Monthly Archives: August 2019

Midnight Screening: Blade II

blade-2-ron-perlman-wesley-snipesLoosely in honor of the MCU’s recent announcement of a new Blade picture, and in honor of a film that I think is better than any of the 22 films in the MCU. 

Seventeen years on, and with director Guillermo del Toro’s respectable Hollywood bona-fides secured in a Best Picture and Best Director win for a film that, superficial lacquer of oddness aside, is really no less oblique or off-kilter than any other Oscarbait picture, one longs for the freakish B-movie voluptuousness of a film like Blade II. Famously, del Toro only took the film so he could have more control over the film’s follow-up, 2004’s Hellboy, the director may consider it a skeleton in his closet. Frankly though, that sense of hushed disreputability – both a film that isn’t to be spoken about and a film that refuses to easily speak its own mysteries and themes – is what makes Blade II perhaps del Toro’s most pungent English-language film, a dismembered parable of ethnic cleansing less hopelessly literal than Pan’s Labyrinth and more cutting than any of del Toro’s films in the decade since.

While some of his later films bend over backwards to explain their themes to us, Blade II doesn’t feel the itch to sanctify del Toro’s obvious glee at being granted full access to play in the Hollywood toy-box (regardless of what he says about the film). Unlike many of his later films, Blade II does not launder the director’s interests in the fetishistic and the demonic aspects of family lineage and bodily malformation – no less obvious here than elsewhere – in tidily packaged moral schemas. The original Blade played its vampire themes loosely, giving traditional questions of power, marginalization, and the decay and exsanguination of the body a sleek, technological update, but Blade II folds these questions into the action so thickly that they don’t even register as themes. Which may be why it’s something of an ugly duckling in del Toro’s filmography. Continue reading

Films for Class: Koyaanisqatsi

423b0fdc-6dea-11e7-9575-882aa2208a4d_1280x720_131718Koyaanisqatsi offers what can only be described as a radical defamiliarization of humankind, treating civilization as a known-unknown and humanity as an alien artifact. Famously soundtracked by Phillip Glass’ gloriously minimalistic score, Godfrey Reggio’s first of three environmentalist impastos offers a symphonic image of the human experience, contradictions and curiosities existing in tenuous, frictive harmony. Transparently environment and even polemical, Reggio’s film is less a plea for salvaging the environment than a call for a new kind of perspective on existence: the camera turning, warping, acknowledging its mediation of nature’s might and igniting the potential of the natural world that is often taken as backdrop, a mere resource to be plundered rather than imaginative energy to be mined.

Generally, Reggio’s film operates as a kind of Benjaminian phantasmagoria, a portrait of modern life as a wandering world of ghosts and specters selling newness only to, in reality, repackage preexisting forms in more spectral variations. Koyaanisqatsi primarily emphasizes the lost and the adrift: a decayed, destroyed past looming in the distance (if only we look) what it sees as the increasingly phantasmic presence of modernity, ever-present but always so rushed and mutating that it never quite settles into corporeal, stabilized form. Images blur and bleed, weave and warp, becoming ghostly half-presences of themselves, as though appearing and becoming irrelevant so immediately that they cannot even settle or corporealize. The shots cannot even materialize; the material world – and modernity’s fetish for the tangible – paradoxically denatures itself. Every material image seems to fade into its negative mirror-image or partial half-presence, mimicking and mocking the herky-jerky hustle-and-bustle immediacy of modernity by envisioning a world where nothing is stagnant anymore, where the possibility of cohesiveness and completion is fallacious at the very level of the image. Continue reading

Midnight Screening: Enter the Dragon

enter-the-dragon-1973-movie-stillBruce Lee is rather unceremoniously written-off in Quentin Tarantino’s new film, which I finally saw and thought was otherwise terrific, but it seemed a little counter-argument was necessary for Midnight Screenings this week. 

The paramount reason to discuss Enter the Dragon is, of course, breakout star Bruce Lee, who tragically and unfathomably died before he could see the film’s release and its astonishing success in the American market. (A success marking it as a traveling partner of the Blaxploitation films, tearing up the screen for a couple years in the early ‘70s before white America, as it is wont to, lost interest in capitalizing on foregrounded black screen presence for quite a while). At least, that’s the usual thing people talk about when bringing up Enter the Dragon. And although I’m wont to squabble with given assumptions about a film’s value (such assumptions tend to favor screenwriting and acting rather than visual style), in this case, the film’s reputation proceeds it: Enter the Dragon heavily hangs on Lee, one of the great screen finds, and one of the most abnormally effective screen presences in film history.

