Gone Girl really is the ideal movie for David Fincher at this point in time. A stylist who transitioned from music videos to lurid, gloomy B-thrillers, he perfected his crime film aspirations with the deliriously good clinical descent into the mundane in Zodiac, an attempt at “serious-mindedness” that implicitly challenges all other so-called “serious-minded” films for their audience-baiting emotion. More than anything, it was a deeply cold film, a complete re-reading of every grandiose stylistic convention he’d use to make B-thrillers “fun” by taking the same kind of B-thriller and making it deliberately anti-fun to the core. Then, not one year later, he went “warm” with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, an attempt at Oscar glory, followed by an actual success at Oscarbait with The Social Network (despite, you know, not winning the consummate Oscars, but those matter little anyway).
At this point, mainstream respect firmly in tow and an essential carte blanche to take on any project he wanted, he made the only logical decision: reclaim some of his lost genre “cred” while still capturing the hearts of milquetoast suburban parents everywhere, stealing the best of both worlds in the process. Thus came The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. 2014’s Gone Girl is more of the same, an attempt to marry the black-hearted twists of a mystery thriller with the respectable professionalism of an “important, serious film”. And like that 2011 film, it shows that the two genres exist at war with each other, rather than in unison.
For the grand denouement of Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright’s “Three Flavors Cornetto” trilogy, everything implicit in the first two acts is pushed right up to the forefront to the point where it hurts. Namely, what we’ve all been suspecting for a while is now crystal-clear: this is one of the great filmic commentaries on the modern male, as much as it is a parody of the genres of film called home by that particular subset of humanity. In this tripartite comedy reworking of horror, action, and now science fiction tropes, the cheery bad-boys of the UK are exploring the mindset of the male through the genres of film men put their lives on hold for. They give us men, epitomized by Nick Frost and Simon Pegg, who play out the male fantasy of these films, and we get a genial mockery of their childish in-fighting snuggling cuddly with a light-hearted homage to the youthful spirit that keeps these guys so young and alive. It’s filmic cognitive dissonance, nervy and anxious to the core. But, like main character Gary King, it plays it so cool we’d never know if we weren’t looking.
Once upon a time there was a genre of film called the Bible Epic. More devourers of money than movies proper, they went the way all such genres eventually do: imploding on their own gluttonous mass and dragged kicking and screaming into a hell of their own making. The rise of European cinema in America had a lot to do with it. The American New Wave had much more. But the Bible Epic was doomed just like its dear bedfellow, the sword-and-sandal film, both with nowhere to go but the way of the Romans so often depicted with a curious confusion in both genres: self-immolation, a death from inside attempts to fly closer and closer to the sun without any sense of themselves. If the Bible Epic needed a few extraneous factors circling like vultures to truly crash-and-burn, that’s only insofar as reacting to these outside influences caused a need for even more strained, draggy, self-indulgent screenplays that insisted all the louder and prouder that they were just hot shit to increasingly deaf ears. Continue reading
Michael Mann’s Public Enemies is perhaps notable for being the least Mann-like film ever to arrive with the famously iconoclast director’s seal of approval. The content is still there: a study of men so subsumed by their own identity and ego they can’t but suffocate on it, and women who factor in more as plot points than living, breathing humans (then again, can anyone be a living, breathing human in Mann’s archly-detached world aiming to destroy any sense of human identity?) This time, the two subjects are the poster-boy for Great Depression era super-stardom and bad-boy decay, John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and the stoic, square-jawed Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), the gumshoe sent to show Dillinger his maker. They’re quintessential males from the director whose name had gender on the mind before he could. But if the content is here, the style most certainly is not. And it’s not an over-exaggeration to say that Mann’s films are Mann’s style. So what does that leave Pubic Enemies with?
District 9 is not a nuanced film, nor is its metaphor. Filmed in the slums of Johannesburg, there’s an eerie, earthen verisimilitude to the film’s physicality that simultaneously lends South Africa a depressing gritty realism and expounds upon its alienized social distance. But it is very obviously a parable of human exclusion and prejudice, literalizing the alien in the “other” of race by fitting it into a sci-fi story about actual space travelers. Parable isn’t quite right though – the film is more a vague satire, not particularly pinpoint but workmanlike in its broad-based feeling. Nonetheless, sharp it is not. If it really wants to stake its claim as something more than a bit o’ fun with new filmic toys propping up the seams, it’s on less sure-footing.
