Monthly Archives: December 2014

Stocking Stuffer Reviews: A Separation and Locke

Edited April 2016

A Separation

Right as Abbas Kiarostami seemed to leave the once-proud Iranian cinematic world behind for international super-stardom, Asghar Farhadi surges forth like a bullet into the international cinematic hierarchy and tells everyone to look Iran’s way for some of the most daring narrative cinema being produced today. A Separation is as close to a perfect film as I’ve seen in years, exasperatingly constructed with the heft and storytelling grit of a classic drama out of the ’60s European New Wave. Harsh and impenetrable yet warm and inviting, it unfolds with the punctilious craft of a process-driven film that captures human flesh as it struggles to be at one with the cold, angular world around it. Particular in both visual symmetry and human understanding, it marries look, sound, and feel to a scrupulous whole that just demands to be seen. Continue reading

Stocking Stuffer Reviews: The Raid and Meek’s Cutoff

So what happened is this: As some may have noticed, I have removed my yearly lists of top ten films for the past five years from the site. They’d been taunting me with how quickly my tastes had changed,  and I found them inadequate at this point. Instead, I will be conveniently replacing  them soon with a long list of my 50 favorite films of the first half of the 2010s, now snugly coming to a close after five long years. Expect plenty of overlap, but the text will all be brand spankin’ new, and of course 2014’s crop of beasties will be on board too. I promise I won’t do this again, but a good portion of those lists were leftovers from my previous pre-blog writing days, and I wanted to start fresh with the new year. 

For the next few days I will be uploading a collection of short reviews, in pairs for post-size sake (although the pairs will not be linked conceptually at all, unless you consider films released in the 2010s a sufficient link). All will be of films that are in consideration for the list (great films I first saw or re-watched recently, with some new and not-necessarily-so-great 2014 leftovers I just caught for the first time thrown in for fun). Just some stocking stuffers for y’all to tide you over this Holiday season. 

The Raid: Redemption

2014 brought The Raid 2: Berandal, which upped things to operatic heights of artistic blood-letting and furious visual motion, but sometimes it’s the simple things that pay off in spades. For The Raid 2 frequently hits, and hits hard at that, but if director Gareth Evans took action down to the wheelhouse on a never-ending train ride of grandiose brutality, his storytelling stowed away to no avail. The end result was a film of two halves, one a rampagingly color-coded action extravaganza with an eye for physical motion and space, and the other a pretentious, over-cooked crime thriller with eyes for Infernal Affairs that don’t suit the film’s strengths. Continue reading

Film Favorites: Love and Death

Love and Death sees Allen at a crossroads between his earlier slapstick farces and the soon-to-be whimsical, wistful flights of fancy that would mark his later, more “mature” productions, to use the conventional schematization. Faced with the choice of doubling down on the past or moving forward, he defiantly, quizzically rides two horses with inconstant passion and takes both directions to his heart’s content. For if Love and Death is a relentlessly immature, pointedly foolish construction, it is also perhaps more fun than any director has ever had knocking “maturity” down to size, playing with a burgeoning reputation as a “serious” filmmaker even before such a stature was set in stone. Love and Death saw Allen tired of mocking space opera and the state of the world. He decided to look to the only other place he knew, the past, his personal canon, and take a pitchfork to everything he loved: Tolstoy, Bergman, and everything that took Tolstoy a few inches forward over a hundred years so it could flower into Bergman. Not that Tolstoy and Bergman have anything to do with each other, but in Allen’s mind they can if he wants them to.
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Film Favorites: Crimes and Misdemeanors

Crimes and Misdemeanors, Woody Allen’s dueling morality play about the nature of human worry, is a film of two halves coexisting with pitch-back energy and wracking each others’ brains with literate, indignant abandon. Allen’s film provides an A and a B story, and deliberately defines them as “the Bergman Allen film”, or the thoughtful and intellectual work concerned with human frailty, and the “non-Bergman Allen film”, or the zippy and nervy work about humans in need of frailty and faking it to themselves to hide the fact that they are actually doing A-okay. One story observes a doctor (Martin Landau) who plots to kill his lover and soon comes to care so little about it he can’t be bothered to let it put a limp in his step. The other follows a talented filmmaker (Allen) slumming in more commercial fair, doing okay for himself but looking for woe wherever he can find to get his nightly fix of dark thoughts. One character has no soul, and the other desperately wants to give his away. All the while, Allen’s camera sits back with a mordant smirk on its face and lets the hurt seep in. Continue reading

National Cinemas: Black Sunday

If Italian cinema went high-brow with fine style, so too did it go low with head-first zest and no less rigor. If an argument is to be made for the 1960s as a golden age of European cinema, the undernourished portion of the claim is genre cinema. Not that genre cinema was at a low during the ’60s. Why in France alone we had Clouzot doing an all-time Hitchcock impersonation even as he ushered action cinema to the next level, Franju giving us grisly, poetically classy horror, Melville abstracting crime thrillers to their icy, cosmic cores, and even Godard and Truffaut dipping their toes in the water with their playful noir pastiches Bande a Part and Shoot the Piano Player, respectively.