Lee’s own animalistic charisma is a peculiar combination of natural intuitive screen presence and almost monomaniacally cultivated bodily control, a kind of personal authoritarianism mixed with a sense of fluidity that begs fairly metaphysical questions about what embodying a style actually means. Can one’s relationship to one’s body truly approach the kind of sovereign, total mastery Lee clearly aspires to? Or, conversely, does control of one’s place in the world require a sense of personal plasticity, not mastering the world by stopping its rhythms and melding them to your liking so much as sensing energies in the world and flowing with them, redirecting them to your purposes temporarily with the knowledge that you still don’t “control” them? (This perspective is validated by Lee’s famous comments about making one’s body like water, emphasizing the reactive rather than the active). Continue reading

Summer of ’69: Andrei Rublev

300id_113_w1600While Andrei Rublev was officially released in 1966, it was not unleased upon the world until one fateful night (at 4 AM, courtesy of Soviet censors) in May of 1969 at the Cannes film festival, and as that screening was one of the most important cinematic events of 1969, it seems entirely legitimate for the film to have a place in this short retrospective. 

One of the truly epochal films, Andrei Rublev is oneiric and elliptical but also deeply physical, at once abstractly cosmic and bodily comic, heavenly and grounded, ethereally resplendent but possessed of a tough, pragmatic bodily consciousness that, for all its sublimity, means that driector Andrei Tarkovsky’s film never floats above the characters for long. For an art film of this vintage, Andrei Rublev is second only to The Seventh Seal in its orientation toward the unruly nature of bodies, toward an aesthetics not of tableaux studiously arranged but quasi-absurd fracas. Its prologue depicts a man furiously struggling with a hot air balloon, attempting to rise above the masses and the proto-Russian swamps out of which St. Petersburg famously rose up, and the entire texture of the film formally embodies his doomed, noble quest: desiring to rise above all, to see the totality of existence, only to be drawn back down by the seismic pull of a world that can only be properly appreciated, for Tarkovsky at least, from below.

Andrei Rublev is a breathtakingly broad canvas, less stringently Protestant than Bergman, less cynical than Antonioni, and perhaps more genuinely humanistic than any film ever released, attempting to encompass multitudes and defy perfection. It might be described as a series of transmutations of a question – what is the relationship between the individual, society, and God – and the film absolutely takes seriously both the grandeur of that question and its polyphonous diffuseness, not treating it as a linear projection to be “answered” so much as a broad canvas on which to meditate and consider various aspects of human identity in tandem. Continue reading

Midnight Screening: Akira

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It’s been a while since I’ve done these Friday B and/or cult movie reviews, and I’ve decided to return with two dystopian films set in the year of our Lord 2019, offering visions of THE FUTURE that may or may not have come to pass. 

Akira, perhaps the first anime to really hit home stateside, was for a long time, and still may be, perhaps the paradigmatic “animation for adults” film in the US, a designation that reveals as much about the film’s failings as its obvious worth.  The film evokes the social anxieties of ‘50s American youth pictures as readily as Kurosawa, himself in the ‘50s, was mobilizing his awareness of American Westerns to theorize relationships between self and other, individual and community, and narrow and generous notions of family in Japanese culture. But although director and co-writer Katsuhiro Otomo and co-writer Izo Hashimoto (adapting from Otomo’s manga of the same name) have studied American genre pictures well, it can be seen as a kind of template for so many later American blockbuster failings, in particular its attempts to launder its sci-fi-inflected action with a phalanx of speciously expressed social and existential themes that vacuously and inevitably diffuse into the margins of the film en route to a hectic, hyperbolic action movie conclusion more invested in grandiosity and magnitude than theoretical acumen. Continue reading

Midnight Screening: Running Man

the-running-manIt’s been a while since I’ve done these Friday B and/or cult movie reviews, and I’ve decided to return with two dystopian films set in the year of our Lord 2019, offering visions of THE FUTURE that may or may not have come to pass. 