If it’s not particularly smart, Blomkamp’s directorial debut at least gets points for attitude. There’s a loose docudrama snark to the film that evaporates before the end but sees the film at its best. In the early stages, we meet Wikus van de Merke (Sharlto Copley), a low-level bureaucrat given a patronage position examining the slums of Johannesburg, South Africa. Obviously, the real world implications insist upon themselves, but the film wastes no time in front-loading its futurist situation where an alien species has crash-landed on the city’s outskirts. Naturally, humanity does as humanity does and throws them into abject poverty backed by a sketchily defined system of cognitive stratification (one would hope the poorly defined nature of the oppression outside of the slum is an intentional commentary on sketchily-drawn racism, but it works more like Blomkamp just sort of dropped the ball on the broader political situation in this world). Soon enough, of course, Wikus is prey to his own catlike curiosity and finds himself changing to become…well, you see where this is going. Continue reading
Science fiction was in vogue in the late ’70s, largely due to the success of George Lucas’ Star Wars, which kick-started perhaps the greatest popular revolution in American film history and drove the medium to new commercial heights. Of course, it saw mixed results for the art-form: a rebirth of genre filmmaking married to the deadening and eventual end of the New Hollywood drama which had married classical themes to European New Wave modes of storytelling to brilliant effect and which, in fact, made American film interesting after a long drop-off in the ’60s. After Star Wars, many studios grew less interested in drama and shifted toward pop commercialism, aiming for big, big, and bigger at the expense of nuance.
In the midst of this transition, many filmmakers didn’t know what to do. Left with the choice of going “pop” or going further into independent art films, many succeeded at neither and floundered. However, one of the late-bloomers of the New Hollywood, someone who hailed from Britain unlike most of his brethren and who had given us one solid film in The Duellists, clearly saw the change coming and knew he had to adapt. He also knew, truly, that new genres didn’t necessarily mean fluffy ones. After all, Stanley Kubrick had given the film world one of its most esoteric, most haunted pieces of chilly intellectualism in the sci-fi genre, so why couldn’t others follow suit?
Update 2018: With all the news about the retail apocalypse, swamping America these days, it’s both curiously innocent and deceptively terrifying to return to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead as a vision of life after death where our consumer habits mark us as prematurely deceased in life anyway. In this film, the suburban consumer hub where we metaphorically (and literally) armor ourselves against assault from our zombified negative mirror-images also become our collective coffin. Because in life and death we can only think to shop, our protective shell becomes an iron maiden, America’s multi-story beacon of convenient commercialization and mid-century superiority curdled into a national self-cleaning oven.
Also, watching again, the film’s broad-side critique of masculine America’s preferred outlet for social critique during the ’70s – anti-social biker gangs choosing self-aggrandizing, mythic displacement and libertarian idealism over serious collective organizing – is all the more pressing today. Romero reads Easy Rider not simply as a hopeless quest for sanctity and a perpetual deferral of home in light of the dethroned classical nuclear family structure but a caricature of “rebellion,” an attempt by men to reinstate new social structures in ways which incline toward the brutishly male, the individualistically chaotic, and often – insofar as biker gangs and Neo-Nazis have a historical connection – the truly oppressive.
I wasn’t originally going to review two Romero films in the American New Wave series, but ’tis the season, and a horror review for the week of Halloween seemed only humane of me.
Dawn of the Dead is not a nuanced film, nor is George A. Romero a nuanced director. His scrappy, unfinished filmmaking was perfect for Night of the Living Dead, a low-budget monstrosity of the most blackened variety. The eternal concern of an independent filmmaker looms large over Dawn of the Dead, however: what hell hath a larger budget wrought? As it turns out, not much, for Dawn of the Dead manages to maintain Romero’s proudly non-nuanced filmmaking, marry it to some proudly non-nuanced social commentary, and elevate both to a sort of mythic nature that doesn’t need nuance when it can replace it with chutzpah and fearless gusto. And if Romero in 1978 as a director had anything, it was chutzpah and fearless gusto. Continue reading