Tag Archives: caustic humor

Un-Cannes-y Valley: The Exterminating Angel


the-exterminating-angelA little switch-up, if you will, because I couldn’t watch a 1961 Cannes film at pace, but will get to it soon enough. So 1961 and 1962 have been flipped, after which the order shall return to normal…

Luis Buñuel’s triumphant return to Spain after many years working in Mexico was short-lived but unequivocally rabble-rousing. The lone film he produced was as provocative a film as the world has ever seen. 1961’s Viridiana won the Palme d’Or, was rapturously received by critics, and revolted the Spanish government right from under their noses. The production was, charitably, pure havoc, subject to rigorous and ruthless censorship, and produced with the help of tricks and masquerades on Bu>ñuel’s behalf. It is one of the quintessential works of world cinema, by all means, but it came with a toll. Jagged knives aimed at the Spanish government, it seems, couldn’t but get a little blood on Buñuel’s face. Continue reading

Un-Cannes-y Valley: La Dolce Vita

la-dolce-vita-still-526x295In my review of Nights of Cabiria, I noted that Federico Fellini grew more fantastical and whimsical with age, and he became forever less entombed in the limits of pure realism. True, and it might be assumed that with whimsy and fantasy come happiness and warmth. To some extent, they did; Nights of Cabiria ends on one of the most singularly uplifting notes in all of cinema. But whimsy does not automatically imply joy, nor a new leaf. Fellini was still an angry, tormented, complicated man; he had simply developed a new filmic vocabulary for exploring his emotions, whatever emotions they may be. New storytelling mechanisms dictated how he would explore emotions, and not what emotions he would explore. His application of Hollywood romance and Italian/ French romanticism was not always an uncomplicated acceptance, but more often a dare. Fellini would follow romanticism and melodrama to their limits and see if he could come out the other side a believer. With La Dolce Vita, melodrama is a slaughterhouse, and you unravel from the other side in shreds. Continue reading

Un-Cannes-y Valley: Miracle in Milan

I have not been cagey or guarded, although I may be a tad evasive from time to time, about my feelings on the neo-realist movement. Its importance to cinematic history needs no defense from me, but whatever role they served in the late ’40s and early ’50s, the limits of their technique should not be avoided. Realism in cinema can be bracing, and it was devoutly essential in the late 1940s, but a completely tethered commitment to the style is a limit to say the least. Of all the things cinema is capable of, realism is not the only worthwhile tempo for a film to play by. The freedom of realism can and often becomes its own prison. Continue reading

Class of ’99 Midnight Screaming: Ravenous

screen-shot-2017-09-21-at-8-25-26-am1999 was a year of new beginnings for a great many directors of the cinema, filmmakers who used their 1999 offerings to launch their careers to greater artistic, as well as commercial, heights. Although we often forget, it was also the year of Antonia Bird’s Ravenous, a film that ought to have launched her to new heights but somehow left her scrambling for an audience. In a year of openly defiant, exploratory films from many talented artists, Ravenous remains one of the most defiant and exploratory. Yet it never found an audience for itself or its director, likely because its defiance, experimentation, and exploration are all hidden. Even more-so, they are secret, and the film goes to great lengths to pretend it is nothing more than an everyday comedy-horror exploitation-film of the distinctly late ’90s post-Scream variety. It is a film where the experimentation is wholly submersed into subfuscous genre mechanics, a great devious trick of a film, and I can think of no more perfect nature for such a deliciously sinister exercise in cutthroat filmmaking. Continue reading

Midnight Screaming: Shaun of the Dead

Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright simply “get” genre comedy. They may be the only ones to really nail it since Sam Raimi, and for the same reason. What Raimi understood is that making a comedy out of a noted “serious” genre was about more than making fun of it. It was about teasing out the fundamental intersections between emotions and exploring how filmmaking – that is the literal process of shot to shot structuring of a film – could divulge different and seemingly contradictory emotions simultaneously. His preferred contradiction, of course, was between lingering dread and gut-busting Warner Bros comic anarchy. His masterpiece Evil Dead II was not simply about scaring us and then making us laugh, but about dissecting the language of film to explore the intersection of technique and emotion in prismatic, multitudinous ways. Put simply, it was about exploring the way that something, be it a shot or a performance tick or a line or the film itself, could be both funny and scary, rather than, say, take a funny scene and follow it with a scary one. Continue reading

