Thursday, December 18, 2014

Superhero Blues

Michael Keaton in Birdman

Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu), like many of the director's films, sometimes lets the technique of its making overshadow its subject matter. Iñárritu has been a Mannerist from his first film onward, so this is no surprise. What is surprising is the technique Iñárritu has chosen. His other films have shattered narratives; they are Cubist mosaics in which multiple story chronologies define fragments of the whole. Birdman, by contrast, is downright classical in its adherence to the unities of dramatic time and space. There's a practical reason for this. Most of the film is constructed to look like one long uninterrupted take. And that's only the start of its cleverness.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

If That Mockingjay Won't Sing...

Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay part 1

The third film in the Hunger Games series suffers dramatically from being only half a movie. I mean that literally. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (2014, directed by Francis Lawrence) is all rising action without payoff, a function of the producers' decision to split the adaptation of the series' last book into two movies. This tactic may have enriched the makers of the Harry Potter movies and it will assuredly enrich the makers of these films, but it hobbles the penultimate film in the series. After a terrific second film, it's a hard comedown.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Beyond the Event Horizon

Anne Hathaway and Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar

I was having a conversation with some movie friends of mine last week when I opined that I don't think Christopher Nolan knows what a movie director actually does. That's a pretty provocative statement about a filmmaker who is arguably the most commercially successful director of the last decade and one who has a considerable and fanatically devoted cult from whom I am sure to catch some grief. But hear me out.

The things that Nolan does well are things that producers have traditionally done well: wrangling talent, managing technical departments, casting, overseeing editors and composers, and so on. But when it comes to actually blocking actors and sets and camera movements in the film frame and telling them where to move and how to deliver their lines? When it comes to the basic act of directing a film in front of rolling cameras? Man, that cat is barely functional. He's fortunate that his metier is in big action spectaculars where a lot of these deficiencies can be papered over by the need to construct storyboards and animatics for the action sequences and special effects. Left to his own devices, his idea of drama is placing an actor in a medium two-shot without a companion and dumping exposition as a fucking soliloquy. When left to construct action sequences, his default is the run and gun style that doesn't require a sense of filmic space. He's not good at this stuff.

More, Nolan views films as puzzles. This goes all the way back to Memento, but it reached its zenith with The Prestige, which is a puzzle that cheats, and with Inception. These are puzzles to be solved for their own sakes, and, y'know, that's fair. It's a defensible aesthetic. I like puzzles. It's perhaps inevitable that Nolan would make ambitious hard sci fi, because that stuff is all about puzzles. Science is the pursuit of puzzles and their solutions. There's an atavistic pleasure that all humans feel when they figure something out. The harder the problem, the sweeter its solution feels. Providing that thrill is an experience that movies rarely provide, except in tricky mystery thrillers.

When I say that Nolan is a better producer than director, that's a challenge to the prevailing notion that directors are the authors of films. It's true that film is a director's medium, but that doesn't mean directors are always auteurs. David O. Selznick comes to mind. So does Val Lewton. So this shouldn't be taken as a slight, necessarily. But his neglect of the art of directing for the other crafts of filmmaking does make for deeply flawed films.

I'm not entirely sure what to do with Nolan's newest film, Interstellar (2014). It showcases all of Nolan's failings as a filmmaker while emphasizing all of his strengths. It's ambitious, I'll give it that much. There's a lot to like, actually. It has good actors and phenomenal production design and more rigor when it comes to actual science than is usual for science fiction movies (faint praise, given the magical nature of movie physics). When it wants to make grand statements, though? That's when it tumbles down into that black hole at the center of the narrative. Its metaphysics often struck me as silly.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Race Relations

Tessa Thompson and Tyler James Williams in Dear White People

Dear White People (2014, directed by Justin Simien) is a portrait of entitlement and privilege as satire and farce. That it's set at an Ivy League school where privilege and entitlement are incubated is right and proper, because this isn't a film where the obvious oppression of economic iniquity fits in. That's a fish in a barrel, one that would lend itself more to a polemic than to a wry satire. Instead, this aims at less obvious, though no less pernicious targets, including a deconstruction of the sometimes rigid expectations of black identity.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Not Your Disney Princess

