Decades in the cinema business have rotted Tim Burton’s teeth with candy and softened his fangs. Where his films’ runtimes were once pecked down by vultures eating away any festering fat or excess, the estate Burton now commands comes with an electric dome that keeps the birds at bay and lets his ego wax outwards well past its sell-by dates. Like all of his recent efforts, Miss Peregrine is sporting a muffin top, the luxury afforded by engorged budgets comforting Burton in his decision to spare the screenplay none of its expository calories. None of his films since Sleepy Hollow have sported enough genuine achtung to occupy that oh-so peculiar spot between a carousel and an asylum that his earliest films haunted. In this capacity, the name on the tin of his newest film – “peculiar” – is only rubbing salt on his failure to genuinely be peculiar for the past twenty years or so. Continue reading
Monthly Archives: February 2017
Films for Class: The Killing of a Chinese Bookie
So as to avoid the tension: this post is enormously indebted to Ray Carney and based on the original 1976 cut of the film.
John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is, as with seemingly every film of its decade, ripe for analysis as an exploration of the cultural miscommunications of the 1970s, but only after a fashion. Unlike nearly every other film mired in then-contemporary issues, it is not blindsided by the minutiae of references or tangible representations of reality. Cassavetes’ work, like all his masterly films, is instead submerged in the milieu of the time period at an emotional and cognitive level. It excavates the unsettled consciousness of the period in a man dissociated from himself, a man who retreats into a mental or imaginative space where he is a lothario, a noirish type who erects a vision of himself through appearance, routine, and a surfeit of arbitrary significances draped over empty signifiers. Cosmo (Ben Gazzara), the strip-joint don suddenly thrust into a murder plot, shelters himself in the realm of ideas and romantic visions of selfhood. Unlike most films that deal in any time period, the plot, and indeed any gangster trappings in the film, are purely prisms to refract an understanding of imaginative experience through. Cosmo, and the film, is a battleground of the lived and imaginative selves, the self as it exists in reality and the self as it exists in the mind. Continue reading
Notes on Assorted Adult Swim Shows
A classroom experiment, and I avoid any of the shows (The Venture Bros, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Space Ghost) I included in my favorite animated television shows list for fear of double-dipping.
Pivoting around the fulcrum of immanent critique, this criminally underrated Biblical assault on the Bible is both a toxic void of mid-century sitcom tropes and an exegesis on Christian norms that attacks the Bible not from without but from within. Plus, if the adherence to Foucault’s idea of accepting a text at its word and then exposing the immanent contradictions lying within it isn’t enough, it’s also brutally beautiful at times. The Davey and Goliath parody is the jump-off point, but this uncomfortable-in-the-extreme viewing experience shoots for the stratosphere aesthetically with a stunningly expressive color palette and an understanding of the living camera that expands on the tactility of the stop-motion style rather than falling back on it as a punch-line.
Admittedly, the lapses in the particular text the show targets make it a little easy, but the show never goes for the obvious joke, or at least it never tells the obvious joke in the expected way. Orel always punches up, upper-cutting social edicts while intentionally undercutting itself by drawing from a vein of social alienation and melancholy that reveals the lonely disaffection and existential crises hiding not-so-dormant beneath adherence to social ritual. There’s a tortured, tragic, harshly solemn sojourn into failure and unfulfilled expectations at the heart of Morel Orel, a show with a nasty mouth but a heart that truly bleeds. It is disturbing because of how disturbed it is, how much it reveals about the nature of the disturbance of idealism. Much like Adult Swim’s epochal (to me) Venture Bros., the dueling catalysts for the humor are the tickle that hurts and the creeping sadness of mid-century hope immanently torn to pieces by its own blind spots.
Album Capsule Reviews: 2011-2013
I had these written from a prior engagement, so I might as well post them, since I’m in a music mood.
Like Clockwork, Queens of the Stone Age
It’s likely that Josh Homme’s motley crew of hard-partying vampire rockers will never top their 2002 monster mash Songs for the Dead, but the (not alternately but simultaneously) vulnerable, sardonic, and hard-charging Like Clockwork is a stiff enough cocktail to make you forget for a minute or two. There are weak-links: the scorched-earth intro “Keep Your Eyes Peeled” never rouses its jagged riff into anything more than a dogged march, and “I Sat by the Ocean” is catchy but neither as venomous nor as lascivious as it should be. (It feels like it washed up on the beach when it should be skulking out of the gutter). But after a negligible intro, the band begins firing on all cylinders. The adenoidal, whiskey-soaked “My God is the Sun” marries the parched throat of ZZ Top to the merciless churn of Black Sabbath, the phallic “Smooth Sailing” boasts a sweaty strut and a libidinal charge, and the nasty underworld of “If I Had a Tail” is pure pelvic gyration that locks into a searing groove like one throbbing aural erogenous zone.
