With Spike Lee’s temperamental Chi-Raq finally unleashed upon us, let us turn to Lee’s last unambiguously popular film, a work that has now largely been forgotten and lamented with cries of “selling out”.
It is tempting to claim that an auteur like Spike Lee is at his best when he is at his most personal. A true statement, but not a complete one. Spike Lee is at his best when he is at his most personal, he is at his worst when he is at his most personal, and he is at his most middling when he is at his most personal. In other words, all of his films are his most personal; even a threadbare indie like 2015’s Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, one of Spike’s most nonchalant, slackened films ever, is a quiet sting of an ode to one of Lee’s favorite forgotten filmmakers, Bill Gunn. Even Lee’s vampire film is about race, the divining rod of most of his best films, but like all of his films, it is not only about race. Lee is not only a protest-artist (although he is a great one), but an aesthetic maestro with a adoration for film history, a probing eye for gender relations and power dynamics of all varieties, and a fixation on place and space.
With his monumental silent monstrosities of expressionist-tinged paranoia and fervent chiaroscuro-afflicted studies of monomaniacal madmen driving the modern world insane, Fritz Lang practically invented the film noir. That he was somewhat disavowed by producers and abandoned by film audiences after his escape to America on the eve of the rise of Nazism is a quandary. Fellow expatriate FW Murnau was instantly embraced by Hollywood and could have risen to superstar status had the sinister hand of death – the very subject Murnau tinkered with time and time again behind the camera – not intervened. Ernst Lubitsch at least lasted a decade in the top ranks of Hollywood. Billy Wilder’s star would germinate for decades still. Hollywood was generally kind to German filmmakers prior to WWII, or at least, Hollywood was willing to play ball with the Weimar filmmakers who had soundly trounced Americas best efforts during the silent era. If you couldn’t beat em, buy em, or so the American mantra goes. Continue reading
Edited for Clarity
At a worldly 68 years of age, Hou Hsiao-Hsien shows signs of slowing down, but not of stopping. Like the titular character of his new film The Assassin, he bides his time, calibrating every movement with painterly precision and critical sangfroid. And when he pounces, the consequences are mighty and unwavering. His latest kill, The Assassin, is the result of Hou’s eight-year sabbatical from releasing films, or eight years of planning for this one. The result is a singularly transfixing ballet of action and inaction, friction and restfulness, where the most trenchant fallout is found in the pregnant pauses of stillness and the glints of a sword glimpsed almost as if in the film’s peripheral vision. The Assassin is a work of almost spiritually free-floating, cloud-encircling ravishment, much like Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, where emotional effervescence and transcendence overpowers detached intellectual consideration. Continue reading
Update early 2019: Personally disappointing though it is that The Martian obviously disavows anything remotely akin to Alien’s abyssal, forsaken futurist abjection and working-class loneliness, I can spot Ridley Scott his choice to eschew desolation and abandonment for zeal and enthusiasm. The real issue is that the film’s chosen alternative to Alien – an escapist fantasia about the whole world coming together to resurrect a thought-dead Matt Damon – just isn’t anywhere close to the usually dour Ridley Scott’s forte, whose animating impulses hew much closer to meditating on the neglected rather than trying to reassimilate them into society. While Ridley Scott’s sudden focus on the digital communities which develop within the loneliness of space is an interesting inversion of his typical emphasis on the isolation of everyday life, the results have no real texture to speak of, Scott’s more mechanical style cutting against the pop and pizzaz of Drew Goddard’s more mischievous (and somewhat tiresomely ironic) screenplay. Makes an obvious case that ersatz pop is not Scott’s wheelhouse in the slightest. I’d probably lower the score to a 6 at this point.
After nearly four decades of frantic, omnipresent terror, cosmic frailty, and industrial malice, it seems that director Ridley Scott has finally found happiness. Or perhaps he has simply given up trying. For a director whose films – not his best ones, nor his worst, but all of his films – have always been defined by an almost Lovecraftian stigma against the niceties of joy, Scott using the ripe old age of 77 to find solidarity with lighthearted entertainment is a surprise to say the least. After marauding against the dying of the light – or marauding toward it, more likely – for so long, his poetic fatalism – once bracing and disarming in his youth – has grown interminably stale over the past decade and a half. The self-serious likes of Robin Hood, Exodus, and even Gladiator all entomb themselves in a crisp outer-coating of operatic pretension that makes the hypothetical “fun” at their core go down like acid. Shockingly, or perhaps expectedly, Scott’s new foray into the dark heart of science fiction, the genre that made him famous, is … not quite so dark after all. It is the closest Scott has come to throwing his hands up, giving in, and letting a little light in. Continue reading
Allow me to indulge myself in the most obvious comparison I can humanly muster for analyzing Steve Jobs: it is a little like Apple, the company ushered into the modern age by the titular behemoth of this film, who, with said ushering, may have ushered in that modern age with it. Which is to say, Steve Jobs is sleek in its interface, pinpoint in its clarity and ease-of-use, slightly idiosyncratic in its egotistical imperfections, vaguely refreshing and unique, and when you chew away the eccentricity and the fat, not all that different from anything else on the market. With its highly literate, theatrical three-act structure that eschews the conventional “life story” approach for a just slightly less conventional “process-oriented, real-time discover-the-man-as-he-works” parade of sequences, Steve Jobs promises something different, maybe something revolutionary. Like Apple, or any number of other vacantly, circumstantially liberal corporations like it – Google, the Democrats – its superficial differences only serve to mask its pat, corporate nature. Continue reading
With Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario, a pummeling potboiler dressed to the nines in contradiction and complication, it is tempting to pull the same old same old, the routine, now a ritual, that has been carted out for every “drug war” motion picture since Steven Soderbergh’s genre-defining Traffic. It is tempting to layer criticism under a diaphanous ruse of beautifully skulking ambiguity, to throw down the time-tested gauntlet of “characters not in black-and-white, but in gray”. It is tempting to go the epistemological route and employ critique about how Sicario sees the crippling no man’s land that is the War on Drugs, that is spans the gamut from down-in-the-trenches to up-in-the-boardroom. To claim that it “sees all sides” and “plays no favorites”.