Paul Verhoeven: Starship Troopers

starship_troopers_-_h_-_2016In order to properly understand Starship Troopers, one needs to understand its casting. At some level, casting is the de facto entry point for any of Verhoeven’s American films over the decade from Robocop to Starship Troopers. Total Recall, although somewhat muted by its need to be an Arnie vehicle, definitely gestured toward using the big lovable lug as a critique of the idea of an Arnie film. More successful was Basic Instinct, where Verhoeven cast a seemingly unaware and genuine Michael Douglas more for his weathered, aged wrinkles and flagellating variant of all-American thuggery. And one doesn’t need to explain Showgirls these days, a work where Verhoeven cast (cruelly so, at that) the young whippersnapper Elizabeth Berkeley and forced her through all manner of gross, grotesque abuses on screen in a meta-commentary on the way in which her character, and young Hollywood starlets altogether, are forced to go through the wringer to find success, leaving others in their wake and losing their dignity and respect for themselves as they forced to do the unthinkable.
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Film Favorites: Love and Death

Love and Death sees Allen at a crossroads between his earlier slapstick farces and the soon-to-be whimsical, wistful flights of fancy that would mark his later, more “mature” productions, to use the conventional schematization. Faced with the choice of doubling down on the past or moving forward, he defiantly, quizzically rides two horses with inconstant passion and takes both directions to his heart’s content. For if Love and Death is a relentlessly immature, pointedly foolish construction, it is also perhaps more fun than any director has ever had knocking “maturity” down to size, playing with a burgeoning reputation as a “serious” filmmaker even before such a stature was set in stone. Love and Death saw Allen tired of mocking space opera and the state of the world. He decided to look to the only other place he knew, the past, his personal canon, and take a pitchfork to everything he loved: Tolstoy, Bergman, and everything that took Tolstoy a few inches forward over a hundred years so it could flower into Bergman. Not that Tolstoy and Bergman have anything to do with each other, but in Allen’s mind they can if he wants them to.
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Film Favorites: Crimes and Misdemeanors

Crimes and Misdemeanors, Woody Allen’s dueling morality play about the nature of human worry, is a film of two halves coexisting with pitch-back energy and wracking each others’ brains with literate, indignant abandon. Allen’s film provides an A and a B story, and deliberately defines them as “the Bergman Allen film”, or the thoughtful and intellectual work concerned with human frailty, and the “non-Bergman Allen film”, or the zippy and nervy work about humans in need of frailty and faking it to themselves to hide the fact that they are actually doing A-okay. One story observes a doctor (Martin Landau) who plots to kill his lover and soon comes to care so little about it he can’t be bothered to let it put a limp in his step. The other follows a talented filmmaker (Allen) slumming in more commercial fair, doing okay for himself but looking for woe wherever he can find to get his nightly fix of dark thoughts. One character has no soul, and the other desperately wants to give his away. All the while, Allen’s camera sits back with a mordant smirk on its face and lets the hurt seep in. Continue reading

Film Favorites: Dr. Strangelove (Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb)

Update 2018: Strangelove’s mockery of masculinist egotism is as acerbic as ever, somehow emblazoned rather than tempered by the sheer mundaneness of the film, its depiction of Cold War crisis not as ideological quagmire but banal kerfuffle between functionaries. The bomb dick is a supremely brutal image, as mischievous as it is evocative of the tensions and aporias in mid-century Cold War culture and the increasing totalitarianism of capitalist and communist ideologies alike. Totally cuts through the crisis-logic of world ideologies by exposing how quotidian the construction of apocalypse really is.

