I so wanted to write some nonsense about Andy Serkis in War of the Planet of the Apes and in The Lord of the Rings films to make this connection, but really I had these reviews on my computer, and I guess that’s as good a reason as any.
Only fifteen odd years but many Hollywood eons ago, Peter Jackson’s much-vaunted trilogy was the commercial and critical darling of the cinematic world. It enraptured both fair-weather film attendees and cinephiles alike, and it could seemingly do no wrong. Its reputation hasn’t flagged at all. Although time salves the reptile brain’s immediate magnetic attraction to Jackson’s visual splendor, the trilogy has never truly been framed and squared-off into a museum piece, a taxidermied old classic to rest on the mantle rather than a lively, kicking thing to unsettle your ribs to this day. It isn’t a whirlwind of living and breathing sensations any more, but if the paint has dried, it hasn’t chipped, let’s say. All these years later, why do the films settle so cozily into the imagination while so many other blockbusters of the time are more like skeletons on an abandoned summer-time battlefield of the mind? Continue reading
The initial conflict begins without any clarity or certainty of agency. The causes do not match the effects, an early primer for director Sam Fuller’s hard-headed humanism and his eye and ear for the absurdism of conflict and a life that doesn’t conform to our rituals. A kind of retrospective parody of the famous D-Day invasion from Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan – all gung-ho violence and viciously unsentimental grandiose hell-raising – The Big Red One’s opening scene finds a platoon of Americans disappointed that they’re fighting Vichy French (co-collaborators of the Germans, or at least those acquiescent to Nazi might). The Americans rush to a line of barbed wire. A French general orders his men to fire with a machine gun placement. His man disagrees. The general kills him. The general’s underling shoots the general, who falls on the machine gun, setting it off accidentally. A brief skirmish that mounts to nothing starts. It’s over as soon as it starts. Fate, or chance, or whatever, seems to stack the pieces in favor of assault no matter who tries to stop it, as though the universe wanted them to start a conflict and then pitilessly lost interest in the human’s actions immediately. Whether the men are competent or not has nothing to do with it. Continue reading
Ever since the truly sublime Monty Python’s Flying Circus sketch “Salad Days”, Sam Peckinpah has been something of a punchline for critics who reduce him to the rampant Novocaine of violence opiating the masses. His only proper war film, Cross of Iron, is not a full-throated rejoinder to that criticism, but it certainly problematizes the animating cinematic thrill of, say, The Wild Bunch. It’s not an abandonment of violence, though, so much as a rough and rowdy revision, punchy in the typical Peckinpah milieu but more decrepit and alienated from its bloodletting.
The introduction is a little over-baked, but it works as a sort of amuse-bouche for Peckinpah’s exceedingly dry comic sensibility, with a documentary video-reel of Nazi imagery marinated in an overtly condescending, cheeky military march. Great stuff, and it reveals a truly mordant sense of humor underneath Peckinpah’s usually stone-faced cinematic exteriors. Peckinpah also inverts the famous opening credits of The Wild Bunch, where color soldiers unsympathetically flash into still-photo black-and-white as if to trap them in time and enervate them of life-blood. Here, the black and white footage flashes into static blood-red, as if the distanced and denatured imagery of the past is being provocatively reinstated as a bloody present. Continue reading
Ahh, the wonderful world of John Boorman, that perennial cinematic oscillator between the realm of exhausted greatness (Point Break, Deliverance) and spirited atrocity (Zardoz and Exorcist II). The man just eludes categorization, except that all of his films seem to share a pure and unabashed self-centeredness. Yet many of his best films paradoxically stamp themselves in the director’s personality not through baroque visual extravaganzas but through thriller minimalism. His greatest achievements are not screeds radiating shards of discontent or phantasmagorical whirlygusts of excitement. Deliverance and Point Break are white-knuckle, certainly, but they are also thoroughly dog-tired, whipped features, spent forces rather than self-propagating fires of combustion. Continue reading
With Dunkirk making the rounds and tearing up the critics, I’ve decided to review a few (better) alternative WWII films that are not part of the official war film canon, or experience delayed entry to the minds of the public. Saving Private Ryan need not apply.
