Saturday, December 26, 2015

Blunt Force

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I don't hate the Star Wars prequels. Indeed, there's a lot about them that I like quite a bit. I like the emphasis on politics, given that the eponymous "wars" don't exist in a vacuum. I like the small throwaway gags, like the V8 in Annakin's skycar in Attack of the Clones. I like their ambition.


A right-thinking prequel-hating Star Wars fan would have no truck with my relationship with Star Wars. It is complicated and in no way abject or adoring. They're fucking movies, after all, and if movies are also a lifestyle, then I'll choose another hill to die on, thank you very much. But that's just me. As with matters of love and sex, it's not my kink but I don't care if it's yours.


That's not to say that Star Wars and I don't have a history. Lordy, lordy, do we! My first encounter with Star Wars was a sold-out showing in 1977. My dad took my brothers and I to the theater intending to see this cultural phenomenon, only to be turned away. We went to see The Deep instead, and the image of Jacqueline Bisset in a wet t-shirt was indelibly etched in my mind, perhaps more so than anything in Star Wars. But I digress. We finally made it into another sold-out showing of Star Wars a week later. I only ever saw it once in the theater. I was too young at the time to be seeing movies on my own and my parents weren't interested in multiple viewings of a movie they'd already paid to see. I was moviegoing on my own by the time Empire came out and I saw it nine times when it was in theaters. It's the only one of the original trilogy I paid to see when the films were re-released in the late 90s. I thought George Lucas's revisions of Empire were mutilations, but of the three, it was the one he fiddled with the least. I hated Jedi. You cannot convince me that the prequels are any worse than Jedi. Still and all, Star Wars is part of movies and movies are my version church. It's not like I wasn't going to go see the new film, in spite of my dislike of J. J. Abrams.


Our showing did not get off to a good start. There were twenty minutes of previews. Twenty minutes! And all of them were for fantasy action/adventure films like the new Captain America film, the new X-Men film, the belated Independence Day sequel, something called The Fifth Wave which looks like an teen version of Independence Day, and--god help me--Gods of Egypt and Warcraft. The only preview that held any charm was Legendary Beasts and Where To Find Them, which was not suffused with apocalyptic unease or ever-escalating stakes. This is the legacy of Star Wars: a cinematic landscape where every tentpole movie is some variety of fantasy film. It's a mark of how relentless this influence is that it's burned me out. I cut my teeth on horror movies and Ray Harryhausen, back when good cinematic fantasias were as rare as the teeth of the hydra. I used to love them. Now, they're so ubiquitous that they're just noise. Just so you know where my prejudices lie.


The Gods of Egypt trailer is useful, though. A few weeks ago, the filmmakers on that project made a public apology for the whiteness of their film. If cultural mores continue to shift, there's a fair possibility that Gods of Egypt will be among the last artifacts of our culture's default setting of "straight white male." So let me start with praise for Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015, directed by J. J. Abrams). Set apposite Gods of Egypt, it's radically new. It's radically forward-looking. Its diversity is refreshing. Its diversity is organic. Its diversity, positioned as an integral part of such a cultural white elephant (if you'll pardon the pun), is significant. At no point in the film was I jolted out of the narrative because the protagonist was a black man and because I am not a black man. At no point was I jolted out of the narrative because its other protagonist is a white woman, even though, as a white woman, I'm not used to seeing myself represented in big action tentpoles. Hell, the only time I really lost my identification with the film was when it focused on the legacy characters: Leia, Han Solo. Han Solo. Old white dude. I felt like the filmmakers included the older characters out of a sense of validation, as if to distance themselves from the prequels by importing elements that tell the audience that, yes, this is the genuine article. Only Luke Skywalker himself--positioned like Harry Lime as a presence often mentioned but never seen and also as the film's Maguffin--seems organic to the narrative. Significantly, he has about a minute of actual screen time. The parts of the film that focused on these characters rather than Finn (the black conscientious objecting stormtrooper) and Rey (the scavenger turned chosen one force warrior) struck me as a facile forgery.



Note: here there be spoylers.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Spectres and Apparitions

Daniel Craig as James Bond in Spectre

Daniel Craig's fourth outing as James Bond, Spectre (2015, directed by Sam Mendes), has a valedictory quality to it, as if it intends to sum up the previous three films and tie them up in a tidy bow. This is a film haunted by the ghosts of past Bond films, both in the text of the film's action set-pieces and in the way it establishes a continuity with its predecessors. I don't know if Craig is planning to make a fifth Bond film, but if he isn't, this is a film where he can exit the franchise and not look back. Craig has his transcendent Bond film, something the last three Bonds never managed. If his last turn in the role (if it IS his last turn in the role) is less than transcendent, well, there's no shame in that.



Note: here there be spoylers.


Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Criterion Blogathon: Viridiana

Silvia Pinal in Viridiana

Luis Buñuel's late career has been described as one of the great artistic flowerings in cinema. Starting in (roughly) 1961, the conventional wisdom suggests, Buñuel began making masterpieces as a matter of course. I'm not entirely sympathetic with this point of view. By the time he made Viridiana (1961), he had already made Los Olvidados and The Criminal Life of Archibaldo De La Cruz. It is, perhaps, more correct to say that after 1961, the world noticed that Bunuel was making masterpieces whenever he was given his head. The revival of his reputation occurred, perhaps, because he was no longer working in the ignored cinematic backwater of Mexico. The film cognoscenti can be Eurocentric, sometimes, especially the French. Even two years before Viridiana, French critics were wondering what had happened to Buñuel after the promising start to his career. And then Viridiana happened and Buñuel's fortunes changed. Even if one accepts that Buñuel's late flowering is an illusion or a trick of one's point of view, Viridiana remains a film upon which his career seems to turn.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Deeper Red

Mia Wasikowska in Crimson Peak

The heroine of Crimson Peak (2015), Guillermo Del Toro's return to horror filmmaking, is named "Edith Cushing," a name with a double dose of allusion. "Cushing" signifies the film's debt to Hammer Studios and the great Peter Cushing, a debt that seems relatively small to my mind. "Edith," on the other hand suggests Edith Wharton, whose savagely genteel melodramas of the turn of the 20th Century the film takes as primary texts for its first act. Wharton, it should also be said, was a crackerjack author of ghost stories which, germane to this particular film, are rife with repressed sexual desires and economic anxiety. Like Wharton, Crimson Peak's heroine is a patrician writer of ghost stories, though from Buffalo, New York rather than the big apple. The allusion is on point. This is a very self-aware movie.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Returned to Life

Ronald Zehrfeld and Nina Hoss in Phoenix

One of the reasons that film noir has persisted in the cultural massmind is because films noir are so often epistemological. Questions of "who am I?" or "what really happened" or even "what is real?" or "what is identity?" litter films like Somewhere in the Night and No Man of Her Own and Dark Passage and Hollow Triumph. As film noir became self-aware in the late 1950s and onward, this tendency has intensified. Contemporary film noir is as apt to be a mind fuck as it is to be a suspense thriller or a crime story. That's certainly the case with Phoenix (2015, directed by Christian Petzold), a film in which identity is shifty and endlessly mutable.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

An October Challenge Trick or Treat Bag

Tales from the Darkside: The Movie

I'm not "officially" doing The October Horror Movie Challenge this year. I'm not aiming to watch all the films and I'm definitely not going to break my back to blog about it all, but it's still October, and October still means horror movies here at Stately Krell Laboratories. Therefore...

Saturday, September 19, 2015

A Wolf Cub In the Desert

Theeb

Theeb (2014, directed by Naji Abu Nowar) finds its title character, a young Bedouin growing up in 1916, roped into a grand adventure. For its first half, Theeb plays like an answer to Lawrence of Arabia. It views its Lawrence figure from the point of view of the Arabs. It's not necessarily a flattering picture--this film's British officer is vaguely dismissive of his hosts and brittle and bossy--but it's not necessarily critical, either. This narrative strategy proves to be a feint. It's not really what the film is about. Half-way through the film, there's a turn of the plot that transforms the film into something completely different. The film remains a coming of age story, but it's a coming of age story set in a crucible of violence and revenge. It becomes more of an Arab translation of the Western than a David Lean-ish epic. In both halves of the film, its politics remain personal.


Sunday, September 13, 2015

Innocence, Experience, Sex, and Drugs

Bel Powley in Diary of a Teenage Girl

In Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015, directed by Marielle Heller), a film set in the sexually liberated, doped up 1970s, the title character has a sexual relationship with her mother's boyfriend, a relationship enabled by the freewheeling nonchalance around some pretty fucked up things. It's a journey from innocence to experience that goes to some pretty dark places that may surprise anyone unfamiliar with its source material. Based on a comix novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, this comes from the underground comix tradition, and as such it's very much in tune with that tradition's dedication to breaking taboos. This is as frank a movie about sexuality--particularly the sexuality of teenage girls--as American movies have produced in recent years. Maybe ever.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Gifted

Rebecca Hall in The Gift (2015)

The Gift (2015, directed by Joel Edgerton) is one of those psychological thrillers that it's best to approach without any fore-knowledge of its plot. All the better to surprise the viewer. Unlike many such films, this isn't a film that turns on a single transparent plot point--a twist, as it were--because it's scenario doesn't deliver just a single shock at the end. It delivers multiple shocks at the end. Almost anything I say about this film is a spoiler, by the way, so if you're inclined to see the film and you're sensitive to spoilers, you should stop reading now and come back after you've seen it.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Trans Women Scorned

Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in Tangerine (2015)

It's been a while since I've been as conflicted about a film as I am about Tangerine (2015, directed by Sean Baker). It's a film that pulses with cinematic invention. Famously filmed on iPhones, it's a film that pushes at the edges of the ever-advancing boundaries of what low-budget filmmakers can do. In spite of its formal qualities, though, it's a film that gets snarled in the politics of representation. True, its various trans characters are played by actual trans people, and it forgoes that laziest of trans storylines, the process of transition. But troublesome representations remain.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Say, UNCLE

Henry Cavill in The Man From UNCLE (2015)

The Man from UNCLE (2015, directed by Guy Ritchie) finds Hollywood trying to breathe life into another pre-sold "franchise," preferably one that it doesn't have to do any heavy lifting to reanimate. God forbid anyone have to pay writers and directors to create something new and untested. The marketing department would shit bricks. I think Warner Brothers may have over-extended themselves on this one, reaching back too far into the past, well beyond the nostalgic memories of their core audience. Who under forty remembers The Man from UNCLE? It's not as if TV reruns are even a thing anymore to put it in front of a potential audience. This is the trap that the Mission: Impossible films avoided by getting things started twenty years ago, when its own source material was still in the cultural memory, and by making its own brand out of it with Tom Cruise's face. The new Man From UNCLE film doesn't have the benefit of a branded movie star, either. I feel bad for Armie Hammer, who has been at the epicenter of two flailing attempts to capitalize on the fading memory of old cultural white noise. He's like a guy who keeps getting struck by lightning. The movie itself? Well, a movie can stand or fall on its own, and if it's good, maybe it will work. In truth, the new version of The Man From UNCLE isn't bad, per se, though it's not particularly good, either.

