Update late 2018:
With each rewatch, the sheer abyssal emptiness of The Matrix’s “social critique” is all the more apparent, and the lazier the film’s self-positioning as a messianic, imaginative emissary to “truth” feels. Rather than a real debate between multiple planes of or perspectives on reality, The Matrix sanctifies itself as revelation, its needlessly self-important tone matched only by the hopelessly blinkered texture of its philosophizing. It strikes me increasingly that the film’s problem is that its metaphysical, pseudo-post-modern ruminations on the problem of perspective imbricate upon rather than actually problematizing its resolutely, almost faultlessly classical narrative structure. Which is to say: the film remains, above all, committed to its hero’s quest storyline about the achievement of final consciousness – and “pure” truth – rather than a more fundamental doubt that this new reality is any more viable or legitimate than the old one the film fetishistically pats itself on the back for “teaching” us out of. Whenever new vision and old storylines come into conflict, the film imagines them as inimical, always and faultlessly choosing and defaulting to the later rather than trying to work through how to image a truly modernist blockbuster. For a film about the terrifying beauty of new perception, The Matrix boasts an astonishingly narrow corridor of perceptual possibilities, and it remains truly choked in its field of vision, never exposing its aporias, never curious about the peripheries that haunt it. It remains only interested in shoring up its knowledge rather than questioning it.
The Matrix is an aggressively, almost violently, superficial film, which isn’t a bad thing. That it doesn’t realize it is aggressively superficial? That is a bad thing, and arguably the overriding “bad thing” about genre films in the years to come since The Matrix. In particular, the sci-fi genre has descended into a mess we seem only to just be coming out of. There was a great long period post-Matrix where science fiction seemed wholly unable to exist as either thoughtless puff piece or hard-working, idiosyncratic social commentary. Films consistently and inescapably combined the two to sums that were less than the sum of their parts, questing for a maturity without earning said maturity in genuine craft, all while eventually falling back on techno-fried action as an avenue for popular appeal when the ideas of the film failed to pan out. Take Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 for one. Not a bad film, but definitely a post-Matrix work of trying to have its edgy, thoughtful sci-fi cake and trying to eat its robot-alien action cake too. Continue reading
To dispense with formalities: The Sixth Sense is not that good, but nor is it that bad. Its writer-director has never been a man subject to well-manicured, non-explosive statements – probably because he has never himself been prone to non-explosive statements (he did, after all, cast himself as a writer who saved the Earth in Lady in the Water). In his early days, he was, to his followers, a filmic genius, a genuine auteur in an age with precious few singularly great filmic voices. In recent years, he has become a filmic landfill, a genuine auteur for evil in an age with precious few singularly awful filmic voices. Everyone, regardless of what they think of him, seems to not understand the meaning of putting on the breaks. Either wonderful or despicable, he is a director who inspires opinions of great magnitude regardless of direction.
To some extent, both magnitudes are over-stated. His recent slate of films have managed the insurmountable task of consistent awfulness, but he is not the worst director in the history of cinema. Still, claims of his badness are more fitting than claims of his goodness. Even his best works are, if we are being honest, merely solid showpieces for a frequently confused writer with a better-than-average visual sense that at its best moments manages to convince audiences they are watching a better film than they really are. Case in point: The Sixth Sense, which is a sometimes sharp, occasionally sterling, often misguided work most notable for the frankly bizarre fact that it managed to rake in almost 700 million dollars at the global box office. Being a supernatural thriller, mind you. Ahh, movie-goers were different in the far-flung past of 1999. It dances vision of when The Exorcist (a similarly overrated film, although not as confused at the level of basic writing as The Sixth Sense) exploded into theaters in 1973 and ushered in a new age of respectable auteur-driven horror films for public audiences. But then, 1973 really was a different, pre-Jaws and pre-Star Wars, time culturally and filmically. 1999 is practically still in the womb. It was just yesterday, or so it seems at first glance. Continue reading
With Jurassic World’s 500 million global first-weekend box office take, it is already commonplace to glorify the return of a franchise that has been some combination of long-dormant and actively awful for almost two decades now. Championing its return to quality is not a new point, although it is an incorrect one. Jurassic World is a bad film. Not only that, it is peculiar and abnormal in its badness. A great number of corporate tentpole blockbusters are soulless and mediocre – look at Age of Ultron just a month post-release – but seldom are they bad in a particular and notable way. Corporate spending on audience-testing mandates that blockbusters will be spic and span, not necessarily good, but not disconcertingly or notably bad. They may be corporately bad, or bad in a sterile way, but not specifically bad, and not especially bad. Jurassic World does a great many things that are specifically, especially bad, and that is, if not a good thing per-se, at least an accidentally worthwhile one. Continue reading
Because that other “Jurassic” movie just went and had the biggest opening release weekend in film history…
The Lost World: Jurassic Park
Jurassic Park was directed by an auteur who was a kid at heart and had it in his dreams to create a new pop-fable for the modern age. Having tackled sharks, nazis, and aliens, dinosaurs were really the only foreseeable future in his career, and the rampaging success of Michael Crichton’s book Jurassic Park was as good an excuse as any to pursue that dino-dreaming. The end result was not a healthy meal, but it was a particularly fizzy soda and buttery popcorn even in its worst moments, and we critics cannot argue with Spielberg when he is using his fullest talents to commandeer the screen and throw us into our worst nightmares.