But the crown jewel of ’60s European genre cinema cannot but be Italian cinema. The elephant in the room is Sergio Leone, elevating the Western by drawing out its cartoon core and emphasizing tactile feel over all else. Deeper still, however, we have a treasure trove of that most unholy of film genres: horror. Giallo would come in full force with the arrival of the glistening crimson reds and sickly yellows of the ’70s, but the ’60s saw no shortage of pristine, pitch-black Italian horrors, most of them admittedly directed by the master of the form: Mario Bava. Most famous for his color-first lurid later cinema that re-propositioned horror as a ballet of human motion and painted-on color, Bava got his start much earlier than we usually assume. In fact, his first film, and arguably his greatest, is a chiaroscuro masterwork fresh from the grave, a Hammer Horror pastiche that beat Hammer at its own game. I speak of course of the fiery death-drive of Bava’s Black Sunday.
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National Cinemas: L’Avventura

Edited June 2016

With Fellini long lost down the surrealist tube and intentionally distancing himself from his earlier realist days, someone in the early ’60s had to fill the neo-realist hole left by the likes of Rossellini and De Sica. Of course, it wasn’t going to be Michelangelo Antonioni, the chilly director of physical space and undersexed human boredom, but he would do in a pinch. Yet, if Antonioni studied the neo-realists well, he was his own beast altogether. Neo-realist classics like Bicycle Thieves attained a certain warmth in their intentional focus on human activity elevated to the realms of mythic quest, but Antonioni was very much fascinated by human inactivity.

Furthermore, he didn’t follow the neo-realist mantra of letting his people do the talking while his camera shakes and rattles about. Instead, Antonioni took a hands-on approach, positioning his characters delicately, defining them in wide compositions that sequester those characters into personal hells. He calculated every frame with a spatial dogmatism akin to Bresson or Hitchcock, but his mantra was more geographic, more geometric than those individual-centric directors. Antonioni, more than any director before, acclimatized his audience to the physical space around his characters. While the typically open-oyster cinematic world usually carves space out for individuals to thrive as the focus, Antonioni curdles space into a malevolent force that fights back. Antonioni’s genius is in how he exposes his characters’ world through methods his characters might approve of; his filmmaking is detached and rigid because his film is about the detached and the rigid. He was making a film for his characters, but a film that deeply laments those characters as they eschew a world of connection and turn the human-world relationship into a war of attrition.
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Film Favorites: Vertigo

A man is tempted by an insidious, curvaceous force that feigns the feminine form and he slowly finds himself wound up like a ball of yarn for the cats’ night out. That’s how Vertigo begins, but only in the most superficial sense how it dissolves. It stars James Stewart as Scottie Ferguson, a private eye hired by a friend to spy on the friend’s wife Madeline (Kim Novak), whom the man believes is possessed by a familial specter who has long overstayed her tenancy in the human body. Soon enough, Scottie finds himself in love, and perhaps so too does Madeline. Things truck along in ghostly romantic chiller fashion from this point on, but director Alfred Hitchcock couldn’t resist slopping some blood on the tracks.

In 1958, Hitch was on top of the world, but he was about to blow the roof out. Over the next three years, he would release perhaps his tripartite masterpiece, spinning wildly from the psychoanalytic modernism of Vertigo to the boisterous, brash thrills-a-minute of North by Northwest, and sticking the landing with the black-hearted chiller Psycho, which would forever redefine horror filmmaking. All apologies to his latter two efforts, Vertigo is his time-capsule piece, and arguably the most singular and unclassifiable American film of released post-Welles. The reason for the film’s success is simple: it is quite clearly Hitchcock having the most fun he ever did behind a camera, cackling some of his most dementedly grotesque chuckles in the process. It’s a maddening, cataclysmic, ungodly little curio that plays a downright mean trick on the audience, and goes home laughing all the way. Continue reading

Film Favorites: Some Like it Hot

Update late 2018:

Watching again four holiday-seasons later, Some Like it Hot is such a prickly affair, so spirited and yet so suspicious of society, so generous and joyous and yet so acrid and jarring, so innocent and compassionate and yet loaded so deviously with subterfuge. And, in some ways, so much less and more transgressive than some critics make it out to be, with so much less to say about gender in the traditional sense – it doesn’t really dispell any stereotypes or even advocate for fluidity per-se – and yet so much more to say about the intersection between social identity and achievement, and the intersection of desire, gender, and capital, more broadly, insofar as the two protagonists perform alternative genders to fill a role in society when their existing roles are questioned or eliminated.

But Some Like it Hot confounds expectations at every turn. It’s practically baked into the film’s structure, beginning with a gorgeous prologue which rather seditiously feigns full-on gangster drama, and even though the protagonists escape that genre, the film never gets out of dodge: its always nervous, always serious, and never dethrones its characters or their anxieties for the sake of a joke. The famous final line, so hilarious in the moment, intimates a full history of tragedy and dashed expectations. Other scenes presage the vicious ecstasy of Wilder’s later One, Two, Three, but this film stages a truly mordant drama that always makes its empathy legible, frustrating any desire to mock the males’ foolishness for wanting to dress up or believing they can easily pass off as women without any understanding of the social codes of gender which until that point in their lives had been essentially preordained or written-off as “natural”.

