Category Archives: Review

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

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: 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