Monthly Archives: September 2014

Review: Calvary

If The Guard was a strong, entertaining if somewhat slight caustic comedy, Calvary keels over and knocks things back down to Earth, hinting at even greater things under John McDonagh’s sleeves in the process. The film, which details one week in the life of Father James (Brendan Gleeson) and takes place in a quintessentially Irish countryside, deals with crises of faith with an uncustomary humanity and sincerity (especially considering John and brother  Martin’s reputation for snarky, brittle humor). The warmth shouldn’t be confused for lack of despair though –  the center of the plot is James being told in a confession booth that the man confessing plans to kill him at the end of a week. The reason? He was molested by another priest in his childhood and, after trying to cope for years, he can no longer come to terms with himself and needs to lash out to acquire some sense of vengeance. Continue reading

Midnight Screenings: The Films of Ben Wheatley

This post being slightly in honor of Wheatley’s directing of the first episode of Doctor Who Season 8, and mostly in honor of him just being a highly talented new filmmaker I happened to have a few mini-reviews written on. Seriously, do check this guy out. 

A Field in England

A Field in England opens with a warning about the film’s psychotic, psychedelic imagery, but it serves, and was likely intended, as much as a badge of honor– the film’s visuals are gloriously perturbed, and the trickery on display is the film’s biggest selling point. This is all the truer when one considers the film’s enigmatic narrative and its clear subversions, even from its opening moments. If the film opens with the aforementioned warning about its visual nature, it immediately cuts to a black screen with only chaotic sound for thirty or so seconds, pointedly delaying what it’s just promised us. Then, of course, there’s the film’s black-and-white monotony when we now automatically associate visual splendor with cheerful color, and the fact that the film opens with a battle scene captured purely in close-ups and shots of single, atomized people, as well as quavering images of bushes. It doesn’t play like a battle in reality, but as the arch impression of a battle, the sense of chaos and loneliness ever-present but indescribable when on the edge of life and death – it’s an almost abstract collage of imagery divorced from context to convey the holistic difficulty of understanding war representationally or experientially. A Field in England is a pure, distilled cinematic hell.
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Film Noirs and Cinematic Scars: Kiss Me Deadly

Updated mid-2015

Kiss Me Deadly, released in 1955, is one of the last great classic period film noirs, but it wasn’t often acknowledged as such originally. It was fought by politicians and “moral” figures at the time of its release, seen as the kind of film dangerous teenage types went to see in hopes of engendering social subversion. And this concern, about the danger it posed to accepted, conservative social mores, was valid: not only is this a lurid and exploitative film, but it has the gall to elevate these qualities to high art and use them to reflect on the luridness and exploitation perhaps intrinsic to human nature. Continue reading

Film Noirs and Cinematic Scars: The Killing

Edited and Updated Mid-2016

It’s perhaps fitting that The Killing, a film so predicated on control and careful positioning was brought to life by a director who lived and breathed control and precision. It is usually considered director Stanley Kubrick’s first “mature” film, something which has two meanings here. Firstly, it’s the film where we see aspects of the filmmaker’s form and style come to fruition, including perhaps his most ubiquitous care:  his love of calculated, icy cold filmmaking, perniciously-formed and rigorous like clockwork mechanics, where humans don’t much matter at all except in their capacity to move event and process forward. The Killing is the kind of filmmaking which would define his later efforts and mark him as one of the great visual masters of contempt-ravaged cinema, and it is a particularly suited film, and film genre, the noir, for Kubrick to have cut his metallic teeth on. Continue reading

American New Wave: Frogs

Were you expecting maybe Bugs Bunny? So we arrive at 1972, not nearly the best year in the American New Wave, but the year with the release of the most famed film to call the time and place home. Yes, The Godfather is a classic piece of American cinema and a great film in its own right. I’ll maintain a certain confusion as to its status as the most loved of all American films (only rivaled by Citizen Kane and Casablanca). It’s undeniably stellar, but there is a mighty space on the couch between very great and quintessential, and I’ll leave the discussion with that. Mostly, it’s just a film that so much has been written about, I do not feel I can add anything meaningful (not that such a pesky thing has ever stopped me before, but I’m not above bad excuses).
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Midnight Screening: Under the Skin

 

under-the-skin-under_the_skin_stills-193711_rgbEdited Dec 2014 after I watched a second time and noticed how jaw-dropping the sound design is; sometimes the beauty of images, and the fact that film is a primarily visual medium, distract from the wondrous world of noise. 

