Category Archives: Uncategorized

Film Favorites: The Passion of Joan of Arc

Exploring the inexpressible, ineffable qualities of desire pressed tenuously and incompletely but immediately onto the surface of screens that cannot quite accommodate those desires but nonetheless must try to relate to them, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s film remains one of cinema’s great meditations on human communication in all its valences: both achieved and failed, asked and given, demanded and foiled. For the same reasons, it remains one of the great films about the possibilities of the medium, exploring cinema at both its barest essentials and its furthest reaches. What, the film ponders, does it mean for its titular character, nominally the historical figure Joan of Arc, French hero of the Hundred Years’ War during the 15th century, to doubt and feel and desire, to commit against the flow of the world, to sense other flows unacknowledged by the powers that deny her? What does it mean for actress Renée Falconetti to essay a soul-rending performance of a woman she never knew outside of her work to recreate (and thus create) her? And what does it mean for us as viewers to confront the senses essayed in this film, largely unknown but somehow known to us, to wrestle with the very capacity of imagery to explore the possibilities and limits of representation, to represent connection across space and time? What, simply, does it mean to visualize Joan’s desire, which, the film makes clear, is unmaterial, is beyond visual comprehension? What does it mean to know a human from their face? What even is it to be interested in the material on screen?

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Film Favorites: The Parallax View

From the nearly decontextualized prologue to the astonishing opening credits, an Altman-esque zoom in to a court finding (echoing the Warren Commission) that freezes in a tableau of American deceitfulness, Alan Pakula’s The Parallax View imbues quotidian happenings with malicious intent. At first it seems merely peerlessly menacing, in the same way concurrent works like All the President’s Men or Chinatown diagnose paranoic ‘70s personalities, but Pakula’s most sinister coup is to render even menace banal, to turn anxiety about specific occurrences into a thoroughly incomplete response to an unfathomable and all-consuming social fabric that seems completely beyond sense-perception and comprehension. Drawing audiences in with the promise of final revelation, the film emerges with something much more discombobulating than a simple bait-and-switch: slowly (and then quickly) fragmenting and shivering apart into abject chaos, rendering the grammar of celluloid both one of society’s greatest witnesses and hopelessly incapable of truly grasping the depths it plunges into.

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Midnight Screenings: Christine

I’m promising to publish at least one Midnight Film review every Friday or Saturday this year, starting with two underrated John Carpenter classics, one of which recently celebrated its twentieth anniversary, while the other is nearing forty. Both, though, summon dark energies against idealist vistas, reanimating American folklore to render it monstrous, implying that the nation’s cultural norms and iconography will be its own undoing.

By 1983, tackling a Stephen King adaptation had already become a fertile testing ground for horror auteurs to flex their cinematic muscles and interrogate their idiosyncrasies within ostensible crowd-pleasers and corporate products, to infest cinematic hallowed ground with exploratory personal devils and fixations. A King adaptation was sort of like the old Cahier du Cinema proof about auteur theory, which suggested that a director’s personality, their difference, could be gleamed best when they were most mediated by various corporate interests rather than left to their own devices to construct a film from the ground up.

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Midnight Screenings: Ghosts of Mars

I’m promising to publish at least one Midnight Film review every Friday or Saturday this year, starting with two underrated John Carpenter classics, one of which recently celebrated its twentieth anniversary, while the other is nearing forty. Both, though, summon dark energies against idealist vistas, reanimating American folklore to render it monstrous, implying that the nation’s cultural norms and iconography will be its own undoing.

Although it didn’t officially put John Carpenter in director jail, one suspects that everyone involved would just as soon forget 2001’s Ghosts of Mars. It doesn’t even get the respect that similar-era catastrophes like Battlefield Earth and The Room receive, resigning itself to the historical dustbin of “just another bad film.” Perhaps the blame truly lays at Carpenter’s feet: just as his major achievements work in fascinatingly minor keys, so too do his ostensible failures refuse to grant us easy access to their odds and ends, their opaque mysteries and strange digressions. They refuse to go bad in a big, obvious way, preferring workmanlike craftsmanship and subtle twists of the knife. On the surface, Ghosts of Mars is a by-the-numbers failure, an indifferently bad film, rather than an exceptionally bad one.  A self-consciously minorized work, an exploratory termite in an elephant’s world, it is absolutely Carpenter-esque: spare, spartan, economical, but also subtly exploratory and strange, eating away at itself by exploring its nooks and crannies, taking the form of a carpenter building a chair and the termites that are simultaneously devouring it.

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Christmas Classics: The Muppet Christmas Carol

It’s been a long time, pretty much since the beginning of Covid, that I’ve posted on this blog, but I’m making it my New Year’s Resolution to return to it in 2022 with regularity. There’s more to come soon, but I wanted to share this review of one of my most beloved holiday films before the year ends.

Nominally, The Muppet Christmas Carol is a fairly faithful retelling of Charles Dickens’s 1843 A Christmas Carol, the story of Ebenezer Scrooge’s story of self-recognition and potential self-betterment when confronted one night by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet To Come. A bleak paean to the necessity of self-transformation and dedication to humanistic collectivism, the Muppet version follows closely to the moral imperative of Dickens’s original. Which may not work for some. Like the 1843 novella, the Muppets’ 150-year-later version is frankly manipulative and sentimental. While other authors of his era, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels most obviously, reacted to the soul-devouring inequalities of capitalism and the dark factory towns of nineteenth-century Europe with a call to overturn capitalism systematically, Dickens was essentially appealing to sentiments of shame and guilt. That doesn’t mean his portrait wasn’t grim, sentimentality aside (or, rather, the grimness is part of the sentimentality), and it certainly doesn’t mean that his pen’s charismatic pull is any less forceful.

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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