The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a difficult film to review. Usually this means one of two things: the film was mediocre and I find myself struggling to say something substantive about it, or I’m fascinated by it but I have not yet figured out how to unlock its mysteries. Usually the latter means I will love the film for its confounding, maddening tension and hate it for the same reason, at least until I see it again. Neither of those is the case for Andrew Dominik’s second film. I know exactly what I think of this film, and it is far from mediocre. The issue with this review is quite simple: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was all-but made for me. And gushing over something does not a review make, so I must try to formulate my jumping up and down into something coherent. Here we go.
Unforgiven is about as gutsy and ravaged a film as you’ll find from a mainstream American director, a work which not only deconstructs a genre of film but the filmmaker’s entire career. It’s seeped in merciless violence, but as much a violence which occurred decades before the film begins as any violence which occurs from first reel to denouement. It rolls over the arid hills of the American West, bathed in a dark, ominous red of the blood done in the past but which refuses to be forgotten. With Unforgiven, Eastwood not only tears down the violent core of America’s past, but he has a few choice words for the gaze we place upon violence in modern society. We’re fascinated with it. And Eastwood, a man whose career was built on celluloid violence, knows this well. He runs us through the wringer with quiet, elegiac visual poetry which provides us with a dreamy, mythic Western landscape and that turns out to be a nightmare clinging us to our past. This is cinema of implication, with Eastwood questioning whether we can ever break from the horror-show of the Western genre and underlining his question in blood-red strokes. Continue reading →
Update mid-2018: This remains one of those very early college-era reviews I’m not especially content with. In an ideal world, I would write up a new piece, but having recently rewatched the film, I’ll simply note how much I still admire its bracingly self-effacing tone, its stylistic shagginess, and its will to break any illusion of a dramatic arc. Before, of course, Altman finally side-winds us with a self-critically arbitrary conclusion: a parodic football game that sketches the link between competitive sport and war-mongering, doubles as a satire of dramatic pay-off, and triples as a mockery of masculinity – that ego-stroking liminal realm where the interstices of anarchy and authoritarianism, id and dogma, collapse into one another – played in Altman’s quintessentially sardonic key.
Original – Edited – Review:
Long considered one of America’s favorite comedies, MASH was, ironically for its famed humor, director Robert Altman’s coming-out as a serious filmmaking force to be reckoned with. Released in 1970, it was one of the first films to deal with the Vietnam War (albeit under a historical guise) seriously and, released in January of 1970, it was the first masterpiece of the literal “1970s American New Wave” (which technically began a few years earlier in 1967). It’s a comedy, yes, but it’s also a daring, caustic exploration of male culture, American smugness and malaise (categorically Altman’s favorite topic as a bitterly comic dissector of his nation’s culture), and war bureaucracy (the connection to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is unmistakable, perhaps fitting considering the underwhelming formal adaptation of that book released the same year – one can’t complain though, for Altman gave us all we’ll ever need on the book). This is a film with many big laughs and many more subtle chuckles. But that I have used the word “serious” multiple times in only the first paragraph is anything but coincidence. Continue reading →
In my month-long look at British cinema, the one figure I could not even dream of avoiding wasn’t David Lean or Michael Powell (the nation’s two greatest filmmakers), but a big man known around the world in the smug, terse way he cannot help but introduce himself to everyone he meets: Bond, James Bond. In many ways, he is the modern pop-culture symbol of Britain, and he’s far more popular today, 52 years after his first cinematic outing, than his humble beginnings in 1962’s Dr. No would suggest. He, in a sense, personifies many things commonly associated with Britain, both the good (intellect, wit, sure-faced chill, dogged tenacity), the bad (misogyny, macho-post-colonialism, distant militaristic sense of a dehumanized and mechanized order hidden under aristocratic airs, dogged tenacity) and the both (smarminess, standoffish cool, dogged tenacity). Above all, he captures that sense of unending existence, that notion of always being there and recovering from whatever ails him, which Britain loves to see in itself. And plenty has gone wrong with the Bond series over the years, but as his films are wont to declare, Bond will always return. You just can’t keep a (maybe not so) good man down.
When Rango was first announced, it seemed like a dream come true. An animated film starring a lizard that embraces and likely parodies the Western genre? Now there’s something for you. Unfortunately, there was that whole trailer thing … well, let’s just say the trailers were downright tepid and filled with jokes that seemed more clever than funny, products of a writer hopped up on his or her own ego. Continue reading →
Update mid-2018: A delirious and truly tragic portrait of egomaniacal scientific rationalism, David Cronenberg’s The Fly still earns any and all comparisons to Shelley and all others who have traced the contours of modernity in the Dark Romantic tradition, from the summit of intoxication all the way to the pit of self-inflicted abjection.
