To dispense with formalities: The Sixth Sense is not that good, but nor is it that bad. Its writer-director has never been a man subject to well-manicured, non-explosive statements – probably because he has never himself been prone to non-explosive statements (he did, after all, cast himself as a writer who saved the Earth in Lady in the Water). In his early days, he was, to his followers, a filmic genius, a genuine auteur in an age with precious few singularly great filmic voices. In recent years, he has become a filmic landfill, a genuine auteur for evil in an age with precious few singularly awful filmic voices. Everyone, regardless of what they think of him, seems to not understand the meaning of putting on the breaks. Either wonderful or despicable, he is a director who inspires opinions of great magnitude regardless of direction.
To some extent, both magnitudes are over-stated. His recent slate of films have managed the insurmountable task of consistent awfulness, but he is not the worst director in the history of cinema. Still, claims of his badness are more fitting than claims of his goodness. Even his best works are, if we are being honest, merely solid showpieces for a frequently confused writer with a better-than-average visual sense that at its best moments manages to convince audiences they are watching a better film than they really are. Case in point: The Sixth Sense, which is a sometimes sharp, occasionally sterling, often misguided work most notable for the frankly bizarre fact that it managed to rake in almost 700 million dollars at the global box office. Being a supernatural thriller, mind you. Ahh, movie-goers were different in the far-flung past of 1999. It dances vision of when The Exorcist (a similarly overrated film, although not as confused at the level of basic writing as The Sixth Sense) exploded into theaters in 1973 and ushered in a new age of respectable auteur-driven horror films for public audiences. But then, 1973 really was a different, pre-Jaws and pre-Star Wars, time culturally and filmically. 1999 is practically still in the womb. It was just yesterday, or so it seems at first glance. Continue reading
It must be said: excepting The Matrix, no single film has done more harm to the modern cinema industry than Pulp Fiction. The old “every filmmaker who saw it made their own movie” card is the great equalizer, uniting genuine talents and hacks alike. But in the case of Tarantino, the results were far from equal. A few genuine craftspeople followed in his wake, but they were diamonds in the rough compared to the far more significant cohort of filmmakers who whipped Tarantino into a frat boy’s wet dream and perverted his vision of cinema from the ground up. Largely, this has to do with Tarantino’s supposed “cool factor”, the superficial blanket hanging over all his films that has beckoned first-timers the world over to ape his penchant for slick, sick violence, whirlwind camera jerks, and self-consciously fantastical style. This style has always been a noose around Tarantino’s neck, and it has strangled the world of cinema for years to come. Continue reading
Formally an adaptation of what may be the greatest short film ever released, Chris Marker’s New Wave classic La Jetee, 12 Monkeys is another world entirely. This is not, as one might expect, a commercialized bastard son of Jetee’s postmodern commentary on storytelling and film as an art form. It is a more commercial beast, but not commercial Jetee. It is instead commercial Gilliam, very much retaining this particular director’s trenchant exploration of genre fiction, modern anomie, and social lies filtered through nasty dark-water corporate beasts not operating behind closed doors because there are no longer doors to close and hide behind. It’s sharp and prescient, well-directed and with a realist streak seen never before or since in Gilliam’s catalogue, but the film wisely never becomes “of realism”. 12 Monkeys is nothing breathtaking, and it lacks the elegant hellishness of some of its directors more conflicted and subversive films, but his decade and a half of ferocious commitment to personal vision, and three of the few legitimately great films of the 1980s, deserve a present. Gilliam always had trouble finding commercial success, and if conforming slightly to the norms of mainstream entertainment for the sake of a greater paycheck and commercial appeal is his present, who are we to deny him?
Edited June 2016
It is almost impossible to imagine a superior version of John McTiernan’s Die Hard. In addition to popularizing an entire sub-genre of action movies, it rightfully claims its place among the greatest films of its genre. Its premise is matched in its simplicity and lack of temptation to stray only by its ingenious precision and punishingly direct storytelling. Terrorists invade a building, take hostages, and remove any threats except, of course, one lone NYC cop (on vacation in LA to reconnect with his wife Holly) who must now save the day single-handedly. If it sounds trivial, well, this kind of film hadn’t really been done as often by 1988, and, either way, it’s really more about the species than the broad kingdom.
Among its laundry list of accolades lies virtually everything one could want from a high-octane action film; vertiginous pacing, nerve-frying direction, malicious editing that works like clockwork to hurtle the film forward in the bare minimum amount of time it could possibly take, and a human touch that slithers up on you when you’re busy being dissected. It is one of the few films made in the last thirty years that can legitimately claim to be an apotheosis of a form, insofar as it seeks to do one thing and does that one thing with a nigh-incomparable effectiveness. It’s a work of minimalist necessity, taking the form of a particularly pinpoint gear system. At the level of bare storytelling mechanics, it is stripped to the bone and almost psychotically elegant.
There’s a lot to be said about Looper, but perhaps the most important thing speaks less to the successes of the film than to the dreary state of the pseudo-genre “time travel” movie and the larger science fiction genre as a whole. Simply put, time travel in film is usually a gimmick, an attempt to superficially make movies with otherwise little box office potential seem more falsely intellectual to audiences. Most science fiction movies that rely on the trope, along with a bevy of other themes such as cloning and space travel, are not interested in exploring the intellectual, emotional, or ethical quandaries presented by these subjects, but instead pay lip service to complicated themes so that they can move on to blowing up stuff and hoping the 30 year old white male budding action hero lead actor will land a role as the lead in a superhero movie next and boost DVD sales of the film. Thus is life. Continue reading