Original Review:

It is the eternal misfortune of the critic, or any person really, to look back upon their years of film viewing and come to the realization that they’ve changed. Critics merely have more tangible evidence to this case. It is especially unfortunate when one’s preferences change to the point where the funny bone is not on the laundry list of necessary boxes to check upon viewing a film. I kid, for we aren’t all heartless bastards or anything, but sometimes it can seem that way. This is why I try, sometimes against my better judgment, to keep things generally light around these parts of the internet. It is why I try to set my sights on something a little … more genial than my normal repertoire of parables of human decay that come in only two forms: grim and actively soul-destroying.

I don’t laugh a lot in movies, plain and simple. But, there’s a joyous flip-side as well! Each time I do cackle at a moving image, the moment is all the more prescient and grin-inducing for its rarity. And, since it is the Holiday season and all, I felt it time for a slight gift to myself, the gift of laughter. I’ve already reviewed a couple of my all-time favorite rib ticklers, such as Duck Soup and This is Spinal Tap. They are part of the precious few, and the following two films keep their company well. Fitting the spirit of the films, I’ll also keep things fast and loose, and try to keep the reviews from imploding on itself for getting too long in the tooth. Perhaps a few more will come as December comes to a close, if of course I maintain the Holiday cheer. But no promises.

Dr. Strangelove

Amusingly, I’ve already failed to keep my promise of promoting “genial” films, and it’s only choice #1. When I’m sick I always make a trip to the doctor, but you wouldn’t know this particular surgeon to bring joy from the bone-dry tone and swirling sense of nihilist dread seeping through the frames and suffocating everything that walks within. For Dr. Strangelove (Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb) doesn’t have a genial bone in its body. It’s a vicious, angry little nasty-minded bit of coal for your Christmas morning. Were you expecting anything else from the English language’s bleakest director, Stanley Kubrick? If he knew the meaning of the word “playful’, it was only in the context of attaching puppet strings to human flesh and moving them around like the devil’s playthings. They were his toys, and Dr. Strangelove is him on his Christmas morning with a smirk a mile wide.

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Brain Waves: Barton Fink


If the Coens had fiction and the intellectual dents of the anarchic human brain on the mind with Miller’s
Crossing, they doubled-down with Barton Fink. Probably the Coens’ strangest and most esoteric piece, Barton Fink is both a wry exploration of the “troubled artist” trope and a purposefully artificial construct to throw a kvetch Hollywood’s way. It’s a formalist’s dream, but it uses formalism to shoot formalism in the kneecaps and poke the wound a few hundred times. It’s no Sunset Blvd, but it’s one of the few Hollywood parables with the chutzpah to dive into the cynical stew of a Wilder and never come up for breath.

We’ve all heard this sort of story before, because Hollywood loves to self-aggrandize even in the negative. Barton Fink (John Turturro), an NY playwright, goes to LA to break into screenwriting. In the midst of seemingly trying his hardest to do everything but that, he meets Charlie (John Goodman), a neighbor whose local haunt happens to be Barton’s room. Along the way, Charlie teaches Barton a little about Hollywood living (namely that it ain’t). But the fact that we’ve all heard this story before is exactly what the Coens’ are preying on, for if we’ve heard it before, we’ve never heard it from a two-headed soothsayer.

Barton Fink begins with Barton Fink, and what the two authors who’ve created him want to do to abuse him. He’s one of the Coens’ finest characters, a fascinatingly neurotic loner ably played by consistent Coen Brothers collaborator John Turturro (by 1991 knee-deep on his way to becoming a stand-in Coen Brothers version of Alvy Singer, albeit more sniveling). However, there’s a key difference: here, the filmmakers don’t have sympathy for their lead character. They only find pity. He rants and raves about his writer’s block and the difficulties he has selling a story to the immolating, hollow, bogus Hollywood machine, but the film subtly undercuts his character by rendering him almost inconsequential, nothing short of a phony himself, an eternal victim without the backbone of the true New York underdog he claims as an identity. Ultimately, he is as artificial as the Hollywood cronies he has to deal with, or the famous Faulkner-esque writer he, and the Coens, admire, who is here rendered deranged fool. If the Coens are the most literate director-writers working in America today, they aren’t above tearing so-called literate Hollywood sell-outs a new one, and implicating themselves in the process. Continue reading