Category Archives: Film Favorites

Film Favorites: You Can Count on Me

you_can_count_on_me_posterDon’t have a particularly piquant reason for catching up with this film at this moment in time, although I am moving to upstate New York later this month, and perhaps no film I can think of evokes the wintry, wilted spirit of that location, at least as it exists in the mind, so there is a certain poetic coincidence in this review. 

How rare is it that a film genuinely empathizes with its characters without sweeping them up into the torrential currents of white-water narrative or turning them into pawns in a chessboard game of improvement, actualization, and goal-achievement? Without implicit edicts that their lives are only worth filming if they are in the middle of a personal quest for fulfillment or at the bank to establish a new lease on life? Kenneth Lonergan’s third directorial effort Manchester-by-the-Sea is one, and his debut You Can Count on Me is another, even greater achievement.

Every Lonergan character is a gift to their performer and to humanity, and this film’s two central gifts are adult siblings Sammy Prescott (Laura Linney) and Terry Prescott (Mark Ruffalo). In the opening scene, a glimpse of their childhood, their parents are killed in a car accident which Lonergan writes and films as a humanistically, animatedly tedious drive-time conversation rather than relying on clever presentiments of the impending tragedy or noir-infused, gravid imagery. In this film thoroughly free of portent or signposting, a few splintered shards – the police officer knocks on the family door and the kids answer, a pastor speaks at a funeral underneath a child’s choir – are enough for Lonergan to establish a sense of consequence that is born, piquantly, out of the ordinary, rather than through a tendentiously dramatic visual or narrative schema that raises these characters or their tragedy on a pedestal or anoints them as totems to The Truth, ambassadors to middle-America and suburban life. Continue reading

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Midnight Screenings: He Never Died and Late Phases

he_never_died_posterHe Never Died

Henry Rollins casts an almighty pall over He Never Died, a cold splash of a horror film that is more fried, irreverent noir than monster mash. In his music and public persona, the consummate and inimitable madman Rollins sours every heckle, hellhound howl, and vulture screech to an aria of menace and punk-certified nihilism. But, in He Never Died, his viciously, aggressively minimalist performance likens even a simple stare to a barely-sublimated volcano of enthralling agony brewing inside him. Wearing scars like an eldritch horror hiding in a grey hairdo and dad-core attire, he feels like the brutal punk troubadour and restless social freedom fighter beaten into ragged, deeply frayed middle-age. Continue reading

25th Anniversary Film Favorites: JFK

moremovietips17p.jpgUpdate 2018: JFK is such a wonderfully misunderstood film, and one that opens itself up so heroically to criticism. For instance, it would fit so well into Frederic Jameson’s analysis of post-modernism as the cultural logic of capitalism, where any semblance of truth, social fixity, or totalizing connection between layers of society is totally unmoored, leading to a dangerous relativism that occludes how capitalism reinforces its own social structures. In this criticism, post-modernism dreams a liberation from the social structures that bind us, a dream that dangerously inclines toward individualistic narratives where we all control our own futures, where no social structures confine us, where truth doesn’t constrain our options and is simply a ruse. The form of relativism JFK traffics in – nothing is true or fixed, everything is a lie, etc – veers toward a vision of uncertainty that would probably veer for Jameson toward hiding, rather than revealing, how capital and the oppression caused by capital is the truth which creates and limits possibility, which master-hands reality, which decides who wins and who loses, etc.

It’s easy to disown JFK along these lines. Except that JFK’s abiding well of skepticism for classical guarantees of legitimate truth are heavily tied to both its conscious critique of capitalism’s manipulation of fact and its visual and aural explosion of the capitalistic  technologies and visual regimes – tv, film, media – which technologically and stylistically embody modernity and construct reality. Perhaps this makes it more of a modernist film – aware of social totality but skeptical of our ability to visualize it – than a post-modern destruction of any true social totality. But there’s something so conniving and devious about Stone’s vision that it seems to simply decompose the distinction between modernism and post-modernism altogether, as though suggesting that one can argue that truth exists and that truth doesn’t exist and that this is no contradiction. Or that it is a contradiction, and that the best films, Stone’s or otherwise, live within contradiction rather than beyond them.

Frederic Jamerson’s classic analysis of the “conspiracy” aesthetic also applies to JFK, at least on the surface – it’s easily one of the most infamous and infamously perturbed conspiracy films of its decade. Conspiracy stories fail, of course, for Jameson, because oppression isn’t a conspiracy masterminded by a select few autonomous higher-ups conscious of all their actions but a much knottier, more tangled social fabric. Media which can only imagine a conspiracy controlling us visualize the forms of oppression which shape society but can’t surpass the limited view that there are a handful of individuals to “blame” for this oppression.

Nominally, JFK also falls prey to this critique, but its relativistic mise-en-scene, heterogeneous, fragmented audio, and impossible sense of perspective all suggest, at a formal level, something far more perplexed, garbled, and impossible to pigeon-hole than the conspiracy that opiated-masterpiece Kevin Costner’s character divines out of his rattled brain. Playing with its own reality as much as ours, the film offers no incontestable position of mastery over its narrative environs, and it never treats its story as one inarguable truth replacing the one we thought we knew. It does not simply “give us” a conspiracy to explain the JFK assassination; rather, it effuses a skeptical energy, cultivates an inquisitive tendency, handing us a piecemeal truth that the form of the film is already actively questioning and contesting as it is being given to us. It asks us to question its own pessimistic conspiracy as much as we are meant to question the prior optimism of mid-century Americana that the JFK assassination itself dissolved into the ether. Antsy to the bone, Stone’s film seems to be wriggling away from us as it is being composed in the first place.

