Monthly Archives: January 2016

Review: Mississippi Grind

mississippi-grind-2651599It’s a sly, sinuous, steamy trip down the Mississippi in Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s Mississippi Grind, a not-so-buddy film with a road that doesn’t end and a trip that never truly happens. When middle-aged gambling addict Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) meets younger traveler Curtis (Ryan Reynolds, applying his smarmy world-weariness better than he ever has) in Iowa, the two hit it off on a boozy, woozy gambling venture with a destination in New Orleans. But it’s the journey that matters, right? Continue reading


Film Favorites: A Man Escaped

a-man-escaped-3Robert Bresson’s second film, A Man Escaped, begins with a prelude of ruthless, unimpeachable clarity as totalizing and blunt as the film’s title. A man, Fontaine (Francois Leterrier), is trapped in a car, the camera perilously perched at the level of his hands, which threaten to open the door of the vehicle. We pan left to his fellow trapped compatriot, presumably another member of the French Resistance to be sent, like Fontaine, to a Nazi prison. We cut to Fontaine’s view of the front of car, dissected by two Nazis in the front seats claustrophobically denouncing Fontaine’s view to freedom. The door opens and Fontaine runs, but the camera stays trapped on the prisoner next to him, sullen and stagnant and aware that escape is futile. Fontaine is denied agency, rendered passive by a camera that refuses to follow him toward escape. When he arrives at the prison, Fontaine will be sequestered into angular frames, torn to bits by characters who pass in between him and us, secluding him in the frame and denying his supremacy as a character. His face will be forever denied to us by a camera that moves not with him as a friend but against him, around him, as an agent of destruction. Continue reading

In Memoriam Review: Labyrinth

LabyrinthThis being the first of two reviews of David Bowie’s most prominent on-screen roles. 

With The Dark Crystal now under his belt and not necessarily proving the financial blockbuster its backers had hoped for, the forever animated Jim Henson was undeterred. His audience, accustomed to the felt pop-post-modernism of The Muppets, was unsure of what to do with the film, a threatening and often nihilistic puppet fantasy that was, at the time, by far the most ambitious undertaking by Henson and friends. Luckily, even if his audience didn’t “get” The Dark Crystal, Henson was exactly aware of what to do with his audience: namely, appeal to them without necessarily sacrificing his own personal infatuations as a filmmaker looking to cram his Germanic fairy tale fixation into a quintessentially post-Disney world. Continue reading

Review: Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

kumiko_the_treasure_hunter-620x326Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter is a delusory fairy tale of equal parts fanatical wit, hallucinogenic desperation, silent whimsy, and unbalanced psychosis. Lurking beneath a disquietingly malevolent innocence lies a scathing critique of US cultural imperialism. Intercepted by fragmented images of the Coen Brothers’ film Fargo, here invaded by enough static to make you question if the film really existed at all, or if it was simply a hypnotic VHS lovers’ fever dream, Kumiko uses that great barren white desert Northern (like a Western, you get the idea) as its own horizontal, false American Dream. Continue reading

Review: Chi-Raq

chi-raq1Most race-based films propose a bonfire, a false prophet of equality, a nominally no-sided geometric shape where all can sit in harmony nonetheless replete with sinister jagged edges. Chi-Raq, a riposte to such staid, socially-sanctioned respectability, is no bonfire; it’s a molotov-cocktail with an eye for all the rough edges it can find. With a script pitched at the level of a Public Enemy breakdown and filmmaking as shambolic as a rattlesnake in a rave, Chi-Raq is a cinematic DJ of equal parts braggadocio and bleakness. That it is Lee’s most invigorating film in at least a decade alone makes it essential cinema; that it is great cinema as well is merely a nice bonus. Continue reading

Review: The Revenant

Update late 2018: Man did buyer’s remorse set in on this one? What once convinced me as a genuine earth-shaker, a torrent of pure, sensor cinema, now seems too slickly manufactured to register much beyond its sheer, arbitrary, self-congratulatory awareness of its own sensory immediacy and hugeness. The Revenant is too solemn, too heavy, too satisfied with the weight of its own importance, to work either as a gut-punch of a thriller or, more evocatively, as a metaphysical portrait of cinematic exploration.  The film exhibits no will to explore its own periphery, to peruse its uncertainties, to look anywhere beyond the course it has set for itself. Some compared it to Malick  (even I hesitantly suggested the same), but Malick’s cosmic visions, their metaphysical gravity aside, move gracefully, poetically, and above all lightly. In their search for sublimity and spiritual ascendence, they recall GK Chesterton’s old comment that “the reason angels can fly is because they take themselves lightly”.

