Monthly Archives: June 2016

Midnight Screening: Eraserhead

eraserhead_posterIf we were being prickly, we could say that David Lynch’s debut feature Eraserhead has set the director down a 40 year path of trying, and failing, to recapture the cinematic mayhem and malfeasance of his coming out party. That’s not entirely true – Dune, The Elephant Man, and The Straight Story don’t bother as much with explicit disruption, but they are failures of ambition all the more so for that very reason, effective films though some of them may be anyway. But Lynch’s greatest works – Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive– have all been formalist fever dreams that, if expressively advancing the terror of Eraserhead’s self-censuring dreamscape, also rein the Lynchian-id beast in ever so slightly so that they are perhaps less fully capable of exploring the broken-edges of experience. Their relative – and I emphasize relative, for this is Lynch we are speaking of – formal sanity in envisioning a world bent out of shape makes them feel less honestly afflicted with the terror of the world they depict. To some extent, all of these films are commentaries (fantastic commentaries), but only Eraserhead achieves genuine embodiment. While other films strive to “mean” something about discombobulated terror, the formally spasmodic Eraserhead is discombobulated terror. Continue reading

Golden Age Oldies: The Informer

informergypoThe whole “early sound masterpiece” line, de rigueur for some when discussing The Informer, is misleading and beside the point. Bluntly, it is Ford’s visual craft that is the linchpin of The Informer, and its mise-en-scene and editing rhythms are obviously the work of a director who had been toiling away in the silent cinema nexus for years. Furthermore, they are specifically the progeny of a director who had mayhaps seen the Universal horror pictures popping up and taking the world by storm in the early ‘30s and taken to investigating their connection to the silent German masterworks of chiaroscuro and terror that American horror cinema was grafted from in the first place. The voluminous expressiveness of the human face, the foggy mist of human underbelly, the no-exits-allowed editing that sabotages the characters and encases them in the frame? All are the stomping ground of many a silent masterwork to come before, but that doesn’t make Ford’s first weltering sidewind into the big leagues any less effective as a duel between the devilish and the divine. Continue reading

Golden Age Oldies: King Kong

king_kong_vs_tyrannosaurusPrimeval as a statement of boundless agelessness rather than failure to modernize, 1933’s King Kong is not only a pugnacious B-picture but a semi-tragic story of showmanship begetting exploitation, ostracization, and essentialization, a film carnival-barked with the panache of a showman. 85 years of technological advancement have streamlined and committee-scripted and audience-tested film form to within an inch of its life. But none of it replaces the personalized terror and fabricated glee of discovery in this original motion picture, which unfolds almost in an imaginative stupor, liberated from the inhibition of pleasing the maximum number of people. Even its broken patches, it mistakes, its tentative hunger for more than it can achieve all make it feel like a wistful construct of the collective imagination and desire for adventure, a work trying to discover something new even if it can’t achieve it. That ambition, in a modern era where all films must be tested so that they don’t feel fake, reminds us of a dream or a nightmare rather than a pragmatist’s admittance of defeat by having to conform to its audiences’ conception of reality. Continue reading

Golden Age Oldies: Trouble in Paradise

lubitschtroubleinparadiseEffervescent without being schizophrenic, smutty without being smug, deliciously nasty and provocative while also intimating a deceptive, lithe maturity about sex as a simple fact of existence rather than a puritanical capital-O Occurrence, Ernst Lubitsch’s Hollywood acme may be the most suave film in existence. Perilously intimating both the value of external pleasures of the world – which for Lubitsch includes the vices we imbibe in and the identities we wear – and the peril of self-satisfying excess, Trouble in Paradise is a smorgasbord of misconception and perspiration. Continue reading

Golden Age Oldies: The Public Enemy

publAnother short-time series that is more or less the utilitarian progeny of me needing to review more old films. Over the next couple of weeks, a review (or two half-reviews) for each year between 1920-1935. Because I’m me, don’t expect a chronological order. Things will be more impulsive. 

As with most James Cagney films – and perhaps more than any other American actor, a film invaded by Cagney is a James Cagney film first and foremost – the brutish boy of a man is the animal magnetism of The Public Enemy. Never an American leading man has been so willing to investigate and center his despicable, impossible, man-child tendencies as Cagney was. Never has an actor been so willing to just decimate his characters’ egos with a vile, vituperative perniciousness that, while commanding the camera, makes you palpably run in the other direction when his squat, thuggish 5 foot 5 inch frame wanders into your world. His role here as small-time-turned-big-time gangster Tom Powers was career-making, a fact that is both undeniable – it is a mesmeric performance – and shocking – it’s so abrasively pathetic that Cagney doesn’t even let us feel angry at the man so much as sorry for him. He’s a fiendish belligerent swirling around in a system with blithe ignorance as to his complicity with that which he rebels against. Continue reading

Progenitors: Finding Nemo

finding-nemo-poster-walt-disney-characters-19282601-1129-1691Let’s just say I think the reasoning for this one speaks for itself. 