… And then there are those films which receive consummate passes in the mainstream simply because they’re “prescient,” a word that should, at this point, clearly join “honest” in the critics’ jailhouse. Running Man is one such film, far less provocative in its embodiment and critique of fascistic tendencies (and its ability to recognize the fascism latent in capitalism) than Paul Verhoeven’s fellow 1987 action-sci-fi classic Robocop, lacking Verhoeven’s almost psychotically perfect understanding of blockbuster mimicry (without ever tipping his hand), not to mention Verhoeven’s impish, gleeful bloodletting. Compared to Verhoeven’s film, The Running Man delights in showing us the cards early on: this is a broad, unashamed Hollywood action film, and a satire totally ashamed that we won’t realize what kind of social commentary it has on its mind. Continue reading

Specters of 1968: Black Panthers

black-panthers-agnes-vardaIn honor of the half-century anniversary of the epochal years of 1968 and 1969, I meant to propose a little series of reviews commemorating the films of those years last summer, particularly with all the academic conferences and articles trying to rekindle the lost spirit of ’68 or otherwise to dissect it. I didn’t get around to it at the time, but with the era lulled to sleep last month by Quentin Tarantino’s phenomenal Once Upon a time in Hollywood, now seems as good a time as any to start! I apologize that I’m a year late to officially celebrate the 50th of some of these films, but a great film doesn’t need a deadline to be remembered. 

This particular review is also in commemoration of Agnes Varda, who passed away earlier this year. RIP. 

Most non-American filmmakers drawn to visualize their escapades in the US, or their fantasy projections of US life, are perhaps naturally attracted to, and unable to escape the pull of, America’s paradigmatic genre, the Western. Although heavily freighted with mythological weight, the genre doesn’t prescribe any intrinsic disposition. Initially structured around absences – of marginalized people, of violence perpetrated in the name of Manifest Destiny, etc – which various filmmakers have undertaken efforts to correct, the Western has become one of cinema’s most mutable forms for theorizing American existential uncertainty and the growth pains of a nation growing physically but not necessarily morally.

Thus, for the Italian Sergio Corbucci, the West became a burial ground. For the German Wim Wenders, contrarily, the West became a Romanticized, Emersonian portrait of exploratory selfhood, not to mention a gulf between desire and reality that threatens to dissolve the self in a deeply existential morass of uncertainty. For some, the open expanse signals space to cultivate, and for others, it signifies the untouched primacy of truth prior to civilization, and still for others it asks knottier questions about how to experiment with identity without becoming circumscribed by it, to remake the self and the land in tandem and often, to conquer and to be conquered by that desire to conquer. Continue reading

Specters of 1968: The Great Silence

the-great-silenceIn honor of the half-century anniversary of the epochal years of 1968 and 1969, I meant to propose a little series of reviews commemorating the films of those years last summer, particularly with all the academic conferences and articles trying to rekindle the lost spirit of ’68 or otherwise to dissect it. I didn’t get around to it at the time, but with the era lulled to sleep last month by Quentin Tarantino’s phenomenal Once Upon a time in Hollywood, now seems as good a time as any to start! I apologize that I’m a year late to officially celebrate the 50th of some of these films, but a great film doesn’t need a deadline to be remembered. 

For American audiences, perhaps the paradigmatic revisionist Western is Robert Altman’s McCabe and Ms. Miller, a mournful and melancholy elegy with which Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence shares its cruel disposition toward and critique of the state-sanctioned monopoly capitalism at the heart of American myths of bootstrap individualism. Both implode the notion of the wandering soul thriving on and conquering the landscape in service of personal achievement. McCabe is arguably the great American Western, a murky moral tapestry of uncertain desires and unfixed figures barely convincing themselves that their tenuous relationships constitute a frontier “town”. Compared to McCabe, most so-called “revisionist” Westerns seem like trivial twists on conservative formulas passing themselves off as revolutionary signposts of a new cinematic future.