Which means they, unlike The Revenant, are aware of their own permanent incompleteness, and they use this incompleteness to question any essential truths, to lift their consciousnesses slightly above the ground and float and fluctuate, to think actively, to expose themselves to new states of being and revise their own minds, their own beings, to learn from the ephemeral beauty of nature and come to terms with the necessity of fluidity and spontaneity in life. Malick’s Tree of Life, for instance, is tinged with the whims of pure consciousness; its grace stems from its search for spiritual connection in the world, its camera’s hesitant leaps of faith and desire to establish associative connections between images, senses, sounds, ideas, and beings without ever claiming that any one connection is set-in-stone, permanent, or complete. It exists evaporatively, permanently ready for a sublime that entails not single-minded transcendence but a constant push-pull between nature and consciousness, between being and becoming, between the course one has set for oneself and the peripheries which arise in the margins, desiring to materialize and catalyze new relations. The beauty of Malick’s cinema is that it is always searching.

Comparatively, The Revenant doesn’t, and can’t, search for anything; it seems to know from the beginning. It’s hell-bent on wowing us, punishing us, and brutalizing us, which means brutalizing its own consciousness, resisting hints of alternativeness or periphery glances, denying, for instance, the capacity of Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera to rhyme with the earth and think-through its relationship to that earth. Oh, the film moves, certainly, but always to a predetermined end, to completion, always with the grimly premeditated security of its own convictions. Every shot begins, peaks, and ends, as though fulfilling its own clear, perfect three-act story, climaxing to fulfill us and keep us going, to induce catharsis rather than curiosity. The film’s assurance of its own path robs it of any real internal beauty, any affect beneath the surface.

This becomes an even dicier contrast when the political mediations of each film are put into conversation. Just compare The Revenant to a film it shares a cinematographer, as well as a subject matter but certainly not an ethos with: Terrence Malick’s The New World. Malick and Lubezki filmed The New World with a kind of dawning awareness of incompleteness, a desire to move the camera spontaneously in hopes of locating flickers of a new way of life beset by but learning from the old, mimicing its ostensible protagonist’s European consciousness hesitantly confronting a new way of life he cannot ever truly master.

Comparatively, Inarritu and Lubezki’s The Revenant seems uninterested in either learning from nature (or Native Americans) or questioning their ability to do so but merely to replay a self-flagellating fantasia of solitude. It’s as if they are testing their ability to repeat the settler life of so many white men in the past, to both lionize and criticize their hero, and themselves, for besting nature, to escape from civilization and to punish themselves for wanting to ultimately come back around and prove that they, like protagonist Hugh Glass, and like star Leonardo DiCaprio, can do it. Lubezki’s camera under Malick is questioning, boundary-confronting, self-exposing; it moves in order to learn, to think, to be, and to, at the risk of its very soul, to become something new. Lubezki’s camera under Inarritu never wants to become anything it hasn’t already set its mind to: a punishing fantasy of escape and return, a faux-humbling effort which chastizes America for raping the land and then ultimately argues that the real Americans will earn this rape anyway.

At times, it seems to court American Transcendentalism, the thought of Emerson and Thoreau, but their ultimate moral principle was wandering, a wandering, errant consciousness untethered to certainty. The Revenant, comparatively, seems certain that Emerson and Thoreau are merely deluded white men for wanting to experience nature. And then, paradoxically, that they would be heroes if only they were American men of action who could throw themselves into the heart of darkness that is nature and then escape it. As a moral principle, it elevates masculine catharsis, nature as a testing ground for the male being, rather than a playground of the mind not to master but to experience and absorb. In doing so, the film nominally revokes old Americana mythologies of the lone wanderer and bootstrap individualism, but it doesn’t actually question them so much as expose how much work it takes to fulfill them, and how anyone but the best will die, reifying the very exceptionalist narratives it seems to defy.

And as for the moments of stillness, the intimations of transcendence, the affective beauty of the thing, it’s all hollow, all drawing attention to only its excess, its grandeur, its stylistic bravado, all of which it plays not as joys in and of themselves, but pretentiouosly, as though it has solved the riddle of the Sphinx and discovered the answer to a truer being. Every shot in a Malick film radiates an inchoate awareness of the cosmos around it, the camera swaying with the breath of the earth and intimating a sense of nature’s totality that exists, crucially, outside its own purview. His humbling aesthetic is never heroic or brutally nihilistic. Rather than giving up or merely materially learning how to survive in nature, Malick exposes the capacity of nature to bestow a new, more pliable, more poetic form of consciousness, a yielding mind which rethinks itself, exposes itself to the world hesitantly, in leaps of faith. This entails the good grace to evaporate, to move liquidly, to search for the heavens with a constant readiness for the unexpected and the beyond. It entails bearing the shadow of past moments while dancing with a seriousness that is also playful, light, and graceful. Malick always searches for ephemeral forms of connection and togetherness, a poetics of relation with the world (to cop from Eduoard Glissant) which is beautiful and poetic because it exists in the moment, because of the ephemerality of its transcendence. A truth which is partial in the moment and which might be reconsidered the next.

