Monthly Archives: May 2016

Worst or “Worst”2, Electric Boogaloo: Jonah Hex and Gods of Egypt

jonah_hex03Jonah Hex

Jonah Hex is a film with the confidence, or the indiscretion, to cast its lot in with a doomsday plot revolving around small, orange balls touching big, black balls and spontaneously combusting in an orgy of flames. I can’t decide which pithy phrase to go with: “Science has gone too far” or “What will they think of next? Admittedly, “The best thing since sliced bread” is putting in a pretty game case for itself as well. The surly, salty pandemonium and go-for-broke conceptual and stylistic excess of a Neveldine and Taylor’s script (they of Crank fame) sometimes lays dormant in Jonah Hex, but there’s enough tomfoolery and slippery, ill-considered (or just plain not considered at all) goofiness that shines through in the end. That the screenplay, which was disowned by Neveldine and Taylor prior to film’s completion, is chopped and threshed into hectic, nearly free-associative beats somehow only buttresses the indescribable looney tunes antics on display. It’s like Wild Wild West gone off the deep end. Continue reading


Worst or “Worst” 2, Electric Boogaloo: X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes

xray2-1441221474Roger Corman’s films and their narratives were typically barely masqueraded Cinema of Attractions spectacles, experiential flights of fancy rooted in an insatiable thirst to expand the human eye itself. What Corman understood, something many a better filmmaker has conveniently sidestepped, is that cinema lives first and foremost on the surface and with the eyes. The brain, the mind, the heart; they all draw oxygen from the senses, not the other way around. So many filmmakers ladle their cinema in a bath of surreptitious symbolism or overly-curated suggestion that they exist only, exclusively, in the abstract nebula of the intellect; the beauty of the art itself is often the aesthetics of appearance that prefigure and often elude the capacities of our mind define them. In attempting to explain everything, to append meaning and content to the deliciously provocative uncontainbility of nature and the senses, these filmmakers fail to grasp what is right in front of them for the taking. As Susan Sontag so eloquently wrote, in searching for the truth beneath the surface, they fail to see the thing at all. Continue reading

Midnight Screenings: The Witches

witches_posterAesthetically-minded avant-garde director Nicolas Roeg, daringly immature puppetcraft impresario Jim Henson, and nasty-whimsy peace-negotiator Roald Dahl is one of those divine, demonic accidents of circumstance you didn’t really know you needed. Easily Roeg’s most commercial film, but not a cash-grab judging from his delectably devious direction and satisfyingly cryptic editing, The Witches was still a commercial misfire. Which isn’t a surprise; even by the standards of the late-‘80s run of vaguely dark and dreary children’s horror pictures either adapted directly from Dahl or owing kinship to his spirit, The Witches is an insidious little devil of a picture, vastly more warped and spidery than even the Grand Guignol likes of Return to Oz earlier in the decade. It settles more for naughty than nasty, but the effects are heinously satisfying nonetheless. Continue reading

Worst or “Worst” 2, Electric Boogaloo: Masters of the Universe

masters-of-the-universe-movie-skeletorSuperstar ‘80s film producers and delirium-slingers Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan took as their mission statement to make a buck at any all costs, assembling casts and crews that, incompetence or not, were uniquely qualified and gamely  willing to pretend that their bare-bones make-money cash-ins were, in fact, real movies. Products they were, not only first and foremost but nearly exclusively, and 1987’s Masters of the Universe is also uniquely special for how unmitigated by common sense it is in its desire to synergistically appeal to every single facet of its audience’s cultural iconography in order to draw them to theaters and steal their money.  More than anything, this is cinema-as-pop-culture-platonic-ideal, perhaps more than any single cinematic product I have ever laid eyes on. They don’t deserve credit for anything else, but Golan and Globus were intimately, almost defiantly, aware of the world that bred their films. Continue reading

Worst or “Worst” 2, Electric Boogaloo: Cyborg

A year later, I couldn’t resist. Much as I adore sacrificing myself at the alter of good cinema, the call of incompetence beckons me like a wolf. It’s time for another month-long exploration of some of the most criminal cinematic offenses in history. For those playing along, each film will be given two scores, one for its actual formalist quality and one for how divinely entertaining it is as an inebriated exercise in cinema at its most dumbfounding. We’re starting the month with two releases from the modern godfathers of bad cinema, Golan and Globus. 

