Category Archives: Progenitors

Progenitors?: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

ringstrilogyposterI 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

Progenitors: Juice

tumblr_n55vuzfb8q1ral8aao1_500This review written on the occasion of the release of All Eyez on Me and Juice’s twenty-fifth anniversary.

Ernest R. Dickerson begins his directorial debut with the kind of concert opener that establishes imaginative kinship with his prior-collaborator Spike Lee, who Dickerson lensed Do the Right Thing and other films for. A sketchy psychedelic swirl opens up a portal to a spinning record, a marker of four-on-the-floor movement to stoke palpable creative juices, as the credits boom into place over the movement. But as the film hustles along and reveals its true register, hinting at the tiny particles of existential angst lingering beneath and structuring the free-wheeling days of its characters, the incessant and inevitable circular motion of the record takes on a much darker resonance. Unceasing and perpetual, the non-linear movement of the musical artifact increasingly registers as an emblem of life in simultaneous movement and stasis. The characters in the film – four high-school teens in the inner-city – are always on the move, always plunging into some new venture or searching for an opportunity to make money, but the labyrinthine inner-city streets are less prisms of opportunity than prisons. These boys know how to make moves, but they don’t seem to be able to go anywhere. Continue reading

Progenitors (also Un-Cannes-y Valley 1981): Excalibur

excalibur-poster-1Referring to Guy Ritchie’s rather trivial take on the Matter of Britain, here are the three most interesting filmed versions of the tale.

Director John Boorman was always up to no good in the film world, both to the medium’s benefit (Point Blank) and its detriment (Exorcist II), although I have to admit that Zardoz belongs in the annals of essential cinema simply as an artifact of the medium at its most casually disregarding common-sense. Take Excalibur, which occupies Boorman’s customary mode of multi-aesthetic pile-up, where the foliage of legend abounds, the effect of which is a loopy, nonsensical gamble, excessive and adjacent to hallucination. An early battle is staged as a conundrum, not quite as wonderfully unstable as the abstract battle in Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight but in the same cul-de-sac, especially when judged by blockbuster standards. Silhouettes poised with sinister intent, devoid of human specificity, are an early indication of Boorman’s mythic inclinations and his treatment of the material as spiritual divination. Despite Boorman never having directed in this genre before, I could show you a highlight reel and give you the rough release date and you, the hypothetical connoisseur of gonzo cinema, might well be able to narrow it down to Boorman in a heartbeat. There’s also enough vaginal imagery to perk any mid-century psychoanalyst’s ears up; It’s that kind of motion picture. It’s as though Boorman received the film fully formed through divine intervention. Continue reading

Progenitors: Monty Python and the Holy Grail

monty-python-image-1Referring to Guy Ritchie’s rather trivial take on the Matter of Britain, here are the three most interesting filmed versions of the tale.

A million and one of us can hone in on a panoply of specific moments, turning critique of Monty Python and the Holy Grail into appreciation of Monty Python and the Holy Grail as well, not incidentally, an exercise in masturbatory self-congratulationAfter all, the titular creators were sketch-artists and not narrative dramatists, so it goes without saying that Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a loosely-strung together hodgepodge of semi-connected and often contradictory, incommensurable pieces. But it’s the broad swath that impresses most, the keen eye for the scatter-brained nature of myths like Arthur that always seem to be trangentially reinterpreting themselves but not moving forward, struggling to plaster up the plot-holes in an essentially fuzzy and incomplete tale striving for the hazy appearance of sense. (The same, incidentally, is true of religion, which would be the Python’s next target). As a critique of the nature of sanding down the oddities and curiosities of a badly taped-together myth in order to approximate a precise narrative, Holy Grail actually makes a nice double-feature with the previous year’s Lancelot du Lac, the only other cinematic adaptation of the tale openly attuned to the fact that myths and legends only pretend to flow easily to hide the aporias and accidents that construct their very fabrics. Continue reading

Progenitors: Lancelot du Lac

lancelot01Referring to Guy Ritchie’s rather trivial take on the Matter of Britain, here are the three most interesting filmed versions of the tale.

 Shorn of obvious spectacle, and indeed stripped of affect or emotion, leaving a wiry, skeletal husk of human action divested of emotional concern on the part of the participants, Lancelot du Lac is much more than an honest” version of a much-told tale. Rather, Robert Bresson’s film is a rejoinder to decades of cinematic portals to the past and to the hubristic cinematic compulsion to re-equate us with a world – to think film can be our guide to a past world – that predates us not only physically but mentally by centuries. In Lancelot du Lac, the Matter of Britain is a gaseous state, hot air to be specific, a nationalist myth preaching dictums of achievement, predestination, and divine right filtered through masculine action.  Bresson has no compunction about dipping all those dreams in a joyless and uncompromising acid that shears away decades of cinematic myth-making and requests that we think of his own film more as a pantomime from the present rather than a literal glimpse of the past Continue reading

Progenitors: Wait Until Dark

large_20weaq6ylvqkycyr1slwzrpda0qEveryone else is making the comparison to Don’t Breathe; I might as well state the obvious and throw my lot in. 

