In 1984, The Terminator was a chilly, conniving, nihilist-humanist animal of a movie, and in 1991, T2 confronted the world as an operatic exercise in baroque fire-and-brimstone pyrotechnics. Both, in their day, were game-changers, and if the sequel’s charm has faded slightly, it still gets points for what it accomplished at the time. Even if the nebulous concept of “bigness” was the purpose for T2 – and a purpose director James Cameron has returned to time and time again to limited results – it was, when all was said and done, a purpose. Both films worked, ultimately, because they were masterminded by a man with something to prove. In 1984 it was his name as a filmmaker at all, and by 1991 merely the fact that he could humbly direct the de facto most technologically-savvy film of all time. Different hopes for different folks, as they say, but both set the man ablaze with passion to make a film. Continue reading →
Because of that other Terminator film recently released, trying its best to soil the name of a once-mighty franchise.
James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day is not the film its predecessor, also directed by James Cameron, was. For largely the same reasons that James Cameron’s Aliens is not the film its predecessor, not directed by Cameron, was. 1984’s The Terminator is a more urgent film than 1979’s Alien, but they share a similar sensibility: relentless, unforgiving, nihilist, purposeless terror always lashing out at you, married to perfect filmmaking that traffics in both show-not-tell and not-showing-is-scarier-than-showing. Alien is an outright horror film masquerading as a sci-fi film, and although The Terminator is more comfortably an action film masquerading as a sci-fi film, it trades much closer to horror than you might expect. Continue reading →
With each rewatch, the sheer abyssal emptiness of The Matrix’s “social critique” is all the more apparent, and the lazier the film’s self-positioning as a messianic, imaginative emissary to “truth” feels. Rather than a real debate between multiple planes of or perspectives on reality, The Matrix sanctifies itself as revelation, its needlessly self-important tone matched only by the hopelessly blinkered texture of its philosophizing. It strikes me increasingly that the film’s problem is that its metaphysical, pseudo-post-modern ruminations on the problem of perspective imbricate upon rather than actually problematizing its resolutely, almost faultlessly classical narrative structure. Which is to say: the film remains, above all, committed to its hero’s quest storyline about the achievement of final consciousness – and “pure” truth – rather than a more fundamental doubt that this new reality is any more viable or legitimate than the old one the film fetishistically pats itself on the back for “teaching” us out of. Whenever new vision and old storylines come into conflict, the film imagines them as inimical, always and faultlessly choosing and defaulting to the later rather than trying to work through how to image a truly modernist blockbuster. For a film about the terrifying beauty of new perception, The Matrix boasts an astonishingly narrow corridor of perceptual possibilities, and it remains truly choked in its field of vision, never exposing its aporias, never curious about the peripheries that haunt it. It remains only interested in shoring up its knowledge rather than questioning it.
The Matrix is an aggressively, almost violently, superficial film, which isn’t a bad thing. That it doesn’t realize it is aggressively superficial? That is a bad thing, and arguably the overriding “bad thing” about genre films in the years to come since The Matrix. In particular, the sci-fi genre has descended into a mess we seem only to just be coming out of. There was a great long period post-Matrix where science fiction seemed wholly unable to exist as either thoughtless puff piece or hard-working, idiosyncratic social commentary. Films consistently and inescapably combined the two to sums that were less than the sum of their parts, questing for a maturity without earning said maturity in genuine craft, all while eventually falling back on techno-fried action as an avenue for popular appeal when the ideas of the film failed to pan out. Take Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 for one. Not a bad film, but definitely a post-Matrix work of trying to have its edgy, thoughtful sci-fi cake and trying to eat its robot-alien action cake too. Continue reading →
Man of Steel is exactly the film its creators were always going to make, and too little of the film it needs to be. Obviously, with director Zack Snyder in the director’s chair, a grotesquely serious, stodgy take on teenage wish fulfillment is expected, and a great deal of the unease about the film before its release was directed entirely at his superficial eye for fetishistic violence-porn. Indeed, the concern was not only valid but imperative. Very little about Man of Steel indicates that Snyder thinks of Superman as anything else than a fist with a body attached, and the final act leaves no doubt. The man in the blue suit being carted around the film hurts and broods and bruises. He has the rippling abs and the stoic back story, but he is an imposter, plain and simple, a mechanical man with a fancy suit.