None of that is really true. Sicario doesn’t have any food for thought about the War on Drugs, and plainly, I am not sure it thinks it does, which is, depending on your point of view, its guiding light or its crutch. Villeneuve’s previous film, 2013’s Prisoners, was a similarly-minded exploitation film with art-house aspirations, a work that ought to have wielded the name of an Argento or a Carpenter but instead felt itself a Godard. It was, essentially, a Halloween trick, drawing audiences in with promises of slick thrills (which it offered) but pretending, at every step of the way, to turn its back on the cadaverous, waning graveyard filmmaking it knew in its heart. It was a work of schlock, of trash, masquerading as a “serious” film with something to say about revenge. It was a gaslighting effort, essentially, or a way to tell the audience over and over again that they were watching a hardened think piece, when in reality they were watching a dime-store novel on the screen. Continue reading
Update at bottom
If Guillermo del Toro wallows in garish, ghoulish excess with Crimson Peak, well, ’tis the season. The complaints about Crimson Peak are understandable and, for a demented mind such as his, deserved points of pride. Narrative is well and good, but when Guillermo del Toro has assembled a veritable army of the dead behind the screen to prepare for his dark harvest to escape the reaper of life in the middle of the road, narrative is almost besides the point.
Narrative, then, is not the only body a horror film can exhume. That is, if the film is confident enough, or delirious enough, or entranced enough by the specter of death, to untomb another cadaver besides narrative. Unfortunately, Crimson Peak spends a full third of its run-time in Buffalo, New York excavating for the corpse. The first act of the film is a noble but failed harangue pretending to make the case for ghosts and tapping into the mystique of early Americana mystery, but all del Toro (who not only directs but co-writes with Matthew Robbins) accomplishes is an indifferent slice of early 20th century lifestyle porn. Sufficient atmospherics prop up a bone dry burgeoning romance between Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), a wealthy American ghost story author (a del Toro of her day) and Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), an aristocrat and struggling inventor of a red clay mining device to harvest the bountiful and bloody clay that lies dormant and entombed under his mansion. Along for the ride is his sister, Lady Lucille Sharpe (a wonderfully supercilious, dour Jessica Chastain who wields her jagged chin like a serrated knife pointed at the throat of the screen), who grows ever more suspicious as the film waxes toward its own crimson peak. Continue reading
Spectre begins as it closes: festering paranoia, sinister purposes, and just a touch of evil. A man in a skeletal mask devoid of humanity skulks across the screen, phallically piercing the frame from the background and doing bodily harm to the image. He is in search of a target, the specifics of which don’t matter. Presumably, he is our prime antagonist, an assassin who would do wrong by the world. In a sly moment of visual wit, we are proved right. He is an assassin, and his name is James Bond. In an unbroken long take in Mexico that lithely swirls and slithers around the backwoods of the frame, the camera preys with Bond, following him and preparing for the prowl. We understand Bond for who he is: a specter in the dark, a ghost in the light. A hunter, and a killer. Continue reading
What with Ash vs. Evil Dead trouncing the television world, a review of the film that started it all is in order…
First things first, The Evil Dead is not Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn, although it is infinitely tempting to compare the two. A comparison isn’t unfair; Evil Dead II practically invites the comparison, being a quasi-remake of Sam Raimi’s debut feature. By 1987, when he made Dead by Dawn with only one other film post-Evil Dead to his name, Sam Raimi was at a more confident place as a director. He had Stephen King’s nominal backing, and, whatever the questionable merits of that false poet, Stephen King was just about the king of the commercial horror world in 1987. With Evil Dead II, Raimi was primed for a daring, pugnacious deconstruction of the very limits of horror and comedy as emotionally tinged experiences. In 1981, when the original Evil Dead was released, he was a more humble independent director without anything to his name but a Michigan backwoods, a buddy with a noble chin and a subtle wink, and all the ingenuity a first timer raised on a steady diet of Italian giallo pics could muster. Continue reading
And so it was that, upon absolving the world of its sins with his debut feature film Citizen Kane and then tempting the world again with sin for his second feature, The Magnificent Ambersons, Orson Welles decided to sin a little himself for his third and fourth feature films, The Stranger and The Lady from Shanghai. Admittedly, “decided” is not the whole story; Welles, if left to his own devices, likely would have continued evaporating cinema into its intangible elements and reconfiguring it as he saw fit, but the world had other plans. Hollywood had not taken to his second feature, and they were not about to let Welles go off the deep end of his own Frankensteinian ambition for a third time. He was, for the first time in his life, going to know the iron cage of restraint. He was going to play ball with the studios. To commit the sin of cinematic hackwork. Continue reading