At some level, we must concede that Michael Curtiz was more of a filmmaker of efficient craftmaking than superlative artistic ambition; this sense of getting-the-job-done pervades even his masterpiece, Casablanca, but gosh darn it, well-oiled-machine filmmaking has never been more delectable than Michael Curtiz filmmaking. The perpetually underrated master of the craft was no auteur, nor did he want to be, but his films sparkle with single-minded clarity and blunt craft like nothing else from the Hollywood machine in its early days. Again, he was a studio guy for Warner Bros and he always operated with a sort of humility to his stories that saw him not so much take control of them and do with them as he would; rather, he focused on a propulsive forward movement to his tales, a sort of inescapable quality that made the stories feel like they were telling themselves first and foremost. Yet Curtiz was always there, making functional filmmaking the food of the gods and cutting through the fat to produce films that, if not entirely perfect or challenging in the most overt of ways, were at east the most perfect versions of themselves. Continue reading
That Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning exists indicates something is wrong with the world. That it is, against its better judgment, a near masterpiece, at least in terms of filmmaking principles and matching those principles to its narrative concerns, implies something is far worse with the world than anyone could have imagined. But yes, the fourth or eighth or ninety-sixth film in the bro-fest science fiction routine slaughterhouse that is the Universal Soldier series, tangled up in its Roland Emmerich-directed roots and choking on them for decades now, is good. In fact, in its own way, it’s fairly great. And how shocking that this way approximates ’70s art-house horror/crime/thriller/ sci-fi that only passingly gestures toward any idea of “action” and even then does wonders to detach “action” from anything resembling Roland Emmerich. What a strange, strange film. Plus, if it means anything to you, it is probably, by several orders of magnitude, superior to anything Dolph Lundgren or Jean-Claude Van Damme have starred in (although the post-structuralist JCVD, a sly little nightstalker of a film, comes pretty close for the latter star). Pleasures abound in this weird, weird world of ours, folks. Continue reading
So much has been written about American Sniper over the past few months, about its unkempt, pro-war patriotism and its torn apart anti-war expose of human trauma, that it is somewhat shocking how little has been said about the one thing that really reveals its essence: Clint Eastwood. Whichever stance Sniper takes, it is unquestionably the work of its director, the old individualist who loves to raise the American male up on a pedestal of his own making and tear him down again, and the only filmmaker working today who understands the old-school spirit of mid-century genre pics by the likes of Sam Fuller, Sam Peckinpah, and John Sturges. American Sniper is at its best, and its worst, when it is most similar to its subject Chris Kyle, knowing his clean, blunt efficiency to a fault, and sharing not a little of his single-minded apprehension for anything out of its sights. Continue reading
Rare is a film of such purity as Kill Bill, and rarer still is a film of such purity that is never less than fully confused and unsure of itself. From beginning to end, Kill Bill is entirely the artwork of an unabashed enthusiast and filmmaker, but it is a deeply perplexed film, perhaps intentionally so, and perhaps to its unmitigated benefit. Purring like a kitten on the surface but deceptively self-critical underneath, Tarantino’s most violent film also has more to say about violence than any of his films. It is a work that is simultaneously enraptured in love with itself and tearing itself apart in disharmonious hate, and thus certainly his most fascinating, conflicted piece yet. This doesn’t make it necessarily better or worse, but it may make it his most worthwhile film, especially because it never once allows us the confidence of our views in it. We can’t even really be sure if Tarantino “gets” it, and auteur theory isn’t going to help us one lick, unless of course it’s there in the background reminding us that Tarantino just can’t make an uninteresting film– even when doesn’t have a clue himself. Kill Bill can’t make an argument that Tarantino understands his own particular brand of proudly filmic anti-film commentary on the nature of cinema and violence. It may be him missing the forest of his own genius for the crimson-red trees of flailing arms and heads. But what a forest. And what trees.
Because I reviewed Shaun of the Dead and The World’s End and couldn’t stand the gap in the middle…
As it turns out, not only do Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright, and Nick Frost love horror movies, but they love action movies too. And, although I suspect this is no surprise to anyone, they can bust out a pretty dynamite one of their own when they need to. For it is the great secret of all of their films that they parody what they parody not by existing above it but by emulating it, recreating it with an eye for detail and a studied approach, and in some cases reading it past itself to expose some of its silliness and lunacy. Thus is Hot Fuzz, not quite the genuine surprise that Shaun of the Dead proved to be (what, the guys who made one of the best comedies of the modern era made another comedy and it’s stupendous… consider me staggered). But it’s a genuine barn-burner nonetheless, firing on multiple overlapping comic cylinders and staking its claim as one of the few modern comedies for which the filmic arts – that is to say directing, editing, and the like – are as fundamental to the nature of the laughs as the writing and the acting.