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Clobberin Time

Fantastic Four (2015)

I don't hate Tim Story's Fantastic Four films. Oh, don't get me wrong: they botch a lot of things (most notably Dr. Doom and Galactus) and apart from Chris Evans, they're mostly miscast. And yet, there are parts of those films I really liked. I liked seeing Johnny Storm go all Super Skrull in the second one (a flaming rocky fist at the end of  a stretchy arm made me laugh out loud when I saw it). I liked The Silver Surfer, who was wonderfully well-realized. Story's films understand one important thing: the Fantastic Four ought to be fun, and that's a tone that his films strove for throughout. In some ways, they're out of step with the zeitgeist. They appeared right as the Christopher Nolan versions of grimdark superhero appeared, and their goofy naivete withers in comparison, at least in the fanboy massmind that equates grimdark with "realistic." They never really stood a chance in the marketplace of ideas.


The Fantastic Four are the bedrock of what became Marvel Comics and they deserve better than they've gotten from the movies. They certainly deserve better than Fox's new version of the characters. Fantastic Four (2015, directed by Josh Trank), which caves to the grimdark aesthetic. It's a glum film, shot in desaturated colors, fraught with angst and psychological theorizing. It's also occasionally incoherent, as if two separate movies had been stitched together in post-production, one a post-modern horror movie, the other a dumb superhero movie. It's an uneasy mixture, and tonally wrong almost from beginning to end.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Hitting the Small Time

Paul Rudd in Ant-Man (2015)

Ant-Man (2015, directed by Peyton Reed) finds the Marvel superhero franchise experimenting with genre. The superhero film is flexible if you're not hellbent on destroying cities. Marvel, more than their cinematic competitors, have been more committed to this idea than you might expect. They've placed their superheroes within epic fantasies, space operas, and conspiracy thrillers. Ant-Man is a heist film. Given the backstage drama that accompanied its production, it's a surprisingly nimble and fun movie. It's not without its drawbacks, though, not least of which is its gender politics and Marvel's gender politics more generally. Still, it manages to be Marvel's best film of the summer, which isn't something I expected.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Rich and Famous

Amy Winehouse in Amy (2015)

I wasn't a fan of Amy Winehouse during her lifetime. Not because I disliked her music--I rarely heard her music in the radio wasteland where I live. She just wasn't on my radar beyond what was printed in the tabloids, and even then my familiarity consisted only of headlines glimpsed in supermarket lines. This says more about how music is marketed these days than it does about her music by itself. One of the legacies of Amy (2015, directed by Asif Kapadia), the new documentary about her life, is to establish the magnitude of Winehouse's talent, which was immense. That's a fitting enough epitaph for an artist whose creative life was tragically short. But appreciation of Amy Winehouse isn't the ultimate effect of the film. One walks away from the film feeling a mixture of sadness and rage. It's an indictment of the fame monster (to borrow a phrase from another pop diva), of the machineries of stardom, of our culture's insatiable obsession with celebrity. In documenting the life of Amy Winehouse, this film is holding up an accusing mirror to the culture that destroyed her.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

A Final Problem

Ian McKellen in Mr. Holmes

I'm reading Neil Gaiman's new collection of short stories, Trigger Warnings, right now. One of the stories in that book is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, in which the retired Holmes keeps bees, travels to Asia in pursuit of a particular bee, obsesses over his last case, and deals with his impending mortality. There's a cottage industry in Holmes stories set during his retirement. It's a vast area of terra incognita in the Holmes canon, and writers have been rushing to map it out ever since the detective bowed out in "His Last Bow." Elements of such stories are often very similar. This can create a sense of deja vu if you read enough of them. I had a little bit of that while I was watching Mr. Holmes (2015, directed by Bill Condon), in which Holmes retires to keep bees, travels to Asia, obsesses over his last case, and ruminates over his impending mortality. It is otherwise very different from the Gaiman story I read this week. Based on the novel, A Small Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin, Mr. Holmes presents a more vulnerable Holmes, one whose mental faculties are failing as he nears the end of his life and one who lives with regrets over events he can no longer remember. Holmes can sometimes come across as inhuman--Sherlock's portrayal of the detective as a "high functioning sociopath," for one example--something that this film sets out to deconstruct. The Holmes one finds here is very human indeed.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Salting the Soil


The Salt of the Earth (2014, directed by Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado) is one of those documentaries that confounds expectations, particularly among documentaries about photography. The art of photography is front and center here, don't get me wrong, and not just in the inevitable still frame images that litter the movie. One of my first impressions of The Salt of the Earth is that the era of film as the medium for motion pictures--or for the capture of images more generally--is well and truly over. The shot beneath the title card is as beautiful an image as anything ever captured on silver nitrate on celluloid. That's not what this film is about, true, but it's a subtext that wormed its way into my mind as I watched. Hell, this film may not even be about its nominal subject, the photographer Sebastião Salgado, though it is through his eyes and through his images that the film extrapolates its broad themes. Director Wim Wenders suggests this when he describes his reaction to the first of Salgado's photographs that he ever saw. "This is a man who loves humanity," he thought. Too much as it turns out.


Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Future, Postponed

Terminator: Genisys

Terminator: Genisys (2015, directed by Alan Taylor) is not as bad as you may have heard. It's certainly no worse than any given city-destroying blockbuster of current vintage, but then again, it's also not really any better. It's kind of fun, if you're in the right frame of mind. At the bare minimum, it's anonymous and professional. In spite of all that, its existence in the first place is fundamentally immoral, in so far as it robs the audience of something new for their money almost to the point of self-parody. It's easy to hate the film for that. Looking at it as a critical observer involves a certain amount of double vision, because this is a case when the text of the movie and the meta-text of the movie are two entirely different animals. There's some cognitive dissonance involved.


Saturday, June 20, 2015

Fang and Claw

Chris Pratt in Jurassic World

My long-suffering partner has much simpler demands of movies than I do. For example: when she sits down to watch a movie about dinosaurs, she expects to see those dinos eating people. In this regard, she was mildly disappointed in the original Jurassic Park, in which very few people were actually eaten by dinosaurs and only one was spectacularly eaten on-screen. Mind you, she approved whole-heartedly of the film's disposition of the lawyer character, but in the long run, it was a brief moment. It's fair to say that she was thrilled with the newest "Jurassic" film, Jurassic World (2015, directed by Colin Trevorrow), though. This is a film that throws plenty of chum to the dinosaurs. I suppose I can't fault it for giving the audience what they paid to see.

Saturday, June 06, 2015

Ultron Unbound

Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, and Jeremy Renner in Avengers: Age of Ultron

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) finds the Marvel Cinematic Universe entering its decadent period. I'd almost call it the series' Bronze Age, to borrow the nomenclature of comics. This should be a period when the storytelling in these films ramps up because the need for origin stories has been satisfied by the previous movies, a period when it should be doing its Galactus trilogy, its Kree/Skrull war, its Dark Phoenix saga. Certainly, that's part of why Captain America: The Winter Soldier was the best of the Marvel movies. That movie also had crackerjack storytelling and a defined source text. This film, on the other hand? It's stuffed to the gills with new characters, but not many new ideas. More, it's obviously the middle child in a trilogy, one that's weighted down with far too much franchise-building. Does it provide superheroics? Sure. But at this point, it should be providing more. Maybe I'm asking too much. I mean, it's not awful by any means. I suspect that after 38 movies based on Marvel Comics (with a 39th and 40th due in the next couple of months), I'm suffering from superhero fatigue.

Monday, June 01, 2015

White Elephant Blogathon: Voyage To The Bottom of the Sea


When I opened the email containing this year's White Elephant, I was convinced that I had seen my film before. It turns out that I was confusing Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea with The Neptune Factor. I saw The Neptune Factor at a kid's matinee when I was seven or eight. That film had dodgy special effects that pit its all-star cast against giant goldfish. In comparison, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea looks pretty good. In truth, it's faint praise.


Two of the most arresting scenes in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961, directed by Irwin Allen) come in the first act. In the first, during the tour of the Seaview, the film's super submarine, we come across a trumpeter playing for his mess buddies and for the Admiral's secretary. In the film's only unconventional shot, the camera focuses on Barbara Eden's gyrating bottom. The second finds the submarine being pummeled by boulders of ice sinking from the polar icecap. Ice. Sinking. Or how about that shark pool that doesn't spill over its banks when the ship dives at steep angles. Given that the motivating disaster for this movie finds the earth's Van Allen belts catching fire and roasting the world, it's fair to say that this is not a film for anyone with even a passing acquaintance with science. Indeed, it's a film that probably plays best to nine year-olds. If anyone older than that makes the mistake of thinking about what's on screen, then, well, the whole thing falls apart early. And that's before it even gets to its big special effects scenes.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Start Your Engines

Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron in Mad Max Fury Road

There was a guy on Twitter assigning "Mad Max" names the week after Mad Max: Fury Road (2015, directed by George Miller) opened. I missed out on that, because I'm sure he got swamped almost immediately. Fury Road is an instant cult classic of a sort that hasn't been seen in many a long year, so it's inevitable that its devotees will want to commune with it. Like its predecessors back in the day Fury Road has some unusually splendid names. I doubt the Twitter guy was able to improve on them, even as people lined up to get one. I mean, how does one improve upon names like Rictus Erectus or Cheedo the Fragile or Corpus Colossus? To say nothing of Imperator Furiosa.


Mad Max: Fury Road is the kind of film where incoherent babbling is almost a reasonable response to what one has just seen. When I got out of the theater, I muttered, "Well, that's the goddamnedest thing." It's been a long while since I walked out after a movie ready to turn around and walk right back in to see it again. I almost wish that I had before sitting down to write about it, because it's a film of such baroque imagining that I'm sure that I missed countless offhand details. The first experience of the film is overwhelming. It's a film designed to overwhelm, but unlike many other films similarly conceived, this is a film that manages to accomplish this aim and then some. I suspect that, like its predecessors, it's a film that will generously repay repeat viewings.



Sunday, May 24, 2015

...I Am Rather the Fallen Angel

Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina

Ex Machina (2015, directed by Alex Garland) has the great misfortune of following too soon after Her, a legitimately great film about artificial intelligence and the idea of The Singularity that dealt with its themes with grace, wit, humanity, and a sense of hope that humanity's children will take from us love and mercy and everything else that is best about us. Although it shares some basic ideas about the nature of artificial intelligence and name-checks The Singularity in the text of its dialogue, Ex Machina is not similarly hopeful. Ava, the artificial intelligence in Ex Machina, has a very real grievance with her creator, who fails to realize the moral and ethical implications of dismantling a thinking, self aware being in order to "improve" it.


