers and Tarantino and it’s hard to miss that debt too.
*. It’s very well done, and the brightness of all that snow is an interesting visual element, but at the end of the day I just didn’t feel there was enough that was new here. Even the black comedy of the gangsters is formulaic. The leader is a vegan with a ponytail or man-bun. A couple of his underlings are gay. There is the usual juxtaposition of the crime business with odd domestic details.
*. Still, there’s much to enjoy. The sound of boots squeaking on packed snow. The plow as juggernaut of fate. The sense we have of Skarsgård’s weight as he sits on top of the guy he’s beating to a pulp. Bruno Ganz (the head of the Serbian mob) as Nils’s soulmate. Moments to enjoy, but nothing to get excited about. Enough, however, to ensure an English-language remake as Cold Pursuit.

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.

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.