The Tale of Princess Kaguya

It's a shame that the supernova of Hayao Miyazaki has sometimes blinded the world to the fact that there's another genius working at Studio Ghibli. That man is Isao Takahata, who once upon a time created The Grave of the Fireflies, one of the greatest of all animated films. His other work has been hard to get in North America, which is a criminal oversight. The appearance of The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013) on these shores is therefore cause for celebration. It's one of the most beautiful and atypical films from Studio Ghibli, reflecting its director's restless experimentation with animation. It doesn't look like the studio's house style at all. Sometimes, it's deliriously abstract.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Field of (Broken) Dreams

I don't know what to make of director Ben Wheatley. He obviously knows how to make a good film. Whatever my complaints with Kill List or Sightseers, they're testament to a major genre talent, but one who makes inconsistent, frustrating films. A Field in England (2013) doesn't change my mind on him. If anything, it's his most impenetrable film; a bad head trip.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Speak of the Devil

Here Comes the Devil

Before it flies off the rails at the end, Here Comes the Devil (2013, directed by Adrián García Bogliano) builds a formidable ambiance of dread. It's mostly a slow burner, in which the intellectual implications of its set-up are more horrible than any monsters, though in the end, it supplies monsters. Maybe. It's an ambiguous, sometimes perplexing movie.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Seventh Sojourn

Friday the 13th Part 7: The New Blood

I mostly skipped the Friday the 13th sequels after number three (it was in 3-D and I was still a teenage gore hound at the time). I eventually caught up with Jason X (mostly for David Cronenberg) and Freddy vs. Jason (mostly for Ronny Yu), but the rest? Feh. I do admit to a morbid fascination with the idea behind the Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988, directed by John Carl Buechler), but I never acted on it to watch the movie before now. The premise is a 1980s variant on the monster rallies of the 1940s. Instead of "Frankenstein vs. The Wolf-man," though, this film posits "Jason vs. Carrie." Team-ups like this are usually the sign of a decadent franchise, and boy, howdy is that the case here. For all that, it remains steadfastly chained to the formula of the previous films in the series.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun


I often don't know how to react to nunsploitation movies. Apart from the feminist and queer-activist objections that I might raise about the exploitation elements in nunsploitation, I'm perhaps more deeply conflicted by the religious implications. Depending on who's behind the camera, these films either indulge in anti-religious straw-manning or they function as religious propaganda. Sometimes, they'll do both within the same damned movie. Alucarda (1977, directed by Juan López Moctezuma), a key nunsploitation film from Mexico, makes no pretense of a coherent theological critique or even a coherent story, though I think it mostly functions on the religious propaganda side of the equation.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Worm Turns

Amanda Donohoe in The Lair of the White Worm

Ken Russell's dalliances with the horror genre were always perverse. Whether the artsy take on nunsploitation in The Devils or the evolutionary visions of Altered States or the Romantic freakout of Gothic, Russell always approached the genre obliquely, using its imagery but eschewing its narrative tropes. A rare exception to this is The Lair of the White Worm (1988), which has a conventional horror movie plot--taken from Bram Stoker's worst novel--upon which Russell hangs his usual altered states of consciousness and psychosexual derangement. It's as looney a horror movie as the 1980s ever produced--which is saying something--though it's perhaps less strange than some of Russell's other films. It's a matter of degrees informed by the history of the director rather than by the genre's standards themselves. Russell, whatever his faults, was one of a kind.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Female Bonding

Lake Bell, Kate Bosworth, and Katie Aselton in Black Rock

Black Rock (2012, directed by Katie Aselton) is a feminist variant of a familiar genre trope, in which a group of friends head out into the wild and discover they are not alone, that the something else out there means them all harm. It's a survival horror movie at its base. Like any genre construct worth its salt, this one will support all kinds of themes and agendas. This film concerns itself with things you wouldn't ordinarily associate with the survival horror film in its most basic form: the friendships of women, sexual consent, sexual harassment. I almost wrote "rape survival," but, of course, that's a complete subset of the survival horror film. In its bones, this is an indie drama that veers off course into the territory of the nightmare and gets itself lost in the woods.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Night Bus to Astaroth