Which doesn’t necessarily make for a bad film – that is David S. Goyer’s job. Goyer, who somehow found his way into Christopher Nolan’s overly-dense Batman movies and generally made a mess of human activity and thought, does for Superman what he did for the Caped Crusader – indulge with him. Which was fine when he and Nolan were opening up a maelstrom of pure chaos in The Dark Knight, but that film was still hampered by Goyer’s over-worked, exposition-heavy writing style that frequently feels more like a lecture than a script proper. In comparison, the behemoth that is Man of Steel is, for one, far too long, itself part of the Nolan/ Goyer aesthetic, and far too mechanical, exposition-heavy, and clinical – frankly, part of the Nolan/Goyer aesthetic as well. Continue reading →
Joe Johnston is not much of a director, perhaps because his heart lies outside of the modern sensibilities of film and he has proven unable to scrounge up the money to make the passion projects that lie in his dreams, and the dreams of so many children who went to the movies in the 1940s and 1950s. This is a reach, but his two best films are of a kind: 1991’s off-hand ode to old-school matinee thrills The Rocketeer and its spiritual successor, 2011’s Captain America, suffixed with the unfortunate subtitle The First Avenger. It isn’t a particularly exploratory or demanding film, or even a particularly fun one, but its mild geniality and melodramatic sense of charisma and fascination with comic book panache combine for a somewhat indifferent but well-meaning and usually well-playing exercise in pulp. It doesn’t always work, but unlike so many other superhero movies in the 2010s, it tries to work not by playing to the rafters, but to the matinee. Continue reading →
It isn’t difficult to find issue with Beyond Thunderdome, nor is it difficult to pinpoint the root cause of the problems: Hollywood money, and the desire to go big or go home. Both things that Miller used like a sledgehammer in Fury Road 30 years later to wonderful effectiveness, but which here see him step up and trip over the need to focus on a plot that doesn’t much go anywhere. The pure cinema appeal of the series is certainly lost (with Fury Road, Miller managed to go big without inducing a case of the talkies), but it doesn’t do well to overly criticize something for simply having a more elaborate story. Still, admittedly, the focus on “plot” for Beyond Thunderdome sacrifices the queasy, nihilistic immediacy of the original Max and the off-kilter humor and the implacable malaise hanging over The Road Warrior, a malaise brought on precisely by the fact that the film never much “went” anywhere plot wise and established, instead, a feeling of stagnancy. Continue reading →
When we last left him, former police office Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) lost his family and his best friend, and had fulfilled a most unfulfilling form of revenge on the now lawless highways of the Australian outback. He had lost and repaid the loss only to realize that there was nothing to be won back. When we last left him, there was nothing left for him but the empty road.
When we last left him, former no-name George Miller had given us one of the most menacing, sinister, full-throttle action pics ever released. Now a go-to guy, there wasn’t much keeping him from his distinctly more apocalyptic vision of dystopia and humanity left for dead, not to mention his vision of non-stop action filmmaking. With a greater budget and his original star Mel Gibson, then almost on the verge of becoming a major movie star and certainly a household name in the Australian film industry, in tow, his dreams would come true with the release of the 1981 The Road Warrior, one of the de facto “perfect” action pictures and still to this day among the true classics of the genre (a number that wallows and exists as a handful more than a genuine plethora). Continue reading →
Thirty six years later, with the release of the grandly, boisterously cinematic carnival opera of Mad Max: Fury Road, it is difficult to peer back through the looking glass and glimpse the humble origins of the Mad Max fiction. It is difficult to remember that, for all its commercial and critical success, the 1979 release of Mad Max was nothing more than a budget of 400,000 dollars (a paltry sum then and now) and one of the great modern cinematic visualists doing everything they could together to disturb, provoke, and ultimately, to entertain and thrill. It is difficult to remember how intimately inhuman the original Mad Max is, how nonchalantly brutal and matter-of-factly nihilistic it is in its almost impressionist depiction of apocalypse and social malaise propped up by stunning, startling car chases of unquenchable viciousness. It is also difficult, in lieu of the great majesty of the second film in the series, Mad Max 2:the Road Warrior, to remember how effective the original grinding house classic of action entertainment is to this day. Continue reading →
George Miller really wanted Mad Max: Fury Road. The back-story, the thirty year gap between Fury Road and its predecessor Mad Mad: Beyond Thunderdome, and the troubled, stop-start production for Fury Road itself all conspire to tell us this much. The beauty of the resulting film is that this back-story is both instantly extraneous and essential to unlocking its mysteries. All the hurt, all the torment, all the passion to release that which had been denied to Miller; all are instantly identifiable on the screen, but the film speaks for itself. Right before it blows your head off, but that is the Miller way. After releasing two extraordinary vehicles for tactile, sand-encrusted action under the Mad Max name, he went Hollywood and lost his edge with the third feature, the one whose biggest addition was Tina Turner. He spent the ensuing thirty years intermittently pursuing his craft in often stellar family films to recuperate, but his heart was elsewhere. Continue reading →
From Russia with Love is a curious beast. It does not “work” according to the distinct rhymes and reasons of what would become the “Bond film” archetype. It does not establish its own vision of what cinema ought to be, as so many other Bond films went on to do, starting with the very next film in the series, Goldfinger. It lacks the pop art, it lacks the pizzaz, it lacks the chutzpah of those other glammy, punchy Bond films that established a certain modern cool-chic lifestyle porn take on watching movies simply because they could give you visions of things that life in its mundane reality never could. On most of the basic “rules” by which Bond films are generally judged, it doesn’t even attempt to pass muster. In fact, it is, excepting its predecessor Dr. No, a work that could charitably be described as “mundane”.
But Terrence Young’s film may very well be the best film in the entire series, and it may be the best specifically for how it does not meaningfully have anything to do with “being a Bond film”. What the lack of a formula bestows upon it is the freedom to simply focus on being itself, on being the best individual film freed from the expectations and rules of a specific form and a style. It is freed to the point where it can utilize its editing, its framing, its acting, and its writing, to simply be the best film it can be, freed from any expectations in the world of fitting a well-defined formula. Continue reading →