When Ana Lily Amirpour recently released her lushly sensualist horror film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, her cinematic passion was matched in its cathartic potency only by its free-wheeling desire to devour all influences. Obviously, Jim Jarmusch was the cipher through which her film’s identity was largely cracked, but in her sun-deprived cinematic wasteland, another female filmmaker was a key stepping stone: Kathryn Bigelow, a women who has since made a pit-stop in can’t-be-this-good action cinema before taking a well-deserved break to produce two of the finest naturalist war thrillers ever made. She went on to make more composed films, in other words, and probably better ones too, but her underdog outlaw passion in the world of film never burned as brightly as it did in her first big break: the 1987 film Near Dark, nothing less than a full-on vampire-western-romance-horror (a mouthful, but it should sound familiar to fans of Amirpour’s debut). It takes a lot for a film to invent a genre. That it comes within an inch of perfecting it on its first try is not only testament to Bigelow’s fully-formed craft, but of her restless, travelling spirit. Continue reading
The first thing to note about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and the most important: it is very proud of what it is, and makes no attempt to hide it. Lee’s film is a melodrama, unambiguously and unashamedly, and Lee directs with painterly flourish to match. He showcases the splendor and dignity of the work with magnificence and a sense of illustrious eminence, positioning it as part classical Hollywood epic (Lee is after all a highly Americanized director) and part Chinese mythmaking fable. Nothing about Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is played at the level of naturalism, and all of it enhances the opulence of a production which wears its honest drama on its sleeves. Continue reading
If one is to search for designated auteurs in the modern era (and we have precious few in an increasingly arid well), there are a few names that routinely pop up, but chances are that Wong Kar-wai is right up there. Hong Kong’s shining light, he is one of the few Chinese directors to escape the essentialism of international demands for a career in chop sockeying (although even then talented minds like Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou have essentially transformed that genre into humanist poetry of color and geometry, so there’s to the talent of Chinese filmmakers to turn pigeonholing into a subversive strength).
Kar-wai’s films are classicist dramas, worldly and weary and aware of their international status in their almost mythic exploration of sighing human drama. They seem like they could have come right off the boat from 1950, but they also know a breathier modern quality, a sense of liveliness never lost to Kar-wai’s all-seeing eye. They reflect an old-school filmmaking mentality seldom seen today, but they are uniquely primed for modern-day China, works equally comfortable with their intimate world in a specific locale and the wide-reaching humanity they dance with and caress in their very specificity. He’s a maker of masterpieces, he is, and if you want to discuss Kar-wai’s intricate perfectionism and impressionist color-as-emotion collages that are at once judiciously composed and free-flowing with spur-of-the-moment zest, you really must begin with the man’s all-time masterpiece among masterpieces, and the best work of cinematic art produced in the still young century to this day: 2000’s In the Mood for Love. Continue reading
It is not a new or interesting argument to rain down laurels upon silent cinema for its vigorous, spirited transformative self-exploration. No time in cinema history matches the medium’s earliest years for pure ecstatic inventiveness and unbridled, unhinged storytelling experimentation. No time has seen directors and cinematographers and editors, and even producers for that matter, ever so consistently transfixed by the potential of exposing the cinematic mind by pushing it to its breaking point and moving beyond the grip of narrative storytelling to look for new and exciting ways to freshly portray the limits of fiction on screen. No time has ever been as hungry, or as infested in film for the sake of film itself.
It is also not a new or interesting argument to look to 1928, the last year of silent cinema’s monopolistic dominance in the medium, as the pinnacle of the form’s artistic exploration. Although no one work may equal the heights of what FW Murnau achieved with 1927’s Sunrise, the sheer plethora of major and minor classics, from Dreyer’s luminous The Passion of Joan of Arc to King Vidor’s cityscape tone peom The Crowd, to Josef von Sternberg’s hazy, mystifying The Docks of New York, proves that drama was in fine form as a selection of unarguable masters looked to close out the history of silent cinema on a high note. Of course, they may not have known it was coming, but we auteurists are no less guilty of assuming intent in our individuals than any one else (we’re perhaps more guilty, if anything). Continue reading
It’s not a new point to discuss David Gordon Green’s sellout hackwork middle career stage, but his recent “return to his roots” phase is fresher still and only recently of this Earth; thus, it provides a far more welcome object of inquiry. The hackwork phase has been written about on end, and while I happen to think Pineapple Express is a fairly nuanced redirecting of Green’s trademark hush for the purposes of a stoner comedy, there’s nothing more to be said about his duo of 2011 misfires. Far more interesting are his recent efforts, epitomized by his 2013 release Joe. Many have taken to considering it a return to form, and while the film is strong and textured in many exciting ways, I cannot join the train. Owing more to post-Green works like Winter’s Bone, his recent films retain the social realism of his earlier works but run dangerously close to recreating the trees at the expense of the forest. The honest characters and hard-hitting drama mostly follow through, but the poetic post-Malick haze and thoughtful melancholy of Green’s abstracted reflection of everyday human activity has been lost to time. Continue reading
With Michael Mann’s Blackhat underwhelming critics all around the land, I’ve decided to take a look back at the neon nightscape urban painter’s greatest film, a shockingly underrated work of crime fiction with an impressionist tint. From 1981, Michael Mann’s Thief.
Michael Mann tore down the ’90s with three films of varying qualities that all are nonetheless championed as, at the least, lesser classics of the modern filmic world. The Last of the Mohicans, Heat, and The Insider vary on the surface, but their strengths are uniform and typically Mann: a poetic variation on hard-edge grit (or a gritty take of impressionism, if you prefer), a focus on problem solving and realist process rather than sentimental characterization, and a deconstruction of masculine identity equal parts grimy American New Wave and the more clinical, cryptic European New Wave. The films vary in quality (I for one have never had much use for the flubby, indulgent Heat), but they capture Mann trading subjects without ever sacrificing his identity. Yet that identity came to fruition much earlier, on a much less famous film, and a work that matches and exceeds any of the three in quality: 1981’s Thief. Released at the very end of the American New Wave where dramas were going out the door in favor of genre exercises, Thief finds the best of both worlds in perfect, jagged harmony. It is a true pity that most of Michael Mann’s adherents haven’t seen it, for it is one of the few American crime films that seems truly interested in coming up with a new filmic language to explore its pet themes.
I Walked with a Zombie was the second film Val Lewton produced once given complete control of RKO’s horror unit, and it was released only a year after Cat People, his most famed horror film. Given this, one might expect a retread, but I Walked with a Zombie is certainly not the film anyone then or now would be expecting. A tension seethes in the air and grasps all, but the film doesn’t demand in the way a work like Cat People is so tersely constructed to fight for our attention. Absent are the soul-deep colors of Cat People which lighted up the screen with black energy. And in place of the rampant diluted German Expressionism of American horror throughout the ’30s and ’40s, all caught up in harsh and angular nightmares, we have something that more closely approximates a hazy dream, a curious cross between an English period drama and a work of French impressionism that centers mournful, elegiac long takes and has room enough for lost secrets deviously begging to get out . It is, above all, wholly distant from anything resembling horror logic, and it is all the more fascinating for it.