Saturday, May 16, 2015

Heinlein in Hollywood part 3: Closing the Loop

Ethan Hawke in Predestination

Robert A. Heinlein is typically considered one of the grand masters of the so-called "Golden Age of Science Fiction," that period just before World War II when the genre began to take itself seriously as literature. The Golden Age writers were typically hard nosed about realistic science within the boundaries of what was then known. Sometimes, their rigor resulted in startling predictive powers. Mostly, they resulted in complicated problems for the characters in the stories. In many ways, Heinlein was the architect of this movement. He was the most popular writer in John W. Campbell's Astounding, the primary outlet for the Golden Age writers, and his mixture of plain-spoken Americana and futurism was the template for science fiction for the next two decades. His characters may have worked in outer space, but they smoked Luckies and chased girls like everyone else. Toward the end of the 1950s the landscape of literary science fiction began to change. Social sciences began to form as much of the background of future societies as the physical sciences. Writers like Philip K. Dick, Alfred Bester, and Cyril Kornbluth began to explore the effects of the future on the psychology of its characters rather than having those characters just act in response to plot. By the late fifties, a new crop of writers was waiting to upset the apple cart. Science fiction's "New Wave" was less beholden to science and more interested in literary values like character, theme, and language. Older writers, brought up on the technocratic Golden Age, either adapted or found other work. Robert Heinlein turned out to be particularly adaptable. His major novels of the 1960s are a fusion of the old and the new. The technological future is still there, but the problems are dramatically different. Heinlein's fiction turned inward.


Predestination (2014, directed by the Spierig Brothers) is the first film since Destination: Moon to approach Robert Heinlein on his own terms. It's a very different species of movie, though. The story it's based on, "...All You Zombies," is as close to the science fiction New Wave as Heinlein ever came, and this film reflects that pedigree. It's not a film that will wow you with technology or with its vision of the future. It's a dingy movie that exists as much in the past as it does in the future. Its central motivating idea--time travel--wasn't even novel in 1959, when the story was written, let alone in 2015. There are time travel stories without number these days. Instead, this is a movie about extrapolation from that idea, intent on pulling it inside out and twisting it almost to the point of breaking. Where previous films based on Heinlein have been cartoons, based only on the plots of his books and not their underlying ideas, this film dives into the core of what makes Heinlein's fiction so memorable in the first place. Perhaps, this is because it's faithful to its source material almost to a fault. Or perhaps it's because its source material isn't the rockets and warfare and aliens stuff that has attracted other filmmakers to Heinlein over the years. Instead, this is a film that dives into the interior of its characters and speculates on matters of identity and existence.


Friday, May 15, 2015

Heinlein In Hollywood part 2

Eric Thal in The Puppet Masters

It was perhaps inevitable that Hollywood would come calling on the Robert A. Heinlein estate in the early 1990s. The previous decade had seen filmmakers becoming interested in literary science fiction thanks to the cult success of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (a version of Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep) and the blockbuster success of Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall (based on Dick's "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale"). Hollywood's infatuation with Philip K. Dick continues to this very day, unabated, with recent versions of Radio Free Albemuth and a pilot for a web series based on The Man in the High Castle premiering in 2014. By the early 1990s, Hollywood began to expand their field of interest to writers like William Gibson (Johnny Mnemonic) and Isaac Asimov (Nightfall, The Bicentennial Man, I Robot), writers with caché in pop culture. Heinlein must have seemed a fertile ground for development: his books had name-recognition well beyond the occasionally insular community of science fiction fandom. Heinlein was, after all, the first science fiction writer to place a book on the New York Times bestseller list. Name recognition is an important quality for an industry that likes to sell audiences products they already know everything about. It's ironic that The Puppet Masters (1994, directed by Stuart Orme) should be the film to kick off this interest, given that it's the novel at the heart of The Brain Eaters, the last "adaptation" of the 1950s.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Heinlein in Hollywood

Destination Moon lobby card

I saw a story on the internet a few months back about the demolition of Ray Bradbury's house. It sold a while ago for $1.7 million and the new owners apparently want to put something else up on the property. This makes me sad, I suppose. I grew up reading Bradbury and watching the sci fi movies of the 1950s that bear his stamp. Bradbury was fortunate in his interpreters. Films like It Came from Outer Space and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms are touched with his humanism. Commenting on the demolition of his house, a friend of mine said, "...and there shall come soft rains."


I've been thinking about fifties sci fi lately. I recently caught Destination Moon.  I don't think I ever saw it when I was a kid, back when I was mainlining as much science fiction as I could lay my hands on. It's a film that reminds me that there's an alternate history of cinematic science fiction that never actually materialized in our world, one that's more influenced by Bradbury's great contemporary, Robert Heinlein, than by Bradbury himself. I'm reminded of this because there's a new movie based on one of Heinlein's stories out right now, and I'll get to that in a few days, but it's worth playing what-if with Heinlein. Heinlein is one of the founders of the modern genre, one who put people into the future along with the nuts and bolts of technology. In spite of this, he's a writer who always insisted on the technology being right. He was also one of the first science fiction writers to dabble in the "soft" sciences of psychology and sociology as fertile grounds for extrapolation. Much of the appeal of his work comes from his depictions of societies as much as it comes from the gee whiz technological trappings. Heinlein's powers of extrapolation were often uncanny. My favorite of his ideas that wound up coming true? There's subplot in Stranger in a Strange Land in which the fastest way to get in touch with the leader of the free world is through his wife's astrologer. That's on-point satire right there, which became a tad less funny when it came true during the Reagan administration. Heinlein is arguably the architect of every SF trope you can think of, including the ones more famously associated with Philip K. Dick (see, for instance, "The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag" or "They"). I read a lot of Heinlein as a teenager. I have a nearly complete set of his books, though I haven't touched them since a re-read of Citizen of the Galaxy a decade ago.