Original review:

Twenty-five years later and it would take a flotilla of steamrollers to drive over the knotty indiscretions and lapses in logic that stitch (or don’t) Oliver Stone’s JFK into an argument, leading to the common critique of this much-maligned film that it accomplishes nothing so much as a conspiracy nut’s wet-dream power-point about the JFK assassination. That argument is airtight but misdirected, laboring under the assumption that film should only bear witness and testimony to reality, especially historical reality. As most pro-JFK critics have retorted, this is the part where I would say “it’s only a movie” and wipe the slate clean to judge Stone’s film as mere fiction, thus neutralizing the question of whether it is history in the first place, of what actually happened, and of the film’s relationship to historical investigation. Continue reading

Film Favorites: A Touch of Zen

film_825_touchofzen_originalThe pictorial inclinations of King Hu’s rhapsodic camerawork in his monumental wuxia epic A Touch of Zen are his film’s most gilded gestures, but they are no mere poetic filigrees. Rather, Hu’s investment in the physical space of his film and the way that a camera and a mind can intake and reform space informs a conscious refusal on the director’s part to explore character drama in a vacuum. Without the crucible of bounding characters by the natural environments that often remain overlooked in the world of cinema, Hu suggests that person vs. person conflict may be tenuous and unresolvable; an understanding of the earth itself it necessary first. The illusory beauty in the frame often suggests a new perceptual realm beyond the typical threshold of human consciousness, as though we are peering into an ethereal plane of color and space that eludes humanity’s typical tasks and goals. Space is otherworldly here, but also tactile, exerting a magnetic pull on the characters who weather through frames as if attracted by the deception of an unknown specter in the air. Or as though they characters were being exhumed from their internal, civilized spaces – and metaphorically the confines of their internal minds – to confront the outside world, to explore new perspectives in a desperate quest for self-actualization. Continue reading

Film Favorites: Out of Sight

mv5bmja0mjmwnte4nl5bml5banbnxkftztgwnjexnzqxmte-_v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_Between roughly 1993 and 1998, the post-Tarantino brio that was at one point the most scorching lightning-bolt in cinema shifted to a self-immolating fire, a pox on the cinematic landscape, almost overnight. The beacon of the Weinstein-fronted American independent success story, Tarantino was a shining light on the cinematic landscape until a deluge of golden-child followers (see Boondock Saints) cast their mettle in Tarantino’s gilded name and overindulged in his post-coital cool and sometimes smug pearly whites without actually backing their versions of the tale up with the wit, elan, or the cinematic rattle and hum of Tarantino’s style. Posing had suddenly become an art form.

Always the film enthusiast, Tarantino’s underground success was matched exclusively by Steven Soderbergh’s, much more of a connoisseur and one whose light took much longer, roughly a decade, to erupt into the mainstream. Perhaps fittingly, his first mainstream effort, 1998’s Out of Sight, was also the first, and roughly the only, film at the time to reprimand the posers and their hot-to-trot modernism by resurrecting and accentuating the long-dormant romanticism and Old Hollywood suaveness implicit in Tarantino’s filmography. With a stinging, sparkling screenplay by Scott Frank adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel (talk about other mid-to-late ‘90s cinematic love affairs) and starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez, maybe the platonic ideal of Old Hollywood stardom transposed fifty years, Out of Sight is cooler than ice cold. Continue reading

Film Favorites: Two-Lane Blacktop

two-lane-blacktop-hellmanReleased two years after the New Wave volcano of Easy Rider, Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop visualizes the tattered remains of America encroaching on its own emptiness after the acid-freakout of ’69 disrupted the old ways and left the scattered ashes of the American populace reaching for new ones. Following two desecrated human carcasses played by James Taylor and Dennis Wilson as they coarse through the crucible of the American road, they search for the contours of a narrative or a life that doesn’t seem to exist anymore. We watch in vain as they grasp onto the only hope they have left: a desperate, disheveled odyssey to find compatriot-combatants to race cars with them into oblivion. Each character wanders around like a James Dean simulacrum searching – literally – for a semblance of the youthful confrontation and auto-shop phallus-comparing that they see as the embodiment of the renegade American Dream. Continue reading

Film Favorites: Ivan’s Childhood

IVAN'S CHILDHOODVisually garrulous and verbally unobtrusive, Ivan’s Childhood is perhaps the platonic ideal of the director-is-born image, a fully-formed debut for the ages. A film riddled with the ideas that would eventually molt into Tarkovsky’s future six feature films, a diminutive career (seven including this film) by any standards, Ivan’s Childhood lays the groundwork for Tarkovsky’s unmooring of the cinematic consciousness into realms both indescribably beautiful and thoughtfully revelatory. Then again, “eventually” doesn’t do justice to Ivan’s impossible grandeur and fractured intimacy; on its own terms, had the greatest director of the last fifty years not pursued a career in film at all and absconded from sight leaving only this singular mark of his trespass on our earthly realm, he would still be one of the definitive directors of the second half of the twentieth century. Continue reading