Category Archives: Progenitors

Progenitors: 25th Hour

large_qufgu04g9br3y7ondzq9ylscyyrMeant to upload this when BlacKkKlansman was released late last summer, but honoring Lee’s long-delayed, much-deserved nomination for Best Director at the Academy Awards (even for a film I wasn’t crazy about) seems as good a reason to post this as any!

On the surface, Spike Lee’s 25th Hour vibrates with a haunted, hushed sense of gloom that begets genuine introspection, a sensibility of almost Bressonian sangfroid which thoroughly and contrapuntally rejects the bristling, sharply corrugated kinetic energy of Lee’s most famous films, hot and sweaty works that might melt the wounded 25th Hour on contact. But this most guarded film, by Lee standards, radiates its own intensity, a kind which, through its comparative silences, rejects the usual charge that Lee’s orientation is all bluster hawking snake-oil. Even Lee’s most scrambled, inelegant films have an internal coherence, and, conversely, the ostensibly calm and collected – even too conspicuously composed – 25th Hour only seems sure of itself; its comparative restraint belies a severe inner anxiety about both the value of personal self-observation in the face of consequence and the relationship between self and the wider nation.

Because, as Lee (never the most muted of filmmakers) makes apparent from the get-go, his protagonist’s ostensible assurance, inescapably masking apprehension, in turn signals, or at least rhymes with, director Spike Lee wrestling to cope with a now-lesioned New York after 9/11 in this, his more direct but also knottiest tribute to his home-city ever. Like any Lee film, it’s more sinuous than subtle when it comes to exorcising the directors demons, and the film’s meditations on mourning the phantom of the past – not to mention the dialectics of personal and national, private and political tragedy – are immediately apparent in the opening credits, which hover over the absent World Trade Center, spectrally approximated as an after-image in the form of the “Tribute in Light” commemoration which here evokes not triumph but the Towers as a kind of phantom-limb. Continue reading


Progenitors: Mission Impossible

220px-missionimpossibleposterWith Mission Impossible: Fallout alighting the blockbuster sky with the best Hollywood action since Mad Max: Fury Road, I decided to visit the birthing pains of a franchise that began as something quite a bit different. 

Set against the doldrums of 21st century blockbuster cinema, it’s bracingly refreshing how obviously personal the quintessentially ‘90s Mission Impossible is to its director Brian De Palma. Refreshing, sometimes, because there’s little else about the film that truly interrupts the corporate cinematic impulse and casts it adrift in fascinatingly idiosyncratic directions. In other words, Mission Impossible is often more notable for how De Palma-esque it is, not because it is an especially thoughtful De Palma film, blockbuster film, or anything film. Still, it isn’t for lack of trying, and at its best, Mission Impossible is self-evidently marked as an attempt by De Palma to bend the blockbuster machine to his idiom. Or to test Hollywood’s tensile strength and mark it for deletion. Or simply for De Palma to retain what little of his personal and stylistic (in)sanity that he can while selling his soul to the powers that be. For the most part though, Mission Impossible unevenly splits its role as an acid-tongued attempt to draw-and-quarter the action genre, Verhoeven-style, and to more simplistically but not un-valuably spruce up a boilerplate action pic with sprinkles of consummately restless De Palma flavor. Continue reading

Progenitors: Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith

star_wars_episode_iii_poster_art_a_pAt the risk of trading-in my science fiction film-going card, I present my opening gambit: Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a minor achievement in mimicry, while Revenge of the Sith is a major achievement in failure, or rather, a major achievement in failing to achieve a personal vision. Fans who despise the film tend to confine the series to a contrived standard of quality, one rooted in scene-to-scene legibility, in flows of character logic, in the film not biting off more than it can chew for fear of alienating viewers who cannot follow the missteps and mistakes of a film that seems to be actively rewriting itself before their eyes. In this framework, The Force Awakens is a definitive but ultimately banal success at what it sets out to do, a clean, precise, efficient blockbuster machine. But the costs are also a subservience to the staggering weight of the franchise and an acceptance of the solidity of obligatory satisfaction, of adherence to expectation. The film’s complementary successes ring out like injunctions to respectability, refusals to violate or reconsider or explode the mandatory vision of a franchise in favor of your personal vision for that franchise. Continue reading