Hollywood has been interested in Heinlein for decades, but the movies have never really reconciled what's best in Heinlein with what's best for movie making. Part of this is the author's preoccupation with sex and with shuffling the conventions of social and sexual morality (this has long been the stumbling block with a film version of Stranger in a Strange Land, Heinlein's most famous novel). Part of this is the politics behind a good deal of his work. Part of it is the irascibility of the author himself. Even when the films have materialized--and there haven't been many of them--Heinlein often barely figured in them.


Sunday, May 03, 2015

The Pull List, early 2015

Velvet: The Secret Lives of Dead Men by Ed Brubaker, Steve Epting, and Betty Breitweiser

In honor of the new Avengers movie (review soon), I thought I'd give you a run-down of what comics I read month to month. As you might expect from someone who writes and draws comics, I read a lot of comics. I was discussing this elsewhere this morning, so I thought I'd share my pull list. This does not constitute everything I read, just what I buy month to month.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Dog Eat Dog

Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night

I'm conflicted about the Dardenne brothers' latest film, Two Days, One Night (2014).


On the one hand, I think that in spite of the Dardennes' reputation as observational realists, they've constructed a film that is best understood as a moral fable. Oh, it's clearly the work of social realists. Its portrait of late capitalism has the kind of clear-eyed brutality that only comes from a long hard look at the world. Its structure and plot, on the other hand, seem like a trap built to produce a specific result for its characters. It's a gross manipulation, so if the intent is to make a film that indicts the current criminal economy, then it fails. You cannot arrive at "truth," even in fiction, if you rig the game. One of my correspondents calls the plot of Two Days, One Night "bullshit," and he's not exactly wrong.


On the other hand, Two Days, One Night features another astonishing performance by Marion Cotillard. You might expect that a movie star of Cotillard's magnitude would demolish the Dardennes' carefully cultivated observational aesthetic, but in Cotillard's case, she's a star of that magnitude in the first place because she's the most gifted actress of her generation. That is on full display in this film. She gives the Dardennes exactly what they want from a lead performance: natural, heartbreaking, without a hint of artifice. Would that the brothers tended their own garden as carefully.


Sunday, April 26, 2015

Monstrous Feminine

Mia Wasikowska in Maps to the Stars

David Cronenberg has always included a strain of horror toward women and female sexuality in his films. The monstrous feminine often manifests itself in birth in Cronenberg's films, but the very idea of the vagina itself is a figure of horror, to say nothing of the idea that women might actually want to use them for pleasure. Unease with feminine bodies and sexuality is behind images like the birth scenes in The Brood and The Fly, the vaginal slit in James Woods's belly in Videodrome, the psychosexual dysfunctions in A Dangerous Method, the sexual possibilities of open wounds in Crash, the many faces becoming one face in Spider, the Mantle brothers' profession and inventions in Dead Ringers, and so on. Throughout his career and with only rare exceptions, Cronenberg has framed the monstrous feminine from the point of view of men. Confronting the feminine is often what knocks Cronenberg's protagonists out of their comfortable, sensible realities into the chaos beneath them. The critic, Robin Wood, once described Cronenberg's view of sex as both reactionary and infantile for this very reason. Though I think Cronenberg's approach more nuanced and more...um...perverse than that, I can see Wood's point.


Maps to the Stars (2014), the first of Cronenberg's films in forty years to center itself specifically on women, is a departure. It's a view of the monstrous feminine from the point of view of women. As such, it's a writhing chaos of sexual horrors. Or something. Its about movies and fame, too, and about Cronenberg's movies, in particular. It's a perverse film. Of course it's a perverse film! You expect that of Cronenberg even after all this time.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Backward Glances

Maika Monroe in It Follows

Horror movies are going through one of their periodic revivals right now. The last eighteen months or so have been particularly fertile for the genre. Part and parcel of this revival is a backward look at the horror films of the 1980s. Throwbacks like The Guest and Starry Eyes might have been dumped into video stores in 1988 or discovered late at night on HBO in 1983, ornamented as they are by minor-key synth scores and prowling, Dean Cundey-ish widescreen cinematography and a chaos of horrors hiding just behind the curtain of a particularly mundane suburban reality. These films often use their borrowed elements better than the films from which they are taken. Add It Follows (2014, directed by David Robert Mitchell) to this list. It Follows, more than any of these films, internalizes the eighties horror film and transforms it into something modern and nasty and relentless.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Blogorama: 2015 edition


I'll be joining two blogathons in the next month or so. Both of them are old friends. The first one is the periodic For the Love of Film blogothon, which is a fundraiser for film preservation. This year's theme is science fiction, which will put me back in touch with my roots. The other is the annual White Elephant blogathon. I probably went easy on the recipient of my film again, this year. I just don't have the instinct for the jugular some of the other participants have.


I'll get back to documentaries and other stuff shortly.













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Sunday, April 05, 2015

True/False 2015: Across the Rio Grande

Western (2015)

Cartel Land (2015, directed by Matthew Heineman) and Western (2015, directed by Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross) are so thematically similar that you could be forgiven for believing that they were programmed by True/False to play as apposite experiences. Both confront the "problem" of the United States/Mexico border. Both are steeped in the politics and violence of drug trafficking. Both of them are foregrounded by violence and the response to violence. Both of them cultivate an air of resignation and futility. For all that, they are very different films.

