Category Archives: 2010s

Suspiria (2018)

*. Suspiria was a movie that deeply divided critics and audiences. Pete Travers in Rolling Stone thought polarizing “too tame a word” to describe the reactions to it. This was primarily, as far as I can determine, for two reasons: (1) its relationship to Dario Argento’s 1977 film, and (2) its 152-minute running time. So let’s start by taking a closer look at both these points of contention.
*. First there is Suspiria then and now. Justin Chang: “[Director Luca] Guadagnino, who has said he wanted to remake Suspiria since he first saw it more than 30 years ago, signals both his reverence and his seriousness by departing from it in every way imaginable — visually, sonically, dramatically, emotionally.”
*. I agree with Chang’s list of ways in which this film departs from the original, which raises the question of why, if Guadagnino was intent on changing the property so completely, he even wanted to do it. Why not just make something entirely new? Given how well Argento’s film has stood the test of time, there were many people who found this remake unnecessary, to say the least. So did I. But I also have to admit that I was really looking forward to it.
*. Well, on to the everything that has changed. Most obviously Argento’s use of Bava-esque colour has been dropped for a dreary grey that Guadagnino describes as “wintry.” I think it looks dull, though I guess it fits the period (Cold War Berlin) and the soundtrack, which is just as muted.
*. I’ve mentioned before how I tend to watch movies these days with subtitles. This isn’t so much because of hearing loss as it’s due to the horrible recording of dialogue, making most of it inaudible. Well, Suspiria is one of the worst offenders yet in this regard. I literally couldn’t make out anything the characters were saying, in English, German, or French. It didn’t even bother me that so much of the film was multilingual since I couldn’t hear a bit of it anyway.
*. What does the dialogue sound like? Like Thom Yorke moaning out his lyrics. We’re a long, long way from the clumsy-but-loveable (and at least intelligible) dubbing in Argento’s film, and the music of Goblin.
*. But are such comparisons fair? Or relevant? Some people think not, and insist that this Suspiria be judged on its own merits. So let’s move along to the question of the film’s length.

*. There aren’t many horror films that go on for two-and-a-half hours. Why is this one so long? The main culprit is the material relating to other events happening in Germany at the time, and in particular the terrorist attacks of the Baader-Meinhof group. Also the character of a psychiatrist who lost his wife in the Holocaust is introduced.
*. There is quite a lot of this stuff and it has almost nothing to do with the main plot. There’s some attempt at making a connection between the coven of witches at the dance school and the revolutionary movement going through its own crisis of leadership, as well as mention of the Nazi party and its cult-like attributes, but I think it would be charitable to call this flimsy. And even if more were done with it I can’t see how it was going anywhere. The terrorist angle is only a red herring which nobody is interested in anyway, while the Nazi stuff is raised only to be chucked into a memory hole at the end. Why even bother?
*. Another odd addition is all of Susie’s back story. Apparently she grew up in a Mennonite family in rural America and her mother died in a manner that associates her with Helena Markos. But so what?
*. That sense I had of missing the point stuck with me throughout most of the movie. Tilda Swinton may not be the hardest actress to make pass for a man, but her transformation into the old psychiatrist here is phenomenal. I honestly didn’t know it was her. But then I had to wonder: why bother? Again: so what? Is there any purpose served in having her play the two roles? Apparently because Guadagnino saw this as a movie centered around women, he thought it made sense that the only male character be played by a woman. Even a woman who was already playing two roles (Swinton also plays Helena Markos). Does that make sense to you?
*. Being such a long movie wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if it had a snappier pace. But as I remarked in my notes on A Bigger Splash, pacing is not one of Guadagnino’s strengths. Scrawled in my notes made while watching Suspiria I find this: “When is something going to happen?” Argento’s film (yes, I know, I’m comparing again) begins with a spectacular opening kill, while introducing us to Susie Bannion and some key plot points. This movie begins with pretty much nothing (the disappearance of one of the girls after she goes to see the psychiatrist), and we don’t get the first kill until nearly 40 minutes in. This, in turn, is the high point of the entire film. The blood bath at the end is just a performance piece shot (inexplicably) in red light and filled with CGI exploding heads.
*. A lighter touch might have helped, but for some reason Guadagnino is in full epic mode, wanting to bring in history and politics and mythology and everything else to weigh down what was originally a delightfully trashy idea. Just how pretentious it’s going to be is announced with the title card, telling us that this will be a film in six acts with an epilogue. The acts are then announced in intertitles like “Act Five: In the Mutterhaus (All the Floors are Darkness)” Is that a joke? Because if it isn’t a joke . . . please.
*. If pacing isn’t Guadagnino’s strength I don’t think he scores any better with suspense. But then he’s not a horror director. Aside from the one good scene I mentioned (the death of Olga by some kind of voodoo in the mirror room) he muffs every other shot at being scary. To take just two examples: Sarah’s descent into the basement and the abduction of the psychiatrist both had a lot of potential, even if only for jump scares. But they both fall flat.