Progenitors: Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones

52cbdda32bab65213f00ffce02d19552Phantom Menace
naysayers aside, are you for real Attack of the Clones? Now this is how you do up a Star Wars disaster, grade-A incoherence and all. Specifically, Attack of the Clones ends up scrambling in a million directions in search of a new center after Qui-Gon Jinn’s death at the end of Phantom, a film which is itself almost a complete severance from Attack of the Clones in every way. Nothing about the earliest prequel develops any of the themes explored in Attack of the Clones, which nominally chooses to focus on the relationship between Obi-Wan and Anakin to get us on its predestined but sometimes-unfathomably rocky pathway to Revenge of the Sith. Nominally, I write, because you’d need to see Revenge of the Sith to even read any such relationship into this film. The two hardly spend any time together at all, leading to a narratively disjointed film that mostly resounds as a powerfully unnecessary display of arbitrary plot development. For the most part, Obi-Wan does things and Anakin happens to be around him, and then, for a while, Obi-Wan does things and Anakin isn’t around him, and then they’re back together again. This decision, perhaps more than any other, tends to render the whole “prequel to Star Wars” business rather dubious. All of the meaningful Anakin character creation that catalyzes the original films has been displaced onto Revenge of the Sith, whereas this film basically relegates itself to the broader geopolitical strokes of the imperial conflict, which basically means “clone army”.  Continue reading

Progenitors: Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace

0120915As opposed to an abject failure of imagination, design, or cinema more broadly, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace suffers a more equivocal, ambiguous form of misfortune, the kind of flaw that is also signally exciting and valuable in its own right: it suffers deeply from 16 years of franchise-creator George Lucas stewing on his ideas. With The Phantom Menace, the lower rungs of his imagination inflated to the point of boiling over with a desperate need to prove his mettle as an author by complicating and nuancing the concept for Star Wars without actually having a grasp on, or paying attention to, the actual execution, the very cinema, of his ideas. Everyone loves to hate on the thing, slathering it in such a smothering aura of empty incompetence that the criticism seems not only unfair but essentially arbitrary. In point of fact, the film is often anything but empty, and its surfeit of under-baked ideas – exciting to a point – are also its comeuppance. The totalizing way everyone demonizes the thing like it’s a leper unable to scrutinized up close asphyxiates not only the filigrees of glee inhabiting the film from time to time but its more legitimate offenses as well.  Continue reading

Progenitors: Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi

220px-returnofthejediposter1983After the down-tuned-pulp pop space-opera of the original Star Wars and the astounding, apocalyptic depression of The Empire Strikes Back, what do George Lucas and his goons give us for round three? Neither fish nor fowl, but an extraordinarily and sometimes beguilingly stitched-together accident, a film loaded with and defined by peculiar tonal spasms and the kind of narratively-haphazard mess you just can’t get without a devoutly, almost feverishly passionate but mildly inept creative figure at the helm. Yes, Return of the Jedi is a travesty of writing on par with any of the prequels. But the real question is how it mobilizes its mess, whether it treats cinematic dysfunction as a liberating deliverance from acquiescence to middlebrow, mainstream cinematic perfection or as simple incompetence. Far from catastrophic but still strangely mishandled in ways both exciting and hindering, Return of the Jedi wears it fleet of script revisions and swamp of behind-the-scenes misgivings like a ball and chain. Every image, good and bad alike, are portals into the often dysfunctional production of this film as well as the obvious casualties of market success, both factors that are only barely hidden on camera. Continue reading

Progenitors: Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope


With the release of The Last Jedi, I’ll be reviewing every Star Wars film not currently covered on this site, which means all the pre-Disney films excepting the indomitable Empire. 

Star Wars fan-boys fall head over heels for George Lucas’ world-building, but the standout quality of Lucas’ first Star Wars film is it vision of a world already built, destroyed, and stratified. Narratively and commercially an infamous break from the serious dramas of the New Hollywood during the early ‘70s, the visual style of Star Wars is nonetheless heavily schooled in the dog-tired, emptied-out malnourishment of ‘70s cynicism. The town of Mos Eisley in particular, druggy, hallucinogenic Cantina aside, could slide neatly into any washed-out Southwestern American state circa 1977. Visually, Star Wars bears all the bruised beauty and shambolic, hang-dog lethargy of a revisionist Western.

Narratively, of course, it’s another story. It’s for the best that the plot can be summed up so eloquently, because the film certainly doesn’t always do so. Lucas’ underrated knack for visual suggestion is not even remotely matched by his lead-footed screenwriting most obviously reflected in his infamously explanatory, banal dialogue that reverberates like human reason gone truly haywire. But we’re not there yet. For the moment, let’s just say that the dramatic outline – Star Wars works best as a sketchbook galvanized as a bracing series of beautiful visual stanzas – is essentially great, or at least potentially great when it is fertilized by Lucas’ imagery. 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

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