Monthly Archives: September 2019

Midnight Screening: The Island of Dr. Moreau

qdteopephwwdoswctohtIn honor of the release of Colour out of Space, the new Richard Stanley-Nicolas Cage-HP Lovecraft film  (what a wonderfully demonic cinematic Cerberus that is!), I decided to look back at Stanley’s last film, a full 23 years ago. Let us hope that his new attempt at channeling the deranged spirit of century-old pulp literature and tearing open and excavating the most demented corners of the cinematic void don’t render him victim of that void, unable to find his way back, for nearly a quarter-century, like they did last time. 

A travesty of Welles as well as Coppola, The Island of Dr. Moreau is as sure an example as any of that old maxim that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce.  It’s also one of the most beguilingly meta-textual would-be blockbusters ever released, one whose off-screen production ended up not only mimicking its textual themes but folding in several layers of mediating texts and prior films just to stir together enough post-modern cinematic madness to satiate audiences. It feels less like a unique product than a ghoulish aftershock, a horrible, mangled echo, of its seventeen-years forebear, Apocalypse Now.

Now, normally, production turmoil can distract from an analysis of what actually makes it on screen as much as it can enhance that analysis. But The Island of Dr. Moreau is a special enigma, the dream of a cinematic wunderkind so feverishly and immediately collapsing on-screen that it begs comparison not only to its most obvious cinematic predecessor (Apocalypse Now) but to another cinematic directorial hanging by another Welles, one more deranged than HG: Orson Welles’ Magnificent Ambersons. (And not only because Marlon Brando is on hand for Moreau, reminding us that only one actor can go toe to toe with Orson Welles for sheer insular late-period delirium). Continue reading


Review: If Beale Street Could Talk

1259825The first cinematic adaptation of the writing of James Baldwin, perhaps unexpectedly and perhaps perplexingly but undeniably fittingly in light of the writers’ artistic omnivorousness, takes its most obvious cues not from Baldwin’s profession but from the profession of its main male character. If Beale Street Could Talk follows a young African-American couple Tish Rivers (Kiki Layne), nineteen, and Fonny Hunt (Stephan James), twenty-two and working as a sculptor’s apprentice who conjures visions of tragically stilled beauty that the film, if not modeling itself after, at least siphons energy from.

If Beale Street Could Talk by no means avoids the troubling contours of being an African-American in mid-century New York, but it does defray them, or at least deflect them. Its aesthetic orientation is not that of a neo-realist’s aspiration to open a window onto a harsh, unforgiving world, and it exhibits little affinity for the (expected) Hollywood New Wave tricks of filming this city in this time-period in tones and textures that emphasize its grubby, calloused veneer, excoriating the surface-sheen and exposing the rot underneath. Like Fonny’s abstract sculptures which provide a clue-in to the film’s magisterial tone and introspective magnificence – Jenkins’ vision of Beale Street is (excessively?) mannered, scrubbing away some of the rough edges and burnt ends of lived experience rather than providing an unvarnished portrait.

Rather than a brutal empirical truth – film as objective revelation of racism’s scabrous realities – Jenkins’ poetic truth captures a kind of pantomime of characters performing a more innocent world, African-Americans on the verge of a neoliberal world just trying to live out a pageant of unobstructed time, holding on to the dream of an open, unafflicted world they know to be fragile and fraudulent. It doesn’t feel like a film from either the nihilistic ‘70s or the increasingly cynical ‘10s. Consider the magic moment at the end of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, where Mrs. Miller’s enraptured gaze is revealed to be the deluded dream of an opiated woman unable to cope with capitalism’s oppression. Without denying the very real terrors of the outside world, Jenkins prefers to hold us in the diamond’s eye, fully aware that sometimes these dreams are all we have. His tender film could and has been accused of sanctimoniousness, but it offers a thoroughly oneiric reverie, not for a forgotten world but for a kind of placid, untouched existence that its protagonists never had.  Continue reading

Review: Gotti

gn-gift_guide_variable_cGotti asks me to put my money where my mouth is. A favorite complaint of mine when reviewing movies is to critique actors turned directors for neglecting the film of their films. That they render mere theater pieces that happened to have been filmed in lieu of genuine works of cinema. Watching actor-turned-director Kevin Connolly’s bastardization of the life of John Gotti, I realize that I’ve sinned. Most actors turned directors at least display a basic competence with the camera. They merely fail to embellish their narratives in any particularly cinematic way, dismissing the possibility that the camera might be to used to achieve anything beyond or besides perfunctory realism. They treat their camera as a window or a simple observer rather than a canvas and, in doing so, their cameras’ perspective often fails to expose its perspectival nature, feigning naturalism.