Even better is the heaven-and-hell platter “Kalopsia” which creeps through minimalistic, neon-inflected glam menace before razing the low-level buzz of uncertainty with a merciless guitar ion storm that mows the song to the ground. And I don’t know what crawl-space the closer “I Appear Missing” emerged out of, but it might be Homme’s best song ever, a slurry of ruminative, cheeky, and bruised attitudes building ever-kindling tension for six unflappable minutes, a soul-searching twilight zone trip through the desert after the apocalypse. Individual songs aside though, it’s the overall mood, the vibe, that elevates Like Clockwork. Queens of the Stone Age remains just about the only superstar rock group with a sensibility all their own, synthesizing masculine and feminine principles, melodically creamy and ragged impulses, to create a sound that exists in a permanently liminal space between feelings and sensations. For such a helter-skelter schism of an album, the texture is remarkably balanced. As superficially muscular as they are on the surface, Queens of the Stone Age is mainstream rock’s only current suis generis.
The Hunter, Mastodon
From the graveyard-crunch of “Black Tongue” to the strutting, sassy “Curl of the Burl”, The Hunter is the molten aftershock of Mastodon’s ash-speckled supernova Crack the Skye. After four increasingly proggy albums bursting toward eruption and shooting for the sky, this 2011 work is sweatier, less fragmented, and thicker on the bottom, eschewing the antediluvian, twisted psychedelia of Skye – with its knotty song structures and gonzo concept – for something so down to earth it pummels into the core. The result is simpler, no doubt, but never simplistic; “All the Heavy Lifting” is as viciously antagonistic as anything they’ve ever done and “The Hunter” submerges a ballad in the brine of paranoia.
Obviously compared to Metallica’s mainstream bid The Black Album (a band dishing out crunchier, punchier songs after a decade of increasingly robust experimentation and prog inflections), The Hunter matches those metal gods for thunder but frankly surpasses them for caustic unpredictability and epileptic energy. Even the poppiest song, “Dry Bone Valley”, unleashes the kind of moonshine-fueled, Allman-Bros-set-to-overdrive gallop that could have only been concocted in a bathtub laboratory. And the high-camp Pink Floyd Swamp Thing morass? Cling to it like a brief moment of safety, wreckage in an album that amounts to a hell of a storm. Continue reading
Review: In a Valley of Violence
A handful of small impact tremors in the horror genre under his belt, Ti West, the only so-called mumble-gore director worth a damn, taints the Western with his particular brand of suggestible, dark energy in the gravidly-titled In a Valley of Violence. A nomadic firecracker of a film that recalls the existential-crisis minimalism of Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting, this slice of vintage pulp fiction eschews the grandiloquent game of Once Upon a Time in the West for a kind of taciturn swampy pop-art. With the intro credits slinking like a pink panther gone feral, the spirit of the ‘60s hang high here, looming over this parched throat of a film like a sun that just won’t set. Thankfully, reverence to the past never feels like a noose held around the film’s neck. There’s an analog spirit here, but West never loses himself in the wayward mire of classical pastiche or overly-hagiographic reference to Westerns past. This is West’s West, not a feeble attempt to ape Leone’s or Ford’s. Continue reading
Review: Band of Robbers
Although mostly cottoning to Mark Twain’s insouciance and witticisms rather than his gothic, mortally wounded ruminations on society (so it’s more Tom Sawyer than the superior Huck Finn), Band of Robbers gets us partway toward what anointed the early Coen Brothers as the cinematic exhumers of Twain’s rascally, still-kicking corpse. Recasting Tom (Adam Nee) and Huck (Kyle Gallner) as modern day slackers (the latter recently released from jail and the former a lethargic police officer), the film’s decision to revise Twain’s prose as a rattle-snake of a heist film is not exactly inspired in an age where that genre is an easy target for indie success. But that doesn’t make it ineffective. Obviously, it reeks too of filmmakers-of-a-certain-age basking in the warm glow of Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket, but Band of Robbers is spunky enough and clearly enjoys the old-fangled spirit and the messy malarkey of childhood campfire tales, not to mention their more ruminative underbellies. Continue reading
Review: Embrace of the Serpent
Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent constricts itself with the sinister snake of history – venomous, elusive, alluring, and difficult to unravel – about as tightly as a film can. It’s not perfect; Guerra once or twice drowns in a swamp of historical allusions and metaphors that are never really allowed the free space to lash out as dangerously and free-associatively as they could. But his film at least allows history to vibrate rather than remain trapped in a film’s distanced reverence like a waxworks display. A provocative, even downright brash film, Embrace of the Serpent is wisely emboldened by its stylistic and political radicalism. Even when it sinks into symbols like quicksand, it is at worst “a nice try” or a near-miss rather than an outright failure, and, frankly, its missteps are only as hurtful as they are because of the potential lurking in the film’s head. This is not timid cinema, and it burrows un-hesitantly into the post-colonial mindset with more aesthetic vigor than most other morally-charged films would know what to do with. For all its flaws, there’s something essential about it, and not only because its political fangs are so often unsheathed. Like the mythical psychedelic flower that is a kind of MacGuffin for director Guerra’s robust scrutiny of cinematic depictions of the “Other”, Embrace boasts enough of a visual pull to send sparks every which way, even if the prospect of truly igniting is ultimately left off the table. Continue reading
The Tony Jaa Revue Hour: Kill Zone 2
The sequelitis-affronted, relatively lame, stilted title of Kill Zone 2 really does not do Soi Cheang’s inspired storm of a film the justice it deserves. Brandishing an initially worrying surfeit of ephemeral plot, the film actually scurries along with grace and kinetic motion, bucking the overloaded Raid 2 trend of expositing everything to death. Cheang’s film is operatic in scope but limned with B-picture sharpness and a nimble nature worthy of Jet Li if he was actually out for blood. It cannot muster the elegantly streamlined, relentlessly pure giddy alacrity of, say, the epochal The Raid, the golden child for martial arts films in the ‘10s. But, even still, this physical free-for-all threshed with melodrama boasts a bloody, bursting heart and a touch of genuine evil. Continue reading
The Tony Jaa Revue Hour: The Protector 2
I do not know that I can meaningfully defend The Protector 2, which is why it is for the better that no one involved particularly seems to respect my opinion at all. Less a feature film than the Tony Jaa variety hour, The Protector 2 is disarmingly free of stakes, coherency, and even tension. It is, as drama, almost disturbingly inept, entirely daffy in the way it tortures a narrative out of scenes of mayhem and malarkey. There’s a focus on wholly inadequate compositing shots that is endearing in its disregard for common courtesy and the social propriety of visual logic. At times, the shenanigans on display approximates an anti-narrative hostility that is nearly inspired in its casually self-effacing “plot”. The RZA took Tony Jaa’s elephant, and you don’t take Tony Jaa’s elephant. Continue reading
Review: Doctor Strange
Disney clearly has a fetish for manning the bellows to raise old properties teetering on the edge of irrelevance, especially to the tune of spending several hundred million dollars on them. Often (John Carter, The Lone Ranger), this resurrection quickly mutates into a séance: the properties remain dead, and the best we can do is ask the characters why Disney is affronting them by not allowing them to rest in peace. Yet Disney’s most recent such semi-forgotten property carries the Marvel brand, which means commercial success for once. At least this skeleton back-from-the-dead has a little visual meat on its bones and a couple of fascinatingly splintered compositions, but that isn’t enough to truly salvage the nefarious acolyte of science and nerd-cred bolster Dr. Steven Strange. If the prospect of one of the world’s most monolithic and voluminous corporations resurrecting a wiry little swashbuckling B-comic from the ‘70s raises any false alarms in your head, well, consider yourself intelligent. Lest you think that the title is a harbinger of things to come, Marvel’s one-size-fits-all aesthetic is as plastic and only superficially strange as ever in this new film. In breathing life into a product from the Bronze Age of comic-dom, Marvel continues to package and primp their creation in service of creating something masquerading as malignant, dangerous, and different. And something ultimately too benign to last past the 90-minute mark. Continue reading