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Midnight Screening: Blade II

blade-2-ron-perlman-wesley-snipesLoosely in honor of the MCU’s recent announcement of a new Blade picture, and in honor of a film that I think is better than any of the 22 films in the MCU. 

Seventeen years on, and with director Guillermo del Toro’s respectable Hollywood bona-fides secured in a Best Picture and Best Director win for a film that, superficial lacquer of oddness aside, is really no less oblique or off-kilter than any other Oscarbait picture, one longs for the freakish B-movie voluptuousness of a film like Blade II. Famously, del Toro only took the film so he could have more control over the film’s follow-up, 2004’s Hellboy, the director may consider it a skeleton in his closet. Frankly though, that sense of hushed disreputability – both a film that isn’t to be spoken about and a film that refuses to easily speak its own mysteries and themes – is what makes Blade II perhaps del Toro’s most pungent English-language film, a dismembered parable of ethnic cleansing less hopelessly literal than Pan’s Labyrinth and more cutting than any of del Toro’s films in the decade since.

While some of his later films bend over backwards to explain their themes to us, Blade II doesn’t feel the itch to sanctify del Toro’s obvious glee at being granted full access to play in the Hollywood toy-box (regardless of what he says about the film). Unlike many of his later films, Blade II does not launder the director’s interests in the fetishistic and the demonic aspects of family lineage and bodily malformation – no less obvious here than elsewhere – in tidily packaged moral schemas. The original Blade played its vampire themes loosely, giving traditional questions of power, marginalization, and the decay and exsanguination of the body a sleek, technological update, but Blade II folds these questions into the action so thickly that they don’t even register as themes. Which may be why it’s something of an ugly duckling in del Toro’s filmography. Continue reading

Review: Avengers: Infinity War

avengers_infinity_war_posterI remain heartened months after its release that the internet spent a good few weeks desperately trying to shoot some adrenaline into cinema’s most deeply tiring franchise by convincing the world that Avengers: Infinity War was an experimental film of sorts, and how do I wish that little gambit provided more real food for thought than it does. It certainly does distract us from the actual film, which, as the claims of “avant-garde” suggest, only tenuously clings to that signifier “film,” or at least more tenuously than any blockbuster film is supposed to these days. But while, I don’t know, Speed Racer (all the way back from the inaugural year of the MCU) feels divinely inspired to dismiss the rules of blockbuster filmmaking as a moral and ethical statement, and an incendiary display of personal conviction, Infinity War isn’t a conventional “movie” out of some combination of laziness, failure, necessity, or simply because it can’t be bothered. That’s more or less interesting, and probably more fascinating to think through than an 18th entry into any franchise should be. But I can’t resist the sensation that I and the internet are playing head-games with ourselves to privately amuse ourselves, semi-ironically meditating on the norms of cinema with Infinity War as a catalyst just to pass the time searching for something, anything, to say about the most milquetoast cinematic franchise of the 2010s. The MCU has held modern blockbuster cinema prisoner for almost a decade, but, as if the delirium of no escape is kicking in, the voices of the internet refuse to give in. They resist.

Which is either a heroic display of viewership or a positively deluded marker of entrapment, for Infinity War certainly does not resist in any meaningful way. It’s certainly the case that directors Joe and Anthony Russo stage something quite a bit more akin in flavor and spirit to the television sitcoms that bred them than to a conventional three-act cinematic structure, a decision – nay, a requirement – which is by turns liberating and truly tiresome, as though the nominal heads of the franchise have simply abdicated the throne of narrative cohesion and essentially given up any sense that this ought to function like a real movie rather than a glorified cinematic hang-out. That said, while this particular film is so self-evidently reliant on a television-style familiarity with characters, imploding the illusion of cinematic self-containment, Infinity War does not disrupt these cinematic norms toward any purpose, or with any wit. Which is to say, it doesn’t experiment with narrative so much as concede its lack of one, and it does so without the self-amused meta-critical gags of something so neurotically nefarious as Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Twelve, where any pretension that we are watching real people and characters who exist off-screen is ceremoniously shot, stabbed, poisoned, and demolished almost immediately before being run over in the infamous final act Julia Roberts bit. Continue reading

Directing the Directors: Steven Soderbergh: Traffic

2000-traffic-05Logan Lucky, the comeback film of the formerly-but-not-really-retired Steven Soderbergh, is out this month, and the return to cinema of one of the great filmmakers of the past quarter-century is obviously something to celebrate. I’ll do so with a few reviews, the only way I know how. 

Nominated for two Best Director Oscars in one year, Steven Soderbergh won for Traffic, arguably his peak harmony of critical and commercial success and among the most piquant Best Director wins ever. Within reason, of course. It’s still an Issue film, so it’s in the Academy’s wheelhouse. (They’d never do the unthinkable and commit heresy by giving it to a genuine work of directorial singularity like, say, Wong Kar-Wai’s, Edward Yang’s, or Bela Tarr’s films from the same year, Stanley Kubrick’s from the year before, Terrence Malick’s from the year before that, or David Lynch’s from the year after Traffic. You get the picture). But for a somewhat safer film, as well as a work where the “experimentalism” is programmatic and pampered enough to be immediately obvious to any viewer, Traffic is a volatile, agitated, uncovered nerve of a movie just waiting to be poked. Continue reading

Midnight Screamings: George Romero, The Non-Zombie Ones

Grubby, gnawing exploitation vessels chased by commentary on social collapse, George A. Romero’s zombies were less metaphors than poetic embodiments or evocations of walking-shuffle social alienation. Flesh wasn’t the only thing rotting and decomposing in a Romero film.While I have written about his zombie films, his obvious claims to fame, before, I take the occasion of his death to appreciate a trio of his less appreciated ‘70s films. RIP.