Gotti puts me to shame for complaining about actors who understand the mere basics of continuity, because this film is a whole other beast entirely. Rather than lambasting other actor-turned-directors for only understanding basic continuity and nothing more, I should be worshipping them for at least getting that part right. The film’s ineptitude with cinema is immediately apparent. Unsurprisingly so, I wanted to say, but Gotti is a thoroughly surprising motion picture, confounding even the simplest expectation. It’s breathtakingly idiotic, from the faultlessly asinine politics to the thorough-goingly irreparable narrative structure that, I for one, am convinced was writers Lem Dobbs and Leo Rossi or director Kevin Connolly’s mangled attempt at an avant-garde film. Continue reading

Midnight Screenings: Crank and Crank: High Voltage


I meant to write this about a month ago when Hobbs and Shaw was released, but I thought of that film as a good opportunity to reconnect with my once-favorite Jason Statham vehicles, and the ones most transparently aware that they are vehicles for a character called “Jason Statham”. 


The protagonist of Crank is a hitman, a killer for hire. In one thoroughly offhand moment, never referenced again, he admits this to his girlfriend, exposing his bullshit claim about being a video game programmer to her. This feels like a smiling admission of guilt on the filmmakers’ part, the film’s winking Rosetta Stone, or maybe its cheat-code: this really is a video game, and perhaps video games have some relationship with societal violence, or maybe blaming video games is merely a ruse, a distraction from the hard work of exposing real violence in society at the political level. Writer-director Neveldine and Taylor’s response, collectively, is a proud “we don’t care, we’re making our film anyway”.

I’ll be the first to say that I really don’t know what to make of that morally, except that the impishly amoral Crank is Neveldine and Taylor’s attempt to tease out the aesthetic essence of video game filmmaking much more eloquently than any formal video game adaptation ever has. When that aforementioned protagonist, Chev Chelios (Jason Statham), fails to fulfill one particular hit, he is immediately targeted for extermination, and the rest of the film is transparently a series of levels and trials haphazardly disconnected by narrative fragments that only register as real at the most abstract level.

In point of fact, Crank’s first subversion of the time-honored cinematic trope of the hitman being hunted for failing to kill a target is that Chev has already been killed before the film begins, poisoned and left for dead: Crank, in other words, has no business with formalities, no time to waste. When he is informed that he can delay the effects of the poison seeping into his heart by keeping his adrenaline up by any means necessary, he proceeds to try to hunt down the killers in the most direct manner possible, his life depending on it. It feels like a high-concept joke: a thoroughly immoral action film that is, in an entirely ironic way and without any emotion, all-“heart”, a mockery of the fact that we expect this film to make any excuses for itself, to have any character or soul. We aren’t interested in salvaging his soul, but in keeping what amounts to one of those video game heart icons from filling up with poison, symbolizing a player character’s demise. Continue reading

Review: Suspiria (2018)

hero_suspiria-image-2018Luca Guadagnino’s deliberately polarizing 2018 Suspiria shows its utmost respect for the original 1977 Suspiria by Dario Argento by making an absolute travesty of it: rethinking it, stripping it for parts, inverting its essence while honoring its spirit. And then defiling even that. The original Suspiria was a thoroughly abstract mindscape, with horror as an associative framework for arranging sound, sight, and sense to tap into otherwise untouchable enigmas about “humanity” conceived broadly. Nominally, this new Suspiria is totally at odd angles to Argento’s film, as thoroughly opposed as, say, Stephen King’s psychological vision of The Shining was from Kubrick’s baroque weave of sensory experiences that only superficially correspond to questions about the main character’s sanity.

This new Suspiria is both narrower and more expansive than the original. On one hand, it is thoroughly and inextricably a story about a time and a place (while the original could have taken place at any point in the past few hundred years). Yet it also breathes outward, distending itself well beyond a simple narrative and a set of events, letting the bruises of trying to wrangle all of its disparate threads show as it reaches well beyond the story it has set up for itself. On one hand, it is far more grounded in the particularities of time and space than the original film, yet unlike most historical films, it uses its period setting as an incantatory grounding for its own cinematic demiurgical art: the film uses the external surfaces of our world – plot details, images, events – to conjure hidden undercurrents of truth and dark presentiments about a tainted experience we call “modernity”. Continue reading