Under the Skin opens with several minutes of film boiled down to its pure essentials: sound and image. Quite literally, the film begins on an impenetrable warble that morphs into a drone, with a mouse of a light at an eternal distance from us and moving ever-forward. It grows blinding as the noise distracts and unnerves us further, before the abstract light becomes an eye – the very means by which we process images, all the more telling considering the way what precedes this eye favors sound at the expense of image.

We then get an archly, inescapably clinical white canvas upon which a person we know nothing of (Scarlett Johansson) walks around another person, observing her with no sound, and taking off her clothes – the scene is not the least bit erotic, nor does it contain any other semblance of emotion whatsoever. It is instead a pure ballet of motion, obsessed with the human form in movement, as well as everyday noises – pants sliding off of legs – which are loudened to unnatural levels, registering a kind of intimacy that is intoxicating but also uncomfortably alienating. It is a wondrous display of pure cinema, and in its supremely naturalistic but deeply abstract detachment, it fails to give us any particularly mimetic information, any reasonable grounding in the world around us. In doing so, the opening paradoxically turns no emotion into perhaps the ultimate emotions: detached fascination curdles into inescapable abjection and truly abyssal dread.  Continue reading

Film Noirs and Cinematic Scars: Laura

This being the first in a month-long film noir review series. 

A basic description of Otto Preminger’s Laura gives the impression of a typical film noir:  a woman is murdered and a detective tries to figure out who did it. Technically that’s an apt description, but it misses the forest for the trees. When one thinks of film noir, one imagines dark, hard-edged characters, masculine cynics who deal in obsession, and a film with a suitably single-minded focus, a film suffocating on pure mortal fear and sin. This is not Laura. Where we expect focus, we find malaise. Where we expect single-mindedness, we have a lackadaisical atmosphere. Where we expect desperation, we get pomp and circumstance. And where we expect something ruthlessly efficient, we find something that quietly sneaks up on you, is generally amused with itself, and befuddles at every turn. Continue reading

Midnight Screaming: The Shining

Updated mid-2015

Stanley Kubrick spent a long time lost in the wilderness of The Shining, and perhaps fittingly for the famously brutal director, it has a back-story to match its on-screen horrors. Most famous is the off-screen feud between Kubrick and the author of the book the film is based on, Stephen King. King’s voice was becoming increasingly popular when the film was released in 1980; he was on his way to becoming a genuine pop culture phenomenon, and his famous distaste for the film drew much media attention, so much that it threatened to overshadow the film itself. Thankfully, Kubrick was an imposing, conniving, controlling maelstrom of a director, the kind of man who, for good or bad, would never release a film that would stand behind its backstory in import. Perhaps because of all the tensions surrounding the film’s production, he had no real choice but to up and direct a masterpiece. He succeeded.
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American New Wave: McCabe and Mrs. Miller (AKA: Yes, yes I did two Altman films in two weeks. Deal with it. He deserves it.)

hero_eb19991114reviews08911140301arEdited and Updated 2016

Released only one year after Robert Altman’s first masterpiece, MASH, this sly, revisionist Western is the rare film whose intentions and affect are captured fully in its opening credits.  Fore-grounded, we have an image of a decrepit, hunched over, and phony looking enigma of a man riding slowly into an equally decrepit and hunched-over town. It is nothing short of a stunningly snarky and caustic wry mockery of the Western archetype hero riding into town to save the day. Only he isn’t there to “save the day” here. He, McCabe (Warren Beatty), simply wants to make a name for himself, and he does so by running a brothel, but only once he’s saved by a woman who initially couldn’t care less about him, the down-to-earth Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie) who somehow manages to maintain an unreachable magisterial mystery about her. And that’s the film in a nutshell: decrepit, deadened, and down-trodden yet still somehow attaining a sort of energetic sense of positively alert human feeling. In this sense, it is the quintessential New Wave film. Continue reading

National Cinemas: Aguirre, the Wrath of God

This being the first review for the month of September during the “National Cinemas” project, and thus the first review in a month-long exploration of German cinema. It seemed only appropriate to go with the best film by Germany’s greatest living filmmaker.  

Edited early 2016

When someone coined the term “Location, location, location”, I don’t think they had Herzog’s films in mind. Yet it’s an apt description for his filmmaking sensibility.  As depicted by Herzog, location is a mindscape of pure emotional resonance. He spoke vividly, and still does, about the “ecstatic truth” of the movies, the idea that reality or logic matter not when a film speaks to the rawest emotions of human-kind. And in the Amazon, a place of wonder and desperation where civilization ends and the essences of humanity and the world play out with little mercy, Herzog found his ultimate test-case. Fascinated by it, he decided to do what any great madman would: make a film about it. Continue reading