Polish director Andrzej Wajda would wrangle his uniquely collapsed view of humanity in disrepair into a perhaps even more vital and existentially uncertain achievement with his next film, Ashes and Diamonds, the finale of his famous trio of war films. That film has often unfairly overshadowed its more bombed-out predecessor Kanal, and not without good reason: its central disagreement between two ex-soldiers tasked with assassinating a communist leader is slyly sorrowful and vigorously taxing at an exceptionally interiorized, mental valence, visualizing a hideous war of the mind and the body politic rather than simply of their bodies. Continue reading
If nothing else, Sofia Coppola’s remake of Don Siegel’s tempestuous 1971 backwoods thriller of the same name is a valuable reflection of how the much-mocked “remake” status can be an opportunity to confront and a possibility to fulfill rather than merely a box to check if the film in question is not a sycophantic and slavish devotee to the original. Coppola’s new version of this story is no acolyte of Siegel’s, borrowing the plot and nothing of the mood, feel, style, or sensibility of the original. It’s still the story of a mostly-empty Civil War-era Southern girl’s school headed by Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) and teacher Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst) and the sexual emotions they stir when they take in wounded Union Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) and help him back to health. (The other primary occupants of the school are a handful of youths, the most important in this version being Alicia (Elle Fanning), Jane (Angourie Rice), and Amy (Oona Laurence)). But if Siegel’s film was a moonshine-fueled folk tale, Coppola’s is a diorama fairy tale. While it doesn’t necessarily better the original, it does not copy it. Continue reading
Grubby, gnawing exploitation vessels chased by commentary on social collapse, George A. Romero’s zombies were less metaphors than poetic embodiments or evocations of walking-shuffle social alienation. Flesh wasn’t the only thing rotting and decomposing in a Romero film.While I have written about his zombie films, his obvious claims to fame, before, I take the occasion of his death to appreciate a trio of his less appreciated ‘70s films. RIP.
Season of the Witch
Romero’s exploitation films wielded a surprisingly dusted-off, casual, analog-refuse quality, as if transforming them into social bric-a-brac found in the dumpster that, like all of society’s “trash”, tells us more about the society’s dreams, desires, and fears than what that society chooses to elevate on a pedestal. In this case, Season of the Witch is a brazenly radical concoction, a cauldron-brew composed of unfulfilled desire, agency-dreams, and two shakes of erotica. The subject is middle-American housewife Joan (Jan White), wife of Jack, as she creeps into the world of witch-dom with skepticism that mutates into feverish elan, cottoning to the sexual quivers and enhanced sense of self that is afforded by finding her own personal world of witchcraft away from the white-washed, relentlessly squared-off frames of quotidian domesticity. Continue reading
I can think of hundreds of better films, but Face/Off is some kind of zenith, like a pure slab of movie-making distilled. Beyond being a gleefully trashy amped-up B-movie delight, as gloriously dysfunctional as it is intoxicatingly sure-handed, John Woo’s best (and only good) American film is a blockbuster treatise on the nature of identity, the only American picture he handled that remains truly permissive to his personal predilection for films about the dualistic nature of identity and the loss and retention of self. Hard Target (dementedly designed climax aside), Broken Arrow, Mission Impossible II, and certainly Windtalkers and the abominably luke-warm Paycheck all feel like imposters, but Face/Off has the special sauce, that auteurist alacrity and deliciously eccentric sense of self that only Woo could bring to a production like this. Nervously coiled interpersonal drama interpolated with orgasmic explosions of pressured-violence, this radioactive tangle of a film is exultant movie-making from beginning to end.
I know I should stop beating the dead horse of The Untouchables (it just doesn’t kick enough to truly live), but, Raising Cain? Now we’re talking. Five years after The Untouchables, and De Palma is back where he belongs: up to no good. Vigorously so, at that. Taking a sabbatical from tent-pole films (to be resumed soon enough with Carlito’s Way and, of course, Mission Impossible), Cain is a full-throated, fully-equipped expressionistic cluster-bomb of De Palma’s stylistic slipperiness, throwing his outre configurations of canted, dubious-perspective angles at us like a self-propagating fire. Avoiding any pretense of a sympathetic protagonist or a moral opponent for main character Dr. Nix (John Lithgow), Raising Cain lives up to its riotous name and then some.
I’ve heard Cain referred to as a labyrinth, but a horror-show, mirror-filled fun-house might be a better comparison for this film where the main obstructions to your escape are the polymorphous versions of your own self splayed out before you. This barbarically spirited film is drowning in ideas about perspective and one’s sense of identity, demanding that De Palma’s cinema serve as vessel for a refractory explosion of multiple personalities and uncertain selves. Nix, suffering from multiple personality disorder, is hell-bent on working with one of his more murderous personas to kidnap children in service of his experiments on personality development in youths, experiments which double as nefarious channels for discovering just what exactly his father was doing to him all those years ago. Continue reading
The depressing timidity of Brian De Palma’s mercenary The Untouchables, a paycheck directorial role if ever there was one, is consummated in the centerpiece sequence, a verbatim riff on the famous staircase rumble and tumble from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (which was itself not as good as anything in Eisenstein’s prior film Strike). De Palma’s version is technically proficient – maybe even perfect – but purposeless and entirely rudimentary, excoriated of Eisenstein’s surrealistic flourishes and political-revolution tectonics. De Palma’s detractors tend to think of him as a Hitchcock plagiarist who debases that cinematic master of the macabre, but their argument falls apart when De Palma’s hedonistic formal pirouettes and wry, audience-blackmailing comic filigrees push Hitchcock way over the sanity edge. For scholars who ghettoize De Palma as a copy-cat and a reduction-artist, the real lynchpin of their argument should be The Untouchables, which repeats Eisenstein only to render him null and void. Continue reading