Monthly Archives: July 2017

Directing the Directors: Steven Soderbergh: Erin Brockovich

erin-brockovichMore traditional and individualistic – almost fiercely so – in comparison to Steven Soderbergh’s more heterogeneous panoplies of varying voices, textures, and tones, Erin Brockovich doesn’t always do more than glisten, but boy does it. It’s pure pop, and it’s easy to criticize Soderbergh for heading in that direction after the more experimental (and better) The Limey.  But no modern filmmaker oscillates between his experimental personal projects and his only-slightly-less-personal commercial properties with Soderbergh’s frequency or his gusto, let alone his singular ability to thin the membrane between private experiment and populist fare so thin that there often isn’t a difference between the two. (Consider the exhaustive meta-textual star-commentary and celebrity hang-out anti-caper film Ocean’s Twelve). Who can blame him for making Erin Brockovich when a fanatically experimental and alienating film like Full Frontal is right around the corner? Or, for that matter, who can blame him when his feather-light pop nothings like Erin Brockovich are this wonderful? Continue reading


Directing the Directors: Steven Soderbergh: King of the Hill

king_of_the_hill_1-620x264A wonderfully low-wattage, free-verse odyssey and a quiet parody and embracement of classical mythopoetic adventures, King of the Hill’s structure lacks the jostled tempo of director Steven Soderbergh’s more revolutionary films, but inconsequentiality, here, is where the heart lies. A tapestry of repetitions and minute improvements in identity and possibility, King of the Hill is a bildungsroman of a more everyday sort than a classical Greek tragedy.  The adventurer in this case is Aaron Kurlander (Jesse Bradford), an eighth grader in Depression-era Saint Louis whose mother (Lisa Eichhorn) is in a sanitarium for an unspecified disease, whose father (Keroen Krabbe) is a travelling watch salesman who goes on long trips to Kansas and Iowa, and whose younger brother has been shipped away to live with his extended family so his parents can save on money. Continue reading

Directing the Directors: Steven Soderbergh: Che

che-movie-poster2This review is based on both parts of Soderbergh’s film taken as a whole. 

Navigating Steven Soderbergh’s Che is an almost impossible task for the lover of the conventional biopic (a group I am not a member of). Yet judging Che against those biopic standards is perhaps essential for its study in a collapsed man. The almost unanimous criticism of the film – that it gives us little insight into Che Guevara the man – is both entirely astute and indefatigably myopic. It is simultaneously missing the point and exactly the point. Watching Che, it is almost impossible to decode the seeming cipher of a man it presents, but “impossible to decode” is a neutral claim that many viewers take to be a negative or a problem. It is a feature that is assumed a flaw. Their opinion isn’t incorrect so much as it is, in my opinion, limited, the casualty of an individualistic Hollywood formula that threads the membrane between character psychology and maturity so thin that one would be ostracized simply for claiming that there may just be other pathways to truth beyond burrowing into the subcutaneous traumas and fixations of the man whose name adorns the movie poster. That’s because Che isn’t merely a biopic but a thought experiment. Viewed from this angle, it isn’t primarily a study of a person so much as an essay on the nature of revolution. Continue reading

Directing the Directors: Steven Soderbergh: The Limey

M8DLIME EC011A mercurial exercise in pure cinematic economy, a gangster tale cut-up and reinterpreted through director Steven Soderbergh’s shattered-glass editing, The Limey is Point Blank dressed up as Hiroshima, Mon Amour. Actually, that’s dismissive. The Limey doesn’t don the exterior garb of a modernistically scrambled study in memory. Soderbergh’s film feels modernism down to its very core. It cracks into pieces before our eyes, and in protagonist Wilson’s mind. Played by Terrence Stamp in the performance of his life, Wilson is the lightning-rod around which Soderbergh’s coiled energy and recklessly frazzled editing anti-rhythms commune. Continue reading

Directing the Directors: Steven Soderbergh: Traffic

2000-traffic-05Logan Lucky, the comeback film of the formerly-but-not-really-retired Steven Soderbergh, is out this month, and the return to cinema of one of the great filmmakers of the past quarter-century is obviously something to celebrate. I’ll do so with a few reviews, the only way I know how. 

Nominated for two Best Director Oscars in one year, Steven Soderbergh won for Traffic, arguably his peak harmony of critical and commercial success and among the most piquant Best Director wins ever. Within reason, of course. It’s still an Issue film, so it’s in the Academy’s wheelhouse. (They’d never do the unthinkable and commit heresy by giving it to a genuine work of directorial singularity like, say, Wong Kar-Wai’s, Edward Yang’s, or Bela Tarr’s films from the same year, Stanley Kubrick’s from the year before, Terrence Malick’s from the year before that, or David Lynch’s from the year after Traffic. You get the picture). But for a somewhat safer film, as well as a work where the “experimentalism” is programmatic and pampered enough to be immediately obvious to any viewer, Traffic is a volatile, agitated, uncovered nerve of a movie just waiting to be poked. Continue reading

Progenitors: Stephen King: Carrie

Sissy Specek as CarrieThe Dark Tower is surely the biggest budgeted Stephen King adaptation thus far, releasing after a relatively long-lull since the King cinematic-adaptation factory downsized about a decade ago. With It primed to make a boatload at the box office in little more than a month, let’s take a look at a few of King’s most notable film adaptations, diamonds in a truly rough slog of visual atrocity. 