cyborg-1989-movie-review-fender-tremolo-pirate-ending-fight-knives-vincent-klynEven by the standards of mush-mouthed ‘80s mega-producers Golan and Globus, 1989’s Cyborg is  inexplicably, improbably bad, descending in a feverish plunge of toxic awfulness and incomprehensibility that comes within spitting distance of the disfigured joie de vivre of earlier schlock progenitors like Jean Rollin. From the scorchingly constipated opening narration to the on-screen text informing us that our newest hellscape is “ in the future” (presumably a time-span discovered after much research on the filmmakers’ part),  we’re in the realm of classified bad-movie company here. It should be protected as a national treasure, or at least investigated by the FBI to make sure no one is planning on stealing it today.

The opening sequence, a fetishistically slow-motioned action sequence comprised primarily of people walking horizontally across the screen, as if to prove they can do it, doubles as an exploration of Bush Sr. era strife (in my mind at least) and triples as a surefire claim that, in the great “Conan the Barbarian rip-off vs. Mad Max rip-off” debate of the 1980s, we are distinctly in the later camp.  Or at least, the film seems to think it is. Based on Heidi Kaczenski’s costuming, it might as likely be a new music video for RATT. It clarifies something, although not much given the ramshackle, obviously dust-bowl nature of the film’s look, that the costumes and sets were originally intended to buttress a version of either Masters of the Universe directed by Albert Pyun or some godforsaken adaptation of the Spider-Man comic that I for the life of me can’t see in anything this film slathers on screen. Not even if I squint.

But Pyun, knowing his corporate masters Golan and Globus wouldn’t back down from finding some use for their investment (they were, after all, dynamite capitalists in the William Castle mold to say the least), ended up commandeering these costumes for a quickie film called Cyborg. This nearly accidental, DIY quality to the film’s production perhaps explains why the resulting film’s mise-en-scene is both non-specific (creating no cohesive world) and oddly effortful (the costumes look like someone, or some acid flashback, was putting in their version of overtime to imagine them, as cheap as the finished products actually are).

If the film actually boasts a commercial coup, it’s Jean-Claude Van Damme in one of his earliest American roles, the tentative nature of physical space in this film’s version of America allowing him carte blanche to retain his Belgian accent thankfully. He plays a … ahem … Gibson Rickenbacker, a hired fighter protecting a cyborg named Pearl Prophet (Dayle Haddon, sacrificing herself to lines like “I am a cyborg”) from a group of bloodthirsty pirates headed by Fender Tremolo (and suddenly, Gibson Rickenbacker seems like John Smith). Tremolo, for his part, is played by Vincent Klyn with the most pained bass moan of a voice I have ever heard. For the sake of argument, let’s take the film at its word when it says Prophet needs to get from New York to Atlanta so that she can provide much-needed information to a group of CDC doctors working on a cure for the plague that ravaged America.

Pyun’s most famous film, by far, is his next-year adaptation of Captain America (the holy text for bad pre-2000 superhero adaptations), but on the back of Cyborg, he should win a peace prize for distracting people from their real problems. Or at least his editor should. This is a fluorescently edited motion picture, abetted by a bewildering pastiche of montage that feels like Nicolas Roeg wandering the streets on a drunken bender, particularly during flashbacks to Gibson’s earlier life when the editing arhythmically seizures about in a gross parody of both Soviet montage and the post-traumatic mind’s inability to reason with crisis head-on. When you add in the fact that the film’s conception of the Eastern Seaboard is both irreconcilably antebellum and disarmingly retro-futurist, you have a film that is bewilderingly exasperated in trying to achieve something and dumbfoundingly incapable of completing its stated goals.  Plus, and maybe it’s just the native Atlantan in me, this film’s hot-headed vision of Georgia could sure use a Mint Julep or two to cool itself down.

