Roman Polanski blew down the doorsby galvanizingpsycho-sexual fervor with heated religious fire-and-brimstone when he asked us to pray for Rosemary’s Baby, but his three earlier films carve out a cavern of their own in the film world. They each build on one another, gnawing and preying into Polanski’s particular and peculiar form of bellowing salacious night-sweats. His debut, Knife in the Water, is a casual work that reveals itself a formalist’s dream, a monomaniacal machination of Deep Focus emptiness and harsh angle-populated mise-en-scene that finds in its very visual bones the piercing acuteness of his class parable. His follow-up, Cul-de-sac, maintains this carefully delineated limbo-like location-work and adds its own doses of jangled nerves, introducing a particularly controversial and transgressive dose of blackened humor to Polanski’s already darkly playful attitude toward human sexuality. Continue reading →
Right as Abbas Kiarostami seemed to leave the once-proud Iranian cinematic world behind for international super-stardom, Asghar Farhadi surges forth like a bullet into the international cinematic hierarchy and tells everyone to look Iran’s way for some of the most daring narrative cinema being produced today. A Separation is as close to a perfect film as I’ve seen in years, exasperatingly constructed with the heft and storytelling grit of a classic drama out of the ’60s European New Wave. Harsh and impenetrable yet warm and inviting, it unfolds with the punctilious craft of a process-driven film that captures human flesh as it struggles to be at one with the cold, angular world around it. Particular in both visual symmetry and human understanding, it marries look, sound, and feel to a scrupulous whole that just demands to be seen. Continue reading →
They say that Terry Gilliam was truly angry post-getting absolutely royally screwed over by a distributor that had no interest in his mind-melting glam rock drunken rant on the internal contradictions of the literature dealing with totalitarian government (not to mention the contradictions in the US of 1985 that loved to thump their copies of Orwell at the Soviet Union and conveniently pass by the same arguments, and Orwell’s democratic socialism, when the oppressions of the US came to the conversation).
If “they” are right about Gilliam’s rage, it had clearly subsided in the three year interim before his next film. Or, if they hadn’t, Gilliam had at least developed an ability to poke fun at himself while mocking the censors in the process. This work, 1988’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, passed by the censors with much less eyebrow raising. And it’s easy to see while: although it is, in its own genial way, as radical as Brazil, it is much less obsessively difficult and intentionally obtuse, and it is less proud and open-faced about shouting its own radicalism right in the faces of the censors and rubbing their noses in it. Continue reading →
This post being slightly in honor of Wheatley’s directing of the first episode of Doctor Who Season 8, and mostly in honor of him just being a highly talented new filmmaker I happened to have a few mini-reviews written on. Seriously, do check this guy out.
A Field in England
A Field in England opens with a warning about the film’s psychotic, psychedelic imagery, but it serves, and was likely intended, as much as a badge of honor– the film’s visuals are gloriously perturbed, and the trickery on display is the film’s biggest selling point. This is all the truer when one considers the film’s enigmatic narrative and its clear subversions, even from its opening moments. If the film opens with the aforementioned warning about its visual nature, it immediately cuts to a black screen with only chaotic sound for thirty or so seconds, pointedly delaying what it’s just promised us. Then, of course, there’s the film’s black-and-white monotony when we now automatically associate visual splendor with cheerful color, and the fact that the film opens with a battle scene captured purely in close-ups and shots of single, atomized people, as well as quavering images of bushes. It doesn’t play like a battle in reality, but as the arch impression of a battle, the sense of chaos and loneliness ever-present but indescribable when on the edge of life and death – it’s an almost abstract collage of imagery divorced from context to convey the holistic difficulty of understanding war representationally or experientially. A Field in England is a pure, distilled cinematic hell. Continue reading →
In my month-long look at British cinema, the one figure I could not even dream of avoiding wasn’t David Lean or Michael Powell (the nation’s two greatest filmmakers), but a big man known around the world in the smug, terse way he cannot help but introduce himself to everyone he meets: Bond, James Bond. In many ways, he is the modern pop-culture symbol of Britain, and he’s far more popular today, 52 years after his first cinematic outing, than his humble beginnings in 1962’s Dr. No would suggest. He, in a sense, personifies many things commonly associated with Britain, both the good (intellect, wit, sure-faced chill, dogged tenacity), the bad (misogyny, macho-post-colonialism, distant militaristic sense of a dehumanized and mechanized order hidden under aristocratic airs, dogged tenacity) and the both (smarminess, standoffish cool, dogged tenacity). Above all, he captures that sense of unending existence, that notion of always being there and recovering from whatever ails him, which Britain loves to see in itself. And plenty has gone wrong with the Bond series over the years, but as his films are wont to declare, Bond will always return. You just can’t keep a (maybe not so) good man down.
After uploading two of the most depressing British films I can imagine, I decided a nice counter-balance would be in order: a couple of bonus reviews of just about two of the damn cheeriest films in existence. It’s been my pleasure. Update 2018: As is the case with so many of these roughly college-written reviews, I don’t exactly agree with this anymore, especially in my expression of my ideas, and often in terms of my ability to perceive the film’s ideas in the first place. I’ll let this review stand as is, but at this point in my life, I’d be inclined to argue that the film isn’t really taking pop to task as artificial, proposing a leaden pop and reality dichotomy, but rather using pop dialectically, to discover other avenues to truth – the truths of experimentation, adventure, silliness, spontaneity, artifice – that lie not necessarily outside but at least beyond observational documentary reality as it is conventionally understood.