With Furious 7, sincerity is ubiquitous. It is ubiquitous in the discussion surrounding the film, and I’m afraid I will not be the one to butt heads with this claim, for sincerity is as ubiquitous in the film itself. Furious 7 is an idiot stew, sure, but for the entirety of its run time, there is never one second where it is less than fully committed to being itself, or less than entirely on board with its own idiocy. There’s a miniscule sliver of self-awareness thrown in for flavor, but by and large Furious 7 believes in itself. All of the nonsense about family crumbles in the abstract, but on camera it sizzles with zest. The film is nothing more than a soap opera where cars, guns, and and explosions sometimes (but not always) take the place of emotional breakdowns and cancer, but like any soap opera that works, it does so because it believes in itself and never tries to be anything it isn’t. Furious 7 is not a perfect movie, and in many respects it isn’t a very good one, but it is too busy having fun with itself to care. Continue reading
300: Rise of an Empire
300: Rise of an Empire, the probably belated sequel/prequel/sidequel to Zack Snyder’s 300 (not his worst film, but the one that turned him from “that guy who directed the surprisingly awesome Dawn of the Dead remake to the hack who pretends slo-mo is an aesthetic) is just about the easiest thing to review in the world. Putting aside the rather curious fact that someone thought Frank Miller’s fictional fantasyland where bros cavort and scamper about like Gods and the abs flex with determination and zeal was a fiction that could support something as ungainly as a “sequel/prequel/sidequel”, the film is essentially a done deal from the concept alone. “If you liked blank, you’ll probably like this” is not something a reviewer should trot out too often, for it it behooves us to write about films on their own terms. But gee does this film play like a copy-paste of its predecessor in every possible way, so much so that it can’t but invite the comparison. Trade in browns, golds, and reds for browns, golds, and blues and you’ve pretty much nailed the appeal of Rise of an Empire. Continue reading
And now we’ll take a short look at Dutch madman Paul Verhoeven’s ’90s American pictures, for during the 1990s Verhoeven was one of the few mainstream directors consistently operating at heightened level of mania and adventure in the film world, ever-pursuing and challenging his particular brand of satire until it became almost indistinguishable from truly making the bad movies he was satirizing. Plus I just reviewed Robocop, so it seems like I might as well continue on from there…
Ultimately, Paul Verhoeven’s American films, especially his American action films (always the more sensible and less delirious of his offerings) live and die as much by the strength of their satire as by how well they ape what they are critiquing. Now, Total Recall, his adaptation of Phillip K Dick’s short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale”, is a satire of sorts, but not a particularly wide-reaching one. It’s not marinated in quite the same joie de vivre to decimate aspects of the corporate cultural capital excess and disregard for human life prominent in Robocop, but nuggets pop through. The central idea is a joke at the expense of modern American society, largely that they would rather live an imagined reality than genuine affection, adventure, or meaning found in everyday reality. And at that, they would prefer not to find real pleasure but to purchase false ones through a company, to purchase “memories” of events through a corporation rather than to actually experience them, thus turning joy and memory into corporate products. This is heightened material for an action film, especially one in 1990, and if Verhoeven explores this theme less than he would explore his themes in his preceding and subsequent American films, it is admirable that he tackles it at all. Not to mention, as with Robocop, he made a pretty damn fine action film, satire or not, anyway.
For the ’90s were also a great decade of personality-heavy American independent directors finding themselves awash in a Hollywood positively chomping at the bit to ingest them and feed their every whim. Sometimes, and only sometimes, the results are inarguable…
Desperado really ought fall apart within minutes, but in merrily saunters our old friend “cinematic passion” saving the day with its hands tied behind its back like it’s no ones business. Desperado is at least a fourth too long and a touch too episodically giddy for its own good, but it has in spades what other films simply dream of: an incorrigible, infectious love for itself. As ungainly as the script my be on the surface, Desperado never plays out as anything other than what it is: second time director Robert Rodriguez, a haphazard mess of a director if ever there was one, thoroughly in love with the fact that he had just been given a boatload of Hollywood money to update his debut release El Mariachi with all the toys the big leagues can afford. That is what the facts of Desperado’s release tell us, and that is exactly what unfolds, often wonderfully, on screen.
With America, always thinking twenty years back, in full-on transition from early ’90s nostalgia to late ’90s nostalgia, I’ve decided to take a quick look back at the state of the cinema world in the middle year of that decade, 1995, fittingly a time when films were really just a curious mix of the past and the future, stuck with one foot chaining them to the rotting corpse of the ’80s and another leg stumbling over itself to reach the 2000s while that decade was still a glimmer in the eye.
A Bond film released in 1995, a shocking and unprecedented six years after the previous film in the franchise, had to be something. It had to be an event, spread by rampant corporate ’90s chic advertising and the pungent aroma of word of mouth. It had to be a success, even if future films in the franchise weren’t. The filmmakers had to prove themselves once. 1997, 1999, and 2002 brought future Pierce Brosnan Bond films before things were rebooted yet again, and they were all dismal affairs, among the worst in the series. But, as it turns out, once was enough. Martin Campbell’s Goldeneye is a gas of an action thriller, spoken with brash candor and a superfluity of styyyyyle to spare. It’s not great cinema, but it understands Bond more than any film released since the Connery era. And it knows that to understand Bond, it has to move forward with Bond, to take him in new directions, to adapt him without losing his essential essence. Continue reading