David Cronenberg has made a career out of abstracting science fiction and horror even as he corrodes it through pure, grotesque, bodily flesh. He produces cautionary tales about humanity rooted in oppressive, caterwauling imagery, films that directly appeal to the unconscious rather than the rational. What his films lack in traditional narrative, they often make up for in a wild-eyed aura of bodily mutation and a dense shroud of omnipresent atmosphere that strangles us and arouses monstrous life in his world. Continue reading →
The central reality of The Muppets, the thing which many are afraid to speak but which virtually any opinion of the film fundamentally rests on, is nostalgia. One might expect, considering that the film’s director James Bobin is most known for co-creating the archly-dry Flight of the Concords, that this film would follow suit and place the emphasis squarely on the reality that everything which made the Muppets so lovable was also extremely lame (and I mean this in the best way possible, since the Muppets were always proud of their lameness and held it in high regard).This is not so, for Bobin and co-writers Jason Segel and Nick Stoller in fact adopt not arch-irony but arch-genuineness in the film. The humor, while occasionally pointed, is mostly of the gentle and sweetly grinning variety, clearly in an attempt to mimic the original show. In today’s hyper-cynical world, this is quite a wonderful thing, and it makes the film curiously out-of-touch (in a good way) with a modern society that can’t seem to enjoy anything without its daily dose of irony on the side. Continue reading →
Few genres run the gamut of nervy nightmare to clear-conscience mirth like the Western. Some films have used the medium to push deeper and deeper on the world’s great un-bandaged wounds. But, traditionally, the genre has been enjoyed for its ability to set the mind at ease. Filled with grand, black-and-white archetypes which convince us of a world long-gone predicated on righteous morality, the Wild West is less reality than a dream, a moral vision of America’s mid-century hopes for a conservative world in an era where the world’s complications were increasingly boiling to the surface. In the 1940s and 1950s, the genre was the ultimate in cinematic comfort food.
With the release of Guardians of the Galaxy, by far the Marvel Studios film with the greatest personal voice for its writer-director, let’s take a look back about a year (I know, so long ago). Let’s place our gaze onto one of the company’s only other films to bear the sensibility of its primary author, and to play out less like another day at the office than a film of vision, however messy and uncontrolled that vision may be. Ladies and Gentlemen, Iron Man 3.
Iron Man 3 is important for a number of reasons. The only one destined to get any significant attention in the press was its release as the first “phase two” Marvel Studios movie. But none of that actually matters – phase two Marvel isn’t really meaningfully different from phase one Marvel, other than that we now realize that the series is getting very tired, very quickly, and that the company’s movies aren’t really the beacon to Hollywood blockbusters they were positioned as five years ago. Continue reading →
After uploading two of the most depressing British films I can imagine, I decided a nice counter-balance would be in order: a couple of bonus reviews of just about two of the damn cheeriest films in existence. It’s been my pleasure. Update 2018: As is the case with so many of these roughly college-written reviews, I don’t exactly agree with this anymore, especially in my expression of my ideas, and often in terms of my ability to perceive the film’s ideas in the first place. I’ll let this review stand as is, but at this point in my life, I’d be inclined to argue that the film isn’t really taking pop to task as artificial, proposing a leaden pop and reality dichotomy, but rather using pop dialectically, to discover other avenues to truth – the truths of experimentation, adventure, silliness, spontaneity, artifice – that lie not necessarily outside but at least beyond observational documentary reality as it is conventionally understood.
It’s a rare and beautiful thing that something that should in any sane universe be nothing more than a phoned-in cash-grab is in fact one of the great pieces of pop-anarchism ever essayed on film. A Hard Day’s Night, the film accompanying the album of the same name (the Beatles’ first all-time classic album) in 1964, played a big part in asserting the band’s dominance in the Western world. And, intentionally (wonderfully) it has no real narrative. There’s something in here about the boys and how they get caught up in protecting an old man from his own tomfoolery while they are dealing with preparations for a TV show they are to appear on. But this is merely a clothesline for not only a series of great jokes and gags and the film’s central tension between its technique and its content, but for one of the most thoroughly deconstructive pop manifestos ever committed to celluloid. Continue reading →