Fresh off of kick-starting the Bond franchise with Dr. No and ultimately sharing custody of the epitome of ‘60s cool with Guy Hamilton, the other important Bond director of the era, director Terrence Young uses Wait Until Dark to curdle his ‘60s action-thriller rave-ups into a creepy, unmooring cavern of unmitigated menace. Retreating from pop-art-etched culture-chic to acid-laced domestic nightmare, Wait Until Dark is British invasion as slimy invasion of domesticity. Young discovered America in this, his first film across the pond, and let’s just say it’s hardly a kind appraisal. Continue reading

Progenitors: Swamp Thing

swamp-thing-1982-artJustice League Dark sounds kind of cool, I don’t know. Unlike any of those other DC movies, it has a for-real talented director with things like a track-record scheduled to direct it all of the sudden. Let’s look at the somewhat sketchy cinematic history of characters in that particular DC Comics franchise.

A pre-Nightmare on Elm Street Wes Craven’s bid for the big time, Swamp Thing is a reminder that some tales are as old as time. It goes a little like this: a small-time cinematic crook, stealing our attentions with unholy little anti-pleasers like the wonderful The Hills Have Eyes (Craven’s best film), is conscripted by Hollywood. And the results are a quagmire of stifled filmmaking, timid poetics, and oddly carefree glimmers of wonderment and innocence that suggest a more kitschy, amused director in Craven’s case just waiting to break out from the Big Time, corporate sanding-down of the material. The film is trampled by Craven’s inability to let loose, but in the rare moments where Swamp Thing emboldens him to not only pay homage to but stir the weirdness of his predecessors and inspirations, the film is amusing enough. Continue reading

Progenitors: Constantine

constantine-02-di-e1448859560532Justice League Dark sounds kind of cool, I don’t know. Unlike any of those other DC movies, it has a for-real talented director with things like a track-record scheduled to direct it all of the sudden. Let’s look at the somewhat sketchy cinematic history of characters in that particular DC Comics franchise.  

Perhaps emboldened by the success of The Matrix sequels, Constantine is a slightly freaky portmanteau of the expected, exhausted post-Matrix spiritual solemnity (read: Jesus allegory) and a more enticing brand of carnival food amusement. The balance, somewhat lugubrious faux-meditation on fate and destiny and who cares, on one hand, and the spark of a film limned with B-movie playthings on the other, is ultimately too mangled by the former for the film to appropriately circle around adjectives like “fun” or “inspired”. But, hey, at least it’s more willing to doodle in the margins than either of The Matrix sequels. And, sometimes, even their predecessor. Continue reading

Progenitors: Mary Poppins

mary-poppinsWith yet another live-action update of a Disney classic searching for a port in the storm this past weekend, I wanted to take the opportunity to review the beginning of the Disney live-action project. Not the for-real beginning proper, mind you, but the first time a live-action Disney film meant much more than a paycheck. 

Disney Studios’ live-action film division was more or less a fifteen year old bastard child in 1964, a comic sans rebuttal to the commercial floundering of the company’s proud, boldface animated films. It’s no secret that most of the earliest Disney animations, perpetually misfiring box office affairs that typically left the company in a state of near implosion, were pet projects of Mr. Disney himself, much to the chagrin of his inner cold-hearted capitalist. His inner child and his cutthroat businessman seemed at odds, and, in the ‘50s, the carefree, easy-to-produce live-action films essentially slid into the role occupied in the ‘40s by the animated package films: cheapies meant to tide the company over while Walt ushered out all the money as quickly as it went in, perpetually striving to finance whatever his latest personal fascination was. Continue reading

Progenitors: Chicken Run and Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

chicken-run-2000-3-g-640x509With The Little Prince on Netflix these days and Kubo and the Two Strings out soon enough, stop motion is making a comeback. You know what that means.

Chicken Run

If  we’re on the subject of stop motion, especially pre-Laika stop motion, the little hamlet company of Aardman Animations, bearing all that classic British handcraft and roguish charm, is really the go-to golden child. Chicken Run, their earliest feature-length film and their first dalliance with Hollywood, doesn’t forsake their homebrewed British scruffiness and the plasticine but soul-bearing charm. A cauldron of whimsy and old fashioned cinematic know-how, Chicken Run is a lovingly makeshift ode to the long forgotten wonder of genre that faded from the cinematic present long ago. Continue reading