A toxic swirl of competing and conflicting energies and moods, The Bad Batch relishes both a freakish, convulsing elan and a border-town’s sense of dispossessed, out-of-the-way melancholy. It definitely carries a streak of hot-tempered punk aggression and rambunctiousness. But the energy is tempered with the ethereal disposition of punk’s younger, more reptilian late-‘80s-alt cousin, Alt-Goth, which was the prevailing ethos of Amirpour’s first film, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and which carries its own attitude of vaguely stoned, quasi-psychedelic, chilled-down depression. The Bad Batch has a feminist spirit – more riot grrl than Gloria Steinem – but also a lean, mean musculature, parts of which Sam Fuller or Anthony Mann might have directed. It defies reasonable meaning at almost all turns, but its dyspeptic drone is palpable and feels thematically united in its exploration of the pushed around, both the people and the films of the furthest corners of the world where rules are guidelines and communities are tenuous and volatile. It is flawed, deeply so, and, at times, its poetic brand of outsider melancholy can become less of a mood proper and more of an affectation or, at worst, a fixation Amirpour just can’t quit. But the film’s iconoclastic zest is undeniable. Continue reading
Jordan Peele’s Get Out is most appealing because it busts through the shackles of hopelessly milquetoast race-themed Oscarbait persistent to this day, and not only the old standbys like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?. Get Out also ousts and decentralizes more modern fare like Hidden Figures for their contentedness to coast on shuffling black historical figures into the relatively unchanged narrative structure gifted to white historical figures for decades: down-and-outs persist, struggle, and triumph. By thrusting African-Americans into this all-too-American success narrative thrumming with national mythologies of potency and virile capability, Hollywood only allows this agency-narrative to continue unabated as the dominant acceptable lexicon for black characters in film. If you are black and not a scathingly regressive stereotype in a film, essentially, you better be a success story, operationalized to validate America’s go-to narrative of assimilating all races into its fetishization of “opportunity” as an opiate keeping discussions of real equality at bay. Continue reading
Park Chan-wook’s endlessly, even mercilessly fastidious and picky aesthetic sensibilities – ornate and obsessive in equal measure – have never served him better than in The Handmaiden. His formalist techniques, often constricting and repressive of the emotional juices of his films, are wonderful mimetics for a screenplay which very much attends to questions of constriction and choking alienation. Set almost entirely in a Japanese-controlled mansion occupied by Koreans, not to mention in a male-dominated culture tenated by women, The Handmaiden’s mise-en-scene and blocking compound the pristine ritualistic motions of the characters who cannot break-out of their socially-structured, performative identities without incessant observation and admonishment.
Each moment must be policed, and Chan-wook’s style submits accordingly. The note-perfect symmetry and rigidly-lined geometry of the frames constitute the strangulating mood of the characters and their stored-away emotions. The geometry of space Chan-wook so ably attunes to also serves as a material enforcer of various hegemonies – paternalistic, national – that seem to make everyone a servant to someone. The layout of the screen decodes the architecture of the mind. And, while The Handmaiden’s unyielding, inelastic set-design and severe, inhospitable aura owe something to Ozu and Bergman, respectively, its indecent disposition and lecherous eye for deviance and perversion are unmistakably born out of Chan-wook’s own inky heart. Continue reading
The opening of James Mangold’s Logan bears the film’s fangs right from the get-go, brandishing the titular character’s unruly temperament in an early fight edited in schizophrenic shambles. The scene is treated not as a cleanly delineated pleasure-soaked fight-performance for our amusement but as a brutal, animalistic seizure of uncontrolled violence. Rather than a slow, mysterious secretion of innumerable details building to narrative proportions, Logan quite literally lets itself rip.
It’s provocative, albeit obviously-motivated stuff. Last year’s R-rated Deadpool took the box office by the balls, and Logan is – if we’re honest – little more than Fox’s attempt to conjoin their most popular in-house Marvel character – the one with the metal claws – and the ostensibly adults-only rating that brought them insurmountable glory last year. That this rating also happens to be the path of best fit for a character who, you know, mauls people with claws might actually be an afterthought for Fox. One suspects they could have just as easily done-up Howard the Duck in adult-minded garb if they owned the rights and it could benefit them financially.
But, if a happy accident Logan is, it makes the most of the predicament it has been placed in. The R-rating certainly emancipates the title character from the holy scripture of the PG-13 rating every comic book film is saddled with these days. But Logan wisely treats the R-rating not as an excuse or an allowance to wreak havoc, but as a force that the film is being subjected to, a weight being pressed down on the film, a festering gloom or a salt-air infection it can’t shake. Unlike Deadpool – which was little more than an adolescent, PG-13 film in R-rated clothing – Logan understands that it isn’t merely laundering hoary old thrills in new (literal) blood and viscera. The R is an ethos or a mantra, so to speak, an attitude of dejection and scarred, sacrilegious punishment, a choking humidity that can’t be escaped. It’s a parallel universe for the superhero movie rooted in dysfunction and unsettlement.
