2016 is 75 years on from 1941, one of the finest years ever in cinema. Let’s dredge up a little history for the week in honor of that cabal of films.
An ice-cold film, and a stone-cold masterpiece; beneath John Huston’s ostensibly congenial and cordial conversation piece beats the pitch-black heart of an interior-trapped world opening its eyes to the search for meaning, even if nobody knows what they’re looking for. The Maltese Falcon’s place in film history is enshrined in the decades of films that have imbibed in its reverberations throughout time. Often cited as the first noir, which may or may not be true, the film was more importantly the introduction to fame for Humphrey Bogart and the first film of legendary director John Huston. A duo that would light a fire and blaze a trail though cinema for a little while, their masterpiece was still seven years away as of The Maltese Falcon’s release in 1941. But if the knuckle-dusted and iron-clad The Maltese Falcon lacks the monumental quality of the hot-headed, thousand-shades-of-grey tall tale from across the border, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, then their debut doesn’t stand exclusively on its reputation either. Nearly silent though its craft may be, The Maltese Falcon is a film where each person is a potential swindler, each step a threat of the world collapsing around you, and each shot a last will and testament. Continue reading
Years later, even if it isn’t always effective filmmaking, it is plainly apparent that Don Bluth’s second film with Fox Animation was never given its due process. Hired to best Disney at their own game with 1997’s Anastasia, Bluth had a one-film hot streak under his belt when he fearlessly jumped into the animation deep end with its follow-up, 2000’s Titan AE. His arrival at that point, the world now on his shoulders, was a two-decade-long torrid affair with the powers that be. After originally rising through Disney’s ranks in the ‘70s, when the company was in a downhill slide, he absconded in the ‘80s in belief that he could outdo them. His dream of besting his once-master was briefly given feral life, but Disney’s ‘90s renaissance was too much for him to handle, ultimately resulting in screwing himself over in the early ‘90s in a desperate craze to keep up with his former masters resulting in failure after failure. His career was over, until Fox Animation ceremoniously afforded him one more shot to best his former bosses (admittedly, he was the only one in history that had accomplished this goal before, so one can see why he was the natural candidate). Anastasia triumphed commercially just as Disney was beginning to falter itself, and the stage was set for Bluth to return to investigating the crevices of animation rather than simply aping his former masters as he did with Anastasia. Continue reading
With all the slashing and piercing found within, it isn’t really a surprise that John McTiernan’s disastrously over-budget The 13th Warrior is so disemboweled. This tonally promiscuous production vacillates between effectively brazen horror viciousness and petty, watery cartoon-viking bombast, the two tones functioning like combative enemies rather than fascinatingly differentiated tonal inversions. Devious wrongdoings behind the camera and disastrous reshoots ensure a production that runs the gamut from pastoral myth to Manowar album cover, a grungy, dirge-like epic of alternately jaundiced and flowery discombobulation.
The reason’s for the film’s failures aren’t intangible either; with John McTiernan’s down-and-dirty update of Michael Crichton’s ‘70s book Eaters of the Dead subject to disastrous test screenings, the production company basically hired Crichton – an experienced but negligible director of his own source material – to re-film scenes, drastically altering the film’s tone and warping an exploitation-style thriller into a pseudo-epic monster mash. Delaying the release a year in the process, the reshoots also doubled the film’s budget to a massively overinflated 160 million (at the time, third only to the phallic Titanic and the misbegotten Waterworld for cost, and unlike in those productions, very little of it is showcased on the screen here). Continue reading
An elephantiasis-afflicted, dismal anti-epic of undying malfeasance, Kevin Costner’s The Postman is positively drunk on its own grotesque patriotism and egotistical self-interest. From the man who directed Dances with Wolves and starred in (and may have directed) Waterworld, The Postman is just plain engorged, a foolishly endearing attempt to flare-up every operatic cue and hyperbolic shot in those films, fling well past the point of common logic, and invade the realm of Rococo drama. Fittingly, it is a missed target of a distinctly and unambiguously Costner-esque caliber. While Dances was a questionable but undeniably poetic epic that suggested something of America’s own mythic grandeur, The Postman finds the bottom falling out as Western pastiche becomes accidental Western parody. Continue reading
The early ’90s was a phoenix-like ascent for animation, a time to rise from the grave of the ‘70s and ‘80s and flaunt the medium’s wares anew. Taking little time to clear its throat, a renewed Disney Animation huffed and puffed The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and the epochal The Lion King out into the world in a manner of years. In doing so, they blew down the house of their reputation as a failed, past-its-prime studio of has-beens. Meanwhile, Don Bluth, the rising star of the studio and its potential savior throughout the ‘70s, had jumped ship – firmly believing his clout was wasted on the irrelevant Disney old fogeys of the ‘70s – and by the late ‘80s, his own star was shining with works like An American Tale and The Land Before Time. Although both pillars of animation would struggle before the decade was out (Bluth faltering almost immediately upon the turn of the ‘90s), the landscape was hot for the moment, so hot that even animation’s famous bad boy (long dormant and lost in the fray) couldn’t miss out. Continue reading
Monkeybone represents director Henry Selick’s well-meaning attempt to disrupt the live-action realm with the furious might of his expressive, cocaine-addled stop-motion cinema. While his previous efforts behind the camera were all compromised in one way or another (often to their benefit), this deeply uncentered film is the most immediately adept at cracking into his singular mind. While The Nightmare Before Christmas was an acolyte of Tim Burton and James and the Giant Peach indebted primarily to the Roald Dahl tradition, Monkeybone feels like Selick in his purest form, Selick unhinged. And also, perhaps necessarily, Selick on a reckless rampage that leaves him both struggling to handle the reins and at times completely distracted from the havoc his feral beast has wrought. Continue reading
dThe newest in a long trickle of good-to-great DC Animated Universe films, Batman: The Killing Joke, is to be released this week, and in theaters no less (the realms of kiddie animation really have grown up). Since the film is based on the most famous Batman vs. Joker comic, one that partially inspired the gothic milieu of one of the most important blockbusters of all time, and because the DCAU itself was so heavily influenced by that blockbuster’s noir-baroque vision, it seems appropriate to take a trip back to the past with a review of the progenitor of this whole 25 year Batman love-affair-cum-epidemic that nerd culture has been afflicted with.