Worthy of absurdity though their fumbling attempts to realize the performative nature of gender may be, the film never sabotages or demeans their inexpressible desires which are veiled in rhetoric and miscommunicated encounters. Instead, it frustrates their ability to express them clearly and cleanly. Thriving in the pragmatic space between internal dreams and external manifestations of those dreams, Some Like it Hot explores both the tragic and absurdist dimension of the fact that we must mediate desires through social roles which cannot fully explain or express those desires.

Original Review:

No one did Old Hollywood like Billy Wilder. And by did, I mean toyed with. He made Old Hollywood film stylings his pet. And if Billy Wilder was your owner, you were liable to succumb quite quickly to his oppressive, cynical charm. You’d grow up an ass, but you’d have a lot of fun in the meantime. He perfected perhaps the most Old Hollywood genre of all, film noir, in 1944 with his nihilist fable Double Indemnity, sent Old Hollywood off in fine style with his late period The Apartment, and generally dived deep into Old Hollywood and ripped it into little pieces from the inside out with his masterpiece among masterpieces, Sunset Blvd. But America never loved a Billy Wilder film like Some Like it Hot, and it’s easy to see why. Never before, and probably never since, has a comedy been so carefully assembled to walk a thin line between sauce and sweetness, between bouncy, lascivious swagger and prim-and-proper airs. And perhaps never before was Wilder so gosh-darned fun. Continue reading

Film Favorites: Dr. Strangelove (Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb)

Update 2018: Strangelove’s mockery of masculinist egotism is as acerbic as ever, somehow emblazoned rather than tempered by the sheer mundaneness of the film, its depiction of Cold War crisis not as ideological quagmire but banal kerfuffle between functionaries. The bomb dick is a supremely brutal image, as mischievous as it is evocative of the tensions and aporias in mid-century Cold War culture and the increasing totalitarianism of capitalist and communist ideologies alike. Totally cuts through the crisis-logic of world ideologies by exposing how quotidian the construction of apocalypse really is.

Original Review:

It is the eternal misfortune of the critic, or any person really, to look back upon their years of film viewing and come to the realization that they’ve changed. Critics merely have more tangible evidence to this case. It is especially unfortunate when one’s preferences change to the point where the funny bone is not on the laundry list of necessary boxes to check upon viewing a film. I kid, for we aren’t all heartless bastards or anything, but sometimes it can seem that way. This is why I try, sometimes against my better judgment, to keep things generally light around these parts of the internet. It is why I try to set my sights on something a little … more genial than my normal repertoire of parables of human decay that come in only two forms: grim and actively soul-destroying.

I don’t laugh a lot in movies, plain and simple. But, there’s a joyous flip-side as well! Each time I do cackle at a moving image, the moment is all the more prescient and grin-inducing for its rarity. And, since it is the Holiday season and all, I felt it time for a slight gift to myself, the gift of laughter. I’ve already reviewed a couple of my all-time favorite rib ticklers, such as Duck Soup and This is Spinal Tap. They are part of the precious few, and the following two films keep their company well. Fitting the spirit of the films, I’ll also keep things fast and loose, and try to keep the reviews from imploding on itself for getting too long in the tooth. Perhaps a few more will come as December comes to a close, if of course I maintain the Holiday cheer. But no promises.

Dr. Strangelove

Amusingly, I’ve already failed to keep my promise of promoting “genial” films, and it’s only choice #1. When I’m sick I always make a trip to the doctor, but you wouldn’t know this particular surgeon to bring joy from the bone-dry tone and swirling sense of nihilist dread seeping through the frames and suffocating everything that walks within. For Dr. Strangelove (Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb) doesn’t have a genial bone in its body. It’s a vicious, angry little nasty-minded bit of coal for your Christmas morning. Were you expecting anything else from the English language’s bleakest director, Stanley Kubrick? If he knew the meaning of the word “playful’, it was only in the context of attaching puppet strings to human flesh and moving them around like the devil’s playthings. They were his toys, and Dr. Strangelove is him on his Christmas morning with a smirk a mile wide.

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Sound Waves? I Don’t Know. A Lame Pun About How Bats See with Sound: Batman Returns

In 1989, a little would-be blusterous rabble-rouser who fell deeply in love with classic genre film history made a little independent film about an inconsequential twerp of a hero named Batman. And he just about conquered the world in doing so. Problems aside – namely the fact that it wasn’t much of a Batman film – it was a competent bit of Gothic blockbuster fluff and well-deserving of a sequel by the same filmmaker. And, with the sheer quantity of money the film brought in, Warner Bros. wasn’t about to go and deny the opportunity for another several hundred million dollars their way.

Now. There is an old saying about what happens when you give hungry, passionate directors too much money and they become stagnant and bored with their success. That happened with Tim Burton, just as it always happens with unique voices of his sort in the all-devouring Hollywood machine. But it didn’t happen with Batman Returns. Correction: it absolutely did not happen with Batman Returns, one of the dreariest, gnarliest Hollywood blockbusters ever released, and dare I say one of the most anti-blockbuster.
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