But, as any scholar of cinema knows, the best bad movies are united with the best good movies in that they are museum exhibits to a flaring passion for being themselves. It’s why William Castle’s work has lasted so long in the bad cinema consciousness – Castle clearly enjoyed the films he was making. Incompetent though they may have been, “hackwork” doesn’t cut it, and it doesn’t cut it for Cyborg either. Much like how the bowel-trembling inertia of Klyn’s performance threatens to give him hemorrhoids for his effort, Cyborg is clearly a film that someone put effort into, and twenty seven years later, that’s why its incompetence is not only notable but commendable.

How good is it?: 0.5/5 (we’re in rarefied company here)

Sure, but how “good” is it?: 4/5 (it has one of the most uniquely indecipherable visions of the post-apocalypse I’ve ever seen, and Klyn just pushes the whole affair over the edge)


Midnight Screenings: Four from Joe Dante

Having not completed a Midnight Screening in a while, I decided to quadruple up this week with four films from Joe Dante, typically considered a modern master of B-movie gusto. I’ve chosen his less excavated films as a way to stave off the obvious choices. 

the-burbs-mcmr_zps3kuxru93The ‘Burbs

After a short sabbatical in the realm of more overtly childlike whimsy with Innerspace, Joe Dante returned to his day job brokering a peace between manic comedy and subfuscous horror with 1989’s The ‘Burbs. Primarily remembered today as an early starring role for Tom Hanks, Dante’s film – his final unqualified success at the box office – is also the final film in his run of relatively straight-faced pop cinema. Come the turn of the ‘90s, Dante would pay more overt homage to the channel-surfing impudence of his youth with post-modern cinematic swindlers that would, artistic bravado aside, often leave audiences bamboozled as to how to approach Dante’s films. While Dante’s later films would dive into the non-narrative, youthful indiscretion clearly closer to his heart, the commercial success of The ‘Burbs was probably a factor of its relative stability and cohesion. Continue reading

Favorite Modern Video Games (2003-Present)

Update mid-2019:

I’m not entirely sure, after another play-through, that I’d still put the original Bioshock on this list, particularly in light of how Bioshock: Infinite mobilizes its gameplay thematically in comparison. Admittedly, Infinite’s ideological equivocation – its assumption that both sides of a conflict are equally culpable for some apparently apolitical notion of cruelty – is far more morally dubious than the original Bioshock’s searing critique of a fallacious and limited notion of “freedom” run amok. But the gameplay of Infinite – and the way in which the gameplay itself thematizes “player agency” with more nuance than the original Bioshock ever did, casts a less luminescent light on the water-logged original for me at this point. While the first Bioshock essentially disfigures its audiences for being led so easily and unthinkingly to a deterministic conclusion, one where personal agency is nothing more than a fallacious ruse, Infinite discovers what the pragmatist William James, himself so fervently critical of American imperialism and nationalism, did during the very time-period Infinite is set: that the existential uncertainty and flux of modernity are neither fully constricting and devouring of agency nor truly liberating to the point of allowing unmediated, atomistic personal expression.

In other words: all play is always on rails, and it’s up to us to figure out how to either expand the rails or to use the rails more creatively. James’ awareness was a self-reflective reminder of the tragic possibility of limitation and uncertainty: the world’s constraints and our awareness of them are themselves constitutive to a playful, experimental selfhood predicated not on escaping or emancipating the self in the heroically American self-fashioning sense but in the ambivalent play with and of options, pathways, and possibilities. In literalizing gameplay rails in its world and thinking of these rails as spaces of possibility rather than pure limitation, Infinite moves past the somewhat self-important conclusion of the original Bioshock and toward a vision of movement that is comparatively liberated, not because it transcends limitations but because it experiments within the tragic awareness that the rails can never truly be eliminated. We are all on rails, in video games and in life, but that does not mean we are beholden to them, nor that we must (or ever could) choose between a binary of “player or personal agency” (which is typically read as “freedom”) and, conversely, “narrative or world design” (read as “structure,” and via an argumentative slippage, “player limitation”).

Original List:

I don’t cotton to the video game world as unanimously as I once did, but it’s still a medium capable of valid experiences, and I feel incomplete without sharing some of my most meaningful affairs with the genre. The date cut-off of 2003 is slightly arbitrary, but I wasn’t in the game, pardon the pun, before that with any sort of critical capacity, so it would be difficult to seriously explore earlier video games with as much consideration, important though many of them may be.

Updated with full list and honorable mentions. 