Watching Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman and its disfigured, plastered-on darkness today is largely a quaint experience. What was once a disquietingly serious blockbuster in its day now struggles to escape from underneath its giddy elan. But in 2016, an era of mangled, over-indulged, force-fed blockbusters with a realist, solemn streak a mile wide, it is Batman’s very cartoon zeal that becomes the well from which it draws life. Famously gruesome and gloomy in its day, Burton’s vision of gothic decay is decidedly less rapt with the reality principle than most blockbusters. Without heeding the realm of logic, Burton’s film is able to indulge its less timid, less mediated personal fetishes and massage something decidedly more expressive and visually crazed out of the fibers of the Batman comic than most blockbusters in the ‘10s, so concerned with narrative pretensions, would even know what to do with. Tim Burton’s brand of serious is silly, to say the least, but the mixture has an alchemic chemical allure in 2016 with most blockbusters so stone-faced in their sobriety and most Tim Burton films so manic and spasmodic they lose any sense of their center. Maybe it wasn’t in 1989, but in 2016, Batman feels like the sweet spot. Continue reading
I meant to review this a while ago, but the year of its twentieth anniversary seems as good a time as any. Noah Hawley’s television show is every bit the film’s equal, but there’s nothing wrong with the primordial ooze of the original.
Defying expectations amidst the deluge of knowingly hip independent thrillers dotting the late ‘90s landscape like murder victims on the path of the criminal spree of ironic, self-referential cool, Fargo is at heart a tone poem, a restful calm rather than a flurry of moments convinced of their knuckle-dusting cool and charisma. Twisting and turning would be a death knell for a wonderful mood piece like this, and more often than not, a tacit admittance of an under-confident film that filmmakers’ gild and plaster over with knee-jerk side-winds to appease audiences. Fargo, which is devious and cage-rattling because it is a recess from this sort of narrative glut, is a film of blinding deception but never one that throttles its characters through the thrombosis of a belabored story.
Often accused of flattening their characters from above with their caustic cynicism, the Coen Brothers – in the film that “made” them – are too obsessed with feeling out their characters to ever truly hate them, or even exhibit a singular, untroubled, complete feeling toward them at all. Instead, Fargo’s emotions deal in dialectics of all varieties, from the contradictions of the human condition to the tensions in the writer-director team’s own situation as expat-Minnesotans relative to the thickly-brewing Mid-Northern culture they depict in this film. Rather than impressing itself above its characters with singular determination, Fargo is uniquely sincere in its desire to engage with the chemical allure of the mystifying and multilayered dialectics that construct both the individual human soul and the milieu of a place. Continue reading
Two of the even ones. You know what that means.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
Among the most fondly remembered Star Trek films and probably the most distinctive after The Motion Picture, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home finds Leonard Nimoy’s TV-bound direction in a vastly more snug, comforting mood than it was in the tragic The Search for Spock. With an original star directing, the film itself accompanies him down memory lane in a comedy that positively salivates with the unmuffled semi-goofiness of the original show. By and large, the Star Trek films tackled the ‘80s with more-is-more elephantiasis, falling in line with the dictates of the time to varying results. The name The Voyage Home – so called because the heroes return to 1986 San Francisco, the location of the future Starfleet – also signals a certain journey home to the promised land of the original show, to the happy-go-lucky mid-‘60s. As in Gene Roddenberry’s original vision, The Voyage Home is a world where peace and problem-solving are intermingled and jubilant adventure is a well of possibility rather than a decree to blow things to smithereens. This is a comic plea of a film that almost feels defiant in light of the bigger-is-better norms of the ‘80s. Continue reading
You know Star Trek. This isn’t it.
Audiences craving rip-roaring rakishness upon Star Trek: The Motion Picture’s 1979 release date were about as nonplussed as the film’s producers were. All of them, including many members of the film’s cast and crew, were united in a communal act of salivating for a new Star Wars as their Pavlovian ear perks were invited by the flotilla of space sequences in this film and then soundly, roundly trounced by a screenplay and a director who were vastly more invested in fashioning a new 2001: A Space Odyssey. Indeed, deeply intercepted and compromised through The Motion Picture may be, the film’s willingness to desecrate its audiences’ expectations, to shuck and jive toward something more poetically-minded and disreputable in a time of frenzied all-out-action fantasias, is refreshing, even if it isn’t necessarily successful. The Motion Picture, the not-so-valiant but very-much-inspired, is a broken accident of a film, but it remains essential cinema nonetheless. Continue reading