*. Still, I was sticking with Suspiria until the end. It was, I figured, a slow burn. And there were nice touches along the way. I especially liked the idea of having the coven being a bunch of frowzy, middle-aged women who smoke like chimneys over their coffees in the morning, go out drinking together at night, and who get their kicks out of playing with drugged policemen’s dicks. A lot of fun could have been had with these gals. But instead we waste time with all the historical baggage.
*. And then there is the end. This movie has one of the worst climaxes of any major film I’ve seen in years. As I’ve already said, it’s basically just another performance dance piece shot through a red filter with some exploding heads, then a tacked-on epilogue that ties up the Holocaust story.
*. Malgosia Bela is apparently playing Death at the end. I had to look that up. I looked it up because (1) I didn’t know who it was supposed to be crawling out of the cellar (and what sort of character is “Death” anyway?); and (2) I thought it was probably just Javier Botet again, since I figured he had a trademark on these sorts of figures (that he played in Rec, The Mummy, and Insidious: The Last Key, among other films). Actually Bela also plays Susie’s mother. I’ll bet you didn’t make that connection the first time you saw the movie. I wouldn’t have unless I’d looked it up. Knowing the connection, I can’t say it tells me anything. Again: so what?
*. I wish I could say something nicer about this one. I really did have my hopes up, but came away disappointed. I can’t understand how anybody thought taking Argento’s story in all these new directions made any kind of sense. I could see how they might have thrown out some of the ideas developed at length here, maybe in a pre-production brainstorming session, but to have stuck with them all, at such cost, is baffling. I wonder what Guadagnino thought he was doing. Making a bloated, muted, dreary art-house homage to a psychedelic splatter flick from the 1970s? That would have been bad enough, but I don’t think he even got that much right.


Venom (2018)

*. I wasn’t too far into Venom before I started feeling like this was a movie that I’d seen before.
*. I know what you’re saying. It’s a Marvel movie. Of course I’d seen it before. The origin story. The CGI that scales buildings and goes on crazy car chases. The hero who has to find a balance between saving the world and fixing his relationship with his girlfriend. Aren’t all these movies the same?
*. Well, yes, they are all pretty much the same. But what I’m referring to is the plot. You see, Venom is this alien “symbiote” that has come to Earth, along with a team of fellow symbiotes, basically in order to eat people. He bonds with down-and-out journalist Eddie Brock who then has to fight a super-Venom symbiote called Riot who has taken over the head of a seemingly benign but actually quite evil corporation.
*. Isn’t this the same as a bunch of other Marvel movies where the hero has to fight an evil doppelganger? In Iron Man Tony Stark is supplanted by Obadiah Stane who steals the Iron Monger suit, making him the anti-Iron Man. In Ant-Man, Hank Pym (whose proxy becomes Scott Lang) is supplanted by Darren Cross who becomes Yellowjacket (the anti-Ant-Man). In Black Panther T’Challa is supplanted by Killmonger. In this movie Venom has to take on Riot. Once you know the pattern you’re just staying to watch them tear up buildings and beat each other up.
*. Venom might have been something different. It might have been darker, given Venom’s thing for biting off people’s heads and Riot’s arsenal of weapons. But the violence is edited so quickly you don’t actually see anything.
*. It might also have been funnier. There’s one good line from Venom about piling up bodies and heads as though it’s the most natural thing in the world, but that’s it. Despite the comic potential of having two personalities inhabiting one body it’s not a funny script. Plus I don’t think Tom Hardy plays comedy well. He got a lot of praise from reviewers but I didn’t get the sense he was comfortable in the part and I just couldn’t buy him as Eddie Brock.
*. So it’s not a superhero horror movie and it’s not a superhero comedy. What we’re left with is a really long, boring car chase and a really long, boring fight between the two symbiotes at the end. Maybe I’m just getting jaded (and I know I am getting jaded) but the CGI looked like crap to me. I wasn’t buying Venom’s movements at all. Finally, the relationship between Eddie and his girlfriend is so vague I thought it would have been better if it had been left out entirely. Are they back together at the end? Whatever happened to Dr. Dan?
*. This is all too bad because Venom might have been an interesting character. His personality, however, is hard to get a grip on. He identifies with Eddie because they’re both losers, but what does that mean for a symbiote? How sophisticated is he when he acts like he’s just a walking stomach? I appreciate the henchman Treece’s indefatigable pursuit of such a beast, but at what point should he have figured out what he was up against and come up with some different tactics? I mean, tasers? He thought those were going to work?
*. For some reason Venom was pretty widely panned by critics. I’m not sure why. You’ll have gathered from what I’ve written here that I didn’t like it much, but the thing is, it’s not that different, either for better or worse, than any other Marvel movie. Black Panther got rave reviews and Oscar nominations, but was it that much better? Meanwhile, like the universe itself, the MCU just keeps expanding, it’s only enemy now being entropy.