But if McCabe is a weary lament, The Great Silence, one of the great forgotten Westerns, is a sorrowful and brutal dirge. To my mind, it is the only Western from the era which can truly huddle up under McCabe’s fire, particularly because it’s the only one which knows how frail, fragile, and dubious any fire of hope in the old West truly is. The Great Silence is a morose, poetically wayward counterpoint to that other Sergio’s more famous, more flamboyant Italiannette abstraction of the American experience. Like McCabe, it both takes seriously the wayward lives of the nomadically unsettled – and the kinds of new conscious born on the frontier – while questioning – and in Corbucci’s polemical case, absolutely desecrating –the American outlaw mythology where lone heroes brandish a form of individually-legitimated personal justice that stands apart from and above the state. The Great Silence’s protagonist opposes state-sanctioned violence, but there is no sense that is above or beyond it morally so much as circumstantially on the other side of it. Continue reading

Review: Widows

WIDOWSIt goes without saying that Widows is more of a crackerjack offering than we’re used to from director Steve McQueen, who typically specializes in the soul-rotting malaise of a cold-blooded world and/or the existential disfigurement of an abandoned person barely surviving in it. But Widows still bears McQueen’s ruthlessly stark, almost psychotically perfect formalist streak. There’s a little more wiggle-room in the style – more drive, more chaos, more flippancy, more immediacy, maybe even more of a desire to please – but it’s still a Steve McQueen film. Which means, although its gears run faster and it’s more soul-shredding than soul-rotting, it’s still all cold muscle, coiled nerves, and ready-to-pounce fury.

My mixed metaphors above – mechanical to organic, automotive to leonine – sound off, but the film validates them – and, more importantly, itself – within a minute of its run-time, an old-fashioned “here is some cinema for you” gesture that sets the film absolutely running. I don’t want to spoil it, but it involves an immediate, mesmerizing, and rather brutal cut from sexual animalism to full-throttle pedal-to-the-medal instability that comes out of nowhere and carries us forward for more than two hours.

It also indicates, perhaps a little overtly, that the film really wants to let us know that it means business, that it is first and foremost out to Cinema us with a very capital C.   Widows is positively overstuffed with masterful gestures of that sort, both big and small, perhaps to the point of self-congratulation. Within half an hour, there’s a spellbinding circular tracking shot and, as if to top itself yet again, an astonishing several-minute tracking shot as a car hastily skedaddles from a working-class, African-American community into a predominantly white, upper-middle-class neighborhood, the film quietly but pointedly underlining via its formalism the inescapable (but, in America, typically very easily forgotten) fact that such stark wealth disparity can be visualized within a roughly two-minute tracking shot without cutting.  Widows is almost definitively the most sharply crafted Hollywood film of 2018, but it is also no less definitively aware of that fact, and that realization is not always to its benefit. Continue reading

Review: The White Album (The Beatles) 50th Anniversary

white-album-1541798596-640x640Forgive the fact that this anniversary was last fall; I wrote this then, but didn’t publish it here until now

The most famous band in the world naming an album after themselves sounds like a mark of certainty, even hubris. They don’t need another name, no album title to serve as postscript, subtitle, or anteroom for the main attraction. They’re The Beatles, dammit. And this post-summer-of-love album is The Beatles, 30 whole songs of them. The title’s self-conscious striving toward monumentality aims for essence, for the answer, for an obelisk-like encryption-key to decode what makes The Beatles themselves. And it may actually achieve this monumentality, but not because the album offers any conclusions or solutions. Rather than statement, The Beatles’ totemic title is more of a mimic for the famous album cover: negative visual space, a cover and a title so basic and obvious that, rather than explaining the band in the plainest of terms, they offer a blank canvas upon which every audience member can ponder their opinion of the band.

And those pondering, of course, include all four members of the band themselves, all of whom at times seem to use the colloquially-titled White Album as a way to disentangle themselves from what they by all accounts felt to be a noxious interpersonal communion, to ponder if anything of The Beatles was really worth saving. Naturally, they only end up tangling themselves further. More than on any other Beatles album, The White Album is the one where their individual voices seem to bleed and contort, separating out into specific quadrants (such that some songs are only by McCartney, only by Lennon, only by Harrison, etc) while paradoxically blurring to the point where it is exceedingly difficult to actually put one’s finger on what constitutes a “Lennon song” or a “McCartney song” anymore in the first place. The band turn their identities into a centrifuge of discreet sounds and sensations which, pointedly, never collect themselves into any cohesive, singular, or easily-mappable perspective. Which is to say: The White Album, to cop a cliché, exceeds the sum of its parts, but specifically because it fails to do so, because it is an accumulation of song-styles which cannot be summed-up or summarized into a larger “vision”.  The act of making the album pulled the band apart, and, aurally speaking, the album’s sound doubles that breakage. The results are gloriously dysfunctional. Continue reading