One doesn’t have to do any research to guess that it is customary to slant The Hunger for being, essentially, a feature-length Goth rock music video. Or to imagine that it is not generally construed as a masterpiece of storytelling or characterization. Or to assume that the script falters indefinitely and never much goes anywhere. Or to reduce the film to “style over substance”. These are also all true statements for the most part, excepting the last one. For “style over substance” is and shall always be a misguided attempt to reduce film to a false dichotomy, the visual and the script-based, and to imply if not openly state that the visual is secondary to the script, and that it is less nuanced too. Even in instances where the argument is rightfully used to imply a film lacks substance, say for instance Transformers or any other corporate blockbuster of your choice, the argument folds in on itself, for such films generally do not in fact have any sense of style at all. They are films without style and without substance, and cinephiles ought to be more quick to object to claims that what Michael Bay accomplishes every couple of years genuinely qualifies as “style” in any meaningful sense.
Upon releasing his sophomore feature, the generally indifferent Elysium, not two years ago, writer/director Neill Blomkamp was keen on ensuring that nonplussed audiences knew he was entirely willing to tacitly disown the film. He didn’t quite say that, but the implication was clear. Fitting, for Elysium seemed exactly like the sub-Ridley Scott piece of blockbuster arch-competence a promising young director would sputter out upon their introduction to the corporate world, a classic example of filmmaking-by-committee and a work whose primary sin was a complete and utter lack of passion or investment from its principles. It seemed like Blomkamp producing his idea of what audiences, and producers, would want more than the film he actually wanted to make. “For his next film”, one could almost hear him hush under his breath every time he spoke, “Blomkamp the passionate South African science fiction juggernaut would return”. Continue reading
This new Will Smith star-vehicle that’s much less the rage than it would have been a decade ago really is a mess ain’t it? The bifurcated narrative is a lame, unnecessary gesture, and it curdles away any good-cheer built up by the first half, and the darker, more serious ambitions of the piece fall apart under even minor scrutiny. In particular, the way this con-film has to follow in the long tradition of con-films by making the whole film itself something of a con, and then sort of fails to do anything clever or notable with the film-as-object-of-audience-confusion meta-text, is a drag. It makes a great portion of the second half of Focus fall apart rather instantly, as charismatic as Smith and relative newcomer Margot Robbie can be even in these darker regions of the screenplay. It just feels too clinical, as though it had to have a twist because of course these films have twists rather than because this film in particular needed one, or because it found a particularly worthwhile one. The fact is that the screenplay is a fair mess on paper, and it’s no better on screen in the broad strokes.
Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella is in a curious bind, right form its get-go. The appeal of the film is clear: in an age of revisionist blockbusters halfheartedly attempting to find some new slant on a classic story, even a desperately bad one, Branagh’s vision is remarkably old-school and pure. Fair enough; I like a classical story as much as the next person. But classical is not an excuse for lazy, and Cinderella veers so close to being wholly and entirely indifferent that it’s almost a travesty of cinemagic, although nice little touches shine through until the end, keeping the film afloat. As it stands though, Branagh’s vision is cannibalized by the very fact that ought to save it: its insistence on its origins in fable, its classical myth-like quality free of airs that ought to make it devoutly timeless. As it is, the classical quality just barely turns it into a milquetoast Oscar production, and nothing is more boring than a film using old Hollywood styles without any idea how to translate their magic to the screen. Continue reading
Oh Ridley Scott. Gladiator it shall be, huh? I suppose, in all honesty, who am I to neglect a director from returning to the well of his most critically and commercially viable film in some time, even if it is something of an insipid, soporific film totally divested in any form of storytelling that didn’t advance the general theme of “look how important I am”. Still, he’s returned to the well quite a bit over the past decade and a half, indiscriminately tossing out a supposed sci-fi “return to form” or a political thriller from time to time in order to paint the facade of variety.
Kingdom of Heaven I’ll grant him. It was a truncated mess on screen, but this had as much to do with the producers as it did Scott, and the restored cut that purportedly represents Scott’s vision is the high watermark of the early 2000s obsession with sword and sandal pics. Robin Hood is just about the least interesting version of itself possible though, a carbon-copy of a plethora and a half of pseudo-revolutionary epics, mired by its idiotic variant on grungy, solemn “realism” that sacrifices any dream of looking like anything other than dirt. And this is not to mention its tired old trotting out of the classic “see how the legend became the legend” nonsense, as though anyone thought that Robin Hood was actually interesting as a human being, as opposed to the wonderful myth that he is, brought to life not through reality but storytelling and human energy.
Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is at once the least Baz Luhrmann film to be released in some time and the quintessential Baz Luhrmann film. The latter of these is true for two reasons. Firstly, it is a mess, shot to all hell with a recklessness befitting its title character and pursuing multiple goals simultaneously with no understanding that these goals are somewhat incompatible. Secondly, it doesn’t, not for one second, care that it is a mess. It is a vibrant, passionate film filled with life. So engorged with buoyant energy in fact that it is hard to dislike, for there is a sense that Baz Luhrmann likes his film very much, and his joy seeps through every frame. But directorial passion is not always enough to account for a semi-failure when that passion, however pulsing, is pulling its director in directions that are polar opposites.