Cheryl Smith in Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural

Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural (1973, directed by Richard Blackburn) is one of those odd little films orphaned by the business of movies only to take on a weird kind of half-life as time goes on while other kinds of films in similar straits fade entirely from memory. The horror genre is in part built on a foundation of such movies. The hororr movie acts as a collective unconscious for the medium, so it doesn't really forget anything. I don't want to suggest that Lemora is a foundational film in the genre, or even that it's any kind of unsung masterpiece. It's not. It is a singular experience unto itself, though, one that defies easy categorization.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Thank You For Your Service

Dan Stevens in The Guest

I went into The Guest (2013, directed by Adam Wingard) more or less blind. I had no clue what it was about or if it had good reviews or anything. For someone as immersed in movie culture as I am, this is highly unusual. Oh, I know Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett's other films. Barrett is a native of my hometown and he usually brings his films to our local arthouse, so I had an inkling of what to expect, but I was mostly wrong. This film is more polished than any of their other productions (including You're Next, which got distribution from a major studio). There's obviously more money involved. More than that, though, there's a more disciplined approach to the filmmaking itself. Gone are the mumblecore performances and wandering hand-held camera. I wouldn't call this slick--it's much too rooted in pulp traditions for that--but it is certainly goes down easier.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Blood of the Dragon

Luke Evans in Dracula Untold

A friend of mine described Dracula Untold (2014, directed by Gary Shore) as "300 with vampires." I can see what she means. Any retelling of the story of Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia, however tinged by dark fantasy, is liable to stumble over 21st century global politics. In his time, Vlad was a hero to the people of Wallachia and Romania and Eastern Europe for standing as a bulwark between Christendom and the depredations of the Muslim Ottoman Turks. The allegorical potential in a contemporary world divided in conflict along the lines of Christian and Muslim is too rich. This analogy breaks down, though, when one considers the (anti) hero of the piece. Even in his own time, Vlad Dracula was famed for his bottomless cruelty. I almost wish the filmmakers had included some of the gorier stories about Vlad (in one--my favorite, actually--a trio of monks refused to doff their skullcaps to the Prince, so he nailed them to their heads). Not for nothing is Vlad III forever nicknamed "Vlad the Impaler," something with which this film is very much in tune. Vlad Dracula was a monster even before Bram Stoker modeled his famous vampire upon him. So what do you get if you cast a monster as the bulwark of Christianity against the Infidel Turks? Something different than an allegory for contemporary politics, or, at the very least, a very different kind of allegory than the right-wing jingoism of 300.

The legend of Vlad the Impaler and of Bram Stoker's Count Dracula are so intertwined anymore that it hardly seems worth it to untangle them. The imagery implicit in such an entanglement is much to rich to abandon to mere factuality. One doesn't need the huggermugger of the horror genre to be horrified at the forests of impaled enemies Vlad left in his wake to intimidate his enemies. A contemporary reading of the way Vlad conducted his war against the Turks would convict him of crimes against humanity. Medieval warfare was brutal in ways that we can't even conceive anymore. Adding the vampire legend to Vlad almost seems beside the point, but add it to the story of Vlad the Impaler this film does, and the additional Romantic tragedy that has somehow accreted to both myths.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The After Party

Emily Bergl in The Rage: Carrie 2

At the time of its release, I remember people describing The Rage: Carrie 2 (1999, directed by Katt Shea) as a sequel no one wanted. I mean, seriously, this comes, what? 23 years later? I didn't see it when it was in theaters. It certainly wasn't a sequel that I wanted. In some ways, I'm glad I waited until now to watch it. There are things in this film that I would not have appreciated in 1999, blinded as I was at the time by whatever vestige of male privilege I once had. A decade without that privilege tends to lift the blinders. The Rage's prescience is startling. Like Kimberly Pierce's remake a decade later, this is a film that benefits from a female gaze.