Just a short post here, for the Thanksgiving Holiday is keeping from working up the energy to post a new review in full (there’s always tomorrow). In the meantime, here’s a link to a lengthy piece I wrote for Taste of Cinema about Opening Title Sequences. Have fun!
When it comes to bad movies, they just don’t make ‘em like they used to. Luc Besson’s Lucy looked, for all intents and purposes, like a sure-fire contender for worst movie of the year, filled with half-baked, overly-confident gestures at science and pseudo-intellect, all acting to crowd out an otherwise tepid, self-serious “splosions and skin-tight suits” movie. It turns out, for the most part, the movie is exactly that. But that’s not the surprise. The surprise is that Besson decided this would be the first of his patented European school of testosterone filmmaking in a good many years to actually fulfill its European origins. Yes, there’s the “it has talking” thing, sure, but that is not the subject of the previous sentence. Lucy is European not because it is smart, for it is not, but because it is crazy. And it is entirely willing to break the fourth wall, existing less as an action film proper than a dissent into giddy madness and art-school, color-coded energy.
Update mid-2019: With the release of a jokey, essentially hesitant new Shaft film that seems more frightened of the possibility of a serious African-American hero than skillfully parodying the same archetype, the original 1971 film’s defiantly un-hesitant seriousness is bracing to this day. Cutting both American politics and the elephantine girth of ’60s Hollywood productions down to size, there’s a fugitive simplicity at the core of Shaft, a no-nonsense vision of black empowerment that simultaneously seems uncertain about whether it is truly achieving anything politically. As a film, it’s both a blunt portrait of a rapidly neoliberalizing America and, despite its black heroism, a skeptic when it comes to the question of whether this “sex machine to all the chicks” is truly the hero who will lead us after the fire next time.
As lean as its name, Shaft benefits considerably from director (and former photographer) Gordon Parks’ sensate, resolutely non-metaphysical worldliness. While the titular character has an undeniably phallic forward motion, there’s always a more communal undercurrent, a sense that Parks is rekindling his days photographing the black working class for the Farm Security Administration, albeit here with a more assertively urban slant. Which is to say: while the main character may be the black cat who won’t cop out, Shaft is more polyphonous than its demonstrably individualistic title suggests. While Roundtree is strutting through New York City, Parks finds time to scour the periphery for intimations of collective woe. He wrestles tiny particles of racial anger out of the malaise of the post-’68 moment.
Shaft struggles, of course, with any kind of permissiveness to gender issues, but the film’s will to explore the shifting matrices of blackness in the early ’70s and to question the moral architecture of the classical Hollywood hero (while still succumbing to its individualism) still hold up, especially in that amazing introductory shot. A coup de cinema, the intro imagines the titular character as a shark cutting through the New York streets, paying no heed to the white film stars who are trapped and immobilized in the film posters above his head, unable to truly commune with the city or exercise any motion at all. Thus, while it’s been easy to mock the film for its performance of black masculinity since its release, it also stages a potent drama of American fissure, fingering the jagged grain of post-civil-rights America in a way few films had before, and surprisingly few have since.
To paraphrase Isaac Hayes, and my intro for my review of The Warriors, there are many ways to begin talkin’ ‘bout Shaft, but I, perhaps by necessity, will begin by talkin’ ‘bout Shaft. And by Shaft I mean Richard Roundtree’s Shaft, the film’s central character, and the way the film is so fascinated with him even when it seems to be going through the motions of an honestly rather tepid plot-line. Yes, Shaft has to spent the majority of his film Shaft, and it is his film mind you, searching about for the daughter of a black gangster, kidnapped by a white gangster. And yes, he needs to find her to prevent an all-out race war from flooding the streets. But that really isn’t important – what is important is Shaft himself, not so much what he has to do, but the sheer fact of the man. More simply put, what makes Shaft work is not that what Shaft is doing is particularly noteworthy, but that it is Shaft himself who is doing those things, and having his way with them. Got that?
Update 2019: Another viewing, and the sensibility of The Warriors intrigues me even more than last time. While Walter Hill’s film feigns late ’70s New Hollywood realism at times, it’s a mislabelling, and perhaps an intentionally teasing one. Rather than presuming access to the “reality” of the lives of these youthful characters, Hill creates a world out of time, a big, poisonous apple that animates its characters’ interior psychologies – their aspirations to stave off the doldrums of youth by abstracting their own identities and turning themselves into heroic caricatures – but seems to keep the protagonists at a melancholic remove. It’s as though the city is their playground, but it can’t be their home.
The excessively affected, even stilted milieu of the film stands totally at odds with the presumption that it will offer a ragged portrait of gritty street-level realism. Instead, Hill offers an effusion, perhaps, of the inner abstractions these characters use to authorize their own sense of play. The film’s poetic weave drops them into this world and characterizes them via their actions, not references to the lives external to the world the film has created; it offers no sense of what they might be doing when the camera is not upon them. The elegiac tone of the film traps the characters, suggesting, tragically, that these wayward youths are embalmed in a tableaux, locked into some eternal struggle, or one they imagine to be eternal, that seems to deny them a sense of life outside this caricature.
It is as if the film is aware that its flattening of emotion, the way it stages the characters in a predetermined theater, robs them of the ungovernable beauty of human spontaneity. This New York is a purgatory of riddles, conjured as a vampiric entity that Hill sketches with a disturbed, almost demented aura, sucking the characters’ possibilities dry even as it scaffolds their imaginations. This is the diametric opposite of a Cassavetes picture, in other words, but The Warriors leans into its limits, and thereby exposes them, and perhaps transforms them into a strength, a sorrowful portrait of characters who seem doomed to the fate that the world, and the film, has dealt them.