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)

*. I was scratching my head as Ant-Man and the Wasp got started. What was with this voiceover, rehashing the story of what happened to Hank Pym’s wife, which was itself a flashback episode in the first film? This is a clunky opening, especially for a Marvel movie, which are usually so deft in such matters. All of the MCU movies are tied together in various way, but they rarely bother entering into time-consuming explanations about what happened in previous movies in order to bring us up to speed. They take a certain amount of familiarity with the rest of the franchise for granted.
*. It’s even stranger given that Michael Douglas had made director Peyton Reed promise him that he (Douglas, playing Pym) wouldn’t be “just a walking exposition machine” in this film. And yet this is how we begin.
*. As things turn out, the background we get is at least somewhat necessary as it provides Ant-Man and the Wasp with its plot, which has to do with rescuing Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) from all the pretty lights of the quantum realm. Plus, after a few years it’s not impossible (and perhaps even likely) that the audience would have forgotten the relevant material. But I still think it opens the movie on the wrong foot.
*. Pretty much everything I said about Ant-Man goes for this film as well. There’s a likeable cast being likeable. It’s a superhero comedy but it’s not really jokier or funnier than most of the other Marvel movies. It’s just easy going. Sort of a family-oriented Deadpool.
*. But all the reservations I had with Ant-Man are here too. It’s a poor story that makes little sense and the villains aren’t very good. The Ghost (who has her own dull back story dialed up) isn’t a bad guy but just someone trying to cure herself of quantum phasing by . . . well, I really can’t tell you. That part wasn’t explained very well. But it has something to do with the quantum realm and it will have a negative impact on Janet. As things turn out, Janet will lay her hands on Ava at the end and then Scott will be sent back to the quantum realm to collect “healing particles.” If that makes it any clearer. Ha-ha.
*. We also have Walton Goggins playing a heel named Sonny Burch who wants to get his hands on Pym’s lab because it’s apparently worth a lot of money even though he has no idea what it does or how it works. In other words, he’s just an obstacle thrown up by the plot, the same as the better intentioned but just as bumbling FBI.
*. The whole thing made me think of Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 with its interest in parents and children and the climax set in an alternate reality that is all colours and lights. And I didn’t like Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2. I guess I liked this movie a bit better but it struck me as even more forgettable than Ant-Man.
*. Paul Rudd, I have to say, doesn’t seem as into it this time out, but Evangeline Lilly and Michael Peña stand out. The casting of the Marvel movies may be their strongest suit. And I say casting because little in the way of acting is demanded. Has Marvel ever had a real misfire when it came to casting? I can’t think of one off the top of my head. Yet the actors all seem so replaceable.
*. The production drips millions and millions of dollars from every frame. The action scenes bounce us around a lot. It’s entertaining nonsense, but there are some dull moments and, as with all the Marvel movies, I can only take so much of it. I usually watch one of these flicks every few months and that’s all I can take. Any more and I think I’d be sick with hyperglycemia. There are no healing particles for that in Marvel’s candy land.

