Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Darkness and Doubt

Ethan Hawke in Sinister

Sinister (2012, directed by Scott Derrickson) is a stock, mid-list horror film. It's a kind of film that I like to describe as a "One from column A" film, in which the elements that make up the plot are chosen from two stock lists of horror tropes. In this case, the elements derive from The Shining and The Ring (natch) and The Woman in Black and even certain episodes of Doctor Who. This isn't a film that reinvents the wheel. For all that, it's pretty good.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear

Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger

I have mixed feelings about anti-westerns. Do you know the type of film I'm talking about? The ones that debunk the myths of classical Western movies? The heyday of the anti-western was the early 1970s, when movies like Soldier Blue, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and The Wild Bunch blew the conventions of the Western into bloodstained gobbets. Some of the anti-Westerns are legitimately great movies, and I'm not even going to argue that point because it's self-evident. But anti-Westerns aren't usually much fun, either. The Wild Bunch is a lot of things, but "fun" ain't one of them. Even satirical anti-Westerns like Little Big Man tend to become bleak in the end. Plus, some of them tend to preach. I dunno, maybe it's not appropriate to make a "fun" western on themes like genocide, capitalist exploitation, and violence as the instrument of Manifest Destiny. But damned if the new version of The Lone Ranger (2013, directed by Gore Verbinski) doesn't try. The Lone Ranger as a character is the very embodiment of Hollywood myths about Western heroes, part Zorro, part Wyatt Earp, all corn, so the fact that the makers of this new film have used him to completely debunk not only Western movies, but American myths about ourselves, is downright subversive. That they've done it as a summer blockbuster is an act of smuggling so brazen that I can't believe they got away with it, especially given that this was made for Disney, of all people.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Wolverine in Japan

Hugh Jackman in The Wolverine

I mentioned to some of my friends a couple of days ago that I hoped that there would be the requisite naked Hugh Jackman in the new Wolverine movie. Longtime readers may remember that I once theorized that Hugh Jackman's naked ass was probably good for about $70 million at the global box office. I think that's probably still true. Fortunately, the new movie, titled The Wolverine (2012, directed by James Mangold), fulfills this entirely reasonable demand. That it's probably the best superhero movie of the summer is gravy.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Rising as the Sun Sets

Janet Gaynor and George O'Brien in Sunrise

This was written for the Muriel Awards Hall of Fame vote this month. This was among my nominees for inclusion, so I got the job of writing about it.

I always think of F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans with a fair degree of melancholy. It’s one of the glories of the cinema, sure. But it’s also a kind elegy for silent films as they were about to be swept into the dustbin of history. Silent film had developed to a high degree of visual sophistication by the time Sunrise appeared and that sophistication is imprinted on every single frame of the film. Unfortunately, Sunrise appeared a month after The Jazz Singer. It was obsolete on arrival, arguably the last fireworks display of the era. The camera that Murnau had liberated from its moorings on the floor of the studio was remounted there as film had to learn everything over again to accommodate sound.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013


Pacific Rim Jaegers

See if you can follow me on this: some years ago, I was presented with the prospect of a movie in which both Chow Yun-Fat and Keith Richards were to appear together. More than that, they would be playing pirates. I thought at the time: “How can that possibly be bad?” I still think back on that thought in idle moments when I consider the films that resulted, but more as an exasperated expression of disbelief. If someone had told me beforehand that those movies would suck—and suck they most assuredly did—I wouldn’t have believed it. My mistake was in underestimating the power of corporate Hollywood to turn everything it touches into a big steaming pile of shit. This is a cautionary tale.

When I first read about Guillermo Del Toro’s latest film, Pacific Rim (2013), my first thought was that fatal, “how can that possibly be bad?” Once burned twice shy, I guess, because I tamped down on that as hard as I could and tried to keep my expectations low. Then the trailer promised giant robots fighting giant monsters like the biggest Toho monster rally you ever did see, and given that I once ran a video store whose sign had Godzilla looming on the Tokyo skyline, this was a pitch that was in the sweet spot for me. I could feel the glee rising in my chest. But also, there was a nameless dread. I’d like to say that Del Toro’s name was reassuring, but that would be a lie. Auteurism only goes so far and Del Toro has always been less interesting at bigger budgets than he is on his small, personal projects. This is a movie that must do a half a billion dollars at the global box office to make money, so it’s the sort of movie in which “input” from the suits in charge of the money was a given. So as the movie began, I was a more than a little bit apprehensive.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Down to the River

Matthew McConaughey in Mud

Jeff Nichols's last film, Take Shelter, tripped itself up over genre. It seemed like a film that wanted to embrace genre, all the while distancing itself from it. His new film, Mud (2013), is more inclined to give itself over to genre, but its genre--kinda sorta film noir--is much more friendly to filmmakers with artier impulses. It's a better film in spite of being more in tune with its pulp fiction literary forebearers. It's also a portrait of the collapsing American civilization and a gentle coming of age story. It mostly integrates all of this into a pretty good movie.