I’m at a loss. I cannot quite decide what Kong: Skull Island’s central problem is. Sometimes, director Jordan Vogt Roberts’ film rudderlessly vacillates form obvious highs (the apocalyptically-shot pre-credits screen and a killer credits bit) to infernal lows (an impossibly idiotic, on-the-nose opening line from John Goodman – spoken almost directly to the camera – about American politics never being “this bad again”). Here, the film is an inconstant success story sabotaging its structural integrity with foolhardy bull-in-a-china-shop shifts in quality, a work of half-crazed energy and personal auteurist flourishes with no earthly idea how to stitch its numerous harebrained personal madnesses together into an unidentified film-like object. Other times, however, Skull Island has the reheated quality of a monotone hum that settles not for a tilt-a-whirl shuttling between greatness and failure and more like incessant competence, seldom better or worse than acceptable and essentially unwilling to risk its adequacy to achieve greatness at the risk of failure. Continue reading
This review written on the occasion of the release of All Eyez on Me and Juice’s twenty-fifth anniversary.
Ernest R. Dickerson begins his directorial debut with the kind of concert opener that establishes imaginative kinship with his prior-collaborator Spike Lee, who Dickerson lensed Do the Right Thing and other films for. A sketchy psychedelic swirl opens up a portal to a spinning record, a marker of four-on-the-floor movement to stoke palpable creative juices, as the credits boom into place over the movement. But as the film hustles along and reveals its true register, hinting at the tiny particles of existential angst lingering beneath and structuring the free-wheeling days of its characters, the incessant and inevitable circular motion of the record takes on a much darker resonance. Unceasing and perpetual, the non-linear movement of the musical artifact increasingly registers as an emblem of life in simultaneous movement and stasis. The characters in the film – four high-school teens in the inner-city – are always on the move, always plunging into some new venture or searching for an opportunity to make money, but the labyrinthine inner-city streets are less prisms of opportunity than prisons. These boys know how to make moves, but they don’t seem to be able to go anywhere. Continue reading
The late ‘70s. Boston. Michael Smiley and Cillian Murphy play two IRA gunrunners looking to buy. Sharlto Copley dons the mustache of someone with an eye to sell, backed by his crew of course. And Brie Larson and Armie Hammer are just along as the middle-persons to smooth things over. Director Ben Wheatley has other plans.
Within minutes, this single-set, semi-real-time excursion in carefree hostility mushrooms into full-on assault as the conflict extends upward through the entirely tenuous organizational structures, sending the diverse collection of ne’er do wells ricocheting around an abandoned factory. Or rather, crawling, staggering, and tumbling over, as one of the film’s niftiest decisions is to have everyone suffer an injury or seven early on, reducing them each to hobbling semi-incompetents and massaging the shootout into something more caustic and meaty as characters flail around struggling to move an inch. It’s the Wheatley touch, and although it’s a minor one in the grand scheme of things, it benefits Free Fire enormously. Continue reading
John Michael McDonagh’s films – quietly depraved though they may be – have until this point benefited from a superficially nonchalant demeanor with just enough negative space for the creeping anxiety lurking underfoot to seep in, revealing the worried minds underneath the carnage. The low-and-slow black comedy The Guard wore its Irish brogue smoothly and the superior existential drama Calvary was frighteningly calm under heavy pressure. By way of comparison, War on Everyone, his third directorial effort, really can’t be bothered to give us a glimpse of its own private madnesses at all. It’s too busy showing off. Any meaningful observation it has is intercepted by its own lacquer of cool, ambushed by the script’s incessant compulsion to entertain at any cost. This film is coked-up and addicted to its own cleverness, so eager to please that it doesn’t notice how high on its own material it actually is. Continue reading
Among the finest traditional superhero films ever made, or so I’m told, Wonder Woman nonetheless provoked, for me, not out-of-body effervescence, nor rapturous wonder, nor thoughtful introspection, but merely mild contentedness. This year’s other critical-darling superhero flick, Logan, stuck a tripartite claw into certain regulations of the superhero genre. Although it merely dressed other genre-norms up in a thick coating of sinew and muscle, the film had moral meat on its Charcuterie board, all of it rare and bloody. Wonder Woman is a resolutely traditional film by way of comparison, and its minute-to-minute successes and failures have entirely to do with which of two particular traditions it settles into at any given moment. Continue reading
The second time around, James Gunn’s motley crew of aliens, trees, and raccoons cast much the same unsettled, antic, amusingly insecure shadow as they did in the first film. Gunn doubles down on the emotional hesitancies of the titular Guardians in the final act, but, for the most part, he stays the course of compositional whimsy and philharmonic ‘70s tunes, all egg-beating the action scenes into a whipped fervor of aesthetic inflammation. In this case, second helpings is fine, considering how ecstatically messy the course was the first time around, and how off-handedly flirtatious and cunning it continues to be three years later. That is, when the film isn’t trying too hard by settling for the idea of Guardians of the Galaxy more than the real item. But we’ll get there. Continue reading