Fantastic Four (2015)

*. Fantastic Four is perhaps too easy a movie to trash. But what else can one do with it?
*. The director, Josh Trank, trashed it even before it was released, which is always a bad sign. He thought the studio (Fox) had wrecked it with cuts and reshoots. I have trouble crediting this. Everything about this movie is wrong and I don’t see how a director’s cut would be any better.
*. Apparently Trank alienated not just the producers but his cast and crew as well. This certainly shows in the performances. I can’t think of a movie I’ve seen where the entire cast so clearly seems to have checked out. As Christopher Orr remarked in his review in The Atlantic: “everyone in the otherwise talented cast appears resolutely uncommitted to their roles.”
*. But it’s not just in the performances. The Gang of Four (or Five, if we’re including Victor “Dr.” Doom) are just a collection of sullen assholes. Basically, aside from the unfortunate Ben Grimm, they’re a bunch of Silicon Valley nerds who are into tech and hacking and building game-changing technology in their garage. Or drag racing without bothering to put on a seatbelt. They also don’t joke around (there are no laughs in Fantastic Four). Though close personal relationships are suggested, none of them seem even remotely interested in anyone other than themselves. I thought Robbie Collin made a good point saying that there is so little chemistry on screen that during the dialogue scenes they don’t even seem to be talking to one another, and that maybe they weren’t and that a lot of this was done later in reshoots. It certainly has that feel.
*. Surprisingly, and I mean that it was an unpleasant surprise, the team become even less likeable after their transformations. Their new conditions are less wonderful powers than a depressing curse they have to learn to endure. Only the Human Torch seems to think he got an upgrade.
*. The set-up takes forever. Indeed, the film is half over before we get to the action. These origin stories are hard to handle even in the most skilful hands, and such hands were not present here. I also question the need for making such comic book stuff more character-driven. When has that ever worked?
*. If the beginning of the movie is a drag, the ending is painfully perfunctory. Once again a gate is opened to another dimension threatening all life on Earth. The team are whisked off to CGI-Land to do battle with Dr. Doom, who isn’t at all like the comic book villain but is instead another God-like power. He doesn’t even look interesting. Doom beats the team individually, but when they all come together they are able to swiftly dispatch him to a place beyond sequels. Meaning back over to Marvel Studios, who immediately promised a reboot.

Insidious: The Last Key (2018)