Monday, March 30, 2015

True/False 2015: Almost Famous

Finders Keepers (2015)

"Fuckery and shenanigans." That's how the sister of one of the antagonists in Finders Keepers (2015, directed by Bryan Carberry and J. Clay Tweel) describes the film's conflict over a severed leg found in a barbecue smoker. It's as good a description as any, I guess. Finders Keepers is the kind of film that Flannery O'Connor might have written had she lived in the current media age. She once wrote a story in which a traveling salesman makes off with the prosthetic leg of a lady professor, so there's a precedent there. This is a film that certainly veers uncomfortably close to hicksploitation, to say nothing of the Southern Gothic.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

True/False 2015: A Better Tomorrow

Spartacus and Cassandra

Another persistent subject of the contemporary documentary zeitgeist are the lives of people--particularly children--who squat in the ruins of post-Capitalism. It would be easy to think of these kinds of films as social problem films, or at the very least as a kind of "poverty porn," but that would do the best of them a disservice. The good ones mark the lives of specific human beings, however desperate their lives, and let those lives illuminate more universal concerns. Spartacus and Cassandra (2014, directed by Ioanis Nuguet) is one such film. It chronicles the lives of two young Roma children struggling to live in Paris with parents whose basic competence to be parents in the first place is deeply suspect. This is a closely observant film that knows the power of an image and how to play with images without losing the integrity of the narrative. The end result is a highly aestheticized form of social realism.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Myths, Stories, and Songs

Song of the Sea

Song of the Sea (2014, directed by Tomm Moore) expands on the design aesthetic of Moore's The Secret of Kells, while diving even deeper into waters of Irish mythology. Like that previous film, Song of the Sea is visually ravishing, though to an even further extent. Unlike that film, Song of the Sea occasionally invites comparisons to other films, particularly films by Hayao Miyazaki. The film can withstand the comparison, but it's not the same kind of singular experience as Kells, nor does it have the overarching design-as-theme element. Don't get me wrong: it's beautiful; it's one of the most beautiful films of recent vintage. But its beauty is beauty for its own sake rather than as an integrated element of the story. Whether or not this is a flaw in the film, I can't really say. Beauty is its own justification a lot of the time.

Friday, March 27, 2015

True/False 2015: A Bitter Almond

King Abdulaziz and Franklin D. Roosevelt in Bitter Lake

Director Adam Curtis claims that he's a journalist, not an artist. There's a presumption in this idea that the two are mutually exclusive, though I'm not sure I believe that. I certainly don't believe it of Curtis, whose films are powerful beyond the scope of mere document. Curtis's new film, Bitter Lake (2015) pushes at the boundaries of non-fiction. It's a film of great formal daring, one that internalizes post modernism in its image collage and its multitude of allusions. It's an object designed to be consumed on the internet, though it works fine as a cinematic experience. Whether or not it manages to connect the dots of its argument--something that can be debated--is almost beside the point.


Tuesday, March 24, 2015

True/False 2015: Remote Control

Drone (2014)

Documentaries about the "War on Terror" seem like a permanent fixture in the contemporary film landscape. So long as horrible things are being done either against the democracies of the West, or, more probably, by the democracies of the West themselves, these kinds of films will be with us. They tend to paint a dismal picture of the world, one that more and more resembles George Orwell's prediction of the future as "a boot stamping on the human face forever." This year's crop includes Drone (2014, directed by Tonje Hessen Shei), a film that attempts to provide a multiplicity of viewpoints on the Obama administration's campaign of remote control warfare. That very multiplicity tends to blunt its impact.

True/False 2015: Poison Pens

William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal in Best of Enemies

I'm late to the party this year when it comes to writing about the 2015 edition of the True/False Film Festival. The delay was unavoidable. Life gets in the way sometimes. I need to get all of this down before I forget it all. Fortunately, I took lots of notes this year.




Best of Enemies (2015, directed by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon) resurrects the 1968 debates between arch conservative William F. Buckley and arch liberal Gore Vidal on the occasion of that year's national political conventions. "Debate," is probably the wrong word for what these were. Duels, is more like it. Some kind of bloodsport. A harbinger for what media discourse on politics would later become. Buckley and Vidal were mortal ideological enemies and they jabbed at each other with spears tipped with venom, with invective scrawled with acid.

Monday, March 02, 2015

The Devil, You Say?

Daniel Radcliffe in Horns

Alexandre Aja is a director who is never likely to live up to his promise. I'm not a fan of his signature film, Haute Tension, but I could see the talent involved with its making. Before it immolates itself with an unearned twist ending, it's a razor sharp horror movie, one that knows the value of suspense while keeping an instinct for the jugular. Nothing he's made since then has been as assured, though I do have a soft spot for the cheap pulp thrills of his remake of Piranha. I don't know why I expected more from his latest film, Horns (2013), but I did. It has a good cast and a droll source novel. In principle, the elements are all there. Somehow, Aja fumbles it all.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Ministers of Grace

Bosch -- Christ Carrying the Cross

My first impression of Calvary (2014, directed by John Michael McDonagh) was that it was deadpan religious noir. It's a film that attempts to reconcile the mission of the Catholic church with the wickedness done by that church's ministers. It falls into the category of noir because it's a crime film of sorts, one particularly concerned with a fall from grace. Its concern with states of grace is more (little "c") catholic than is normally the purview of noir, but its fall from grace is an equally dark descent. The punch, when it comes, lands with a brutalizing force even to a mocking unbeliever like me.


