The protagonists of the 2018 version of the oft-adapted A Star is Born may be the rugged, ragged country singer Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) and the younger rising pop star Ally (Lady Gaga). But the film’s voice undeniably belongs to another character, Jackson’s older half-brother, played with a typically phenomenal mixture of world weary cynicism and weathered wit by Sam Elliot. Essentially the film’s viewpoint, Elliot’s character rebukes criticisms about its remake status by explicitly and perhaps charitably thematizing the value of playing within formulas and dusting off older routines in an early line of dialogue. As if the film is commenting on itself, this travelling soul seems to know, more than his younger brother who still believes in a more singular notion of originality, that there are limits to self-fashioning, and that all selves are cobbled together piecemeal out of influences far and wide. Elliot’s itinerant would-be cowboy reiterates what prior American wanderers Whitman and Emerson understood as the tragic possibility of realizing that you live in a world where all you can truly do is quote creatively.
Elliot’s character thus not only provides Cooper his voice but gifts his movie its thesis, not to mention its point of view. And, of course, its mildly self-congratulatory excuse as well, the film’s way of avoiding the challenge of more overt experimentation while committing to the belief that all experimentation is itself a similar form of play within existing structures. Of course, the film is correct in suggesting that creativity really is just skillful reconsideration of forebears. But that doesn’t necessarily let the film off the hook for, well, not doing much in the way of genuine reconsideration.
Elliot’s voice is the film’s in a second sense as well: Cooper’s protagonist sounds like Sam Elliot looks, and the gravelly hoarseness of both performances is also part of its relative fascination, as well as its thematic commentary. Another line of dialogue seems to acknowledge that Cooper’s character chose to model his voice off of Elliot to achieve some simulacrum of “authenticity,” suggesting that Maine’s swaggering machismo is a performance, a kind of costume meant to articulate an American creed. The film suggests that no one is really born a rambling man; through a combination of social circumstance and personal will, they become one, even at the expense of other, perhaps more humane and generous, versions of self. Continue reading
Perhaps the most consistently banalized of all prestige genres, the “Oscarbait biopic” has recently emerged as an idiom for self-complicating narrative cinema. But the Oscarbait biopic can take many forms. For name-conscious auteurs seeking to problematize the individualist Oscarbait formula, with its focus on personal growth and salvation at the expense of wider social or material realities, this kind of film typically allows filmmakers to produce popularly legible dramas while paying attention (and often, frankly, lip service) to social issues. For other, often more artistically inspired filmmakers who frequently nonetheless run the risk of drowning in their personal myopic, biopics tend to center characters who are facsimiles for the creators of the films themselves. It was impossible to miss director Damien Chazelle in the main character of the decidedly agitated Whiplash or in either of the protagonists of La La Land. Neither film had any itch to explore a world outside the nearly hermetic glory of personal creation, each suggesting a kind of laudable final artistic transcendence that, in the first case, might mean the loss of a character’s soul, and in the second, the loss of a companion.
First Man’s Neil Armstrong, in contrast, is essayed as a kind of blank canvas and evacuated man by Ryan Gosling. He also, I suspect, really isn’t meant to be Neil Armstrong. I’m not sure how much Chazelle sees of himself in Armstrong, but it doesn’t really matter. Although this new film misses some opportunities, and its central character’s steadfast determination and essential dismissal of anything resembling a personal life may be read as further proxies for Chazelle, it is testament to First Man – indeed, it may be why the film is meaningful at all – that it is the first of this director’s films where the protagonist isn’t a myopic recreation of personal psychology so much as a Rosetta Stone for a culture, a time-period, and an ethos. And, at times beautifully, for the film’s own self-conscious limits in exploring that time-period. Continue reading
Far be it from me to dictate the direction of writer-director David Gordon Green’s artistic career, but if you had told me circa 2000 that the hot young thing in the American independent scene, brandishing an aesthetic equal parts Malickian-impressionism and Cassavetean-pragmatism, would, in less than two decades, be shepherding forth a 21st century model of the series that spawned the slasher sub-genre…well, I would have asked who David Gordon Green was. I would also have been 8, so I might not have been the ideal audience for any of David Gordon Green’s films, except maybe Pineapple Express (which itself capably mobilized Green’s leisurely, slow-drip, transcendental filmmaking sensibilities toward a very different kind of transcendental human experience).