210px-seasonofthewitchposterSeason of the Witch

Romero’s exploitation films wielded a surprisingly dusted-off, casual, analog-refuse quality, as if transforming them into social bric-a-brac found in the dumpster that, like all of society’s “trash”, tells us more about the society’s dreams, desires, and fears than what that society chooses to elevate on a pedestal. In this case, Season of the Witch is a brazenly radical concoction, a cauldron-brew composed of unfulfilled desire, agency-dreams, and two shakes of erotica. The subject is middle-American housewife Joan (Jan White), wife of Jack, as she creeps into the world of witch-dom with skepticism that mutates into feverish elan, cottoning to the sexual quivers and enhanced sense of self that is afforded by finding her own personal world of witchcraft away from the white-washed, relentlessly squared-off frames of quotidian domesticity. Continue reading

Review: Okja

mv5bmjqxmtcxndgxn15bml5banbnxkftztgwotczntizmji-_v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_Released as Netflix’s first blockbuster – a fact that bears some weight for scholars of the industry of cinema but less for the connoisseurs of films themselves – Okja is significantly more enticing as the new film from South Korean cinemagician Bong Joon-ho, marking his second Korean-American co-language film after 2014’s Snowpiercer. A leftist parable – although less brazenly radical than Snowpiercer – this lightly Miyazaki-esque eco-critique of American capitalistic practices is extremely broad, but like Snowpiercer, it treats its populist-front, excessive sense of caricature as a boon to its political ambitions rather than a restriction on them. Both of these films lack anything resembling the delectably sinuous pitch-black brio of Joon-ho’s two best films, Mother and Memories of Murder, but they do not erase his expert knack for Warner Bros-esque absurdism, nor do they stamp out the truest quality of all his films: the intoxicating commotion of conflicting energies. Continue reading

Review: Wonder Woman

wdwmn_tsr_beach_online_master_4000x2490_master-rev-1-1024x637Among the finest traditional superhero films ever made, or so I’m told, Wonder Woman nonetheless provoked, for me, not out-of-body effervescence, nor rapturous wonder, nor thoughtful introspection, but merely mild contentedness. This year’s other critical-darling superhero flick, Logan, stuck a tripartite claw into certain regulations of the superhero genre.  Although it merely dressed other genre-norms up in a thick coating of sinew and muscle, the film had moral meat on its Charcuterie board, all of it rare and bloody. Wonder Woman is a resolutely traditional film by way of comparison, and its minute-to-minute successes and failures have entirely to do with which of two particular traditions it settles into at any given moment. Continue reading

The Tony Jaa Revue Hour: Kill Zone 2

960The sequelitis-affronted, relatively lame, stilted title of Kill Zone 2 really does not do Soi Cheang’s inspired storm of a film the justice it deserves. Brandishing an initially worrying surfeit of ephemeral plot, the film actually scurries along with grace and kinetic motion, bucking the overloaded Raid 2 trend of expositing everything to death. Cheang’s film is operatic in scope but limned with B-picture sharpness and a nimble nature worthy of Jet Li if he was actually out for blood. It cannot muster the elegantly streamlined, relentlessly pure giddy alacrity of, say, the epochal The Raid, the golden child for martial arts films in the ‘10s. But, even still, this physical free-for-all threshed with melodrama boasts a bloody, bursting heart and a touch of genuine evil. Continue reading

“I guess Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart should be a thing…but with better films as their third wheel”: Cafe Society

mv5bnjk1njy4nje5n15bml5banbnxkftztgwmtu0ndg0ote-_v1_uy1200_cr8606301200_al_Decades into Woody Allen’s mirror maze career of inward-looking, self-reflecting gazes and upper-class first-world problems, a “new” thesis from this particular director whose only theater is his own mind is not exactly a prospect anyone is likely to expect any time soon. That Allen only ever repeats himself is, at this point, of less concern than whether his variations on old themes are inspired on their own terms. Without exactly spoiling anything, Café Society is the platonic ideal of Allen hovering around in his middle-brow, middle-tier. Café Society is more or less how you contextualize it, a prism for refracting one’s personal tolerance for the octogenarian who has canonized himself almost as many times as years he’s lived. A slight, pleasurable uptick in his continued slide into irrelevance? Another totem to his conceited brand of self-loathing self-aggrandizement that long ago lost its luster or rabid-dog intelligence? Café Society is all of the above and not much else. Which is to say: your mileage may vary. 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

Films for Class: Bataan and Chicken Little

A little old-timey cartoon before a feature for you all.

chicken_little_1944_8_graveyardChicken Little

This irascible little Disney wartime devil is almost absurdly superior to that most fell semi-remake by the same company in 2005 (their first, and by far worst, CG feature film). Recasting the ignorance of youthful Chicken Little as the conscious social disruption of a fox who utilizes propaganda to convince everyone that the sky is falling, Chicken Little is a scabrous wartime cartoon about the dangers of Nazi (and Communist) propaganda that, implicitly, critiques its own vessel. The fox eventually sending all the none-the-wiser chickens to a cave (a bomb shelter, basically), all the better to eat them with, the film explores its own construction. With an inter-title at one point informing us that everything ends up okay in the end, the film concludes by pausing itself for a second to critique its own ending, with the narrator wondering aloud how the prior inter-title could lie to us; the Fox – mordantly laying chicken bones in graves like tombstones – informs the narrator and us not to believe everything we read.   Continue reading