A review I am embarrasingly posting six months late … because Grad School.
LA Confidential is the rarest of neo-noirs, a film aware of and capable of rekindling not simply the intricacy of film noir but its intimacy. By an astonishing margin, director Curtis Hanson’s best film, it’s also the strangest of birds, a true anomaly, the kind of film extinct twenty years later: a genuinely great mid-tier major studio film, not a maxi-budgeted blockbuster nor an indie darling nor an insufferably choked prestige pic but an honest-to-god mature studio film that thrives not simply on the currency of its ideas but the inimitability of its craft. LA Confidential is a muscular film, all muscle and sinew, but it isn’t macho. This story of men, both trigger-happy and frequently confused about which triggers they are firing, is remarkably attuned to the way various men find their personal idioms of masculinity incapable of fulfilling the requirements of the cutthroat world around them, a world that is too polyphonic, too multifaceted, too complex for any personal masculine script to truly master. Continue reading
With 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
Somehow both graver and more innocent than Winter’s Bone, Debra Granik’s follow-up to her career-making film (although, how it speaks to the treatment of female directors vs. actresses that we think of what that film did for Jennifer Lawrence relative to Granik) is at once more restful, compassionate even, and yet vastly more traumatic, locating major tragedy in the most minor-key of moments. Lacking that film’s bet-hedging semi-hicksploitation which feigned genuine dramatic ambiguity and equivocation while still gifting audiences the pacifying pleasures of a clearly-marked hero, Leave No Trace is a truly Herculean drama precisely because it resists any of the monolithic or totalizing compulsions the adjective “Herculean” might suggest, moral-mapping most of all. It is an extraordinarily gentle film, almost oneiric, albeit suffused with potent undertows of melancholy, like a dream-spun fable that mushrooms into a grave-like shroud. Continue reading
Ready Player One is hardly Steven Spielberg’s best feature film – heck, it isn’t even his best feature film of the past twelve months – but it might be the surest grasp of his talents, the most elegantly inelegant spiral he’s mounted in years. While his real masterpieces all work to some extent without him – Jaws boasts an astonishing full-throated and sharp-toothed screenplay, Raiders of the Lost Ark is deliriously sardonic with the question of its protagonist’s competence and narrative agency – Ready Player One, much like War of the Worlds, is good, to the extent that it is good, exclusively because of the Spielberg quotient. Boasting a screenplay which breaches questions of reality and authorship with an at-times mind-numbing obviousness, Ready Player One works as both a tornado of entertainment and a centrifuge of existential chaos only because Spielberg, seemingly singularly, knows not merely to mount this sort of production but to turn it against itself in ways which seem earned rather than cloyingly auto-critical. At its best, which is always when Spielberg exposes the inflection point between tornado of entertainment and centrifuge of chaos, between rocketing us to the apex of delirium and the abyss of purposeless, out-of-control motion, Ready Player One is not only testament to his directorial abilities, but to his thematic hunger. Continue reading
For a director who lives, or at least dreams, in dollhouses and dioramas, Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs fittingly, and not unproblematically, begs, and then totally decries, comparisons to Yasujiro Ozu for its cinematic fantasyland version of mid-century Japan. That plaintive master of the cinema – arguably the master of the cinema – exposed post-War tensions in Japanese life with potent undertows of generational compromise and interpersonal balance all illuminated by and exposed through his famously diorama-like aesthetic. But although Anderson’s film is also set in a facsimile of mid-century Japan and retains Anderson’s typically diorama-laden milieu as well, it is in many ways Ozu’s diametrical opposition. While Ozu cast a plaintive and empathetic eye on external society, Isle of Dogs is resolutely a vision of the internal. Or, at least, it is a resolutely internal gaze on a mindscape known as Andersonville. For better or worse, it is as personal as Ozu’s film, but it is far more hermetically the work of, and a work for, one artist. Continue reading
Retreading but also, crucially, retexturing Taxi Driver, Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here casts both a severe shroud and a diaphanous aura. Silent and somehow graceful, it suggests a world that could float away with every moment, ever-closer to crumbling with each second that passes on the screen. Yet, while it’s constantly dissolving and possibly evaporating, it’s also a heaving, brutish beast of a picture A huge, unapologetic mass of cinema. A giant hulking fucking thing of a film. Most importantly, while scores of films trade in corporeal violence and fewer still in existential disturbance, Ramsay’s picture is the rare film that feels truly, inescapably dangerous. Not because it depicts violence, mind you, or documents any external tragedies – although it undeniably does both – but because it casts us adrift in the askew, hostile, truly broken-down headspace of a phantom man with Ramsay’s diabolically refined, ruthlessly sawtooth craft as our collective Charon. It’s a psychic, predatory tremor of a film. Continue reading
The addictively Ill-tempered I, Tonya imagines itself as a wildly speculative critique of the biopic formula. That said, while it focuses on Tonya Harding and is at its best when focused on her, she is not primarily in the film’s crosshairs. It might be more accurately said that the film weaponizes the media frenzy around Tonya Harding as a way to yolk Billy Wilder’s scabrous journalist-carcass scavenger Ace in the Hole with, well, Billy Wilder’s equally scabrous showbiz-psycho-circus Sunset Boulevard. Yolk to effects that, of course, aren’t nearly as monumentally well-crafted or psychologically inquisitive as either of those films. Not to mention effects that are much, much more scattershot. But, to a point, that’s acceptable for Craig Gillespie’s rabble-rouser, which analyzes a scattershot world. Steven Rogers’ script and Gillespie’s direction are punchy and slovenly in equal measure, and there’s a formal combustibility brewing throughout that both mirrors Harding’s cathartically unpracticed, spontaneous rage and animates wider questions about the chaotic instability of memory, journalism, and subjectivity.
Even better, I, Tonya analyzes a society without having to dissect it, without turning Harding into a Parable For Our Times and thereby flattening her particularity with the imposed weight of National Crisis a la the OJ Simpson-focused season of American Crime Story. While the latter strives to ennoble the television anthology with a literary perfectionism and pristine grandeur, I, Tonya, not unlike its namesake, has no qualms hitting below the belt. More accurately, it admits that it hits below the belt, that its characters are sketchy, unformed caricatures, and while American Crime Story back-peddles into its own superficiality, I, Tonya careens into with a virulent gusto that occasionally approximates legitimate thoughtfulness. Continue reading