With Carrie – fittingly a story about the horrors of maturation into independent adulthood – director Brian De Palma finally crawled out of Alfred Hitchcock’s attic, where he had been lurking for most of his early films, and emerged as a force all his own. It was also a smashing success, instantly making De Palma a household name, but unlike many of his latter, equally commercially viable films – Scarface, The Untouchables, Mission Impossible – Carrie does not flatten out De Palma’s iconoclastic style or collapse his rhythms by aiming for middle-of-the-road spectacle. Retaining his unique style of frazzled poetry and trading in writer Stephen King’s dry, accusatory writing for a mood of erotic melancholy, Carrie is a mosaic of depleted teenage energy, and by far the second-best King adaptation in film history. (Behind, obviously, The Shining, only a very tentative King adaptation, and the one Stephen King hates the most). Radiating unpretentious pulp, Carrie exudes a quality of social neglect and personal loss, or never really belonging, thrumming with the outsider spirit De Palma brought to all his great films. In its own devilish way, Carrie is as much of a yardstick of teenage innocence and social ostracization as any song Bruce Springsteen was penning around this time. Continue reading

Progenitors: Stephen King: Misery and The Mist

The Dark Tower 
is surely the biggest budgeted Stephen King adaptation thus far, releasing after a relatively long-lull since the King cinematic-adaptation factory downsized about a decade ago. With It primed to make a boatload at the box office in little more than a month, let’s take a look at a few of King’s most notable film adaptations, diamonds in a truly rough slog of visual atrocity. 


A psychological pas de deux charged with the energy of exploitation, consider Misery a pile-on of Ingmar Bergman and Tobe Hooper, and lay back as the hammer comes out. Drawing toast-dry absurdist humor from director Rob Reiner’s naturally comic vein, this relatively snug adaptation of Stephen King’s writing is a mordantly tragic, truly mournful film that carries a deviously comic undertow of absurdity. The punishingly long, artistically pale TV adaptation of IT is more famous from the same year, but Reiner’s unnaturally terrifying film is the better work by far. Continue reading

Review: Dunkirk

dunkirk-posterThere’s a fundamentally volatile, empathically compelling core about Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, more akin to an over-budgeted experiential art film than what might pass as a narrative in the conventional sense, especially for summer blockbusters and their perennial fetish for stories of self-actualization. In Dunkirk, characters are ciphers, stripped of anything resembling backstory. They are defined only by the minutiae of how they react to peril of the moment. Nolan strives not to detail, from above, the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of British soldiers after the failed British invasion of German-occupied France during WWII. Instead, he works over-time to feverishly emblazon the past in highly subjective, ground-level cinematic strokes.  An experiment in the moment, in an eternal present-tense, Dunkirk is a stark refutation (within blockbuster confines) of the tendentiousness of narrative where moments are primarily valuable for the pay-offs and catharsis they will lead to in a theoretical future. Continue reading

Review: War for the Planet of the Apes

war_for_the_planet_of_the_apes_posterNow in its third and possibly final film, the 21st century Planet of the Apes series has shuttled audiences from the thickets of armed revolt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) to the middle passage of Greek Tragedy (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes). With War for the Planet of the Apes, we’ve now descended into an even more classical and essentially mythological register. While Shakespeare was the obvious focal point in Dawn, director Matt Reeves and co-writer Marck Bomback double-down on the Biblical aspirations of the original series with this trilogy-conclusion, rendering War an heir apparent to the Cecil B. Demille Bible epics of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.

Throughout the early portions of War for the Planet of the Apes, protagonist Caesar (Andy Serkis) leaves his apes to mount a personal mission, but the rest of his colony begins an arduous trek through a desert, a setting and adventure which lays bare the Biblical aspirations and allegorical, metaphysical meditations at stake here. However, while this promises an arid climate, most of War shuttles us with Caesar into the frigid mountains of the Pacific Northwest, where cinematographer Michael Seresin can bombard Caesar and his close friends with a white, frosty holocaust, the tundra of the soul. Caesar’s mission is to hunt and kill the villainous enigma known as the Colonel (Woody Harrelson), whose abstraction of a name also reminds us that War is, at heart, a mythological allegory. The Colonel, obsessed with killing all of ape-kind, led a midnight raid on Caesar’s home from which not all emerged unscathed, and Caesar and his closest advisors, including sensitive and world-weary orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval) and chimpanzee Rocket (Terry Notary), are on the proverbial war-path. Continue reading

Progenitors: Conquest of the Planet of the Apes

conquest_of_the_planet_of_the_apes_5Among the five original Planet of the Apes pictures, 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is undeniably the most obvious forebear to the modern trilogy. A review of this most unheralded picture in honor of the conclusion of the new trilogy.

Human characters run toward the screen with imprisoned apes in tow, and a quavering camera courtesy of cinematographer Bruce Surtees trembles in reverse, as if cowering in fear. This hand-held style already puts us on a different, more unstable footing than the more classically composed delights of the original 1968 Planet of the Apes, but we’re in a film that is almost as good. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is also, in some sense, the closest analogue in the classic series to the beginning of the 2010’s series revamp, depicting the “conquest” that would become the “rise” in 2011. If anything, Conquest is even more explicit in its allegorical and essentially revolutionary nature than the modern films. Right in the thick of political disfiguration and social unrest, Conquest has Black Power on the mind and in the eyes, more overtly so than nearly any non-blaxploitation film of the ‘70s. Also suggesting America’s little venture into Vietnam, screenwriter Paul Dehn and director J. Lee Thompson hurtle right into the belly of the beast with guerilla aplomb. So many are wont to call Planet of the Apes “thinking person’s sci-fi” that they overlook how a red-hot screed like Conquest aims right for the gut. Continue reading