Review: Cold War

nyff_mainslate_coldwar_02-1600x900-c-defaultWhen the central couple galvanizing Cold War’s spatial and temporal slippages first meet, their bodies are already both shrouded by and formed out of the desecrated husks of history; the weight of the world sacrifices their individuality, but the film also suggests that there is no such thing as pure individuality outside of the weave of the social, of history and of History. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is part of a mid-century Soviet government-sponsored research team looking to “preserve” the iconic cultural traditions of various ethnicities and nations now roped into the Soviet Empire, part of the Soviet Union’s project of multi-national socialism.  Lula (Joanna Kulig) auditions for a role in a performance of Polish “traditional” music, already privy to the fact that her identity has been casted and essentialized as a “folk” person, construing her as bearing testament to the “essence” of the Polish “people,” not a sovereign person but an icon of a preserved past.  Initially, the Communist government both draws from these identities and thoroughly flattens them, evaporating any sense of political acumen in the folk lyrics, locking them into the vise grip of a depoliticized time and casting the singers not as poets of modernity (capable of resisting as agents) so much as immobile totems to the past.

As the film fades in and out of various ephemeral meetings between Lula and Wiktor over the course of roughly a dozen years between the late 1940s and the early 1960s (quoting, elliptically, Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy in the process), Pawlikowski’s film offers a fragmentary vision of hesitant modernity, the birth pains of the late 20th century. It’s also an image of mid-century world relations not as an iron bipolarity (as it’s usually thought) but as a fluctuating seepage of restless people between and beyond artificial borders, a vision of personal and political exile that blurs physical and political expatriation with a kind of nomadism of the soul. The characters’ paucity of home gives way to a cosmopolitan home that is beyond the limited contours of the nation and nationalism. Continue reading

Review: Zama

ZAMAWhen Lucrecia Martel’s Zama begins, its protagonist, Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Gimenez Cacho), is performing his own sovereignty on a beach. Decked out in colonial garb and jutting one leg outward toward the sea, he seems to be posturing to no one in particular, as if beckoning to some unseen God to witness his sculpting himself into a predefined role as an icon of mid-level colonial bureaucracy. Radiating a vision of masculine competence to himself and only himself, de Zama’s supreme selfhood ultimately discloses his supreme loneliness and pitifulness. He then enacts a self-authored fiction of ownership of and mastery over the island by spying on a group of native women bathing naked, assuming that he has the right (and ability) to look. With the mischievous, wicked temperament of a colonial slapstick, writer-director Martel’s film then immediately punctures his vision of self: they spot him and shoo him, nearly beating him up in the process.

Here, de Zama begins the film as an almost literal monument to the colonial enterprise, an erect beacon of the civilizational impulse. Throughout the next two hours, though, his “plight” will pervert again and again, from a devilishly quotidian workaday farce to a travesty of selfhood to a sublime portrait of cosmic absurdity, all before concluding with a final surrealistic, ostensible-escape to another world that in reality only manages to lay bare the circular inescapability of de Zama’s life all the more cruelly. Martel’s preferred cinematic subjects are the gendered and racialized politics of modern South American (particularly Argentinian) life. Adapted from Antonio de Benedetto’s 1956 book, Zama is a maddened dispatch from the birth pains of modernity that in many ways exposes the origins of these concerns, the genealogy of colonial life. An extremely noble impulse, but Zama’s genius is how ignoble it is. Martel ultimately tackles the “tortured geography” of colonialism not in the often monotone voice of historical cinema but as a dissociative fugue, the camera impishly roaming around in forgotten time with a figure trying to author his own story even though he seems to have totally missed the script. Continue reading

Review: Aquaman

aquamanImpish and pious in equal measure, James Wan’s Aquaman is almost violently at a crossroads with itself. It both worships at the altar of the comic book and recklessly exposes the form’s essentially frivolous nature, giddily treating the comic book as holy writ while implicitly dismissing any desires to lard the form up with self-conscious airs. Somewhat astoundingly, it resurrects the mid-century pulp spirit of B-cinema and the comic book form, almost more Heavy Metal than DC, a spirit that both cherished and, at least sometimes, derived genuine pleasure out of that paradoxical overlap of silly and serious. The best of these comic books are somehow both eternally reverent to the value of unquestioned, thoroughly and inhumanly “good” mythological super-persons and essentially amused by this worshipful fascination. They seem almost curious about how loopily self-indulgent it is to get lost in such nonsense. Aquaman is quite conspicuously nonsense, and its melding of the ridiculous and the sublime never treats that nonsense as anything less than completely sincere. Continue reading