Batman: Arkham Asylum

The “license” is, more often than not, where video games go to die. Ricocheting around various external (often movie) deadlines and otherwise predisposed to failing to untangle the knots of a multi-media empire, games based on non-game properties typically wince at the idea of having to translate the atmosphere or tone of their catalyst-media into the lexicon of a video game. Not so with Arkham Asylum, a more studious exploration of Batman as a character than any of the dirgey Christopher Nolan films as well as a closed-casket adventure through the hallowed halls of a ticking straight-jacket of a location. Arkham is not sacrosanct or scrubbed-clean in Rocksteady’s game; this location is a from-the-gutters, alley-cat mental space, bent and threshed with a tactile, knuckle-dusting combat system that emphasizes weight and impact over grace. It’s implacable, yet it’s so tightly wound that you feel your skin trying to crawl into your bones. Continue reading

Films for Class: About Elly

ellyMuch like his later A Separation, Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly is a bitter respite from the filmic hierarchy in that it refuses to afford us what might be called an omniscient, privileged position. Instead of knowing everything beforehand, it adopts a perspective that slides between characters and perspectives to construct a multiplicity of experiences or opinions that elide the notion of an essential truth. The most obvious characteristic of this lack of omniscience is the film’s disinterest in imparting a cohesive depiction of the world of the characters, instead choosing to construct a minefield of contradictory, contested opinions. This is, first and foremost, a proclamation against the tendentious norms of cinema where a film’s moral mapping is supposed to conspire to slam that film’s presumptive argument home in the final stretches; in comparison, About Elly always, fascinatingly and rebelliously, feels like it is slipping away from us. If most films are lit toward a primary beam of crystal-clear truth, About Elly refracts the light through the crystal and constructs a variegated, prismatic rainbow of varied perspectives and possibilities.  Continue reading

Films for Class: Life is Sweet

mv5bmtu0mdg3ntmzm15bml5banbnxkftztgwmja1ndkwmze-_v1_uy268_cr40182268_al_Edited for Clarity

A sense of constant and fertile discovery abounds in Mike Leigh’s mid-period classic Life is Sweet, a superior film to many of his more famous mid-‘90s concoctions (the also sharp, if more contentious, Naked and the universally adored Secrets and Lies). Less high-concept and less obviously prefigured to arrive at specific narrative cues, Life is Sweet is arguably the most recent Leigh film to embody the fullest spirit of his uniquely personalized style of horizontal storytelling: cinema where moments intermingle and rest on each other rather than linearly hurtling to narrative completion. Restful and relaxing it may seem, but a perilously challenging vision of life lurks within it, like an insurgent into the usually trifling, domesticated, prepackaged realm of narrative storytelling. In Leigh’s films, the meaning flows out of idiomatic gestures we must acclimatize to rather than being overlit for us to see in broad daylight. Thus, Life is Sweet refrains from doubling-down on meaning with any kind of apocalyptic import. Ostensibly a more reticent, nonexistent style, it is a significantly more devious, conflicted, complicated tale precisely for how it refuses to overstate its case.  Continue reading

Progenitors: Ocean’s Eleven

oceans_eleven_2001_posterCompared to “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang for The Nice Guys”, “Ocean’s Eleven for Money Monster” isn’t as clean a comparison. But I really like Soderbergh’s collaboration with George Clooney, Julia Roberts, and mindless excess, and clearly Clooney and Roberts enjoyed themselves too; Money Monster reteams them and brings a different kind of capital along for the ride.

First, a word (or 300) about Ocean’s Twelve, a consciously, elaborately superficial near-masterpiece of self-reflexively specious blockbuster filmmaking that is all but eager to endorse its own glaring incapability to follow-through with its narrative, resulting in a gloriously aggressive exercise in screwing with the audience and rigorously avoiding its own questions. Turning plotless artifice into glowing conviviality, Soderbergh’s semi-conscious sequel to his blockbuster escapade sacrifices nearly any credibility or forward-thrust for an alternate-reality vision of narrative focused on relentlessly pleasing itself with its own obliviousness and self-interested absurdity. It reworks the heist film to function as both an anti-heist film and as a commentary on cinema as an exercise in devious subterfuge. Continue reading