The Lost World: Jurassic Park, released just four years later, was directed by a crusty old auteur who had better things to do than make pop fluff, and it shows. Spielberg, “the man with Oscars on the mind,” was in full swing in the late 1990s. It wasn’t his best mode, but it devoured both his serious films and his blockbusters in a layer of dreary somnambulism, suffocating whatever energy and zest he had for layering fun onto the screen. The Lost World is a tired motion picture, and even in its best moments, it has a slow-going, self-serious demeanor that coats the film in an unearned sense of importance. It is Spielberg trying to make a wacky puff piece out to be a heavingly serious drama. Continue reading
It is both poetic irony and a great shame that Tomorrowland shares two features with its fellow May 22, 2015 wide release, Gil Kenan’s Poltergeist remake. First, both films boast directors who are inordinately perfect for the films they were matched with. Second, in each case, that director didn’t do their job, or found themselves victims to outside interests. In both cases, the acquisition of the ideal candidate for shepherding a certain film did little to actually ensure said film was any good. If nothing else, this phenomenon tells us one thing: auteur theory, and the idea that a director can do anything to ensure their films will reflect the core of their talents and personhoods, ain’t everything when all is said and done. Continue reading
Update June 2019: After a rewatch, I’m struck by how much Escape from New York’s essentially anti-authoritarian stance also feels like a quintessentially early ’80s response to the failures of the liberal project of the ’60s and the New Hollywood project of radicalizing cinematic form in the ’70s. Carpenter’s film undeniably paints a picture of the powers that be as deluded autocrats and maniacal functionaries, but its post-hippie validation of anarchy defines itself individually and skeptically rather than communally and with a utopian accent. On balance, I don’t know how I feel about this any more than I do Carpenter’s deliberately fearful Assault on Precinct 13, where a black cop and an old-school white criminal learn to get along only while under siege from an interracial army of cinematographically-zombified gang members putting aside their racial differences to assault the status quo. That said, while Assault merely updates and urbanizes Western conventions, Escape ironizes its, offering up cinema’s greatest ode to and takedown of the John Wayne archetype, one who refuses to coopt societally-accepted norms of the “good” (even if it means doing “bad”). Plus, it’s pretty great filmmaking nearly forty years later, a phenomenal exploration of Carpenter’s singularly elastic ability to massage visual absence into a vision of apocalypse, be it at the level of the individual (Halloween, faceless evil), the local (The Thing, evil in our own image), or the world, as in this film.
Scruffy and stubborn as a mule, Escape from New York is probably a failure for director John Carpenter, but it is a treat for anyone else all the same. Carpenter has been vocal about his genre-DJ dreams of hopscotching from horror to action to Westerns to fulfill his inner-desires of throwing pebbles toward all outsider genres under the sun. More pragmatically, he sought new genres to avoid type-casting as a master of horror. Trouble is that Carpenter’s soul, despite his brain telling him otherwise, was a horror director, and his eye followed his soul. Even Carpenter’s best action material – 1986’s Big Trouble in Little China for one – doesn’t work so much as an action movie; it’s more a deconstruction of American action movie tropes that tickles the rib with how foolish American action movies could be. Whether or not that was Carpenter’s intent, the arguably accidental success of Big Trouble reveals a director who didn’t have much of an eye for conventional action directing, for his action directing was too sluggish and stilted to function as a serious work of the form.
By and large, this adaptation of David Mamet’s 1984 update of middle-century tales of economic middle-American woe is a trenchant, vital work of writing enlivened by a cornucopia of destabilizing performances of the highest order. It is, admittedly, hard to square with the cinematic adaptation when so little of the piece actually benefits at all from being made into a film, visually speaking. But sometimes the felt force of the writing is so affective on its own you just have to let measly little things like “filmmaking” slide.
Admittedly, there’s something to Mamet’s harshly, claustrophobically stripped writing style that coalesces with the jagged edges of the acerbic visual storytelling that works in spite of its would-be failures as filmmaking. Specifically, the decision not to particularly open-up the play beyond its suffocating two-day focus is essential, allowing the material a claustrophobic feel to capture the claustrophobia of men torn apart by a job that encircles their lives. For the film, Mamet slightly altered his play about four real estate salesmen who will be fired at the end of the week if they don’t sell enough marks, but he made the crucial decision to avoid any and all hints of these men at home or their family lives. The end result is a work that captures the four as round-the-clock victims and agents of capitalism, left working for home lives that the film tacitly avoids depicting. Thereby, the film exposes the central paradox of capitalism: the need to work to benefit one’s everyday life, only to have that work overtake one’s life so that the purpose of the work becomes the work itself, thus folding in on itself as capitalism strangles its governing justification. Continue reading
Since his debut in 1939, the midnight man who capes and crusades has never been out-of-style. Sure, the gee-whiz ’60s and the bruised, cynical ’70s brought out the mightiness of new kids on the block Marvel Entertainment, but DC prevailed and only came back more haunted in the dark days of the gaudy 1980s. With Batman brought back to his roots in garish German Expressionism in the late 1980s, the character became all the more fittingly haunted for a fittingly haunted turn-of-the-’90s America undone by the failures of Reaganomics and the harsh realities of urban living. The character was also, alas, all the more apt for chauvinist, fascistic abuse by the likes of Frank Miller, who eventually took to dumbing-down the figure to the levels of America’s latent (and often very much more than latent) fixation with harsh individualist justice and uncritical depictions of masculine men keeping the evils of society at bay. A philosophy that was, boiled down, the card-carrying crux of 1980s fiction at its worst.
A little late on this, but in honor of Tomorrowland, here is another, more successful, Disney attempt to turn a theme park attraction into a live-action film, a success that has haunted their follow-up attempts to this day…
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is a little bit of lightning in a bottle. It shouldn’t work; in fact, it didn’t just ten years later – when the principal actor and director teamed up again with a similar tone and dollar signs in their eyes, only to be trounced by generally divested cinema-goers and critics. It didn’t work the half-dozen or so times that Hollywood has tried to return pirates to the mainstream since the end of their heyday ransacking Hollywood way back in the misty yesteryear of the 1930s. And it didn’t work just the same year The Curse of the Black Pearl was released, when Disney took two other Disneyland/ Disneyworld rides and made films out of them, both to negligent box office results and dismal critical failure. Continue reading
At its best, horror cinema works like a trance. From more esoteric, cryptic works like Dreyer’s Vampyr to pressingly, pulsingly modern joints such as It Follows and Under the Skin, the genre cuts through the fat and almost approaches us on an unconscious level. At its best, which isn’t nearly often enough, the new Poltergeist almost gets there. Director Gil Kenan is, at a conceptual level, the perfect shepherd for the material – his animated Monster House is almost an animated Poltergeist anyway. Unfortunately, it ends up being a much better Poltergeist remake than the one he would go on to direct a decade later. The one, you know, called Poltergeist.
For the first half, at least, when the material is generally at its lightest and least anxious to grow and out-do itself, he proves a capable director for the material. The early sections of Poltergeist, where David Lindsay-Abaire’s screenplay casually articulates the often unstated loss in the Bowen family as they adjust to life in a new neighborhood, boasts a surprisingly thoughtful and reasonably reflective eye for messy family drama and low-key, nonchalant romance between parents Eric (Sam Rockwell) and Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt), both of whom introduce more unhurried empathy into the characters than the script probably deserves.