In the last decade, however, determining whether Green has taken his projects out of a desire to test himself, out of a genuinely idiosyncratic directorial sense, or simply because he had too much pineapple express, has become something of a cinephile ritual every time he releases a new film. Recently, in 2017’s Stronger, he settled into a more conventional version of the low-and-slow dramas which birthed his career and, in 2015’s Our Brand is Crisis, attempted an uneasy, intermittent triangulation of those earlier films with the strange, side-trip pot comedies he so famously stumbled into at the end of his first decade as a filmmaker. Those two recent films are perhaps Green’s safest films yet: far from the sublime, scrappy elegance of his early ‘00s films but certainly hemmed in from the truly despicable lows of, say, 2011’s awful Your Highness. One might have assumed Green had settled into sturdy, indifferent middle-age, cinema as his day-job, not his life-calling. Continue reading
Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly’s screenplay for Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom veers between idiotic and knowingly idiotic. On balance, it doesn’t salvage the film, but they sure do give it a game try. Whereas The Lost World all the way back in 1997 was essentially unruffled by the astonishing mismanagement of its protagonists and their dubious morality, Fallen Kingdom is certainly at least literate in the criticisms which have been labelled upon that earlier film. Although not as subversively or as stridently as, say, Gareth Evans’ Godzilla, and with a much cheerier, more flippant attitude toward human incompetence, Fallen Kingdom is essentially content to mock its protagonists rather than celebrate them. As with Raiders of the Lost Ark, they accomplish very, very little by film’s end, just barely managing to survive their mistakes time and time again. While the film isn’t as willing to actually question the hero’s own complicity in the villain’s schemes, it is at least aware that, come film’s end, it cannot keep on defending its protagonists as ecological warriors.
Rather, in an increasingly technological world, where biological life is no longer singularly sacrosanct (as though it ever was), the only serious way to think about the debate over the dinosaurs in Jurassic World is to consider whether an expansive and more ephemeral, more dangerous, notion of life (that is, life created through human manipulation) is worth defending. Which is to say, the dinosaurs in Jurassic World 2 are artificial, and this is the first film in the franchise to seriously weigh the contours of this artificiality rather than equate the dinosaurs with naturally-reproduced animals. One might also say that it’s the only film in the series thus far to seriously question its own blockbuster artificiality, after its immediate predecessor so self-damagingly lambasted its audience in the most half-baked pop-post-modern gesture this side of, well, ever. This is the first film in the series to admit that to generally side with its heroes is to play the villain’s game and accept that artificial life cannot be dismissed emphatically, but must be seriously weighed as part of the patchwork of modernity. That, in other words, the possibilities of artificial life must be wrestled away from the corporate monolith’s which currently determine its contours. Continue reading
George Lucas’ Star Wars franchise was conjured out of the spirit of mid-century pulp and genre fiction, from Westerns to war films to noir, and it frankly remains as moored in these frameworks over 40 years later. There’s no shame in that. In spirit, pulp is as fine and potentially multiphonic a template for any modern filmmaker as any other, one with secrets left to uncover decades later. And Lucas has done as much as anyone over the ensuing forty years not only to expose the limits of his forebears but to invite their more self-conscious, inquisitive, and socially rambunctious textures, exploring their more contradictory valences and inviting us to consider what really makes ostensibly simplistic mythology tick. The fact that Solo: A Star Wars Story is so indebted to that swashbuckling mid-century spirit is merely a fact of nature, a canvas for good or ill.