Friday, July 19, 2013

The File on Barbara Stanwyck

Barbara Stanwyck in The File on Thelma Jordan

This is part of the Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon being run my friend, Aubyn, over at The Girl with the White Parasol. There are a LOT of writers blogging about Stanwyck this week, covering almost all of her major films and most of her minor ones, so check it out.

It's almost inevitable that Thelma Jordan, the femme fatale in the eponymous The File on Thelma Jordan (1950, directed by Robert Siodmak) must be compared to Double Indemnity's Phyllis Dietrichson. Both characters seduce a patsy in order to get away with murder. Both are played by the incomparable Barbara Stanwyck. The comparison is even useful to a point, in so far as it demonstrates the depth of Stanwyck's greatness as an actress because although they are both locked into similar narratives, Thelma Jordon and Phyllis Dietrichson are fundamentally different characters.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Dynamic Duos: Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune

Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune on the set of Throne of Blood

This is part of the Dynamic Duo blogathon, which is being held by Once Upon a Screen and The Classic Movie Hub. Pay em a visit. Lots of good film writing to be had.

When I finally settled on doing a piece about the long collaboration between Akira Kurosawa and Toshirô Mifune, I wasn't really thinking about the sheer hubris of such a thing. I mean, I've read Stuart Galbraith's book on the two, The Emperor and the Wolf, and at 850 pages, that sucker is a brick. And I want to distill Kurosawa and Mifune into the three to four thousand words of a blog post? Madness. This is complicated, too, by the fact that neither man was the other's favorite interpreter. Kurosawa made 16 films with Mifune (25 if you count films that Kurosawa wrote but did not direct). Compare that to the two dozen films Mifune made with Hiroshi Inagaki or the two dozen films that Kurosawa made with Takashi Shimura and you have a seriously compromised premise. Indeed, Shimura is arguably the director's on-screen avatar of himself in Ikiru and Seven Samurai and Drunken Angel, so I probably ought to think hard about the underlying premise that holds the Kurosawa/Mifune collaboration as being definitive for both men, because it's possible that it's wrong. Be that as it may, when you think of Kurosawa, you will inevitably also think of Toshirô Mifune eventually. That's a meme in action for you. And, really, their collaboration is like chocolate and peanut butter. Regardless of whether it's definitive or not, it most surely is tasty.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

East is East

Brit Marling The East

There's a scene early in The East (2013, directed by Zal Batmanglij) in which our heroine, Jane, puts a gold cross around her neck. She later says a prayer that she might be strong in the face of the task in front of her. Her job is corporate security and she's going undercover to infiltrate an ecological/anarchist collective. The thing that jumps out at me about this scene is that the film is indulging in dogwhistles. This is a signifier that has no purpose in the film but to subtly demonize the "side" Jane is on: corporate, conservative, Christian. The film's sympathies are with resistance to all three of these ideologies, though the film makes no further use of Jane's Christianity, even as moral dilemma. This is a missed opportunity. The movie as a whole is like that.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

The Old College Try

Monsters Universty Mike and Sully

The short subject before Monsters University (2013, directed by Dan Scanlon), Pixar/Disney's new prequel to Monsters, Inc. wasn't more than five seconds old before I whispered to one of my companions, "They're showing off again." That film's name was "The Blue Umbrella" and it's fairly slight as far as stories go, telling as it does of the romance between a blue umbrella and a red umbrella on a rainy night in a big city. The city is a wonderment. This is computer animation as photorealism. It's a palpably real environment that is completely untouched by the Thomas Kinkeadean light that suffuses so many animated films these days. This is gritty and gray and darkened and wet. When we begin to see faces in the city, made OF the city, it's almost creepy. It's an announcement that whatever you may think of Pixar's current slate of sequels, they're still the top dog in the computer animation business. And it's not even close.

Still, one has to wonder...

Friday, July 05, 2013


Mia Wasikowska in Stoker

Contrary to its title, Park Chan-Wook’s English-language debut has nothing to do with Bram Stoker or Dracula. Park, after all, has already made his vampire movie, basing it on Therese Raquin, of all things, rather than any canonical horror story. Stoker (2013) defies any easy genre classification. It’s a Gothic, definitely. Is it a horror story? I think it is. Is it a melodrama? I think Douglas Sirk and Tennessee Williams would recognize it as cousins to their own work. Is it transgressive? For this director, that almost goes without saying.