It’s a rare and beautiful thing that something that should in any sane universe be nothing more than a phoned-in cash-grab is in fact one of the great pieces of pop-anarchism ever essayed on film. A Hard Day’s Night, the film accompanying the album of the same name (the Beatles’ first all-time classic album) in 1964, played a big part in asserting the band’s dominance in the Western world. And, intentionally (wonderfully) it has no real narrative. There’s something in here about the boys and how they get caught up in protecting an old man from his own tomfoolery while they are dealing with preparations for a TV show they are to appear on. But this is merely a clothesline for not only a series of great jokes and gags and the film’s central tension between its technique and its content, but for one of the most thoroughly deconstructive pop manifestos ever committed to celluloid. Continue reading →
After uploading two of the most depressing British films I can imagine, I decided a nice counter-balance would be in order: a couple of bonus reviews of just about two of the damn cheeriest films in existence. It’s been my pleasure.
Yellow Submarine is a Beatles film, and this carries certain baggage. Above all, we must have the Beatles – this is the Beatles psychedelia express vaguely hiding as a children’s film after all, and insofar as they are the star of the show, they must be in the film. We must ask of any Beatles film then: what does it reflect about the Beatles as an entity? What is most surprising about 1969’s candy-coated art film, then, is how little a presence they have in the film, and how little import they play even as the narrative (insofar as it can be called one) is wholly about them. I don’t mean this as a negative – their aloof, detached standoffishness, their inability to take any problem seriously, and their seeming lack of interest in really doing much of anything seems wholly intentional. And it is subversive as all hell. Continue reading →
A phantom haunts Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 phantasmagoria Don’t Look Now, but the ghost is not so much situationally incorporeal as intrinsically incomplete, a lingering devastation wrought by the remnants of the past latching onto the psyche of the present. The psyche tellingly belongs not only to main characters John and Laura Baxter, who lose a child to a lagoon in the opening scene and trip to Venice to let off some steam, but to the film itself. This is because theme is sublimated into the higher realm of form in Roeg’s post-Bava sensory saboteur, a work that lithely reorients our conception of cinematic editing as it construes a complete and utter subjectivity out of discordant, hostile cutting mechanics. Horror is found not in the presence of a wraith from beyond the grave, but in the lasting haunt of the past’s icy grip on the canvas of the human mind. Ghouls and zombies do not need to rise from the Earth when they persist in the heart. Ultimately, Don’t Look Now is a master-class in “psychic entropy”, dismantling the very ligatures of cinema and blinkered assumptions of a rational, fully-knowable world order. Its vision of new knowledge is radically self-splintering, suggesting that a path to truth compromises our very foundational assumptions about time, space, and rational order. Don’t Look Now offers a form of sensory and mental awakening that is ultimately emotionally and physically catastrophic.
Don’t Look Now is a truly unnerving, dissociative film, not only taking its time waiting and watching while the horror latches on but disassembling raw notions of cinematic time altogether. It’s a masterpiece, an indelible marriage of content and form: a shattered, disordered formalist work of abject horror matched to an empathetic study of two humans wracked with nervous discomposure. The extraordinary friction of the editing, sound, and visuals radiates a toxic gloom that tethers the throes of the characters’ mental disarray to a filmic style that tears and frays itself into a shambles. In other words, it’s an internally divided film that explores two characters who exist as fragmented parts of an impossible-to-reconstitute whole. Continue reading →
Like The Night of the Hunter, Peeping Tom essentially ended its director’s career (although Charles Laughton was not of the same caliber as Peeping Tom’s Michael Powell, easily one of the most respected British filmmakers ever). And like TheNight of the Hunter, that fact has unfortunately overshadowed the quality of the film underneath, for both happen to be among the truly great social nightmares of our time. This 1960 masterpiece is an excruciating descent into the mind of a killer and an unnerving look into the secrets people keep behind closed doors. It is also ultimately, an act of filmic deconstruction aimed squarely at the cinematic gaze. Peeping Tom is not only effective due to its ahead-of-its-time first-person murder sequences (the film’s proto-slasher killer films his victims as he kills them with the pointed edge of his camera tripod), but it also begs hair-raising questions about the nature of voyeurism and contains one of the creepiest film performances ever in Carl Boehm’s Mark Lewis, easily on par with Anthony Perkin’s all-time classic interpretation of Norman Bates in Psycho, released in the same year. Still, for all its spellbinding strengths, it is so often overlooked. Perhaps it is for the best, for it leaves Peeping Tom always lying in wait, always looking on from behind, always leering and breathing heavily and skulking about around the edges. Maybe that is where it belongs; approaching it head-on is a tall, demanding order. But few tasks are more rewarding. Continue reading →
David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia should be the easiest film in the world to review. It is “the” epic, which is to say the most epic film perhaps ever made and the “best” epic film ever made. Or so they say. In fact, it is an epic, grand in scale, filled with lofty ambitions and shots of people of different-hued skin staring at each other as if to ponder the mysteries of the world. But it is also much more than that, and perhaps one of the most deceptive films ever produced. I suppose, as a monstrously-budgeted film with no relative unknowns in the lead roles, no romance, little action, and an implicitly homosexual main character, someone was worried about its commercial prospects in the moment, and they granted Lean the freedom to have his film express, breathe, prod, poke, and reach out in every which way that films of this nature weren’t really supposed to do. After all, if it didn’t have anything on the surface, except of course its “grandness” to appeal to audiences, it had to have something in its bones that would only be revealed once audiences were experiencing the film and having it happen to them – something that would gain critical attention for long-lasting appeal, if not immediate commercial success. That something turned out to be Lean making it one of the best films ever made. Continue reading →