That it is bound to the past, then, is not a problem so much as the fact that Solo uses that past regressively, treating it as an unquestioning moral template for a present that calls for new forms of experimentation with its various pasts. That Solo could do anything with its various influences seems off the table for the filmmakers, who (at least the credited ones) seem to have no other interests but paying homage to the original Star Wars films. And, yes, it’s a mediocre homage to Star Wars. But worse, it’s a mediocre pastiche of the classical Hollywood cinema – Westerns, in particular – which Lucas based his moral universe off of.
Certainly, the backward-looking, prequel-focused nature of Solo practically invites, even demands, the film’s simplistic qualities. But Solo is almost embarrassingly wedded to its canon, and the underlying influences it stands upon. The film wrought out of a very publically contested production cycle plays dress-up in gangster and Western attire, questioning neither. Which is fine; Star Wars films don’t have to do anything with their masters. Except Gareth Evans’ fantastically apocalyptic Rogue One from two years ago. And Rian Johnson’s diabolically self-critical one from last year. And most of the other Star Wars films, even Lucas’ much-benighted prequels and their at times laborious mythologies. In fact, one could say that Solo: A Star Wars Story is the most regressive Star Wars film in history. It seems like a retreat into the past, not a serious excavation of it, nor even a playful undertaking with it. Continue reading
It’s quite endearing how clearly Venom turns the clock back 15 years to the 2003 class of superhero movies, feeling wholly and irrevocably at odds with the increasing homogeneity of comic book cinema in the Marvel Cinematic Universe age. That’s not to suggest the film is meaningfully good, but merely bad in its own idiom, spirited and simply valuable as an almost found object from another time when the genre was still figuring itself out. How else to explain turning a bizarre would-be two-man show with Tom Hardy unleashing his inner Abbott and Costello into a superhero (or anti-hero) film?
Hardy does bring a schizophrenic, screwball discombobulation to the proceedings as Eddie Brock and his symbiotic alter ego Venom, but the film around him badly, almost astonishingly mismanages all of the good-will he earns even before the titular figure shows up. Director Ruben Flesicher is at his best when winking at another Fleischer, the animation guru from the ‘30s. Or better yet the Marx Brothers, Venom as the cheerfully demented prankster to Hardy’s paranoid, delusory journalist on the tail of a corporate human-experimentation racket. All this should signal you to the closeted truth of Venom: it only really functions as a comedy, and although it’s kind and self-aware enough to imbibe in its pitch-black, sadistic tendencies, it’s not clever enough to truly rely on them. Continue reading
Quite like Avengers: Infinity War, Deadpool 2 traffics in inside-baseball references rather than genuine emotion. It simply treats the insider knowledge required to fully appreciate it as an indication of its impish wit rather than solemn, magisterial weight, but both are essentially, cynically, committed to walling themselves off from criticism with the defense that their critics just “don’t get it”. For Avengers, it’s that you aren’t sufficiently committed to the franchise to “get” its “developments on” (read: regurgitations of) earlier films in its cinematic universe. For Deadpool 2, it’s that you don’t “get” how self-parodic Deadpool 2 is; like any good ironic film, it treats every moment both as sincere narrative event and parody of the same, ensuring that no can capably attack it for fear of being accused of just missing the point.
That’s lame, as it always has been. The least that can be said in Deadpool 2’s favor, however, is that while it is no less self-absorbed than Infinity War, or any MCU film for that matter, it is also very self-amused. Its personal rubric for success is its dialectic of self-appreciation and self-flagellation (quite a fitting duality for the sado-masochistic title character). Of course, its amusement is limited to fairly obvious satire. I’ve heard it compared to the works of Paul Verhoeven (and the film clearly relishes these comparisons as superlatives) but Deadpool’s simultaneously comic and solemn fracas fails the Verhoeven poker-face test whereby the blankness of the expression (Verhoeven’s refusal to admit his satire explicitly) refracts many potential tonal and narrative realities based on the audience’s inclination. In comparison, Deadpool 2 is quite clear that it aspires to be both a serious superhero film and a satire of one, a Janus-face rather than Verhoeven’s delicious death-mask that obfuscates emotions rather than inviting them. Continue reading