My second impression was that it was the cinematic equivalent of Hieronymus Bosch's "Christ Carrying the Cross," which has a central figure carrying the weight of the world through a crowd of leering grotesques. Bosch's painting has always had multiple interpretations, depending on the worldview of the critic. Is it deeply spiritual? Is it an irreligious mockery? I tend to think it's the former. Calvary provides a similar dichotomy, but it's more clearly an expression of spirituality. It's an argument for the necessity of the church in an increasingly secular and sinful world, and an indictment of the Catholic Church's utter failure in the face of its own mission.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Jumpin' Jupiter

Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum in Jupiter Ascending

While I was watching the Wachowskis' new film, Jupiter Ascending (2015), I realized that Andy and Lana Wachowski are acutely aware of their own career arc. Given that they've helmed a series of big budget fiascoes (commercially, anyway), this might be the last time they get to play with a megabudget production. As a result, they've crammed all of the ideas they have for big budget spectacles into this one delirious package. As you can imagine, this results in a dense film with overlapping moods and elements that are at odds with each other. It's a mess, sure. That much was suggested by its delayed release, moving from prime summer real estate into the wasteland of February, where orphaned productions go to die. I would be lying if I said that didn't like it though, because as fun times at the movies go, this was more fun than I was expecting. A lot more fun.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Imitation of Life

Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game (2014, directed by Morten Tyldum) aims to right an historical wrong. It postulates that the mathematician, Alan Turing, was responsible for winning World War II, or at the very least, was responsible for shortening the war by several years and saving 14 million lives and preserving the remaining cities of a shattered Europe in the process. Further, it is outraged at the thanks Turing got for his trouble. This is all couched in a biopic that is formally adventurous only when it serves its thesis, though that may well be often enough. In any event, it has good actors, which is always a plus when faced with those terrible words, "Based on a true story..."

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Gray Men, Gray World

Philip Seymour Hoffman in A Most Wanted Man

When I was sixteen, my parents gave me an omnibus edition of John le Carré's Karla novels (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, and Smiley's People). I still have it and I have a handful of le Carré's other novels, but I never fell in love with le Carré. His stories are cold and distant, filled with gray men doing gray things in gray offices under gray, overcast skies. Or, at least, I imagine the skies as overcast. Le Carré's books are anti-thrillers. They are often Kafka-esque traps for their characters. Most of the films based on le Carré are similarly dreary, though stocked with magnificent actors playing drab. When the Cold War ended, it was replaced by the equally dangerous War on Terror. The actors on the world stage have changed. The game generally has not, which is how le Carré has remained so relevant. So it is in A Most Wanted Man (2014, directed by Anton Corbijn), in which Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the head of a small anti-terror unit in German intelligence. He's a defeated man, which makes the fact that this is the last role Hoffman played before his untimely death bittersweet.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Rhythm Method

Miles Teller and J. K. Simmons in Whiplash

Back when I was just out of college, I had a conversation with some friends over a game of spades about what you would have to score on the rhythm ACT to play with various bands. We suggested that you needed about a 12 to play most rock and roll. You needed about a 33 to play with P-Funk. You needed about a 4 to play with the Sex Pistols. You needed to ace the thing to play with James Brown. That conversation, now twenty-something years in the past, flashed through my mind with crystal clarity while watching Whiplash (2014, directed by Damien Chazelle), a film that's all about precise rhythms. It's also a film about the sociopathy that often goes with creativity, particularly as it intersects with the kind of perfectionism geniuses often pursue. It's one of the most electrifying films I've seen in a goodly long while, a coming of age film played as a psycho-thriller. It's a head-cutting film in the musical meaning of that phrase.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Rethinking the American Canon

Maya Deren in "Meshes of the Afternoon"

Sometime last year, I finally started tagging posts in which I write about films by women. There is well-documented bias in the film industry marginalizing women filmmakers and my thinking is that part of the way to counteract this is to actively seek out and write about films by women. My friend, Willow, over at the excellent Curtsies and Hand Grenades is doing exactly this right now and while I'm not going to go to the same lengths, I AM going to be consciously watching more films by women this year and beyond. (Dudes: don't worry. Your dominance of the film industry means that I'll write about plenty of the dude films you like, too. Hell, I probably can't avoid them).

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Revenge of the Nerds

Big Hero 6

Big Hero 6 (2014, directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams) is suggestive of why Disney bought Marvel a few years ago. They see potential blockbusters in odd corners of the Marvel catalog. This one is completely unlikely. The original is borderline obscure. Indeed, the source material isn't very good, coming as it does at the tail end of Marvel's 90s-era dark age in which everything was a steroid inflated version of extreeeeem grimdark. I doubt that there was ever anyone clamoring for a movie version of Big Hero 6. The movie bears only a cursory resemblance to the comics, which is all to the good. This is a case where the movie version is so much better than the original that by all rights it should completely eclipse it.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Hindsight is 20/20

Kelly Rilley and Brendan Gleeson in Calvary and Marion Cotillard in The Immigrant

It's customary for people who write about film to do retrospectives this time of the year. I'll make up a top whatever list eventually, but I'm still waiting on a few films to make their way to me. Meanwhile, the list I'm keeping of potential candidates for that list continues to grow. A lot of people were disappointed in 2014 (particularly movie studios, who are seeing their revenues crater in the United States in the wake of some expensive flops). I'm not one of them. To my mind, 2014 was an exceptional year. These are the films I enjoyed this year: