Predestination is so close to being just another in a long line of too on-the-nose puzzle box movies. So much of what it does is ape the sort of sub-Christopher Nolan modern-era “betcha can’t guess where this is going to go?” holier-than-thou smug superiority that sacrifices visual nuance and crafty characterization for placing viewers in an icy cold puzzle box that was hired instead of a story. It’s so close to not working that its kind of a miracle it does work at all. It’s even more of a miracle that so much of why it works is in the acting, my much-chagrined “don’t care” department and perennial vote for “most overrated thing about the whole cloth of cinema”. Besides story, of course.
Yet it is a film entirely about performance, and the way in which the whole film itself is a performance. This ends up gifting the film with a certain self-critique that allows it to resist some of the overly-rigid caverns of Christopher Nolan territory. It is not a perfect film, nor even a great one, but the fact that it so astoundingly avoids being a lame retread of an already tepid, soullessly ultra-clever, territory at all makes it kind of a godsend of impressive saving graces in the first place. It’s also a bit unfortunate that a film this well made and acted had to go and step all over itself by being a puzzle-box movie in the first place, but we can’t have everything.
The Boy Next Door is a film alive with the sense of discovery that “yes, a film can be this bad in 2015”, and it is astoundingly welcome for this reason. Directed Rob Cohen, who still exists apparently, and starring Jennifer Lopez, who also sometimes remembers that she is an actual person, The Boy Next Door is a riot, plain and simple, and it seems to have absolutely no sense that it is. Just the idea alone works wonders: a high school English teacher (Jennifer Lopez) who has an affair with local resident supposed-nice-guy, takes-care-of-his-paraplegic-uncle, male-model, good-with-his-hands-if-you-know-what-I-mean Noah Sandborn (Ryan Guzman). All is well and good, until he turns out to be a particularly abusive male-privilege hound who obsesses over her and is willing to kill to get what he wants.
It just reeks of a certain sort of “this really belongs in the early 90s” erotic thriller amazement that is so special today it can’t but be passed up. Thankfully, the actual film lowers itself to the occasion of its concept. It is a truly awful film, a work of such pure incompetency it really ought to be seen by everyone with more than a touch of investment in cinema as a craft and art, if only as a case-study in what not to do when making a film. And in how to do all of these things wonderfully and without an ounce of apology.
A critic should be honest about their biases. Considering this, a preface: Beyond the Black Rainbow is conventionally described, at least insofar as a film this atypical can be conventionally described, as a modern recollection of the grainy, quizzical, hard science fiction storytelling so popular in 1970s US culture, doused with a thin membrane of stilted, personality-heavy American animation forever struggling to find out what it meant to aim for an audience of both children and adults. Considering this, it would have been almost impossible for me to dislike the film going on. As it turns out, I do not dislike it. Take from that what you will.
House of Flying Daggers
I suppose that, at some level, Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers is a marital-arts action picture, and a pretty terrific one at that. The thing is, and this is no surprise for someone who knows a thing or two about Zhang Yimou’s history as a dramatist who uses color, framing, and motion to define mood and texture, it just doesn’t feel like an action film, and it functionally has almost no interest in being one. Yimou is a great director of action, but not necessarily an action director, if that makes sense; he takes what would be action in another film and transforms the excitement into a far different beast, much less about what is happening and who is defeating/ battling who than the motion of the filled-in spaces on screen and their battle with the empty spaces dancing around them. House of Flying Daggers is an exciting film, but its excitement is far too abstracted, too cognitive and distanced and reflective, to fit comfortably into the bounds of “action” as it is conventionally defined.
The first thing to note about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and the most important: it is very proud of what it is, and makes no attempt to hide it. Lee’s film is a melodrama, unambiguously and unashamedly, and Lee directs with painterly flourish to match. He showcases the splendor and dignity of the work with magnificence and a sense of illustrious eminence, positioning it as part classical Hollywood epic (Lee is after all a highly Americanized director) and part Chinese mythmaking fable. Nothing about Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is played at the level of naturalism, and all of it enhances the opulence of a production which wears its honest drama on its sleeves. Continue reading
This post in honor of Richard Linklater’s impending Oscar win for Boyhood, much deserved for his commitment to cinema over the past twenty years.
Dazed and Confused is a vigorously imperfect film, by which I mean it dives head first into its imperfections and renders them successes. On many levels, its imperfections are precisely its point. It essentially lacks a narrative, and above all, it has no real three dimensional characters – normally, these two things, especially the latter, are a killer for any ensemble film, but young writer-director Richard Linklater, in what was something of his big league coming out party as a shining star in the early ’90s American independent film explosion, knows his characters too well to miss the point. His film doesn’t bring us into the minds of his teenage characters by commenting on what they do, but by becoming them, expressing who they are as a film in itself. It’s a slacker of a film for slacker characters, and in doing so it reveals more about the mid-’90s slacker film craze than any more formal “commentary” ever could have.
If one looks back on the halls of early ’90s cinema, a few trends emerge, but none stands more idiosyncratically than the sudden 50-years-late splurge of Universal horror films unleashed upon the unsuspecting populace, most of which are not, in all honesty, worth discussing in any serious capacity today. Mike Nichol’s Wolf is uncommonly interesting as a reflection of its time period and a commentary on gender and power in the modern world, even if it less of a film than it is a discussion piece. Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein is somewhat stodgily uncomfortable and beset by Branagh’s stilted reductionist theatricality.
There is one exception however: Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula (a much better title than the ungainly Bram Stoker’s Dracula, despite the undeniable similarities between this film and the source material upon which it is based), now this is a film worth discussing, whatever you think of it. Gaudy and oppressive, garish and lurid, feverishly sexual and unwieldy and broad and blunt and devilish and all manner of other unholy, batty adjectives, it is undeniably the work of its auteur. It is, if nothing else, the most Coppola of Coppola’s films released in the past thirty years, and considering that this man was at one point one of the great filmmakers of the modern era, this is worth discussing. After a decade of artistic sycophancy on his part, and a decade of artistically aimless American genre cinema mostly playing ball with conventional Hollywood style, Dracula is Coppola’s phallus-waiving gambit to cinema-goers: watch my film, enjoy or don’t, I don’t care because I’ve bested you and you will be felled by its gigantism one way or another. All patchwork nonsense and scenes dripping sweat and blood from every unstitched seam unfurling and falling apart by the minute, this film is ironically not his Dracula but his Frankenstein’s Monster. It’s not a work of a filmmaker but a mad scientist, a film so committed to its own vision of life at any cost that it is willing to fall apart in front of you just to make its point. In oppressive lunacy and effervescent, exultant, unmitigated cinema, Coppola’s Dracula sacrifices everything at the alter of pursuing cinematic zest.