There are all manner of things to begin with when discussing Walter Hill’s vigorously urgent 1979 comic book dissection of youth culture (read: action movie focused on gangs in the inner city), but I will choose to begin as the film does: with its opening titles. Fading in on a stark, abstract image of the neon lights of a ferris wheel off in the distance, alighting the blackness with a sickly, neon-tinged purple spinning around, the image then cuts to a similarly stark, darkened shot of blue lights moving across the screen which soon reveal themselves to be the windows of a subway train. A train, a ferris wheel…everyday objects both, but the film distances them from us, suffuses them with an unholy aura, and elevates them with an alien quality, displacing them into a world we do not, and possibly can never know. It’s haunting, a shockingly mellow, plaintive, introspective opening gesture for what is by all means a surface-level blast of energy, but it signals the film’s eye for cinematographic abstraction and its fable-like, neo-classical texture where characters are less people than figures in an icon painting.
First things first: Don Jon never quite comes alive as a work of fiction. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s first directorial effort promises style but uses it sloppily. Plus, it’s as often messily sloppy as it is fascinatingly sloppy. The themes it unveils are multitudinous and often at-odds with one another, and many are not fully reconciled. Put simply, I’m confident JGL had a damn good idea of his film in his head, and he set about using visual storytelling and honest-to-god mise-en-scene, but he forgot to check himself and make sure all his ingredients were setting in the oven. The film swerves back and forth with hectic zeal and energy between a stinging, bitter, and harshly clinical dissection of obsessive compulsion disorder and something much frothier indeed, not quite romantic comedy and not quite snarky attack on the whole of New Jersey as a state. It’s so busy with all these themes it never really has time to come up for air. The end result is something that is stylistically compelling if not for any specific purpose, fascinating in individual moments but much much less than the sum of its parts. Continue reading
Edge of Tomorrow is made of parts increasingly rare these days in the world of summer blockbusters, the most notable surface level rarity being that it ostensibly does not put on the cap of a franchise player. It’s one-and-done (and not only because it failed at the box office), aiming to get in, tell its story, knock a few heads, and slip back out again by the skin of its teeth. There are no grand gestures for future films, no lingering threads. It’s a work remarkably free of ego, a piece cut and chopped to hit and hit hard, and a film that knows when it has out-stayed its welcome. Although it’s not perfect, it rides its remarkably confident, self-contained ambitions pretty damn far. If it gets off a tad bit too late and doesn’t much go anywhere particularly sublime, the ride has such whiplash energy while it lasts, it’s hard to mind. Edge of Tomorrow is not a great film, but it’s a great blockbuster, and the increasingly middling, strained world 2010s summer fare can always use a few of those.
This Southern Gothic update of Mark Twain’s study of a child’s eye of manhood establishes a fantastically minor-key sense of place, just as 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild did slightly downriver, with the Mississippi delta, before it. A character study and coming of age story at heart, it is bleak, submerging its layers of magical realism more subtly than did Beasts. It may be remembered mostly as a notable early role in the McConaughsaince, the amorphous terminology with which we have come to describe Matthew McConaughey’s career reinvention as a “serious” actor of superior craft, and his inscrutable work here is inspiring and wholly effective for the film. At the same time, the attention McConaughey received for the film, while not inaccurate, is somewhat misplaced. Above all, it fails to take into account how talented filmmaker Jeff Nichols uses McConaughey, which is largely as one signpost on his much larger tapestry of Southern woe. Continue reading
Steve Cooper’s first film Crazy Heart was more notable for its central performance than the film surrounding it, and with his follow-up, Out of the Furnace, he manages to coax a number of equally taut, truthful performances out of his better-than-fine cast. But the focus on performance belies the real quiet intensity and knowing humanism of Cooper’s sure hand; it drowns out, as it is wont to do for the public’s acting-above-directing central interests, the work keeping those stars sturdy and focused in the first place. To some extent, this is perhaps appropriate; Cooper is not a director that “insists” upon himself. He’s not showy, asking and begging from his material. Instead, he lets his material surround him; he merely coaxes what is already there out onto the screen. He’s a quiet, naturalist director, not the kind of man seeking to wow, but merely to impress. He’s at his best when he’s at his simplest – direct and thoughtful studies of small people struggling to get by in the locations that breed them – and for the first half of Out of the Furnace, he sticks to his guns as an observer more than a pusher and creates something quietly great, if not essential. Continue reading
Andrew Dominik took a good long time (five years) to release his feature-length follow-up to his magisterial The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. That he is re-teaming with his boy Brad Pitt for this film too, and maintaining the quiet despair and slow-going existentialism of his previous work, begs a mighty something indeed, a something the film can’t quite comfortably coalesce into a wholly successful finished product when all is said and done. Certainly, Dominik’s work is solid here, composed and well-formed and structured with intellect and care, but things only truly alight in a few select sequences where he decides he doesn’t need to be burdened with the weight of narrative filmmaking. It’s a good film, but a disappointingly slight one for a director of Dominik’s skill and gasping ambition. With his last film, he only re-wrote the book – or at least brought back out the re-written book after decades of being lost to dust in the attic – on impressionist, opulent Westerns and American identity… no big deal. Here, he tells a fine crime story, but one is left wanting a little by the transition. Continue reading
Upon seeing the trailers for The Grey, coupled with the dreary two-some of writer-director Joe Carnahan and, as much as it pains me to say it, dad-action hero Liam Neeson, the absolute last words I expected to use in reviewing it were “tone poem”. But experience has a way of changing someone, and there’s nothing I enjoy more than being proven wrong by a film I expected to hate. So, I’ll go ahead and start with the show-stopper: The Grey is one of the modern era’s great cinematic tone poems to human despair and existential dread.