The Revenant only has one truth: it is hard, it is great, and greatness is hard. Its camera discovers nothing, nor does it play around in the liminal space between discovery and uncertainty, never intimating possibilities it can’t prove (which is the space where Malick thrives). No, The Revenant’s camera is obviously planned to within an inch of its life, wearing the burden of its presentation and the significance of its own existence in every pain-staking trudge through the snow and pirouette in the air, as though the camera is showing off what it can do, rather than why it can do it. Whereas Tree of Life always seems to be searching for what significance might mean in the first place, contesting the grounds on which we might imagine beauty, one gets the sense that The Revenant would consider any searching as an aesthetic collapse, a reminder that it hadn’t perfectly planned out its world, that its authoritarian vision of personal relationship with nature,  both for Hugo and the film crew, is fallacious, that it cannot master the nature around it.

All this superficiality, in theory, is also totally fine. A great, brutal, piquant, Fuller-esque gut-punch of a film, a tried-and-true B-picture, can be just as frictive and spontaneous as a Malickian search for the sublime, and possibly just as important. But rather than fulfilling a Hobbesian vision of cinema – a life most “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” – The Revenant is clearly on the hunt to prove its own worth, to ensure its monumental monolithic-ness, to draw in all viewers and other films with the gravitational pull of its poetry-shattering respectability. In this case, importance breeds impotence.

Original review:

The Revenant, Alejandro González Inárritu’s maximalist storm of brazen and turbulent pure cinema, isn’t the sharpest nail in the bunch, but it makes up for its somewhat dulled self-congratulatory aura with the primacy of its phlegmatic vitriol. Coursing through its veins are strains of meditative Terrence Malickian sublimity, maddened and almost Germanic psychosis, and the relatively disheveled, cross-grained likes of the traditional American revenge epic. Each of these interests sometimes bites back at the others, leading to a film with an impressive array of frayed knots and wooly, worn, unshorn edges, all of which don’t always cohere or bristle with the ruffled energy of the film’s individual parts. The Revenant is ultimately a little too blunt, a little too predetermined in its Capital-A Angst, to feel as freewheeling as it so clearly wishes to. But tangled within its loins are some of the most intoxicating and incandescent sequences of cinematic prose to have graced the screen in years. Continue reading

Review: Spotlight

There’s a word for films like Spotlight: dry. Another word? Lame. That the film ultimately ends up working, spectacularly so at times, is testament to how it takes those words as points of pride. This is a film dedicated almost exclusively to thriving on the act of reading lines of text, rulers in hand, and drawing circles on sheets of paper. It eschews melodramatics, tears, manipulation, and any real human element at all, but the monomaniacal engagement with the process of journalism – rather than the specifics of the story at hand – grant Spotlight more than a smidgen of the nuts-and-bolts cinematic craft mastery of its obvious idol of worship, All the President’s Men. Continue reading

Review: Youth

Lensed, as usual, by the incomparable Luca Bigazzi, no one is letting the cat out of the bag by proclaiming that Paolo Sorrentino’s 2015 film Youth is one of the most luxuriant gushers of the year, cinematically speaking. The depth and vigor of the black levels alone are enough to pass out over. Sorrentino’s Fellini fixation is no secret after The Great Beauty was less homage to or commentary on La Dolce Vita than one-ups-man-ship competition with that 1960 film, with Sorrentino’s proverbial digit sometimes waving in Fellini’s face at the resplendent glory of Sorrentino’s own imagery, the breathtaking, cavernous wideness of his frames, and, in his one contribution to the Fellini legacy, the lustrous beauty of his engorged color pigmentation. Call Sorrentino whatever you won’t, but don’t deny that he’s a showstopper. Continue reading

Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Calling Star Wars: The Force Awakens the least exploratory, least imaginative film in the entire Star Wars canon may seem sacrilegious, but skilled mimic J.J. Abrams doesn’t seem to care. Arguably, neither should you. If anything, The Force Awakens suggests Abrams finally coming to terms with his shrewd, somewhat personality-deficient style and applying it to a film that remembers its forebearers at levels both broad and minute, from the grand narrative sweep to the background-detail peripheral-vision valley. The resulting film isn’t wholly stupendous, but the palate cleansing nature of the piece is refreshing. It’s more a homecoming for old friends than a dynamically calibrated bullet from the future, an excavation of an old tomb and not a bold and brash attempt to boldly go where no one has ever gone before, to quote some other franchise found somewhere in this universe or the next. Continue reading

Midnight Screening: Seconds

A still from Joel Frankenheimer's 1966 film "Seconds."With all apologies to the more famous, and more infamous, The Manchurian Candidate, John Frankenheimer’s four-years-later film Seconds makes his prior effort look like child’s play. That earlier film’s bleak, merciless paranoia of the John Fuller get-in-and-ravage-’em school of filmmaking is no insignificant feature length anxiety attack, but it has nothing on the prowling paranoia and devilish absurdity of the more playful and significantly more experimental Seconds, a work that takes about as long as its title suggests to eviscerate the memory of its predecessor in a cauterizing shriek of a hall-of-mirrors credits sequence courtesy of Saul Bass and cinematographer James Wong Howe. Continue reading