Now I get to go off the deep-end! To some extent, if only some, reviewing Rob Zombie’s greatest film thus far, The Devil’s Rejects, is an excuse to discuss Rob Zombie’s work on the whole. Yes he’s schlocky and his films are often messy and chaotic and have no idea what the hell is going on, but boy if they don’t have the damnedest time of their lives doing it. For all his faults, Zombie knows what he wants and isn’t about to see that vision sullied by a production company. He’s impassioned, cock-sure, self-centered, angry, obsessive, and perverse – which happens to sound like a laundry list of features that have composed many (most) of the great directors of the past hundred years. And the most important bit, lest I forget: he absolutely loves movies, and he wants us to know it too.
It is within this frame-set that I approach The Devil’s Rejects, Zombie’s most fully realized, most gloriously depraved, most caustically subversive, most oddly, uneasily touching, and most visually witty pieces of filmmaking yet made, and it is wrapped up in some of the finest genre clothing I’ve seen in years, exuding a positively desperate love of cinema in every frame. It’s disgusting, undoubtedly, and it doesn’t want you to think otherwise. But disgusting does not a bad film make, especially when it’s about disgust in cinema and how we cartoon-coat violence when we want to make it seem respectable. For Zombie, much like a Tarantino gone off the deep end of his own anarchism, there is an awareness that films mostly end up entertaining with violence even when they pretend not to. Unlike Tarantino however, Zombie doesn’t so much want to make violence cool as explore the tension between violence being cool and violence being disgusting, for his films are disgusting and they don’t hide their disgust away with corporate sleekness, composed formalism, and clean filmmaking. Devil’s Rejects is sloppy, amorphous, and sickly looking, showcasing film grain and making no bones about how ugly it looks.
Ahem…A scientist (Dylan Walsh) with a monkey he has taught to speak via a machine needs to return his money back to Africa and teams u inadvertently with a corporate electronics executive (Laura Linney) who also has to go to Africa in hopes of finding her ex-fiance who may have been killed there by a pack of genetically mutated or hyper-learned gorillas. And Tim Curry wants to go to Africa to from some vaguely mysterious reason, and he helps you fund your trip.
Now this, my friends, is a genuine Grade-A Bad Movie plot, and the makers of Congo do their damnedest to earn every second of it. It’s terrible, sure, but in a deliriously magnetically idiotic sort of way, down from the inklings of whispy, broad thought introducing the film to a producer’s mind (something like: Michael Crichton wrote this, lets get to work!) up to the trickles of specific camera gestures and the unbridled moronic drunken stupor of the special effects tickling their way toward the film’s fingertips. Trapped in 1995, everything about the film straddles the line between the unrepentant ’90s cynicism that would form the backbone of late ’90s and 2000s blockbusters and the loopier variety of early ’90s blockbusters toeing the matinee thrills of the atomic ’50s and the heftier brawn of ’80s blockbusters themselves owing almost everything to the teenage mumbo jumbo of the hokum sci-fi of the 1950s. It dares us to see what fever-induced nonsense will pop into its mind next. Continue reading
If one is to “talk shop” about film in the past quarter decade, you really cannot avoid writer-director Quentin Tarantino. No filmmaker has staked out his own public identity in quite the same way, and for better or worse, no filmmaker has been copied and misinterpreted nearly as much. The things that constitute a “Quentin Tarantino” film are vocal and known to many people, even those who don’t much care for cinema at large. He is one of the few directors who is both overrated, in that he really ought not be the first or even the twentieth director anyone mentions when talking about cinematic masters, and underrated, in that both those who like him and those who don’t generally misinterpret his films and seldom realize their true, fundamental genius. Considering how ubiquitous Tarantino has been for the past quarter decade, it’s somewhat shocking how misread he often is (then again films of great subtext and depth open themselves up to being misread, and Tarantino in all fairness courts more than he challenges misreadings). Few people really understand his essential identity as a director, and even though Reservoir Dogs is very much a testing ground for better things to come, it is essential cinema, and furthermore, it is essentially Tarantino in a nutshell.
In order to properly understand Starship Troopers, one needs to understand its casting. At some level, casting is the de facto entry point for any of Verhoeven’s American films over the decade from Robocop to Starship Troopers. Total Recall, although somewhat muted by its need to be an Arnie vehicle, definitely gestured toward using the big lovable lug as a critique of the idea of an Arnie film. More successful was Basic Instinct, where Verhoeven cast a seemingly unaware and genuine Michael Douglas more for his weathered, aged wrinkles and flagellating variant of all-American thuggery. And one doesn’t need to explain Showgirls these days, a work where Verhoeven cast (cruelly so, at that) the young whippersnapper Elizabeth Berkeley and forced her through all manner of gross, grotesque abuses on screen in a meta-commentary on the way in which her character, and young Hollywood starlets altogether, are forced to go through the wringer to find success, leaving others in their wake and losing their dignity and respect for themselves as they forced to do the unthinkable.