After Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Sam Peckinpah would move away from the 1800s, although that doesn’t mean he left the Western behind. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is without a doubt a Western; it is as cracked and craggy as any of Peckinpah’s prior films, and its thematic content is almost identical, although it takes place in the 1970s. This is fitting, and perhaps the only way Peckinpah could have progressed as a director. His prior two Westerns saw the end of the era, with Peckinpah tackling the transition from the individualist, outlaw lifestyle to a more socially sanctioned form of violence bred by corrupt and violent men being buttoned up on the outside without actually curbing their violent tendencies on the inside. The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid were about the end of the West, but also about its continuity, its persistence in the modern era. The deserts and the ten-gallon hats had been replaced with institutions and machinery, with the industrial revolution and government. But the raspy habit of men fighting the only way they’d been taught how, and the curdled fact that these men were being destroyed by these ways, remained. Continue reading
By and large, this adaptation of David Mamet’s 1984 update of middle-century tales of economic middle-American woe is a trenchant, vital work of writing enlivened by a cornucopia of destabilizing performances of the highest order. It is, admittedly, hard to square with the cinematic adaptation when so little of the piece actually benefits at all from being made into a film, visually speaking. But sometimes the felt force of the writing is so affective on its own you just have to let measly little things like “filmmaking” slide.
Admittedly, there’s something to Mamet’s harshly, claustrophobically stripped writing style that coalesces with the jagged edges of the acerbic visual storytelling that works in spite of its would-be failures as filmmaking. Specifically, the decision not to particularly open-up the play beyond its suffocating two-day focus is essential, allowing the material a claustrophobic feel to capture the claustrophobia of men torn apart by a job that encircles their lives. For the film, Mamet slightly altered his play about four real estate salesmen who will be fired at the end of the week if they don’t sell enough marks, but he made the crucial decision to avoid any and all hints of these men at home or their family lives. The end result is a work that captures the four as round-the-clock victims and agents of capitalism, left working for home lives that the film tacitly avoids depicting. Thereby, the film exposes the central paradox of capitalism: the need to work to benefit one’s everyday life, only to have that work overtake one’s life so that the purpose of the work becomes the work itself, thus folding in on itself as capitalism strangles its governing justification. Continue reading
Update 2018 with Roeg’s passing: Slightly less taken with Walkabout’s politics this time out. As a critique of settler colonialism, it’s both vaguer and less eloquently abstract than Peter Weir’s wonderful Picnic at Hanging Rock, a truly poignant and critical take on a cloistered community corseted by their own haze of superiority and indifferent curiosity about other ways of life.
But I’m possibly more enamored this time of Walkabout’s metaphysical vision of sensory experience. Its vision of the conviction of colonial consciousness shuddering apart, of transfixed youths suddenly spellbound by the limits of their own minds, is problematic, but also intoxicating food for thought. And Roeg uses it to divine a film of internal ruptures and wanderings into the unknown, exploring the irregularity of human experience and the non-totality of any individual culture with frighteningly fractious editing and cinematography that veers from the acrid to the oneiric. Above all, he dares us to touch the jagged poetry of the world in disarray. It’s a flawed experience, and perhaps too nihilistic, but it boasts its own truly singular poetry, an elegiac and tragic meeting of minds that explores the fallout of cultural connection and clash.
Nicolas Roeg was not an Australian director, nor did he have much to do with Australia for the rest of his career. But, when he wished to explore the elusive mystery of human distance and find the frightful regions of human history and modernity in what would seem to be majestic from a distance, it is no surprise that he looked to Australia as his canvas. The always damaged mystery of the location is unspooled across the unforgiven lateral extension of a landscape leftover from history, stretching on forever into the regions of madness. Not knowing the history of the region, the fading crimson of the sun staring at the fleshy human form instills its own sweat and sickly grime on the viewer. The unforgiving chill of the forlorn landscape dotted with an abject tree or two every now and again gives off a wafting aroma of decay and empty space, selling the history of this location as an abstract space of eternal rupture, the kind ever-primed to refract social fissures and psychological shattering. Continue reading
The directorial debut of Alex Garland – he who wrote 28 Days Later and Sunshine, two of the finest genre films of the 2000s – is a fascinating beast for two reasons. First, it is not a particularly sterling work of writing at all, opting too often to tell when showing would be a better service, and uneasily dancing around some particularly flat-footed dialogue from time to time that causes the film to stumble over itself more often than is acceptable. Second, and this may prove the more important fact in the long haul, it is a shockingly forward-thinking, challenging work of direction from a man who has never formally directed before (although one can be sure he has osmosis-ed his fair share of tips and tricks from working with Danny Boyle, one of the finest stylists of the modern era). Part of the visual craft has to do with what I hope will be the big coming up party of cinematographer Rob Hardy, who consistently hints at the Kubricks and the Tarkovskys of the world without ever outright quoting them. But too much of what makes Ex Machina work is too tied into the framing and the mise-en-scene beyond the cinematographer that credit must be given where credit is due. Flaws aside, Garland has learned how to create a cinematic vision that is always, sometimes even in spite of itself, refreshingly cinematic. Continue reading
The idea that a film could “kill” the career of one of America’s most loved stars seems a tad bit antithetical in today’s increasingly safe world, but then we don’t have many daring, singular stars like the ever fearless provocateur in a clown’s body that was Charlie Chaplin. Although the much-loved star carved out a lovable niche as a tragicomic by donning the rumpled clothing of a tramp and the heart of humanity at its simplest and most direct, he was always ready for a fight. His quasi-silent masterpiece Modern Times is one of the least hidden anti-capitalist films ever to be spooled up before an audience, damningly positing the internalization of mechanical soullessness into the human capacity for movement and survival. As if that wasn’t enough, he went on to fancy himself a Hitler-pastiche in The Great Dictator, playing with fire by targeting the holiest of subjects before it was even quiet enough for mourning.
If Godzilla is primarily a test of filmmaking prowess, it proves Gareth Edwards’ big budget credentials. Especially in its first and final quarters, the film borders on awe-inspiring as a work of visual and aural construction. Edwards retains the essence of the project which got him the job here, Monsters. Godzilla is a slow-burn affair – Edwards knows how to tease. We witness Godzilla in glimpses here and there for most of the film, only for Edwards to let loose with aplomb during the final 30 minutes. It avoids monster overkill by presenting the titular character and his opponents through human eyes throughout. Edwards uses POV shots and shoots images through various obscuring mirrors to reflect humanity’s dangers back upon itself. He ruthlessly shoots from low angles, his quite literally subjective camera tilted upward to capture the mass of destruction from the eyes of his puny characters. Above all, this is the Godzilla film about the big man as he exists as a force of nature, a chaotic being unable to be approached by mankind. He’s an oppressive fact, whether present or not, and Edwards absolutely nails the horror-infused imagery of the film as he moves away from violence and destruction as exciting and toward violence and destruction as fire-and-brimstone human containment. Continue reading