*. No, the title is not promising (however insincerely) that this will be the last Insidious film. The Last Key is not The Final Chapter or The Final Nightmare. It just refers to the fact that the demon KeyFace (so called despite the fact that it’s his fingers that are keys) keeps souls locked up in some kind of extra-dimensional prison house. I’m not exactly sure what the “last” key refers to, but it doesn’t mean this franchise will be ending any time soon.
*. When discussing the previous Insidious movies I think I’ve been generous if unenthusiastic. I thought they were pretty basic ghost stories, decently staged. I did say in my notes on Chapter 3 however that I thought the concept played out. Which it was. But they’re back doing all the same stuff again here.
*. Doing the same stuff, and telling the same damn story. How many times do we have to go into the Further (a really uninteresting spirit realm) to rescue some lost soul? I’m starting to think Leigh Whannell doesn’t have a whole lot of arrows for his bow. Even the family psychodramas are becoming repetitive, with the same business about being reunited with the mother coming at the end of this movie as it had in the previous one.
*. But while I still liked the earlier movies well enough I have to say I didn’t care for this one at all. It is, naturally, more of the same. But right from the start, with the back story involving Elise’s history of being an abused child, I wasn’t enjoying it. Then the main story becomes too amorphous, leaking out in several different directions but never going anywhere.
*. As with the villain in Chapter 3, I had no idea what the demon here was up to. His mouth is a bit like the breathing mask used by The Man Who Can’t Breathe, but otherwise I just thought he looked like the skinny fellow (playing a woman) at the end of Rec. I was not surprised to find that he was played by the same actor, Javier Botet. He’s become a go-to guy for horror roles today, also showing up in The Conjuring 2 and It, for example. I guess there’s something in his look that triggers people. I loved him in Rec, but to be honest he’s now become so easily identifiable that he takes away from the creepiness of the films he’s in.
*. But leaving his appearance aside, what’s his game? Just being the warden at a prison for souls? Feasting on their fear? Revenge? Was he human in a previous life? In one of the featurettes included with the DVD executive producer Bailey Conway Anglewicz tells us that he was a very old prisoner who was wronged so he now haunts the property. In the same featurette Whannell says he represents the trauma Elise suffered as a girl. I can’t remember there being any explanation in the movie, but I’ll admit I may not have been paying attention. In any event, I found I didn’t care.
*. It’s fun thinking back to what Leigh Whannell said about the first Insidious movie, and how he didn’t want to do any jump scares. What he meant was fake jump scares (like a cat jumping out of the closet instead of a ghost). Over the course of the series, however, this is a comment that has become even more divorced from reality. Yes, the jump scares usually are provided by actual ghosts, but the Insidious movies are all about the jump scares. And I mean all about the jump scares. That’s basically their whole reason for being.
*. So Tucker and Specs are back, and it looks like Elise’s replacement is on deck in the form of her niece Imogen. That part of the movie is harmless. What really damns The Last Key for me is how I found myself just shaking my head at how stupid the ending was, and then laughing at it. They really do need to break out of this formula going forward. Or not, given that this was actually the highest grossing film of the franchise thus far. I guess they might as well keep doing what they’re doing, but I think I’ve had enough.

Insidious: Chapter 3 (2015)

*. Hm. This movie is a prequel to the two previous Insidious movies, and yet it’s Chapter 3. Does that make sense? Shouldn’t it be Insidious: Prologue?
*. Whatever you want to call it, this third instalment in the franchise delivers, yes, more of the same. We’ve moved on from the unhappy Lambert family but we still have the maternal psychic Elise (Lin Shaye), who was killed at the end of Chapter 2 in a manner that is foreshadowed in this film. And we have the two bumbling spook hunters Tucker and Specs (the latter played by Leigh Whannell, who also wrote and directed). So the gang’s all here.
*. I’d like to say I enjoyed this more, but really it’s just a retread of the other films. The final act plays out in an identical manner, with Elise entering the Further to rescue some innocent victim from a demon. How many times can they keep going back to the same well? Given all the repetition I didn’t come away feeling much of anything.
*. Part of the problem might be with the fact that this is a prequel, and hence we aren’t that worried about anything bad happening to Elise or her assistants. The sense that there’s nothing much at risk also allows the film to take a more comic tone, which is usually a sign that a horror franchise has passed its expiry date.
*. This is too bad. Most of the movie was decent enough. There’s an over-reliance on jump scares, but I was finally warming to the trio of paranormal investigators. I’m not sure they’d be the first people I’d call if I needed help getting rid of ghosts or demons, but they seem nice.
*. There did, however, seem to be something incomplete about the whole thing. Characters are introduced (Quinn’s gal pal and the boy next door who is in love with her) but then dropped without any explanation. There’s no back story for the demon (The Man Who Can’t Breathe) explaining who he is or what his motives are. One supposes we’ll be filled in at some later date (that is, in a sequel), but leaving such a matter up in the air felt lazy.
*. The critical response was lukewarm. Box office, however, was spectacular again (though I believe this was the poorest performing instalment in the franchise). What more can you say? Creatively Chapter 3 gave me the feeling that the concept was thoroughly played out, but of course that has never stopped a Hollywood money train from rolling.

Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013)

*. I was lukewarm to Insidious, a movie that I’d so completely forgotten by the time I got around to watching Chapter 2 I had to go back to my notes to refresh my memory as to what it had been about.
*. The machinery of this film is more of the same, as you’d expect with the return of writer Leigh Whannell (who also plays the paranormal investigator Specs) and director James Wan. The scary stuff plays out predictably. A tin can telephone is introduced in the early going that you can be sure is going to come into play later. It is. Meanwhile, a piano plays by itself. Children’s toys turn on by themselves. Rocking horses rock by themselves. People wander through spooky old mansions, the only illumination coming from their flashlights. A chandelier nearly falls on someone. Ghostly figures are seen.
*. We are also exploring the same psychic geography as the first film, a realm of the dead known as the Further. I was disappointed, however, to see that the Lipstick-Face Demon had gone missing, to be replaced by a Bride in Black who seems to have wandered off the set of American Horror Story. This new demon is a clichéd figure, only slightly redeemed by a back story that might have been torn from a Grade Z giallo.
*. If I was lukewarm to Insidious I’d rate my response to Chapter 2 as being a little cooler. It’s really not very scary. They throw in some nonsense about the ghosts playing Boggle with another medium, and the final act, while adequately wrapping things up, goes on far too long. But I doubt anyone really cared.
*. Because the box office. The box office! The film grossed over $160 million worldwide against a budget of $5 million. For a movie that really has nothing much to recommend it at all. I find this hard to understand. I know that a bad movie, even a terrible movie, can become a hit if it somehow manages to hit the zeitgeist. As William Goldman put it, when it comes to predicting winners in this business nobody knows anything. But I don’t understand how a movie that is neither good nor bad, and which is in no way original or different from any one of a dozen other films released around the same time, can have this kind of success.
*. Whatever the explanation, only one conclusion could be drawn: Forward the franchise!

Happy Death Day 2U (2019)

*. I liked Happy Death Day. It didn’t make me want a sequel though. I thought it was driven by an idea that didn’t need any further development. Why was Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) having to relive the day of her death over and over again? I don’t remember that being a question I ever bothered asking myself.
*. Well, if you were looking for an explanation you’ll get something along those lines here. Apparently it has to do with a demographically diverse trio of nerdy lab rats performing a physics experiment that opens different channels in the multiverse. No, it does not make sense. None at all. There’s no point even trying to figure it out. But it’s what we’re given.
*. One thing this means is that Happy Death Day 2U is more a science fiction film than a thriller. And, as it turns out, more a romantic comedy than a thriller as well. Or, as Mark Kermode put it, instead of Groundhog Day meets Scream it’s Revenge of the Nerds meets Back to the Future (or actually Back to the Future Part II, but who’s counting?).
*. Which is all to the good, I think. Writer-director Christopher Landon wasn’t interested in just doing the same thing all over again (though that would be kind of fitting, given the premise). Instead he really opened the idea up and took it in a new direction.
*. It even started out winning me over, and I was entirely on board with it through the first act (though they missed an easy trick by not developing the scene where Ryan is stuck in a crowd of college kids wearing the killer’s baby mask). Then, I’m sorry to say, the wheels fell off. The entire middle part of the movie gets bogged down in schmaltz as Tree has to decide whether to stay in a new timeline where her mother is still alive or go back to the one where her mother is dead so that she can be with her boyfriend. Her mother helps her out with lines like this: “Well, we all have to make hard choices, Tree. That’s life. And sometimes the past is pulling us in one direction and the future is calling us somewhere new.”
*. All of a sudden a fun game of Time-Travel Twister turns into a rollercoaster of eye rolls. Sentiment has no place in a movie like this. The final act does take us through a couple of extra twists that aren’t bad, but getting there is a chore and the resolution, which has to do with Tree and her trio of nerds finding the right algorithm, is just thrown at us at the end. Of course every time-travel movie involves us in the same paradoxes, but nothing interesting is done with that material here. The time machine is just a prop or McGuffin.

*. I wish I could say I liked this more. And to be fair it’s not a bad movie. But it ends up being all over the place, and a mid-credit scene at the end doesn’t bode well for where they may be going with a third instalment. One feels the need for more direction when entering the multiverse.
*. I don’t want to end on a down note so I’ll conclude with a shout out to the cheerleader dressed as the Bayfield Baby at the basketball game. He (or she) is only on screen for a couple of seconds, but still manages to make a great impression by leading the crowd with what I take is their signature move of drinking from a giant milk bottle as though they’re chugging a beer (or maybe performing a blowjob). That was an inspired performance that I don’t remember seeing anywhere in the first film and it got my biggest laugh. Go Baby!

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.

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?