With candor, Finding Nemo really is a case of the old nuts and bolts more than a phantasmagoria of unprecedented, delectable delights, which is just fine when the nuts and bolts are this well nutted and bolted on.  Pop Daddy Production Company Pixar’s reputation has gotten a little ahead of itself over time, with the disappointment of their recent slate of films erected mostly against the assumption that their run of early films are unimpeachable masterpieces, which is itself a presumptive claim. Personally, WALL-E is likely the only film in their canon that legitimately earns that superlative in the way that, say, a Wellesian motion picture might, and frankly, there’s no pretension in that statement. Not every film needs to b a masterpiece – the spit-fire implications of such a term only weigh down on films that aren’t really trying to be, anyway. Ratatouille is divine Chaplin, Up is a startling Douglas Fairbanks adventure mixed with Warner Bros. anarchy, the Toy Story films are all impeccable each in their own way, and Finding Nemo is a technical powerhouse emboldened with the flirtatious, often rapturous beauty of ani-magic. Why does it need anything more? Continue reading

B-tier Genre Reviews: The Black Dahlia, 3:10 to Yuma, and The Bank Job

black_dahlia_ver264The Black Dahlia

A slovenly hodgepodge of deliriously over-churned, gluttonous style as a commentary on the golden-hued artifice of the Hollywood noir in the modern age, The Black Dahlia is a stylistic Pavarotti with a baroque sensibility that is by turns deconstructive and viciously parodic. Like LA Confidential histrionically emboldened to Byzantine extremes of melodramatic gaudiness, The Black Dahlia never feigns an attempt to hide its pungent, borderline psychotic artifice. The fallout of such a decision? A film ricocheting wildly and with woolly abandon between rhapsody and pornography, from deconstructive elegance to ham-fisted, ungainly incompetence. In De Palma’s vision, frankly, the two may be one in the same. Continue reading

Reviews: Warcraft and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows

warcraft-gallery-03Warcraft

An indie darling losing the track underneath the gluttonous weight of the mechanical, big-wig corporate tentpole machine isn’t exactly a new quadrant of the cinematic continuum, but it’s still disappointing when it happens. After a spellbinding little one-actor haunt and a less spellbinding, but still solid, middle-weight entertainment, Duncan Jones’ clout as a director is following the expected “each one a little less” trajectory of likability most directors co-opted by the blockbuster conglomerate tend to exhibit. Jones has amassed enough of a clout with only two good films that he has proven himself a genuine find, if not a prodigy in the cinematic field. He’s no charlatan, in other words, which is why the failure of this latest writhing-but-seemingly-unable-to-be-killed video-game-to-film dream is all the more disappointing. Continue reading

Midnight Screening: The Young One

A bit of a pocket interest this week on Midnight Screenings, with two instances of foreign masters exploring the thick, sickly world of the American Southern Gothic. 

prbydnkqqngfanqg3cqasgcjo1_500A deep-water jambalaya of reptilian-brain sexuality, harebrained violence, delinquent cinematic disdain for social propriety, racial conflagration, and sensual tension overflowing in spurts of human combat, it is entirely fitting, and entirely Buñuelean, that one of the Spanish directors two meager English-language films manages to explode with traumatic awareness of American cultural disjunction better than arguably any other American film. A three-character barbecue of sun-scorched, humidity-flaring raw flesh left out to burn, the director’s foray into American racial and sexual politics is a political study only insofar as it slithers into the political found in the everyday terror of fighting for your life. This is no lecture, no dissertation on this director’s part; this is fetid, pungent, even foolishly carnal backwoods trauma of a corporeal, violently direct nature. It’s racial politics as out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire nightmare. Continue reading

Midnight Screening: Swamp Water

swamp-waterA bit of a pocket interest this week on Midnight Screenings, with two instances of foreign masters exploring the thick, sickly world of the American Southern Gothic. 

Admittedly, Jean Renoir – arguably the most astute visual master in all of cinematic history, likely matched only by Ozu – discovering America with a molasses-soaked, moonshine-glazed, grievously wounded Southern Gothic Faulkner riff is maybe the platonic ideal of a movie made for me, but, personal preference aside, Swamp Water is still pretty good. Although it’s hard for the choke-point of The Rules of The Game – the immediate predecessor of Swamp Water, the apex of Renoir’s career, and (no big deal) perhaps the greatest film ever made – not to suppress Swamp Water’s inimitable craft when viewed in relative terms, Swamp Water, on its own terms, is wonderfully tasteless – especially for a 1941 film – nonetheless. Continue reading